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Decoding and fluency: foundation skills for struggling older readers.

Abstract. A large number of secondary students read between the 2.5 and the 5.0 grade level. What separates many of these students from their higher performing peers is their inability to read multisyllabic words and to read fluently. These students need instruction in decoding long words using one of three approaches: reading segmented words part by part, decoding different syllable types, or using a flexible strategy for reading long words. These students also need sufficient reading practice to increase their reading rates. This practice might include oral guided reading, choral reading, partner reading, and/or repeated reading activities. The authors suggest that significant gains in reading are more likely to occur when teachers implement research-validated programs that have a well-designed sequence, provide systematic instruction to students, and furnish adequate practice.


The current emphasis in reading is on robust beginning instruction to reduce the number of students later having reading challenges. Despite this laudable focus on prevention of reading problems, a staggering number of middle and high school students read significantly below grade-level expectations. The National Education Goals Panel (1995) reported that only 28% of eighth graders and 34% of twelfth graders achieve proficient reading standards. Unfortunately, 74% of students identified with reading disabilities in third grade continue to have significant reading challenges in ninth grade (Lyon, 1995).

Struggling secondary readers often have challenges in all areas of reading: decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Many of them have listening comprehension that is significantly higher than their reading comprehension. When listening comprehension exceeds reading comprehension, inaccurate and slow word recognition is likely to be the cause (Shankweiler et al., 1999). Thus, decoding and fluency are the critical foundation on which all other reading skills are laid.


What Are the Decoding Challenges of Struggling Secondary Readers?

Many researchers have determined that word recognition is the foundational process of reading and is needed to support vocabulary attainment and reading comprehension (Stanovich, 1996). Poorly developed word recognition skills are believed to be the most pervasive and debilitating source of reading challenges (Adams, 1990; Perfetti, 1985; Share & Stanovich, 1995). Although difficulty in pronouncing the individual words in the text is the common denominator of reading disability (Shankweiler, 1989, 1999), there are two distinct groups of secondary struggling readers with regard to decoding skills. Students in the smaller group are still reading at first- and second-grade levels. They have not mastered beginning reading skills: the phonemic awareness skills of blending and segmenting, letter-sound associations, reading of decodable words, recognition of high-frequency irregular words, and reading of decodable text (National Reading Panel, 2000).

In order for these students to make significant gains in reading, an adequate amount of time, perhaps as much as two hours a day, must be dedicated to systematic instruction using age-appropriate materials (Moats, 2001). Because the time left before these students leave school is short and the need is great, intensive instruction must be offered using a research-validated program (e.g., Corrective Reading; Engelmann, Carnine, Johnson, Meyer, Becker, & Eisele, 1999; Language!; Greene, 2000; or Wilson Reading System; Wilson, 1996) that will quickly close the gap between these readers and their higher performing peers.

In this article, the authors address the larger group of struggling secondary readers. These students read between the 2.5 and the 5.0 grade level. They generally can decode single-syllable words and recognize some high-frequency irregular words. Their major decoding difficulty is with multisyllabic words. When faced with words such as "unconventionality" or "accomplishments," many of these students have no systematic approach for attacking these words, much less the confidence that would support multiple attempts at reading a difficult unknown word. Many poor decoders, even those who can read single-syllable words, have difficulty with multisyllabic words (Just & Carpenter, 1987). The inability of poor readers to decode long words increases the qualitative differences between good and poor readers (Perfetti, 1986). Poor decoders are more likely to mispronounce affixes and to disregard large portions of letter information. They are two to four times as likely to omit syllables as more proficient readers (Shefelbine & Calhoun, 1991). For example, given a word such as "unconventionality," the struggling reader might say "unvention."

Why Is Decoding Instruction on Multisyllabic Words So Critical?

An emphasis on multisyllabic word reading is critical because of the number of novel words introduced in intermediate and secondary textbooks and the potential for failing to learn from material if the words cannot be read. From fifth grade on, it is estimated that the average student encounters approximately 10,000 words per year that they have never previously encountered in print (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). Most of these new words are multisyllabic words.

The meaning of content-area passages is almost totally carried by the multisyllabic words. To illustrate this point, read the following paragraph from a sixth-grade social studies textbook, saying "blank" for all the underlined, multisyllabic words. Ask yourself, "What level of comprehension would you achieve if you were unable to read these words?"
 The framers of the Constitution faced a difficult
 conflict. They saw the need for a strong national
 government. At the same time, they did not want
 to take away all power from the states. Like most
 Americans, they believed that state governments
 would better understand the special needs and
 concerns of their citizens. (from the American
 Nation [1994] published by Prentice Hall)

The inability to read words accurately has both short-and long-term consequences. The short-term consequences are more obvious: the reader is unable to understand the vocabulary embedded in the passage and equally unable to extract meaning from what has been read (Perfetti, 1986). No comprehension strategies are powerful enough to compensate for not being able to read the words within the text.

The long-term consequences of the failure to read multisyllabic words are less obvious on any given day but painfully apparent over time to all who have worked in secondary schools. In the authors' experiences, students with reading challenges are:

1. More likely to struggle in secondary coursework

2. More likely to drop out of school when given the first opportunity

3. Less able to obtain employment that supports themselves and their families as adults

4. More likely to have social/emotional challenges as a adults

5. Less able to participate in post-high school education training programs at technical schools, community colleges, colleges, and universities

This last challenge was dramatically illustrated in a recent visit to a Florida community college. For each of its training programs (plumber, nail specialist, hairdresser, mechanic), a reading level of ninth grade or higher was required for admission. Applicants who failed to meet this criterion would be denied admission. Clearly, struggling older readers have a need to learn to decode multisyllabic words.

Can the Multisyllabic Word Reading of Secondary Students Be Improved?

Fortunately, when given systematic, intentional instruction, the skill of decoding multisyllabic words is attainable by most struggling secondary readers. A number of studies have demonstrated that it is not too late for struggling secondary readers to learn to read multisyllabic words and to improve their overall reading ability. Working with fourth and sixth graders, Shefelbine (1990) found that students made significant gains when taught to use affixes and vowels to decode longer words. In a secondary study, seventh, eighth, and ninth graders who were taught a decoding strategy for reading long words had fewer oral reading errors and increased comprehension (Lenz & Hughes, 1990).

Similarly, reading-deficient students in fourth and fifth grades who were taught a decoding strategy in which they peeled off affixes and used vowels to determine other decodable parts of words made significant gains over students receiving monosyllabic word instruction (Archer, 1981; Archer, Gleason, Vachon, & Hollenbeck, 2003). In another study in which the same strategy was taught to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, the students made significant gains in word reading accuracy and in fluent reading of connected text (Vachon, 1998; Vachon & Gleason, 2003). Consistent with other intervention research, the use of systematic, direct instruction paired with explicit strategy instruction can have positive results for struggling students (Swanson, 1999; Vaughn, Gersten, & Chard, 2000).

What Constitutes Effective Multisyllabic Word Instruction?

At one time, students were taught a set of syllabication rules, instructed to use the rules to divide words into parts, and then asked to apply their phonetic knowledge to determine the pronunciation of the unknown word. Many of us have memories of receiving a list of long words that we were to "divide" into perfect dictionary syllables. In recent years, research has supported a shift from rigid rules to a more flexible approach to decoding of longer words. Shefelbine (1990), in a research study that taught syllable types to fourth- and sixth-grade students, stressed that students should locate alternative decodable chunks if the first ones did not result in a recognizable word. Students were taught to use alternative pronunciations until a match was made to their oral vocabulary. The need for flexibility is reinforced by an analysis of two-syllable words containing open and closed syllables (Greif, 1981). In this analysis of 138,000 words, the author determined that only 45% of open-syllable words and 56% of closed-syllable words would be correctly pronounced using the understanding that in closed syllables a short vowel sound should be used and in open syllables a long vowel sound should be used.

Syllabication rules are seldom taught today for a number of reasons: (a) the rules are too numerous and complex to remember, (b) most teachers have concluded that mastery of the rules did not enhance their students' decoding skills, and, most important, (c) research has demonstrated little relationship between knowing the rules and successful reading (Canney & Schreiner, 1977). Instead of teaching complex syllabication rules, students must be exposed to the visual patterns found in English, and flexibility must be emphasized (Cunningham, 1998; Shefelbine, 1990). Instead of using complex rules to divide words into parts, readers are taught to divide words into decodable chunks by first looking quickly at almost all letters, and then segmenting big words into parts based on familiar patterns found in words.

Instructional programs that teach decoding of multisyllabic words give attention to several instructional design features in order to prepare students for this task: (a) careful instruction on necessary preskills such as the pronunciation of affixes and vowels, (b) an adequate number of word examples for practice, and (c) the diligent selection of those words to include only useful sounds and affixes.

In the following sections, we will describe three approaches to teaching older students to read longer words that have emerged from the research literature. We will use research-validated secondary programs to illustrate each approach: Corrective Reading (Engelmann et al., 1999), Language! (Greene, 2000), and REWARDS (Archer, Gleason, & Vachon, 2000). The three approaches differ in how the long words are broken down into decodable chunks: (a) identifying known parts, (b) decoding syllable types, and (c) using a flexible strategy that identifies known affixes and vowel sounds and uses that information to form word parts.

Part-by-part decoding instruction. In the first approach to decoding multisyllabic words, students are taught to identify one or more parts, read the known parts first, and then read the whole word. For example, in one lesson, students would be taught the sound for ly. In another lesson, they would be taught re. Then, when encountering the word repeatedly, they would first read re and ly before attempting the whole word.

An example of part-by-part multisyllabic word reading instruction is seen in Corrective Reading: Decoding (Engelmann et al., 1999), a three-level program that has been validated for use with intermediate and secondary students whose reading levels range from first to sixth grade (Campbell, 1988; Grossen, 2002; Grossen, in press; Vitale, Medland, Romance, & Weaver, 1993). Throughout the program, students are introduced to sound-symbol relationships and the pronunciation of affixes, which are immediately applied to the reading of single-syllable and multisyllabic words. When longer words are introduced, students are asked to read a difficult part (or parts) of the word and then to read the entire word. The difficult parts are underlined. For example, in the word "occasionally," ly is underlined. Students would first read ly, then read the whole word. Students are given a great deal of practice reading long words containing taught elements and passages containing multisyllabic words. It is the assumption of the program that students will generate a strategy for attacking multisyllabic words as a result of reading many long words and being exposed to consistent patterns found in English words.

Another example of part-by-part multisyllabic word reading instruction is embedded in the flexible strategy taught in the REWARDS program (Archer et al., 2000). (The entire flexible strategy is described in a later section.) Before students are taught the flexible strategy so they can independently read multisyllabic words, they are presented long words with loops drawn under the decodable chunks (see Figure 1). The teacher leads them in determining the pronunciation of the word by asking them, "What part? What part? What part?" and finally "What word?"

Similar part-by-part multisyllabic word reading instruction was investigated in the original research study on REWARDS (Archer, 1981). In the teacher-led condition, students read long words with loops the teacher had drawn under the words, indicating decodable parts. Following four weeks of instruction, intermediate-age students with learning disabilities made significant gains on multiple measures of word recognition over students taught monosyllabic word reading. Their gains were not as great as those of students who were taught the entire flexible strategy. However, the teacher-led decoding instruction could be adopted easily by teachers or support staff to preteach the pronunciation of difficult words found in content-area textbooks. The sixth-grade science teacher or the seventh-grade social studies teacher could read a content-area selection, locate difficult-to-pronounce words, write the words on the board or an overhead transparency, indicate the decodable chunks with loops under the parts, and lead students in the pronunciation of the words. Preteaching the pronunciation of difficult words would not only increase students' accuracy and fluency on the given passage, but, if repeated over time, would build students' competency in independently attacking long words.

Syllable-type instruction. The second approach is to teach students how to read different syllable types found within words. Students are introduced to the six major syllable types found in English (Moats, 2000, 2001; Shefelbine, 1990). Using this method, students are introduced to sound-symbol correspondences for vowels within the context of common syllable types such as open and closed syllables (see Figure 2). The students then practice reading words containing these syllable types. From this practice, students learn to visually chunk sequences of letters and understand the spelling patterns found within English.

Language! (Greene, 2000) is a research-validated program (Greene, 1996, 1998; Moats, in press) designed for adolescents with reading disabilities that utilizes syllable-type instruction as one approach to attacking multisyllabic words. In this program, students are introduced to a syllable type, read single-syllable words with that structure, and read multisyllabic words with the same syllable type. For example, in Unit 19 students are introduced to open syllables and read short words such as "be" and "go," followed by reading longer words such as banjo, introvert, and rodent containing the same syllable type. Students are given extensive practice in reading multisyllabic words, spelling these words, and analyzing the syllable types found in words. In this final exercise, students rewrite vocabulary words indicating the syllable types in the words (stumble, stum + ble; ruffle, ruf + fle). As students' proficiency in reading long words with these syllable types increases, morpheme units including prefixes, roots, and suffixes from Latin and Greek are introduced.

Flexible strategy instruction. In the final approach, students are taught a flexible strategy for decoding multisyllabic words in which they are given a series of steps to take in order to segment a word into parts, read the word part by part, and then read the word independently. In this approach, students learn that they can be flexible in dividing the word into parts as long as they can ultimately make the word into a real word.

An example of learning a flexible strategy for reading long words is seen in the REWARDS program. REWARDS (Archer et al., 2000) is designed specifically for students in fourth through twelfth grade who have mastered skills associated with first- and second-grade reading but have difficulty reading long words and/or who read slowly (i.e., 60 to 120 correct oral words per minute). Unlike Corrective Reading and Language!, it does not address students who read below a mid-second-grade reading level. Instead, it was designed to be an intense, short-term program for struggling secondary readers reading between a 2.5 and 5.0 grade reading level. When it was used with fourth and fifth graders having learning disabilities in an intervention lasting 30 minutes a day for four weeks, the students in the condition that parallels the current program significantly outperformed similar students receiving monosyllabic word reading instruction on multiple measures of word recognition (Archer, 1981; Archer et al., 2003). The curriculum was also used in a study involving middle school students with reading deficiencies, including students with learning disabilities (Vachon, 1991; Vachon & Gleason, 2003). The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of mastery learning on multisyllabic word reading component skills and the effects of practice context on word and text reading skills. Over the course of 15 weeks, regardless of the assigned intervention condition, students made statistically significant gains in their ability to decode multisyllabic words and to apply the strategy of identifying word parts when encountering unfamiliar words.

The goal of REWARDS is to teach students a flexible strategy for decoding long words that is both effective and efficient. Initially, students learn an overt strategy that involves physical behaviors (see Figure 3). When given a long word, students segment the word into decodable parts (not necessarily perfect dictionary syllables) by circling word parts (prefixes) that come at the beginning of the word, circling word parts (suffixes) at the end of the word, and underlining vowel sounds in the rest of the word. Students then say the parts, say the whole word, and finally make it a real word. This last step might involve adjusting the vowel sounds or accent to match their pronunciation to a real word. This overt strategy is gradually faded until the students can examine the word covertly (cognitively), looking for word parts at the beginning and end of the word and for vowel sounds in the rest of the word. They would then say the parts, say the parts fast, and make it a real word.

Although this strategy is quite simple, extensive instruction was needed to ensure mastery. Prior to introduction of the strategy, the students had to be taught a number of critical preskills. The two most important skills are also addressed in Language! and Corrective Reading: the ability to accurately pronounce the phonemes for vowel graphemes and the ability to pronounce prefixes and suffixes. Students received extensive instruction on the pronunciation of vowel sounds in response to common vowel graphemes. Phonemegrapheme associations for vowels were stressed because in English vowels are misread twice as frequently as consonants (Fowler, Liberman, & Shankweiler, 1977). Given that 80% of all words readers encounter have one or more affixes (Cunningham, 1998), instant recognition and accurate pronunciation of affixes is key to decoding long words. Indeed, knowledge of affixes may be helpful in decoding and spelling even where these units do not supply useful information about the meanings of words (Cunningham, 1998). For example, in the word "redo," the affix re supports the pronunciation of the word, the spelling of the word, and also the meaning. However, in the word "receive," re supports the pronunciation and spelling of the word, but does not provide access to the meaning of the word. For this reason, in a number of strategy studies, the terms "prefix" and "suffix" were broadly defined as recognizable groups of letters at the beginning and end of the word that students can use to assist in the correct pronunciation of words (Lenz & Hughes, 1990). In REWARDS, students are directly taught phoneme-grapheme correspondences for vowels and affix pronunciations through modeling, practice, and daily review. In addition to these two preskills, students practiced blending word parts from an orally segmented model presented by the teacher and correcting close approximations to a word's pronunciation using context.

How Are Multisyllabic Word Reading Skills Generalized?

Initial strategy instruction, while demanding systematic instruction, is often not as problematic as getting students to actually USE the strategies. The challenge of strategy generalization was vividly portrayed on a visit to an eighth-grade class using REWARDS.

Anthony was asked to read a sentence containing many multisyllabic words. He began reading with confidence until he came to the word "exemption." At that point, he looked up and said, "I don't know that word." When it was suggested that he use his decoding strategy, even using his pencil to circle affixes and underline vowel sounds, he replied with earnestness, "You mean I can use it?!" Although Anthony knew the strategy, he had not yet determined that he could USE it.

In the field of learning disabilities, there is a long history of research on enhancing generalization (e.g., Borkowski & Muthukrishna, 1992; Ellis, Lenz, & Sabornie, 1987; Horner, Bellamy, & Colvin, 1984; Swanson & De La Paz, 1998; Vaughn et al., 2000; Wong, 1994). For example, we understand that generalization is enhanced when: (a) students are told when, why, and where to use the strategy; (b) students reach a high automaticity on the strategy; (c) students are given a great deal of practice on using the strategy as they would in their daily lives; and (d) students are directed to use the strategy.

These principles were used in REWARDS to increase the probability of generalization of the strategy. First, from the first day of instruction, we discussed with students the situations in which they might encounter long words and therefore could use the REWARDS strategy. Next, we provided students with a great deal of practice on the strategy so that they would have automaticity in using it. A total of 787 novel multisyllabic words were introduced. Then, to enhance generalization, students practiced the strategy as it would be used in their daily lives. In this case, generalization practice occurred by having students read text containing many multisyllabic words such as the text found in secondary science, social studies, and health books. Given that struggling secondary readers have more difficulty with expository than narrative text in terms of fluency and comprehension (Saenz & Fuchs, 2002), it was particularly important to provide this practice. Our final generalization procedure was rather simple: we told students to use the strategy!

Prompting students to use the strategy at the point at which a reading error occurs has proven to be particularly helpful. When middle school students were consistently prompted, they, on an average, successfully corrected 50% of their multisyllabic word reading errors without further assistance from the teacher. By the end of the study, this consistent prompting for use of the strategy brought students to a 98% to 99% level of reading success in grade-level social studies material (Vachon & Gleason, 2003).


What Is Reading Fluency?

We know it when we hear it! When a fluent student reads, he or she literally seems to float along the lines, enunciating a clear stream of words while adding necessary expression--pure music to the teacher's ear. We sit back and celebrate the flow. A disfluent student reads slowly and laboriously, stopping often to sound out words and rereading sections to regain comprehension. We listen, trying to keep ourselves from interrupting. When the student reaches the end of a sentence, we use the pause to quickly call on another student, relieved that we can spare the student, the other group members, and ourselves a continuation of this painful experience.

Although we recognize it when we hear it, there is a great deal of debate over the definition of fluency. Recently, it has been argued that fluency refers to automaticity in all processes used while reading (Wolf & Katzir-Cohen, 2001). In other cases, fluency has been given a much more limited definition. For example, it has been defined as being able to read words accurately and fluently with expression or prosody (Hudson, Mercer, & Lane, 2000). Meyer and Felton (1999) concluded that fluency is "the ability to read connected text rapidly, smoothly, effortlessly, and automatically with little conscious attention to the mechanics of reading such as decoding" (p. 284).

For our purposes, an even more pragmatic definition of fluency has been adopted: rate plus accuracy. This definition, while reductionist in nature, allows for ease in measurement and intervention. As we will see, for secondary students, even this simple definition takes on importance in their daily lives.

Why Is Fluency Important?

Why should increased fluency (accuracy plus rate) be a goal of secondary reading programs? The most common reason is the relationship between fluency (rate) and comprehension. Both empirical and clinical research support the relationship between fluent oral reading and overall reading ability, including comprehension (e.g., Calfee & Piontkowski, 1981; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Fuchs, Fuchs, & Maxwell, 1988; Gough, Hoover, & Peterson, 1996; Herman, 1985; Jenkins, Fuchs, Espin, van den Broek, & Deno, 2000; Krashen, 1993; Meyer & Felton, 1999; Rasinski, Padek, Linek, & Sturtevant, 1994; Reutzel & Hollingsworth, 1993). This relationship is often explained by means of the information processing theory (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). Human beings have limited cognitive resources in terms of attention and short-term memory. As readers, there are two things that we must direct our cognitive energies toward: recognizing the printed words (decoding) and constructing meaning (comprehension). If we are very slow readers and must laboriously sound out many words, it is plausible that our cognitive energies will be drawn away from meaning, thus compromising our comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000).

A recent incident with a young friend provided the perfect analogy. He had just obtained his driver's permit at age 15-1/2 and begged to drive to the store. As drivers, our cognitive resources must respond to two aspects of driving: the mechanics of driving (brakes, gas, windshield wipers, etc.) and road hazards. As a new driver, Matt was deeply engrossed in the mechanics of driving. As he searched for the windshield wipers, he pulled into the wrong lane, and we were faced with a semi-truck. After one of us grabbed the wheel and pulled us back to safety, Matt's gift to us became evident: the perfect fluency analogy. Attend to the mechanics and face a semi. Attend to decoding and miss the gist.

In our work with children, other reasons for fluency have become equally important. One critical result of laborious decoding and low fluency is little reading practice (Moats, 2001). Lack of practice produces a delay in the development of automaticity and speed (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). As struggling readers continue to read very slowly, they are exposed to less text. In addition, they experience decoding as taxing and frustrating and consequently choose activities other than reading: television, soccer, and meeting with friends. As a result, these students read less over time and fail to gain fluency while their peers read more and more over time and become increasingly fluent; thus, the gap between the best readers and the weakest readers widens as they get older. The term "Matthew Effect" illustrates this rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer phenomenon (Stanovich, 1986). We can easily speculate on other fortunes accrued by proficient, avid readers as a result of being more fluent and reading more. These students are likely to gain, among other things, increased vocabulary, background knowledge, ideas that can be incorporated into written products, visual memory of words for spelling, and schema for understanding certain genres. It has even been suggested that voracious reading can alter measured intelligence (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). As Stanovich (1993) concluded, the extent to which students spend their time reading generally translates into learning new words, new meanings, new linguistic structures, and new ways of thinking.

Finally, fluency has a direct impact on work completion. This is a very pragmatic reason to increase fluency. Let's say two eighth-grade students have identical class schedules. Marcus reads 180 correct oral words per minute, whereas James reads only 60 correct words per minute. One particular evening, Marcus' homework assignments required two hours of reading. If James were able to stay on task, it would take him six hours to accomplish the same reading assignments. It is unlikely that James will be tenacious enough to complete his work. This distinction is critical. Many times teachers misjudge James, believing that he is an irresponsible or resistant student. However, in James' case, the problem is not that he "won't" do the reading assignments but that he actually "can't" do the reading.

How Can the Reading Fluency of Secondary Students Be Improved?

Automaticity in any area, from typing, to piano playing, to IEP writing, to reading, is a product of practice (Allington, 1977; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). In the case of a struggling secondary reader, we witness a vicious circle. The struggling reader avoids reading because it is laborious, thus getting less practice. As a result of getting little practice, fluency doesn't increase, and thus little reading is done. For this reason, we must have a very systematic plan for increasing the amount of practice. As with decoding, gains will not occur from a casual, occasional approach. We cannot count on silent reading in class or at home to bring about these gains (National Reading Panel, 2000). Instead, we must organize reading groups to optimize the amount of reading practice that each student receives and supplement that practice with repeated readings. A number of excellent syntheses of research explain and illustrate multiple reading fluency interventions (e.g., Chard, Vaughn, & Tyler, 2002; Dowhower, 1994; Kuhn & Stahl, 2000; Mastropieri, Leinare, & Scruggs, 1999; Strecker, Roser, & Martinez, 1998; Wolf & Katzir-Cohen, 2001). Although they generally focus on interventions for elementary students, the same interventions have been successfully used with secondary students reading between 2.5 and 5.0 grade levels. A few of the most commonly used, according to these syntheses, are mentioned here.

Passage reading in class. Across numerous studies, it was found that students in reading classes serving students with reading disabilities spend much of their time waiting to be taught, completing worksheets, or doing other independent work (Vaughn, Levy, Coleman, & Bos, 2002). However, to accelerate reading growth a good deal of the time must be dedicated to oral reading practice rather than silent reading or worksheet activities. Dedicated oral reading practice can be integrated with daily passage reading using a number of methods: (a) guided oral reading, (b) choral reading, and (c) partner reading.

Guided oral reading has a good deal of support as a method to increase students' accuracy and fluency (National Reading Panel, 2000). Guided reading generally involves calling on individual students to read orally, correcting errors when mispronunciations occur, and asking questions that guide students' understanding and help teachers ascertain comprehension.

Although guided oral reading provides sufficient oral reading practice for students in small groups, a number of struggling secondary readers need much more practice, especially in large classes. The amount of text practice can be increased by using choral reading. For example, students can be asked to chorally read word lists, sentences, and/or paragraphs with their reading group members and/or the teacher. Choral reading with a teacher has proven to be effective in increasing reading fluency (Heckelman, 1969). By reading with the students in a louder voice than theirs, the teacher can model reading with expression, stopping at periods and chunking words together into phrases. Choral reading allows all students to practice simultaneously while also supporting lower-performing students who have decoding challenges.

As another alternative, students can read text material to a peer partner. Partner reading, as part of a multicomponent reading intervention, has proven effective for a range of readers, including middle school students with learning disabilities (Bryant et al., 2000). Partner reading is an excellent way to increase the amount of reading done by secondary struggling readers for a number of reasons. First, it matches the need of members of this age group to connect with their peers. Second, it guarantees that the students are actually reading, because unlike silent reading, partner reading can be monitored by the teacher. In addition, comprehension strategies can be added. For example, in the PALS program (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Kazdan, 1999; Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, & Simmons, 1997), partners alternate reading sections of text material and engaging in three comprehension activities. One of these activities, paragraph shrinking, could easily be added to partner reading even if not using the PALS program. When paragraph shrinking, partners guide their peers in identifying the main idea by asking the reader to identify who or what the paragraph is about and the most important thing about the who or what. The reader is then asked to combine the information into a main-idea statement of 10 or fewer words.

Repeated reading. What is the benefit of repetition? Consider this analogy. Did you take typing in high school? Certainly, typing teachers understood fluency. They knew that you needed great automaticity in typing. They understood that if you were hunting for a letter, your attention would be drawn away from the content of your manuscript or document. So, these wise teachers gave us exercises to improve our speed. On Monday, we received a speed drill exercise. We practiced the same material on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and on Thursday. On Friday, we had the notorious speed drill test in which we typed the same material for a specified amount of time and then determined the number of correct words per minute. Now, as we sit and type this manuscript, we send a word of thanks to our typing teachers who understood the importance of automaticity and "repeated typing." Repeated reading exercises are similar to "repeated typing." Students are given a list of words, phrases, or a short passage at their independent level (the level that they can read with few errors) and are asked to read a number of times to increase their fluency.

Numerous studies have supported the use of repeated readings to increase the fluency of students at many reading levels and ages (e.g., Carver, 1997; Dowhower, 1987; Fleisher, Jenkins, & Pany, 1979; Herman, 1985; Homan, Klesius, & Hite, 1993; Mercer, Campbell, Miller, Mercer, & Lane, 2000; Meyer & Felton, 1999; O'Shea, Sindelar, & O'Shea, 1985, 1987; Rashotte & Torgesen, 1985; Rasinski, 1990; Sindelar, Monda, & O'Shea, 1990; Stout, 1997). In sum, after completing a comprehensive review of fluency intervention studies conducted in the past 25 years, Chard et al. (2002) concluded that repeated reading interventions with students with learning disabilities are associated with improvement in reading rate, accuracy, and comprehension.

Repeated reading activities usually consist of three phases: the initial timing phase, the practice phase, and the final timing phase. These activities generally begin with a "cold timing," in which students determine the number of words they are able to read without practice. The students then practice the material from a minimum of three times to a maximum of seven times (O'Shea et al., 1987). Repeated reading of text materials might also be coupled with listening to an adult model of fluent reading (Rose & Beattie, 1986; Smith, 1979), listening to a proficient peer reading the text (Mathes & Fuchs, 1993), listening to an audiotape or computer CD (Daly & Martens, 1994; Gilbert, Williams, & McLaughlin, 1986; Rose & Beattie, 1986), or a combination of these practices (Simmons, Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, & Hodge, 1995; Weinstein & Cooke, 1992). During the practice phase of repeated reading, feedback on performance, including correction of errors, is beneficial in increasing fluency (Smith, 1979). Finally, the students engage in a "hot timing," in which they are timed for one minute, and their number of words per minute are determined and graphed. Consistently, monitoring students' progress and providing feedback has positive results (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1986). The power of repeated readings is also related to the consistency and intensity of the intervention. Corrective Reading, Language!, and REWARDS all contain repeated reading exercises in which students practice reading word lists or passages followed by a timing for one minute.

In some cases, a supplementary program specifically designed to increase fluency may be used. For example, Read Naturally (Ihnot, Matsoff, & Gavin, 2001) is a research-validated program for fluency building from first- to seventh-grade reading levels (Hasbrouck, Ihnot, & Rogers, 1999). Each level consists of 24 passages with corresponding audiotapes. To give students opportunities to gain information even while building fluency, the authors used factual passages. Students begin with a cold timing of one of these factual passages, orally reading for one minute to determine their rate with no practice. Next, students practice by reading along with an audiotape or a trained reader to increase accuracy and rate. The students then continue individual practice until they believe that they can meet their desired rate. After answering comprehension questions on the passage, the students are given a "hot timing," in which they read for one minute with a teacher or paraeducator. Their rate is then graphed. When students pass a story, they move to another passage until they have read approximately 10-12 stories at an equivalent level.

Another research-validated program, Great Leaps (Campbell, 1995; Mercer et al., 2000), may also be used to provide supplementary fluency practice needed by many secondary struggling readers. Great Leaps (5th-9th grade) consists of a series of phonics (decodable words), sight word (phrases containing high-frequency words), and story (age-appropriate passages) pages. For 10 minutes a day, a student works on a one-to-one basis with a teacher or paraeducator who times the student for a minute on each page and provides corrective feedback. When students achieve goals in an area, they advance to a more challenging step. Using the Great Leaps program, middle school students with learning disabilities made significant gains when given this small amount of fluency practice (Mercer et al., 2000).


It has been our observation that student gains in secondary reading programs are much more likely when teachers implement research-validated programs with proven effectiveness with adolescents. The programs discussed in this article to illustrate the decoding approaches and the methods for developing fluency can be combined and used for approximately an hour a day in a secondary setting. For example, in one secondary setting, a teacher might use Corrective Reading: Decoding and rereading of passages with a partner on a daily basis. In another setting, the teacher might choose to use REWARDS and Read Naturally. In addition, in each of these settings, the content-area teachers could reinforce what the students have learned when students are asked to read in their classes. For example, in the setting in which REWARDS and Read Naturally are being used, the content-area teachers could hang the poster on their wall that shows the REWARDS strategy and prompt students to use the strategy for all multisyllabic words. Once students have read their textbook passages and learned the science or social studies content, the content-area teachers could choose one page of the textbook and guide the students to use choral or partner reading for extra oral reading practice.


It is unfortunate that we continue to have a large number of secondary students who are not proficient readers. However, the good news is that their reading progress can be accelerated with adequate time for instruction, the use of effective materials, and robust, systematic instruction in decoding longer words, and opportunities for developing fluency.

Are these students willing to participate in such rigorous reading instruction? The answer is YES. Despite their past challenges in learning to read, struggling secondary readers are fully aware of the importance of reading proficiency to their later success and have indicated a willingness to learn to read (McCray, Vaughn, & Neal, 2001). Now more than ever, powerful reading programs exist that assist the secondary teacher in delivering what these students need.
Figure 1. Example of part-by-part decoding instruction when preteaching
content area words.

im per ial pro tect or ate
im per ial ism dis cov er y
im per ial ist lo ca tion
im per ial is tic pro duc tion
 pos ses sion

Figure 2. Six syllable types used in syllable-type instruction.

Syllable Type Examples Description of Syllable Type

Closed rab bit A syllable having a short vowel
 de pen dent and ending in a consonant. (VC,
 re jec tion CVC, CCVC, CVCC)

Open ta ble A syllable with a long vowel sound
 de fame that is spelled with a
 star vat ion single-vowel letter. (CV, CCV)

Vowel Combinations can teen A syllable with a vowel
 pro claim combination such as ai, oa, ea, or
 un speak able oi. (CVVC, CCVVC, CVVCC)

R-controlled va por ize A syllable containing
 sur render ar-controlled vowel such as ar,
 per fection er, or, ir, or ur.

Vowel-consonant-e es cape A syllable with a long vowel sound
 obso lete with a consonant and final e.
 window pane (VCe, CVCe, CCVCe)

Consonant-le pud dle A final syllable containing a
 rum ble consonant before le.

Figure 3. Strategy chart showing the steps used in strategy instruction.

Overt Strategy

1. Circle the word parts (prefixes) at the beginning of the word.

2. Circle the word parts (suffixes) at the end of the word.

3. Underline the letters representing vowel sounds in the rest of the word.

4. Say the parts of the word.

5. Say the parts fast.

6. Make it a real word.


re con struc tion

Covert Strategy

1. Look for word parts at the beginning and end of the word, and vowel sounds in the rest of the word.

2. Say the parts of the word.

3. Say the parts fast.

4. Make it a real word.

Requests for reprints should be addressed to: Anita Archer, 1105 NW 26th Ave, Portland, OR 97210.


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ANITA L. ARCHER, Ph.D., is an educational consultant and curriculum author. She formerly was on the faculties of University of Washington, University of Oregon, and San Diego State University.

MARY M. GLEASON, Ph.D., is currently director of training for the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI). For twenty years, she was a professor at University of Oregon.

VICKY L. VACHON, Ph.D., is a project director for NIFDI who oversees the implementation of literacy programs in schools throughout the United States.
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Author:Vachon, Vicky L.
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Date:Mar 22, 2003
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