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Determining adolescent struggling readers' word attack skills with the core phonics survey.

Students beyond the primary grades who struggle with reading lack basic word attack ability and are thus unable to read new words with accuracy. However, there has been little research that reveals the specific word attack errors students exhibit. In this study, 123 struggling adolescent readers receiving special education services were given the Consortium on Reading Excellence, Inc. (CORE) Phonics Survey to determine word attack knowledge for both real and pseudo one syllable and multi-syllabic words and to analyze their performances based on student characteristics. Results revealed that students' abilities to read real words did not carry over into reading pseudo words, that students struggled with multi-syllabic words more than single syllable words, that students struggled more with r-controlled and long vowel single syllable words and less with -tch diagraph and short vowel single syllable words and that there were no significant differences based on demographics. These results confirm that older struggling readers may benefit from additional instruction in attacking words and that the instruction should focus on their particular areas of weakness.


Researchers have proposed that learning to read is a developmental process that involves forming connections between graphemes and phonemes to bond spellings of the words to their pronunciations and meanings in memory. Whether the development is described in stages (Chall, 1983) or phases (Ehri, 2005), the process is achieved through strong phonemic awareness and knowledge of the alphabetic system. According to Ehri, four phases characterize the course of development of reading, pre-alphabetic, partial, full, and consolidated alphabetic. The phases are distinguished according to the type of alphabetic knowledge used to form connections (Ehri, 2005). It is not until the third phase that readers have enough knowledge of the graphophonemic system that they can decode unfamiliar words and store fully analyzed sight words in memory. In the last phase, typically reached in second or third grade, students consolidate their knowledge of grapheme-phoneme blends into larger units that recur in different words.

To become fluent and capable of comprehending text, students must first be able to consistently identify isolated sounds and patterns, blend together multiple sounds to form words, segment words into isolated sounds, and transfer these skills to the reading of words in connected text (Adams, 1990; Chall, 1995; Cunningham, 1975-76; Ehri, 2005; National Institute of Child Human Health Development [NICHD], 2000; Perfetti, 1985; Stanovich, 1984). The ability to apply these basic reading or decoding skills is sometimes referred to as having word attack skills. Ideally, it is an ability that should be learned in the primary grades; in the United States, mastered by the end of third grade (Juel, 1988; NICHD, 2000; Stanovich, 1984, 1986).

Although it is ideal for students to acquire word attack skills in the primary grades, some students struggle to gain them and are promoted without reaching these early reading milestones. Any teacher who has ever worked with struggling adolescent readers knows the despair of assigning them reading only to realize they are incapable of doing it. The urgency of this problem is emphasized with the requirements of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to read increasingly difficult text of all types. In a typical junior high class, students are expected to read such works as Homer's The Odyssey, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Many aspects of these wonderful and important texts might prove difficult for readers including vocabulary, themes and text structure. In To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, readers need to read and know the meanings of such words as assuaged, foray, impudent and taciturn. Students without foundational word attack skills are faced with an even greater challenge reading these texts because they struggle simply to decode the words and, therefore, have limited ability to read these texts independently.

Over the last decade, research conducted with older struggling readers confirms what teachers have suspected: many of them do lack basic word attack skills even though there is a persistent myth that the early years (K-3rd grade in the United States) in school are the time for "learning to read" and the later years (4th grade and higher) are for "reading to learn," (Houck & Ross, 2012). What the research has not yet revealed however is the nature of that struggle. Do students struggle more often with decoding unknown words? Are there letter combinations or particular vowels that prove to be more difficult for them? For example, in a comparison study of 345 late eighth and early ninth-grade students on their word-level and reading comprehension skills the struggling readers scored statistically lower than the proficient readers by about one standard deviation below the mean on all the dependent measures (Hock, Brasser, Deshler, Catts, Marquis, Mark, & Stribling, 2009). There were statistically significant differences between each of three pairs of means: Word Level compared to Fluency, Word Level compared to Vocabulary and Vocabulary compared to Fluency. The greatest areas of deficit were in fluency and comprehension skills, but many struggling readers also demonstrated significant deficits at the word level (word attack, decoding, word recognition, and rate).

Another comparison study of literacy, language, and cognitive skills was conducted with 161 fourth and fifth graders with late-identified reading disabilities. Ninety-five of these young adolescents were considered typically achieving readers, and 66 were identified as having some type of reading disability based on a standard score of 86 or less on reading comprehension tests. In summary, about two thirds of the poor readers had comprehension deficits, and about two thirds had word-level deficits (Leach, Scarborough, & Rescorla, 2003).

In a longitudinal study of students, followed from second grade through eighth grade, researchers examined the word recognition and listening comprehension skills of poor readers (Catts, Hogan, & Adlof, 2005). They assessed students at grades 2, 4, and 8. In one part of the study, the authors selected from the sample of 527 students who could be identified as poor readers (N=154). Overall, the results indicated that by eighth grade approximately 49% had poor word recognition and 66% had poor comprehension skills.

In a study of struggling adult readers, researchers examined the impact of rate or speed of processing on reading proficiency (N=174) participating in adult and secondary education programs. The authors performed a path analysis of component skills' contribution to reading comprehension. The participants were described as either proficient, possessing both accurate and efficient word-level skills; average, demonstrating adequate but not fluent word-level skills; or low, struggling with accuracy in word-level reading as well as with efficiency in reading rate. The authors reported that the most important effects found in this model were paths from phonemic decoding to word reading and from word reading to fluency (Mellard, Fall & Woods, 2010).


To date, most research in this area has been conducted with assessments that can identify general reading skill deficits, for example that readers may struggle to comprehend or lack the ability decode words. However, they do not provide any detail about students' specific skills. For example, with regard to the ability to decode words (word attack), they do not show whether students struggle more often with decoding unknown words or words they have likely already seen. They do not show whether there are letter combinations or particular vowels that prove to be more difficult for them. This study was conducted to provide some information about the specific word attack skills with which struggling adolescent readers have the most difficulty. In addition, because these assessments also are often expensive and time consuming, this study instead utilized a readily available, easy-to-administer assessment for teachers.

More specifically, this study's research questions were: 1) How did the students' word attack ability differ across the various subscales of the Consortium on Reading Excellence, Inc. (CORE) Phonics Survey? 2) On average, how did the students' ability to read real words differ from their ability to read pseudo words and what does this difference indicate about their word attack skills? 3) Which student characteristics accounted for differences in their word attack skills?



In this study, 123 middle school students receiving special education services in the area of reading from 9 schools in a suburban school district in the western part of the United States were included. The school district's special education director selected students with a Lexile(r) MetaMetrics(r) (as determined by the Scholastic Reading Inventory) reading score of approximately 1000 (equivalent to grade level 7) or below (the median score was 519, equivalent to grade 4). The school district's primary reading interventions were Read 180 and System 44. Read 180 is described as a comprehensive system of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development for raising the reading achievement of struggling readers in grades 4 and beyond ( System 44 is a foundational reading program for the most challenged readers in grade 3 and beyond that includes explicit phonics instruction (

Students were in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades (see Table 1). Information on English Language Learner (ELL) status was reported for 91 of the participants; of those, only 2 were identified as ELL. Information on disability identification was given for 108 of the participants; of those. 86 were receiving services for Specific Learning Disability; 8 for Speech and Language Impairment; 4 for Autism; 4 for Other Health Impairment; 3 for Emotional Disturbance; and 3 for Intellectual Disabilities.


The participants were all administered the Consortium on Reading Excellence (CORE) Phonics Survey (2008) also from Scholastic (permission was granted by the publisher). The CORE Phonics Survey was selected because it is quick, inexpensive, and widely available. More importantly, the special education director of the district in which we conducted the study was interested in having special education teachers in the district use it with their students to improve their instruction. The survey is published in the Handbook of Assessing Reading Multiple Measures: for Kindergarten through Eighth Grade (Honing, Diamond, Nathan, 2008). According to its authors, results can be used for screening, progress monitoring and diagnostic purposes for students through the eighth grade. Recently, the CORE Phonics survey was found to have construct and content validity (Brandt, 2010). The survey also was found to be valid in criterion validity for students in the elementary grades (Brandt, 2010).

The survey includes sections to test students' knowledge of phonics through: 1) letter naming and letter sound identification (subtests not included in this study); 2) single syllable word reading (both real and pseudo/ nonsense); 3) multisyllabic word reading (both real and pseudo/nonsense); and 4) spelling of real one-syllable words (not included in this study). In this paper, each of these testing categories is referred to as a testing measure. Real words are those that have meaning whereas pseudo/nonsense words resemble real words, but are actually meaningless, such as "snop" and "glab." This data is collected because, in theory, if students understand how to decode words, that is they have the requisite word recognition knowledge, they should be able to read both pseudo and real words with confidence. If students are only capable of reading real words with accuracy, it is unlikely that they have word recognition knowledge; they are unable to decode (Adams, 1990).

The one syllable reading/decoding section of the test includes five word attack subscales: 1) short vowels in Consonant Vowel Consonant (CVC) words; 2) short vowels, digraphs and -tch trigraph; 3) consonant blends with short vowels; 4) r- and 1- control vowels; 5) long vowels; 6) and variant vowels and diphtongs. The multisyllabic reading/decoding section includes 8 real and 16 pseudo words and the following word attack subscales: 1) closed-closed; 2) closed silent e; 3) open or closed; 4) silent e; 5) consonant + le; 6) r-controlled; and 7) teams.


Data collection. Trained undergraduate pre-service teachers working toward special education licensure at a university in the western part of the United States administered the tests to the participants at the middle schools during the school day. Test administrators received training in administering the test both in video examples and live performance. Participants were pulled out of their special education reading resources classes to take the tests that are designed to take 10 to 15 minutes per participant (according to the test publisher's directions). Each test was administered and recorded by two testers. The words were recorded as read correctly (=1) or incorrectly (=0). Inter-rater agreement (IRA) was conducted on approximately 25% of the surveys; agreement on individual occurrences (Caro, Roper, Young, & Dank, 1979) was at or above 93% in each subsection of the survey with overall inter-rater agreement at 95%. All 123 students were administered the single syllable measure of the CORE Phonics Survey. As per the testing protocol, there were only 119 participants for the multisyllabic measure of the CORE Phonics Survey, due to non-proficient performance on the single syllable section.

Data Analysis. To answer research question one, how did the students' word attack ability differ across the various subscales of the CORE Phonics Survey, mean percentage correct was calculated for each of the CORE Phonics Survey subscales. In addition, mean percentage correct was determined for real and pseudo words in each subscale of the single syllable word section. This analysis was not conducted for the multisyllable word section because there was only one real word for each of the multisyllable word subscales. To answer research question two, on average, how did the students' ability to read real words differ from their ability to read pseudo words and what does this difference indicate about their word attack skills, dependent t-tests were conducted to determine whether there were significant differences in means on each subscale of the CORE Phonics Survey. To answer research question three, which student characteristics accounted for differences in their word attack skills, a comparison of performance differences, based on gender, grade, and Lexile[R] score was performed on the various testing measures, using an ANOVA.


An ANOVA was conducted to determine differences in means between how students performed based on any of the student characteristics, including gender, age, grade, English Language Learning status, Lexile[R] score and disability. There were no significant differences.

Word Attack

Descriptive and inferential statistics for each word attack subscale of the single syllable section of the CORE Phonics Survey was conducted. This statistical analysis was not conducted on the multisyllabic section due to uneven distribution of testing items, real to pseudo, on the survey. Percentage and mean data are therefore provided for comparisons of single syllable and multisyllabic word attack performance.

Single Syllable Section. Calculations were conducted for total words, as well as for each subscale of the single syllable section of the CORE Phonics Survey (see Table 2). Results indicated that students were able to read real and pseudo CVC words (85% correct), but struggled to read real and pseudo r- and l- controlled vowels (71% correct) and real and pseudo long vowels (73% correct). Overall, students appeared to perform better on reading real words (87% correct) than pseudo words (67% correct), struggling most with pseudo variant vowels (60% correct), pseudo r- and l- controlled vowels (63% correct), and pseudo long vowels (64% correct).

Real to Pseudo. Further analysis was conducted on the single subject real/pseudo pairings with t-tests and effects sizes. Results from the t-tests indicated that there were significant differences (p<.01) for all real/pseudo pairings. Effect sizes also indicated that there were differences between performance on real and pseudo words. Large difference effects were shown for all real and pseudo word pairings, with long vowels (1.18) and digraphs and -tch (1.09) having the largest effect size, (see Table 3.)

Multisyllabic Section. Calculations were conducted for total words, as well as for each subscale of the multisyllabic section of the CORE Phonics Survey (see Table 2). Students struggled reading multisyllabic words (52% correct). The words with closed silent e syllables (39% correct), the words with r- controlled syllables (41% correct), and the words with vowel team syllables (43% correct) proved more difficult for the participants. Overall students performed better with real words (77% correct) than pseudo words (39% correct).


The purpose of this study was to obtain information about struggling adolescent readers' word attack skills using the CORE Phonics Survey. Data were collected about both one-syllable and multisyllabic word recognition skills at the general pattern level. From this it was determined that students struggled with long vowels for example. However, which of the long vowels was more difficult to attack was indistinguishable. To answer these letter-level questions, we recommend developing consistent test items that include more variety in the letter combinations to more clearly assess word attack knowledge. In addition, results from this study indicated that the survey may use common real words inconsistently across subscales. For example, students in this study read real words with variant vowels at a level of 90% and pseudo words at 60%. Whereas students read r- and l- controlled real words at 80% and pseudo words at 63%, making this one of the lower overall subscales.

The good news was that, on average, students were able to read most (85% correct) basic (CVC) real words. However, there was evidence that even if students performed well on reading real one-syllable words with various letter combinations, they did not carry over that ability to reading pseudo words. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that these students did not have sufficient knowledge and ability to decode words they have not encountered before in text. This lack of word attack ability was most apparent in students' persistent struggle to read multisyllabic words. When words became longer, they found them a challenge to decode whether they were real or pseudo.

There were no significant differences in means between how students performed based on any of the student characteristics, including gender, age, grade, English Language Learning status, and disability. It is interesting that there were no significant differences in performance based on gender given that we know that more boys than girls are referred for special education services. This result may be evidence to support an argument that we are correctly identifying which students to refer for services. Once the students are receiving services, boys and girls struggle equally to read.

There are several results that have implications for teachers of reading, particularly those adolescents who struggle. In the past, some have argued that students would not benefit from additional instruction in basic reading skills (Allington, 2004; Ivey & Baker, 2004). We believe that this research shows that first and foremost, it is clear, as other researchers have shown, that some students who struggle to read texts continue to display phonics errors, especially when encountering unknown words, regardless of grade or age. This result is consistent with other research demonstrating that some adolescent readers lack work attack ability (Catts et al., 2005; Hock et al., 2009; Leach et al., 2003; Mellard et al., 2010). It also is clear that the students in this study did struggle more often with decoding unknown words. In addition, there are letter combinations or particular vowels that proved to be more difficult for them.

We believe that this research strengthens the view that a comprehensive reading program for older struggling readers may need to include word study for those who struggle with work attack (Lyon, Fletcher, Torgeson, Shaywitz, & Chhabra, 2004). We would argue that reading instruction for such students could include additional instruction in blending single syllable words by focusing on particular problems associated say with long vowels, variant and controlled vowels, dipthongs and so forth depending on the results of the student's performance on an assessment. In addition, students could benefit from instruction in breaking words into syllables and using their knowledge of open and closed vowels and affixes to decode multisyllabic words. Such instruction could be done in small groups or one-on-one in an explicit teaching approach.


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Brigham Young University
Table 1. Distribution of Participants by
Gender and Grade

                     Grades          ELL      Disability *

Gender           7th   8th   9th   Y     N    LD    Other

Male             50%   31%   19%   2%   54%   39%    6%
Female           47%   27%   24%   0    44%   43%    12%
Total response   60    36    26    2    89    89     19

* 47.6% received services for fewer than 6 years;
52.4% received services for 6 or more years.

Table 2. Core Phonics Survey Results Word
Type and Percentage Correct

                                        Word            Percentage
Word Type                               Total   Mean     Correct

SINGLE SYLLABLE                          70     53.16      76%
Real                                     35     30.50      87%
Pseudo                                   35     23.42      67%
  CVC short vowels                       10     8.54       85%
  Real                                    5     4.67       93%
  Pseudo                                  5     3.89       78%
  Digraphs and tch                       10     7.91       79%
  Real                                    5     4.67       93%
  Pseudo                                  5     3.24       65%
  Consonant blends with short vowels     20     15.32      77%
  Real                                   10     8.46       85%
  Pseudo                                 10     6.85       69%
  r and 1 controlled                     10     7.10       71%
  Real                                    5     4.00       80%
  Pseudo                                  5     3.16       63%
  Long vowels                            10     7.27       73%
  Real                                    5     4.14       83%
  Pseudo                                  5     3.22       64%
  Variant vowels and dipthongs           10     7.48       75%
  Real                                    5     4.48       90%
  Pseudo                                  5     3.02       60%
Multisyllabic                            24     12.48      52%
  Real                                    8     6.17       77%
  Pseudo                                 16     6.29       39%
  Closed-closed                           3     1.81       60%
  Closed silent e                         3     1.16       39%
  Open or closed                          6     3.87       65%
  Silent e                                3     1.53       51%
  Consonant +le                           3     1.95       65%
  r-controlled                            3     1.24       41%
  Vowel team                              3     1.29       43%

Table 3. Core Phonics Survey Mean Difference Results Single Syllable

Word                                    Word           Real Words

Type                              R(real) P(pseudo)   Mean     SD

Single Syllable                   70 (35 R; 35 P)     30.50   5.73
  CVC Short vowels                10 (5 R; 5 P)       4.67    0.65
  Digraphs and tch                10 (5 R; 5 P)       4.67    0.89
  Consonant blends with short     20 (10 R; 10 P)     8.46    1.68
  R and 1 controlled              10 (5 R; 5 P        4.00    1.42
  Long vowels                     10 (5 R; 5 P)       4.14    1.27
  Variant vowels and dipthongs    10(5 R; 5 P)        4.48    1.10

Word                              Pseudo Words

Type                              Mean     SD      T      P      ES

Single Syllable                   23.42   7.83
  CVC Short vowels                3.89    1.34   6.81    <.01   0.62
  Digraphs and tch                3.24    1.49   12.04   <.01   1.09
  Consonant blends with short     6.85    2.54   8.52    <.01   0.77
  R and 1 controlled              3.16    1.64   6.94    <.01   0.63
  Long vowels                     3.22    1.62   13.05   <.01   1.18
  Variant vowels and dipthongs    3.02    1.39   7.35    <.01   0.66
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Author:Nelson, Kristin L.; Alexander, Melina; Williams, Natalie A.; Sudweeks, Richard R.
Publication:Reading Improvement
Article Type:Report
Date:Dec 22, 2014
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