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Selecting Reading Interventions

By: Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP

For schools that conduct universal benchmark screening, review of the screening data provides educators with information about which students need additional instruction (also called intervention). Importantly, screening data must always be compared with other sources of information about a student’s current skills as part of the process of identifying individual learning needs. In most cases, the combination of screening scores and other information helps teachers to know what type of intervention a student needs. Even when the general area for instruction is known, it can sometimes be challenging to select an intervention because there are many available and not every program works equally well for every student. There are steps that teachers can use to select the most promising reading interventions for students. The starting point for selecting reading interventions is to identify which of the five core reading skills should be the focus of intervention.  

Core Reading Areas

The National Reading Panel Report (2000) summarized decades of research about reading instruction and identified five core skill areas that all effective reading instruction must include: phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle (phonics), fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The Report emphasized that strong reading skills result from instruction and practice in all five of these areas over many years and that none of these areas should be taught in isolation. Nonetheless, students with reading difficulties often have uneven skills across the five core areas and need additional instruction (i.e., intervention) in one or more to become stronger readers. For this reason, the starting point for selecting appropriate reading interventions is to determine a student’s relative performance in each of these areas. Details about a student’s reading strengths and weaknesses can be gleaned from a close inspection of the available screening scores and classroom work samples.  

Use Data to Identify the Specific Learning Need

There are three main details about a student’s reading performance that are important when examining data: accuracy, automaticity, and broad reading skills. Accuracy refers to whether the student can decode (i.e., sound out and blend) words. Research indicates that effective readers are able to decode words with at least 95% accuracy in order to understand what they are reading. For students whose reading data indicate less than 95% accuracy, the right intervention will focus on accuracy. Accuracy must always be taught first because there is no point to teaching students to read faster without accuracy. The second detail to inspect is automaticity. This refers to the extent to which the student can read whole words at first glance. Automaticity is important because the more automatically a student reads whole words, the more cognitive energy is available for overall comprehension. When a student’s accuracy is above 95% but automaticity is weak, intervention that builds up automatic recognition of words and sentences is needed. Finally, for students whose accuracy and automaticity are well-developed, the focus can be on broad reading skills. These “broad” skills include attention to novel word meanings (vocabulary) and general understanding of the entire passage (comprehension). There are some students whose accuracy and automaticity are strong but who struggle with word meanings and overall comprehension. For these students, interventions that include both vocabulary and comprehension instruction are useful.

There are many FAST™ reports that include details about a student’s specific reading skills and needs. All FAST™ reports will show a small box with a percentage next to the score for any student whose accuracy is below 95%. These boxes are the easiest tool for knowing which students need instruction that focuses on accurate reading. Such instruction teaches sound-symbol correspondence so that students can sound out and then blend words accurately. Such instruction is sometimes referred to as “phonics” and is an essential part of helping students read accurately. 

Sample CBMreading Group Report with Accuracy Indicators

Identifying students who need automaticity instruction involves reviewing data to see that their accuracy is 95% or above but their reading rate is lower than expected. The best indicator of automaticity among FAST™ measures is the student’s score on CBMreading. This score is the number of words read correctly in 1 minute. The timing of this assessment makes it possible to know if students are reading words quickly and effortlessly on first glance or if they need to look at the words multiple times to decode and blend them. If a student needs to look at a word multiple times to read it, the majority of cognitive energy is on the word itself and not the overall ideas in the reading passage.The greater a student’s automaticity, the more words s/he can read in a minute, and the more s/he will understand what is read. Students who need intervention to improve their broad reading skills are those whose accuracy and automaticity are at or above benchmark levels but who show evidence of not really understanding or being able to apply what they read. The best FAST™ indicator of broad reading skills is the aReading score. This score shows the current level of text that the student can read effectively.

FAST™ Reading Reports

Students’ reading scores on FAST™ assessments can be viewed across a number of different reports. Some reports show scores for all the students in a class or grade, and others show scores for individual students. A new report that integrates scores for groups of students across two reading measures is the Screening to Intervention report. This report is designed to help teachers identify the best reading interventions for students. The Screening to Intervention report pulls information about students’ reading skills from two FAST™ assessments: aReading and CBMreading or AUTOreading (or earlyReading for younger students). Together, the scores on these reading assessments provide information about each student’s accuracy, automaticity, and broad reading skills. In addition, the Screening to Intervention report lists the type of intervention and progress measure best suited for each student. Schools can optionally enter the names of specific interventions for different reading skills into the FAST™ system, and they will automatically display as recommendations for students whose data suggest a need for intervention.

Review Available Intervention Choices

In order for teachers to match students to appropriate interventions, they need both knowledge of and access to reading intervention materials. Given that the biggest single area in which students struggle in school is reading, selecting and having reading interventions available in each building when the school year begins will speed up the process of providing interventions for students. A helpful approach to selecting interventions is to think about creating an intervention “menu” of options that will be available in each building. Such a menu should include at least one intervention for each of the five areas of reading. Some interventions include lessons for several or all five areas, but others are specific to one area. It is okay to list the same intervention multiple times for different areas as long as all of the materials specific to the target area are indeed available at the school. There are hundreds of different reading interventions available for purchase; in addition there are free resources available on the Internet.  

Not all published interventions are effective, and it is important to review the research behind interventions before selecting them. Three websites that have detailed reviews of many published reading interventions are:

Looking at the reviews and evidence for specific interventions helps teachers select tools that are appropriate for the needs of their students. In particular, teachers are encouraged to look at the effect sizes for specific interventions, as well as whether students from backgrounds like their own students were included in the research studies.

Implement the Intervention and Collect Progress Data

With effective intervention options available at the school, teachers can select ones that appear to be appropriate for individual students. Nonetheless, not every intervention will work well for all students and sometimes a different one will be needed. In order to know if the selected intervention is working, regular progress monitoring needs to be conducted. FAST™ has several reading progress measures and recommends that students complete progress assessments weekly to monthly. The data collected as part of progress monitoring will show if the intervention is working. When the data show that the student’s reading skills are improving and on a path to meet the grade level goal, then the intervention should be maintained. But, if the data show limited or no improvement, then the intervention should be changed. 

National Reading Panel (U.S.), & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read : an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction : reports of the subgroups. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Rachel Brown is FastBridge Learning’s Senior Academic Officer. She previously served as Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Southern Maine. Her research focuses on effective academic assessment and intervention, including multi-tier systems of support, and she has authored several books on Response to Intervention and MTSS. 

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