Second chances: Improving decoding skills in the older student

Second chances: Improving decoding skills in the older student

Apel, Kenn

Brad is a 29-year-old university student. Although he was accepted into the university and is enrolled as a junior in a teacher preparation program, his reading skills are significantly below those expected for students his age. He finds that the reading requirements of his university courses are a constant cause of failure. frustration, and embarrassment. Like other university students who have learning impairments, he is eligible for certain accommodations, such as extended time on tests, early registration, books on tape. and so forth. However, he has not been offered services to help remediate his reading impairment. In fact, Brad has not received any special reading services throughout all his years in the educational system. Because results of intelligence tests revealed above average scores, Brad was often referred to as lazy and judged not to be living up to his potential. Although Brad wants to improve his reading abilities, he is uncertain whether he has any ability to do so.

Brad’s case is not unique. Older students with reading impairments-students from middle school to the university level-often show similar profiles. These students read at significantly lower levels than their peers, exhibit poor selfimages as readers, and often develop a learned helplessness toward their education (Lyon, 1998). What explains this profile in students like Brad, regardless of whether they are 9, 19, or 29 years old? Some researchers suggest that this profile has its origin early in schooling, and becomes successively worse as children develop (Lyon, 1998; Stanovich, 1986). It has been called the “Matthew effect,” in reference to the biblical passage of rich individuals becoming wealthier and poor individuals losing more of their possessions (Stanovich).

Children who quickly develop good reading skills as they enter formal schooling develop better reading skills, advanced language abilities, and healthy self-images as successful readers (Lyon, 1998; Stanovich, 1986). However, students who experience early and continuing reading difficulties, specifically with decoding, have fewer experiences with reading, decreased exposure to new vocabulary and general world knowledge, poor self-images as learners, and less motivation to learn. The downward spiraling effects of early reading difficulties are “devastating” (Lyon). Without early and appropriate reading instruction or intervention, students with poor reading skills fall farther behind their peers, with the outcome affecting all aspects of their lives (Lyon; Stanovich).

Although some students, like Brad, never received remedial reading services in the schools, many others did. However, the services rendered may not have targeted the underlying deficits causing the reading impairment (Lyon, 1998). Generic remedial programs designed to instruct students in reading, regardless of etiology for the impairment, do little to close the gap caused by the Matthew effect. Thus, many of these students, as they move through the educational system, are considered “lost causes.” Specialists and administrators often decide that it is “too late” to help students who have not developed adequate reading skills by middle school. An outcome is that specific treatment approaches designed to remediate reading difficulties become less available as students age. This lack of attention becomes another component of the Matthew effect: Poor readers are assumed to be unteachable.

This “doomsday” perspective is but one of several unique challenges speech-language pathologists face when they work with older students with reading impairments. For example, there is a paucity of literature specific to the literacy skills of older students with reading impairments as well as minimal research on successful intervention programs for remediating their reading deficits. Because of these factors. assessment and intervention plans for older students must be developed based on typical reading development and the factors that contribute to reading success. In addition, older students bring with them 5 or more years of reading struggles and failures, some of which have been experienced during lengthy, but ineffective, reading intervention programs. The history that these students bring with them, then, leads to a negative attitude toward reading that may be as challenging to deal with as the reading impairment itself.

The purpose of this article is twofold. One aim is to demonstrate how speech-language pathologists can use their knowledge of typical reading development to assess potential contributing factors to reading impairments. The other objective is to describe how this knowledge can be used to create intervention plans for developing and strengthening reading skills while simultaneously being sensitive to the emotional needs of older students with reading impairments.


The goal of reading is comprehension. For students above the third grade, the expectation is that students are reading to learn new information (Chall, 1983). Although comprehension can be affected by a student’s experience with reading, world knowledge, and knowledge of stylistic variations of written language, comprehension also is heavily influenced by ease and accuracy in decoding (Gough & Wren, 1998: Hoover & Gough, 1990; Lyon, 1995). Decoding is the way a reader attacks unfamiliar words to access their meaning. Decoding skills are necessary early in reading development as students begin to crack the reading code.

In the initial stages of reading, practically all words are unfamiliar and must be decoded. Because decoding is a new skill, it requires a greater allocation of mental resources, often resulting in minimal comprehension of the written material (Kamhi & Catts, 1999). However, with increased practice, knowledge of the linguistic system, and reliance on an increasingly larger store of mental images for frequently read words. decoding becomes less effortful and less needed. The outcome is quicker sight recognition of words and increased comprehension (Carlisle, 1995; Ehri, 1998: Kamhi & Catts). It is not surprising, then, that decoding abilities and reading comprehension are highly correlated across the elementary school years (Ehri; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Juel, Griffith, & Gough, 1986). Better decoding skills lead to better comprehension.

Students’ decoding skills are influenced by a number of factors, all of which can potentially result in slow development or poor decoding abilities (Bruck, 1998; Carlisle, 1995; Swank, 1997). These factors include phonological awareness skills, the quality of the visual orthographic representations stored in memory, strategies used during the decoding process, and morphological awareness. These factors may impact decoding at different stages of development.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to think about and manipulate the speech sound segments of a language (Blachman, 1994; Swank & Catts, 1994). Over the last two decades, phonological awareness, along with letter-sound knowledge, has been shown to be a strong predictor for the development of early decoding skills (Adams, 1990: Bradley & Bryant, 1978; Bruck, 1998; Juel, 1998; Stanovich, 1992; Treiman, Tincoff, Rodriguez, Mouzaki, & Francis, 1998). Development of phonological awareness progresses from an early awareness of rhymes, alliteration, and sound play in the preschool years to later awareness of the individual sound segments that make up words (Adams). It is this latter skill, the ability to segment words into individual phonemes, that seems to best predict students’ reading abilities (Muter, 1998; Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Taylor, 1996; Nation & Hulme, 1997).

In their study of children between the ages of 5 and 9 years, Nation and Hulme (1997) found that phonemic segmentation best predicted single word recognition, or decoding. Although the relationship between phonological awareness and decoding appears to be reciprocal (i.e., practice with each helps the other), students need some phonological awareness skills to begin to decode words through translating graphemes into phonemes (Muter, 1998). Thus, Nation and Hulme suggested that segmentation tasks be used to identify early reading impairments as well as to improve phonological awareness and reading skills during intervention.

Phonological awareness skills can be taught (Ball & Blachman, 1991; Bradley & Bryant, 1985; Cunningham, 1990), and phonological awareness instruction has been found to facilitate the decoding skills of poor readers (Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; van Kleek, Gillam, & McFadden, 1998; Warrick, Rubin, & Rowe-Walsh, 1993). For example, Hatcher et al. found that the reading skills of 7-year-old students with poor reading abilities significantly improved when a phonological awareness component was added to their reading program. Similarly, Minus (1994) found that “low literate” adults who received phonological awareness training increased their phonological awareness and decoding skills. Studies such as these suggest that direct intervention on skills known to affect decoding abilities leads to improvement in reading and gives hope to lessening the severity of reading deficits.

Visual Orthographic Images

Just as phonological awareness skills facilitate and develop further with decoding, so do they contribute to the development of visual orthographic images (VOls) in memory (Ehri, 1980: Ehri & Wi]ce, 1982: Glenn & Hurley, 1993; Gough & Wren, 1998; Morais, Mousty, & Kolinsky, 1998: Share & Stanovich. 1995). VOls are mental images of syllables, morphemes. or words that are developed in memory by repeated successful experiences in decoding words. Initially, as children recognize the relationships between the letters they see and the sounds they hear, they develop representations that match the printed word (Ehri. 1998).

Past research has shown that developing readers require as little as four exposures to a word to develop a VOI (Ehri & Saltmarsh, 1995; Reitsma, 1983). Once VOls are established, readers bypass the relatively slower act of decoding and more quickly access the mental representation of a word to comprehend its meaning (Bruck. 1990; Ehri, 1997; Kamhi & Catts, 1999). Relying on VOls to read words decreases the need for decoding, leading to better comprehension. Also, these mental images stored in memory may be used during future decoding attempts, serving as analogs when reading other unfamiliar, yet orthographically similar. words (Ehri).

Because of deficient phonological awareness skills. students with reading impairments may develop partial or “fuzzy” VOls that poorly reflect the actual image of the written word (Lyon. 1998). Particularly susceptible to inadequate representations are schwa vowels. non-phonetic spellings, and words that do not conform to a reader’s understanding of the alphabetic system (Ehri, 1997). Complete development of VOls is less likely to occur when students fail to decode individual graphemes into their phonemic counterparts. The result of this faulty decoding can be partial or inaccurate VOls (Glenn & Erftmier, 1991; Seymour, 1997), which negatively affect reading in two ways. First, students may fail to match a printed word to a partial or “fuzzy” orthographic representation stored in memory. This may lead to unnecessary decoding instead of expediently accessing the encoded visual image (Seymour). Second, students also may access faulty representations at inappropriate times (i.e., using the wrong VOI when reading a word), leading to incorrect interpretations of words and poor comprehension.

Decoding Strategies

Given the importance of phonological awareness in developing adequate decoding skills, it is not surprising to find that the most productive decoding strategy for unfamiliar words, phonetic decoding, is one in which a student decodes a word at the grapheme/phoneme level (McGuinness, 1997). In her study of first- and third-grade children, McGuinness found that phonetic decoding strongly predicted later successful reading, even more so than the actual volume of words read correctly. Whole word reading (i.e., guessing at a word based on a single first or last grapheme and the overall “look” of the word) and partial word reading (i.e., basing word recognition on familiar sequences of graphemes within a word) proved to be much less productive and successful strategies (McGuinness). Neither of these two strategies seems to be effective simply because of the sheer numbers of possible words that may fit the particular gestalt of the word or contain a particular sequence of graphemes.

The use of context to recognize words is equally ineffective (Ehri, 1998; Kamhi & Catts, 1999). Using context to help decode non-content words, such as articles and pronouns, is relatively successful (up to 40% comprehension). However, context is minimally effective for decoding content words; at the most, just 10% of content words can be recognized from context (Gough & Wren, 1998).

Bruck (1990) found that a reliance on context decreased comprehension in elementary school students because working memory resources were devoted to recognizing and predicting words from the surrounding context, taking away the resources needed for comprehension. Thus, using context as the sole strategy to decode words results in poor recognition of the words that carry the most meaning and should be discouraged as a strategy used in decoding (McGuinness, 1997). Unfortunately, students who struggle with reading appear to use these different and inefficient decoding strategies. Poor comprehension is the result when alternate, incorrect words are chosen based on partial cues from a word or overreliance on context (McGuinness).

Some researchers argue that readers with typical or poor word recognition skills simultaneously access phonological, semantic, and syntactic cues from texts as they attempt to read unfamiliar words (Gillam & Carlile, 1997; Goodman, 1994). Because the ultimate goal of reading is to extract meaning for comprehension, these researchers suggest that readers rely on multiple cues from the text equally to interpret what they read. However, others (Bruck, 1990; Ehri, 1998; Gough & Wren, 1998; McGuinness, 1997; Nicholson, 1986) posit that the use of semantic and syntactic cues that create the linguistic context are important but are relied on after decoding at the graphemephoneme level.

Morphological Awareness

Morphological awareness involves the ability to be conscious of, talk about, and manipulate the morphological units of a language (Carlisle, 1995). It involves the ability to identify root words and their inflected or derived forms. Awareness of morphological structure plays an important role in decoding (Carlisle). Morphological awareness is crucial for recognizing unfamiliar words that cannot be decoded phonetically, allowing readers to access meaning based on their knowledge of root words, inflections, and derived forms. For example, knowledge of the derivation “-ette” allows a reader to deduce the meaning of words containing that form, such as dinette and kitchenette.

Although some authors suggest that students are more likely to use morphological awareness to decode words after second grade (Fowler & Lieberman, 1998), there is some evidence that children as young as 6 and 7 may tap into their emerging knowledge of morphemes for written language (Treiman & Cassar, 1997). By the fourth grade, most children have basic knowledge of derived forms (Windsor & Hwang, 1997). By the fifth grade, a substantial portion of a child’s orthographic representations consists of forms that are derivations of root words (Anglin, 1993). Thus, morphological awareness appears to be a crucial reading tool as students encounter increasingly complex texts beyond the primary grades (Shankweiler, Lundquist, Dreyer, & Dickinson, 1998).

Some researchers found that poor morphological awareness contributed to poor decoding skills (Carlisle, 1995; Leong, 1989; Wysocki & Jenkins, 1987). Students with poor decoding abilities often demonstrate less morphological awareness on written language tasks, such as changing root words to derived forms or identifying whether pairs of words represent forms from the same root class, than do children with adequate decoding skills. Carlisle found that, although students with poor reading skills did not demonstrate errors in morphological knowledge in their oral language, they nevertheless experienced difficulty with the written aspects of derivational morphology. In her work, Carlisle noted that derivational forms that do not alter the phonological or orthographic representation of a root word (state-statement) are more easily identified in written language than derived forms that change either the orthographic representation (happy-happiness) or the phonological representation (music-musician) of the word. Derived forms that change both the phonological and the orthographic form of the base word (heal-health) are most difficult to identify. Although it is unclear as to whether morphological awareness facilitates reading development or reading development leads to better morphological awareness, the importance of this skill in the reading process cannot be minimized.


Relatively little literature is available regarding the specific reading deficits of the older student, from middle school to the university level. Although a sizeable amount of literature exists concerning older students and adults with poor reading skills, much of this literature deals with individuals who differ from students like Brad. For example, some studies have examined the reading skills of adults subsequent to brain injury (e.g., Coltheart, 1980; Coltheart, Masterson, Byng, Prior, & Riddoch, 1983). Other available literature describes programs that serve individuals with basic literacy skills (Lytle & Schultz, 1990). These programs tend to be geared toward adolescents and adults who either had less exposure to formal literacy training (e.g., Lysynchuk, Geddis, & Laine, 1992; Lytle & Schultz; McCabe, 1992; Padak, Stuart, & Schierloh, 1991) or were institutionalized in correction facilities (e.g., Roberts, Cheek, & Mumm, 1994; Simpson, Swanson, & Kunkel, 1992). These programs often use instructional procedures similar to those typically used in school settings (Lytle & Schultz). However, some reports are available that speak directly to the older student with an identified reading impairment (Bruck, 1998; Minus, 1994; Worthy & Vse, 1996). These, along with select reports of adult basic literacy programs (Fagan, 1988; Skinner, Gillespie, & Balkam, 1997; Tymister, 1993), support the goal of using the reading development literature to facilitate literacy skills in adolescents and adults. In some cases, these studies have reported highly similar findings to reports on poor decoding skills of younger students.

Older students who demonstrate reading impairments in the early grades often continue to manifest deficits in reading as they age, with specific deficits in skills involving phonological and morphological awareness (Bruck, 1998; Worthy & Vse, 1996). They typically perform more poorly than younger readers on the segmentation of nonsense or real words (Bruck) and demonstrate poorer morphological awareness skills than do younger, typically developing children. This pattern is evidenced by spelling errors involving morphological inflections and derivations (Worthy & Vse).

High school and college-level students with reading impairments consistently achieve relatively poor word recognition scores (i.e., anywhere from the 21 st percentile to the 35th percentile) on standardized tests and read more slowly than students half their age (Bruck, 1998; Shankweiler et al., 1998). Older students who are poor readers also rely on contextual cues to aid comprehension, which negatively affects comprehension (Bruck, 1990). Although the data are limited, all signs indicate that the difficulties in reading of older students represent an “arrested development” (Bruck, 1990), suggesting that the type of reading problems associated with younger children are maintained at an older age.

Older students who have experienced repeated failures in learning to read may view themselves as poor readers with immutable reading difficulties (Bat-Hayim, 1997; Ryan, 1994; Vogel & Forness, 1992). As early as the end of first grade, decreases in self-esteem and motivation for students who are struggling with reading have been documented (Lyon, 1998; Stanovich, 1986). Low self-esteem and motivation may result from students’ self-awareness of their deficits as well as ineffective instruction that results as a reaction to the lack of learning (Torgesen, 1994). These students, like many of their teachers, may assume that, because they “sat” in classrooms with other students who learned to read, they lack the ability to read and thus will not benefit from further intervention (Berninger & Abbott, 1994). This concept of inadequacy and lack of success can affect future attempts at intervention (Apel & Masterson, 1997). Students may be distrusting of professionals and their attempts to offer specialized services after experiencing years of unsuccessful reading intervention. Previous intervention approaches, which focused on decoding drills without attention to other influential factors, such as phonological awareness, may cause students to view reading as a cumbersome, laborious, and somewhat futile act. In addition, a focus primarily on decoding often causes students to lose sight of the fact that the goal of reading is comprehension. Thus, a concept of one’s self as a poor decoder, without conscious awareness of the purpose of reading, may translate into a reluctance to attempt future reading interventions (Apel & Masterson).

The factors that influence young readers’ decoding skills can serve as a basis for the development of assessment and intervention plans designed to identify and strengthen decoding skills of older students with reading impairments. Recent studies, albeit limited in number, suggest that such an approach is logical and can lead to increased reading abilities (Minus, 1994; Skinner, Gillespie, & Balkam, 1997; Worthy & Vse, 1996). Additionally, there is no indication that taking a different approach based on age is warranted. Although the activities for improving decoding skills in older students will differ from those used with younger students, the skills that need to be learned remain the same (Bruck, 1998).

In the next section, the assessment and initial intervention conducted with Brad is discussed, followed by suggestions for future intervention goals. Brad’s case can serve as a metaphor for helping students of various ages and educational levels who were the recipients of instructional practices that failed to identify their individual needs. Although Brad presented with written language and spelling impairments as well, the focus here is on the remediation of his reading skills. Some spelling activities are discussed as they relate to the reading intervention program. However, the reader is referred to other articles within this forum (Graham & Harris, this issue; Masterson & Crede, this issue) for specific information on assessment and intervention with students having writing and spelling impairments.


Although Brad received speech services in the schools as a youngster, he never received any special services for reading, writing, or spelling. As an adult, he was diagnosed with a learning disability through a private clinic. However, Brad did not receive any intervention services for reading through that clinic or through the community college and university he was attending. He reported experiencing difficulties with reading, writing, and spelling throughout his academic career. His current job choice (field hand on a farm) was chosen because it required little to no literacy skills. However, Brad stated that he had always wanted to teach physical education to middle or high school students and so was attempting to complete a teacher preparation program at the local university.

Reading Tests

Three subtests from the Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests-Revised (WRMT-R, Woodcock, 1987) were administered to determine whether Brad’s reading skills differed from other students his age. As seen in Table 1, Brad’s scores on two subtests, Word Attack and Word Identification, suggested reading skills 1 to 2 standard deviations below the mean score for readers his age. The obtained age and grade equivalency scores for these two tasks, although not clinically relevant for the purpose of identifying deficits, underscored the severity of his reading difficulties. Scores on the passage comprehension skills were in the low average range, suggesting that Brad had basic comprehension skills that were affected by poorer decoding skills. Because this standardized test did not allow identification of the errors Brad was making when he was reading or the strategies he used as he decoded words, two additional reading samples were obtained.

First, Brad was asked to bring in two texts to read-one he considered easy to read and one he considered challenging-to determine whether factors other than decoding, such as the style of language or the content matter, might be influencing his reading abilities. In situations like this, some students identify “easy books” as those with which they are most familiar, either because of their knowledge of the content or because the style of writing is more representative of oral language (e.g., familiar vocabulary, syntactic structures involving right-sided embedding) (Scott, 1994). Similarly, challenging books are sometimes chosen because they represent new content meant to be learned through reading or because the language is more literate in style (e.g., less familiar, more academic vocabulary, complex syntactic constructions, including left-sided embedding). In Brad’s case, there did not appear to be a difference between the two texts that he brought in. He reported that most books he read were challenging to read and that he only read books that were required for his coursework.

Brad was asked to read portions of the two texts while a miscue analysis was conducted (Nelson, 1994). During a miscue analysis, all errors, or miscues, are noted as the student reads out loud. Patterns of errors are then identified, such as errors of reversals, semantic substitutions, insertions or deletions of sounds, and so forth. For some speech-language pathologists, a miscue analysis is used to determine a student’s ability to integrate multiple cues simultaneously from text (Gillam & Carlile, 1997). Others attribute greater importance to a miscue analysis for the information provided about the student’s phonological awareness skills and phonetic decoding strategy (McGuinness, 1997; Nicholson, 1986). This latter emphasis was used in the miscue analysis of Brad’s readings.

An analysis of Brad’s two reading samples revealed several error patterns. When reading an unfamiliar word, Brad substituted words for the printed word. These word substitutions were sometimes semantically related to the word (barber for beautician), but not always (staples for statistics). Other miscues included errors on bound morphemes (sleeping/sleeped), omissions and insertions of words, and filled pauses. Brad’s rate and fluency of reading was slow and laborious. As seen in Table 1, reading accuracy averaged over the two readings was 81%, which represented reading at a difficult text level (Clay, 1985). Clay suggested that accuracy rates below 90% prevent readers from judging whether their word choices are correct or not. Reduced accuracy negatively affects comprehension.

Brad’s reading of the two texts permitted identification of the strategy he most often used when decoding unfamiliar words (McGuinness, 1997). He rarely attempted to decode words using a phonetic decoding strategy. Rather, the majority of his attempts at unfamiliar words represented a whole word strategy wherein he used the initial grapheme and general length of the word to make a guess at the word. He also attempted to use his knowledge of the content to recognize words, leading to poor word identification in many instances.

Brad’s reading miscues, poor performance on the two decoding tasks of the WRMT-R, and dominant use of a whole word decoding strategy seemed to indicate poor phonological awareness skills. That is, he appeared to use little knowledge of grapheme-phoneme relationships when confronted with unfamiliar words. The results also suggested inadequate VOIs because Brad often substituted words that were only grossly similar in appearance to the printed word. His apparent poor phonological awareness skills and VOIs were thought to be negatively impacting his decoding abilities. Additional measures were used to confirm that these skills were deficient.

Phonological Awareness and Visual Orthographic Representations

To further assess Brad’s phonological awareness skills, two subtests of the Analysis of the Language of Learning (ALL, Blodgett & Cooper, 1987), Segmenting Sentences and Segmenting Words, were administered. Although there are no standardized measures of phonological awareness for students Brad’s age, the ALL was administered for two reasons. First, there are some initial data regarding how university-level students perform on this test (Apel & Mihelich, 1993). Second, it permitted a specific evaluation of Brad’s segmenting skills, which are known to be highly related to reading achievement (Muter, 1998). The Segmenting Sentences task required Brad to determine the number of words in sentences that ranged from three to nine words. Similarly, the Segmenting Words task required him to segment words that ranged from two to seven phonemes in length. Brad experienced difficulty on both of these tasks, correctly segmenting eight of 12 sentences into words, and four of 10 words into phonemes. These scores represented age equivalencies of a 6-year-old and 7-yearold, respectively.

Brad’s spelling samples also indicated poor phonological awareness skills and VOls. Analysis of spelling samples confirmed that he infrequently used his knowledge of grapheme-phoneme relationships to spell unfamiliar words and often relied on partial cues of stored mental images. His misspelled words often contained fewer graphemes than would be expected given the amount of phonemes in the word.

A second task, based on the work of Hultquist (1997), was administered to assess Brad’s ability to differentiate homophones orthographically. These are words that sound the same but have different meanings and are spelled differently (e.g., meet-meat). In this task, a series of homophone pairs was presented in written form (e.g., veinvain) and Brad was asked to identify which word in the pair matched the verbal definition provided (e.g., a person who is full of himself). On this task, Brad’s responses were correct only at the chance level, confirming the earlier hypothesis of degraded VOls.

Taken as a whole, then, Brad’s skills were similar to descriptions in the literature of older students with reading impairments (Bruck, 1998; Worthy & Vse, 1996). He presented with phonological awareness deficits that appeared to impact, if not contribute to, his reading impairment. It also seemed that his poor phonological awareness skills had negatively affected the development of VOls. Because of Brad’s age, his morphological awareness skills also were evaluated to determine the impact these skills might have on his reading abilities.

Morphological Awareness

A task based on the work of Carlisle (1987, 1988) was used to measure Brad’s morphological awareness. In this task, Brad was given a root word and asked to write the derived form or a derived form was provided and Brad was required to write the root word. Each stimulus contained a word and then a sentence for which Brad wrote in the final word (e.g., magic-David Copperfield is a great ). Brad’s answers to each question were semantically correct, suggesting knowledge of derived forms. Yet, the majority of his written responses were misspelled, suggesting that he did not use his knowledge of written morphological forms to facilitate correct spelling. This was consistent with reports in the literature regarding morphological awareness skills of students with reading impairments (Carlisle, 1995).


Finally, throughout conversations with him, as well as through self-reports on the case history form, Brad consistently made remarks suggesting a poor self-concept and opinion of his reading abilities. He reported difficulty concentrating during reading, and a preoccupation with what others thought about his reading abilities. He felt that his oral reading skills gave the impression that he was unintelligent and that his poor reading skills were inhibiting his ability to succeed in various aspects of his life. Finally, he remarked several times that he just was not sure he could change his reading skills, although he was voluntarily attending sessions with the speech-language pathologist.


Based on the information obtained during the initial evaluation, it was decided to target Brad’s phonological awareness skills, phonetic decoding skills, and VOIs. These goals were established because they were judged to be contributing factors to his decoding problems and they served as the basic foundation skills in the early development of reading (Ehri, 1997; Seymour, 1997). Because the goals targeted skills that were basic, each goal was introduced to Brad as focusing on a skill that “someone forgot to teach you.” Unlike activities that might be more “game-oriented” with younger students, the activities used with Brad addressed the skills to be learned in a straightforward manner.

Phonological Awareness

Initially, the difference between sounds and letters was discussed. During this discussion, the speech-language pathologist informed Brad that practice “breaking up words into sounds” was needed to develop adequate decoding and spelling skills.

Brad was then given a paper containing a series of printed blocks. He was required to tap out the number of phonemes he heard in a word. At first, Brad was required to tap out words containing consonant-vowel (CV) or vowelconsonant (VC) combinations. Stimuli progressed to longer CV strings as he began to identify the correct number of phonemes. During the early phase of this training, words containing consonant sequences (e.g., stop, post) and sonorants (i.e., nasals, liquids) were avoided because past research suggested that these are particularly difficult for students to identify or segment into separate phonemes (Treiman & Cassar, 1997). As sonorants and sequences were introduced and segmented, Brad was told to “be ready to listen” for them as he began to segment a word.

Phonetic Decoding

In order to encourage phonetic decoding, the notion of “continuous voicing” was introduced. Continuous voicing was defined as sounding out each letter or digraph (a pair of letters representing one phoneme, such as ch or ea) in a word without a voicing break. Brad was told that this skill was needed for adequate decoding. He was discouraged from “chunking” or decoding segments larger than a phoneme within a word (e.g., for opposite, saying “op-posite”) because this often led to a partial word decoding strategy, which is less effective than phonetic decoding (McGuinness, 1997).

Initially, Brad practiced this on single, short, unfamiliar words. In the early stages of learning this skill, he frequently required several reminders and models so that he would not use a whole word strategy (guessing the word based on initial or final consonants) or a partial word strategy (searching for smaller words within the word). Once the continuous voicing was used consistently and accurately, he was asked to use that newly learned skill while reading passages from his textbooks. Whenever decoding by continuous voicing did not lead directly to word recognition, Brad was encouraged to decode the word again, but change either a vowel production (e.g., short to long vowel) or a consonant production (e.g., “hard c” to “soft c”), or change the syllabic stress. These strategies typically led to recognition of the word.

Visual Orthographic Images

Although activities to strengthen phonological awareness and phonetic decoding were considered to strengthen VOIs as well, specific activities were used to develop Brad’s mental images of words and store them in memory. These activities involved two different spelling procedures. Spelling and reading tap into the same VOIs, yet spelling demands more intense attention to the orthographic images of words to represent complete mental images in memory (Ehri, 1997). Thus, two spelling activities were used to strengthen both his spelling and his decoding skills.

First, spelling patterns identified as deficient or missing in Brad’s spelling samples were targeted (e.g., long vowel patterns). Brad was given cards containing words, some of which had the target spelling patterns, and required to sort them based on the similarities he saw in their spellings. He then was asked to hypothesize the rule for the patterns he saw and to describe the rule. Once his hypothesis was confirmed, he then picked a “key word”‘ to represent the spelling pattern and entered that word into a reading/ spelling log. Sentences containing words with the target spelling pattern were dictated next so that Brad could immediately begin applying knowledge of the rule.

When Brad was uncertain of a spelling, he was directed to think of “the middle of the word” to heighten his awareness that the image of the whole word was important to represent. This strategy was consistent with previous research suggesting that the VOIs of poor readers are only clear at word boundaries (Ehri, 1997). Groupings of homonyms (vain-vein-vane) also were sorted to emphasize “middle-of-the-word” differences and to provide examples of the visual distinctness among similar-sounding words.

A second activity targeting VOIs involved backward spelling (Glenn & Hurley, 1993; Grinder, 1991). In this procedure, a printed word on a card was presented and Brad was asked to note the spelling of the word. Words used for this activity included key terms from current textbooks. Discussion concerning the visual image of the word (e.g., consonants versus vowels, tall letters versus short letters) was held to draw his attention to the actual graphemes present in the word. Next, Brad was asked to visualize the word by looking away from the card and picturing the word in the air. He was encouraged to check back and forth between what he visualized and the printed word. Once Brad felt that he had encoded the word in his mind, the card was taken away and he was asked to visualize the word again. As he visualized the word, he was required to spell it first forward and then backward. Spelling the word backward necessitated that Brad attend to each individual grapheme. Without a complete visual image of all graphemes in a word, backward spelling is not possible. Thus, this strategy was used to create and strengthen complete VOls of words.

General Intervention Strategies

Several general intervention strategies were used throughout all activities, including “talk-aloud” procedures, discussions of how the activities related to his daily life, and active listening. These strategies served to increase Brad’s awareness of his skills and to help clarify his thoughts and feelings about the program and his progress toward increasing his literacy abilities. An emphasis on these strategies throughout all activities centered intervention on increasing self-efficacy and regulation for all skills targeted, rather than a sole focus on specific, discrete skills. This approach has proven to be successful with students of varying ages (Butler, 1995; Deshler & Schumaker, 1986; Palincsar, Winn, David, Snyder, & Stevens, 1993).

Talk-aloud procedure. Using a “talk-aloud” procedure, examples of the thought processes required for the task at hand were modeled (Hogan & Pressley, 1997; Juel, 1998). Talk-aloud models allow students to learn what mental operations or strategies are used by competent readers (Hogan & Pressley). Then, as students use and become more efficient at talk-aloud procedures themselves, a better understanding of the strategies they have learned becomes evident (Trabasso & Suh, 1993). Students are eventually encouraged to internalize the external verbal mediations that they have been using (Brown, El-Dinary, & Pressley, 1996; Nelson, 1994).

Examples of talk-aloud statements Brad was encouraged to use included comments such as, “Ok, I know that word has a sequence in it. I have to remember to identify or note that sound as I tap out the sounds I hear” or “I don’t recognize this word. I need to start at the beginning and keep my voice on as I move across the word.” After the speech-language pathologist modeled these statements throughout several sessions, Brad was required to verbalize his thought strategy processes as he engaged in the various activities. As the use of these talk-aloud statements became more automatic for Brad, they allowed the speech-language pathologist to infer the degree to which Brad had internalized the strategies learned (Trabasso & Suh, 1993).

Daily life applications. Several strategies were used that emphasized the relationship of the targeted skills to daily reading and writing situations. These strategies also encouraged Brad to actively take responsibility for learning the new skills. For example, the purpose of the activities was discussed consistently so that it was clear how the activities related to the demands of Brad’s academic life (i.e., to become more proficient comprehending school texts).

Brad also was encouraged to construct new knowledge actively on his own with guidance from the speechlanguage pathologist (e.g., discovery of spelling rules through the sorting tasks, use of leading questions to help him problem-solve changes in phonetic decoding when first attempts did not lead to word recognition). He also was encouraged to develop self-regulatory strategies that facilitated his ability to guide, monitor, direct, and ensure success of his newly learned skills (see Singer & Bashir, this issue). For example, when reading from a particularly challenging passage from his textbook, Brad stated that he was not skilled enough to decode words in that book. At that point, he was reminded to follow that statement with a phrase that allowed him to regulate his feelings about reading and continue to work toward progress (e.g., “This is really difficult, but I know some strategies I can use to help myself”). Finally, as much as possible, the intervention activities were embedded into real-world situations (e.g., phonetic decoding practice using his textbooks, spelling samples using key words from his classes).

Active listening. Throughout the various activities, counseling skills were used to address Brad’s self-concepts of his skills and abilities (Apel & Masterson, 1997; Webster, 1981). For example, active listening strategies were used. This means listening for the underlying meaning of an individual’s message, developing a hunch or hypothesis about that meaning, and then verbalizing that hunch (Apel & Masterson; Webster). Probing questions and statements were asked to help Brad clarify his thoughts and feelings and to ensure that statements were not interpreted in different ways.

Finally, remarks about his performance also addressed the feelings he might be experiencing as he was learning. These included statements of empathy (“This seems really difficult for you”), confusion (“You seem a bit puzzled. Shall I back up and explain this again?”), and joy (“Wow! I bet you’re feeling pretty good about this improvement.”). By acknowledging his feelings and attitudes about his reading history, his successes and failures in academia, and his ideas about treatment and long-term objectives, the speech-language pathologist was able to help Brad clarify any assumptions, misconceptions, or unrealistic goals he had, and work with him to make functional changes to the intervention plan or activities.


After 33 hours of intervention (based on twice-weekly 50-minute sessions), Brad made considerable progress toward his goals. He was able to accurately segment words containing at least seven phonemes and to use phonetic decoding whenever he encountered an unfamiliar word in his texts. His VOls appeared to be developing, as evidenced by increases in reading rate and fluency, fewer spelling errors on in-class exams, and self-reports that he was now consciously checking “the middle of words” whenever he was uncertain about the spelling of a word.

Substantial improvement on his overall reading abilities also was noted. As Table I shows, on both the Word Attack and Word Identification subtests of the WRMT-R, his postintervention scores were within the typical range of scores for students his age, even when taking into account the standard error of measurement (SEM). These post-intervention scores represented percentile gains of between 10 and 14 points and age and grade equivalent increases of 3 to 5 years. Additionally, when reading from texts comparable to those used in the initial evaluation, Brad’s rate of reading increased and his error rates decreased. His percentage of reading accuracy was 91%, indicating that he was now reading at the instructional level (Clay, 1985), a level of reading accuracy that should enable him to learn from a text. Finally, although difficult to quantify, both the speechlanguage pathologist and Brad noted increases in selfconfidence and decreases in comments regarding deficient reading skills.

Although discussions concerning derived words and their root forms were discussed as they arose during the treatment described above, future plans for Brad included specific work to highlight the morphological cues present in words that could be used when decoding and spelling. Examples of morphological awareness activities include sorting tasks, similar to those described earlier, that highlight the orthographic and semantic similarities for common inflections and derivations. Words containing a derivational morpheme that did not affect the phonological or orthographic representations could be used as stimuli first, followed by words that involved phonological changes, orthographic changes, and, finally, phonological and orthographic changes, respectively.

The long-term objective for Brad was fluent efficient reading that allowed for comprehension of his texts. Should there be indication later that Brad’s comprehension skills were also in need of intervention, specific activities to work on reading comprehension, based on research available in the literature, could be employed (e.g., Graham & Wong, 1993; Menke & Pressley, 1994; Thistlethwaite, 1991; Wong, 1994). Activities that focus on summarizing, predicting, and inferring information from the text, and then relating that information to what was already known, can help students as they move from the process of learning to read to the stage of reading to learn (Chall, 1983).


For the time being, speech-language pathologists must rely on their knowledge of typical reading development and the factors that influence decoding skills to develop viable assessment and intervention plans for older students. Given the limited available literature regarding the arrested development of older students with reading impairments, as well as Brad’s response to the intervention approach used, applying this knowledge base appears to be warranted. However, much more research is needed to determine the literacy skills that can be expected from older students, as well as the factors that impede adequate decoding skills. For example, expectations for older students’ phonological awareness skills are unclear. Similarly, whether phonetic decoding remains the most effective strategy for decoding in older students is in need of investigation. In addition, the effects of morphological awareness on older students’ decoding skills should be determined to understand how to better facilitate their decoding skills. Knowledge about older students’ literacy skills, then, may lead to more refined and accurate assessment and intervention approaches.

At the same time, the self-concept and motivational level of these students must be recognized and addressed in their intervention program or success may be unobtainable. Because of this need to address self-image, speech-language pathologists should be aware that their counseling skills will be used on an almost daily basis with older students with reading impairments and other language and literacy difficulties. The speech-language pathologists’ ability to actively listen, clarify, and understand the thoughts and feelings of older students with reading impairments should lead students from thinking of themselves as lost causes to thinking of themselves as students with a second chance.


We wish to thank those graduate students involved in the early stages of the Learning Skills Center at Western Washington University. Through their clinical work, we have grown in our understanding of the factors to consider when facilitating older students’ reading abilities.

Copyright American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Jul 1999

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