Study demonstrates how to profile struggling readers to target needs

iStock_000011758998XSmallStruggling readers are not all alike, but should be grouped into distinct reader profiles so that educators can better meet struggling students’ heterogeneous needs, says a recent article in Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Using cluster analysis, the researchers identified 4 distinct clusters in a sample of 140 urban 2nd and 3rd graders at risk for reading failure in order to explore the heterogeneous needs of struggling readers. All five schools serving the children in this sample used a systematic phonics program as part of the 2nd and 3rd grade language arts curriculum.

“The purpose of this study was to identify subgroups of second and third grade children who show unique patterns of performance and who have unique instructional needs,” the researchers write.

“Rather than offering a picture of universal subtypes of developing readers, these findings should be seen as converging evidence for the utility of assessing children regularly using various measures targeting multiple facets of reading skill and the importance of providing individualized instruction based on assessment results.”

Based on their analysis, the researchers settled on a four-factor model of skilled reading to identify the clusters:

  • Word-level efficiency
  • Text level skills
  • Decoding
  • Vocabulary

The four distinct reading profiles in this sample were as follows:

Cluster 1 children had high scores in vocabulary and decoding and low scores on word-level efficiency and text level skills.

Cluster 2 children had comparatively high scores on word-level efficiency, text level and vocabulary and a decoding score near the sample average, suggesting areas of vulnerability but not deficit.

Cluster 3 had comparatively low scores in vocabulary with scores on the other three factors at or above the sample means.

Cluster 4 had low scores on all four factors.

There were high proportions of English Language Learners (ELLs) in clusters 3 and 4 and children from a low socioeconomic status (SES) background. Cluster 1 had the highest proportion of 2nd graders, English monolinguals and children from higher SES families. Cluster 2 had the highest proportion of 3rd graders, black children (20%) and children categorized as showing no deficit in reading.

Three out of four of the clusters had mean decoding scores in the average range, suggesting that while the phonics instruction the children received is effective for at-risk groups, it should go beyond accuracy and focus on efficiency and the transfer of decoding skills to text reading, the researchers write.

“Systematic instruction in phonics appears to be effective at building decoding skills in these at-risk groups but does not appear to be sufficient to improve their overall reading,” they write. They add that “phonics instruction should go beyond the development of accuracy by focusing on efficiency and the transfer of decoding skills to text reading.”

A battery of literacy measures was administered to the children. The measures included the Elision Subtest of the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processes, the Multiple Meanings subtest from The Word-R Test, The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Letter Naming subtest from the Rapid Automatized Naming Test, Word Attack subtest from the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test, Test of Word Reading Efficiency, Sight Word Efficiency subtest and the Gray Oral Reading Test.

Children who participated in the study scored below the mean on one of the subtests or the composite from the Test of Word Reading Efficiency by more than two-thirds of a standard deviation. It is important to note, the researchers say, that the sample was composed of children who displayed inefficiencies in word-level skills. Children who had been retained or who exhibited severe hearing, visual or neurological impairments were excluded from the study.

What individualized types of instruction should children in these clusters receive based on these profiles?

Cluster 1 and Cluster 3 need interventions that target the development of efficiency in sublexical, word-level and text-level skills. In addition, Cluster 3 students need greater oral language proficiency in English, the researchers write. Cluster 4 children need systematic instruction in phonics and word identification skills in support of beginning text reading.

Instruction prescriptions
While the study was not designed to determine the types of instruction the children in the clusters should receive, they illustrate the kinds of instructional decisions educators might make for different subgroups of struggling readers.

For example, for children in Cluster 1, they write, reading programs with a heavy emphasis on phonics would not be ideal because these children need an intervention focused on the development of fluency at the letter, letter pattern, word, text and meaning levels. Fluency instruction should emphasize automatic recognition of high frequency and irregular words and fluency at the letter, letter pattern, word, text and meaning levels.

Word-level instruction should focus on automatic recognition of high frequency and irregular words and fluent application of decoding skills for less common regular words. At the text level, the intervention should target the development of accuracy, fluency, and comprehension using carefully monitored instructional level text.

With regard to the general issue of transferring decoding skills to text reading, the researchers say that assisted readings and repeated readings have proven effective at promoting efficiency in reading. Timed reading exercises with words grouped by letter pattern have also been shown to be effective in promoting the development of efficient decoding skills, the researchers write, and one-on-one tutoring using word study in combination with text reading practice has been shown to result in greater gains in passage reading in 1st graders than word study alone.

“Classroom teachers in urban elementary schools will hardly be surprised by the findings of this study,” the researchers write. “One of the greatest challenges of teaching is accommodating the various instructional needs of a heterogeneous grouping of children. However, recent changes in educational policy moving toward standardization of reading instruction, however well intentioned, have made it next to impossible to meet individual needs in urban classrooms. This study reminds us of the importance of skilled teachers (and teacher training), of regular assessment of student progress using a variety of measures, and of individualized instruction based on learning profiles.”

“Clusters of second and third grade dysfluent urban readers,” by Margaret Pierce, et al., Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, December 2007, Volume 20, Number 9, pp 885-907.

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