Efficient interventions for struggling readers

Cindy Kanuch

Cindy Kanuch

When tutoring a struggling reader, teachers may hope to see marked improvement in six weeks. But Cindy Kanuch, reading specialist at Calhan Elementary School in Calhan, Colo., says that if the intervention is precise enough, improvement can be evident in just one week.

In an edWeb.net webinar entitled “Timesaving Strategies for Selecting Interventions for Struggling Readers” sponsored by LearningAlly.org, Ms. Kanuch told how to get to the root of a reading problem, along with tips and tools for remediation. The strategies she uses helped her school significantly raise its overall reading level by the next yearly testing period.

Kanuch stressed that assessing the student’s reading deficit was key, because it saves valuable time when providing an intervention. She highly recommended using the free downloadable diagnostic tests from ReallyGreatReading.com.

Kanuch also stressed how important it is to focus on the correct skill deficit. This involves digging to the student’s lowest level of competency and building from there, using a skill chart she provided. (See graphic below.)

structure of reading instruction

For example, if a student is having problems with comprehension, you should check the skills in fluency, vocabulary, and background knowledge. Under fluency, there’s phonics, phonemic awareness, and oral language. And there’s more to it. For example, if the problem is fluency, look at the errors. Is accuracy low? Or is fluency low because they are slow readers? Or is prosody lacking (reading aloud with feeling)? Each requires a different intervention.

Building Oral Language Skills

The spoken language can be an issue for ESL (English as a Second Language) and low-SES (socioeconomic status) students. Kanuch advised having students listen to grade-level text through audiobooks. She recommended going to LearningAlly.com, which has a library of over 80,000 audiobooks which can be filtered in a variety of ways, including by grade level. LearningAlly.org has a yearly membership fee. Also see the SpecialEdTech.net article “Finding and creating audio books”.

Kanuch also suggested creating opportunities to practice oral communication skills in class. For example, when you ask the class a question, do a “turn and talk” — put the students in pairs and give them permission to tell each other an answer. Then have each student report on what his or her partner said. Verbal games such as “I Spy” and “20 Questions” can also strengthen skills.

Building Phonemic Awareness

Kanuch advised noting student errors as they read aloud so you determine areas of confusion. For example, are they pronouncing letters correctly? What about prefixes and suffixes? Are they adding or omitting sounds or mixing them up? Kanuch provided a chart of phonemic awareness skills which you see (among others) by clicking on this link. She suggested playing games as a class where you practice saying words and then drop a letter (for example, say “best” and then drop the “s”. Or pronounce a word backwards.

Kanuch said it was important for students to feel success, and that you should repeatedly use key words that students will recognize. Instead of giving the student “rules” about how the words should sound, she recommended suggesting some “expectations” and letting students discover which words match these expectations, regarding the pronunciation of adjacent letters, syllable types, accents, and a letter’s position in a word. For example, point out that the silent “e” on the end of the word “geese” is needed so the word isn’t the plural “gees”. This helps students figure out why words are spelled the way they are.

Interventions for Phonics

Kanuch advocated using sound-by-sound blending when teaching reading. For example, when teaching the word “step” first you would have the student blend the “s” and the “t”. Once that sound is mastered, have them blend “st” and “e”. Finally, have them blend “ste” and “p”. This way the student only has to blend two sounds at a time.

There are two low-cost teaching tools which are good for this type of reading instruction: Scrabble Slam!, which can be found anywhere toys are sold, and Phonics FlipCards, sold for $5 at ReallyGreatReading.com. Flash cards can be helpful too. Kanuch will post the words on a bulletin board have have two students play a game where they race to swat the spoken word with a flyswatter.


Syllable decoding, or recognizing the six types of syllables, really helps students unlock words, said Kanuch. She noted that even the youngest students benefit from this practice. The chart below is from ReadingRockets.org and you can get a more colorful chart from https://thisreadingmama.com/6-syllable-types-resource-pack/ . (Editor’s Note: We have suggested additional resources not mentioned by Kanuch.)


Interventions for Fluency

To help with fluency, Kanuch recommended repeated reading of a controlled text, with feedback from a listener. She suggested having the students read for one minute cold, then take time to note and figure out the words they couldn’t decode, and then read it once again. Here are some other strategies:

  • Modeled reading/listening to reading
  • Reading along with audio
  • Chunking/phrasing: Cut the text into phrases and have students put it in order, reading the first phrase, then repeating the first phrase while they add a second phrase, etc
  • Have a reader’s theater with short plays, and read the dialogue. For ideas, see reader’s theater books featured on www.aaronshep.com. You cannot buy the books there but they are available on Amazon.
  • Tell the student to read in character, for example like a pirate, vampire or queen
  • Have students change inflection as they read. For example, I saw it, I SAW it, I saw IT
  • Have a “guess my punctuation” class exercise, where students read the sentence and classmates guess which punctuation the sentence has. This is especially good for students who tend to read through the periods.

Interventions for Vocabulary

Interventions for Comprehension

  • Tell the student to “make a movie” in their head — to visualize the text
  • While reading a text, model “thinking out loud”
  • Have a discussion about the text or story and if a student has a point of view about what happened, have them prove it in the text
  • Check out the free Cube Creator app on ReadWriteThink.org

Important takeaways

Kanuch stressed our points she wanted listeners to remember:

  1.  Save valuable time by assessing student deficits
  2. Focus interention on the skill deficit
  3. Teach strategies that can be widely applied
  4. Make sure the intervention is remediating the right deficit

You can find resources associated with the webinar here.


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