Pinpoint Most Older Struggling Readers' True Problem
& Resolve It–Rapidly

When I was a middle school English language arts teacher, I knew that a good number of my students were not on grade level based on the end-of-grade tests in NC. I even tested their overall reading achievement using informal reading inventories to discover that even though they were in 6th grade, they were reading on the 4th grade level, on average.

Not good.

Even worse, I didn’t know what was the true source of their problem! So I did not know how to solve their problem. 

Really not good. 

Even though this experience was over 20 years ago, I have found middle and high school teachers are still facing the same conundrum–many, many students are behind in their reading but the assessments the teachers have access to do not direct them towards specific solutions.

The ironic news is that most struggling readers have a simple root source of their problem. A simple test will pinpoint it. And only a handful of activities are needed to resolve the problem rapidly!

This article will show you how to pinpoint the true problem for most older struggling readers AND how to remediate it–rapidly.

This article will show you how to pinpoint the true problem for most older struggling readers AND how to remediate it–rapidly.

Comprehension Tests Alone Do NOT Reveal
the True Source of the Problem

Most upper elementary, middle school, and high school teachers have access to state/school/district mandated reading achievement tests. But these tests only indicate whether a reader is doing well…or not. They do not pinpoint the true source of the problem. 

Our reliance on these types of reading comprehension tests alone is a big problem. Without other specific assessments underlying the reading achievement gaps, teachers are flying blind.

Imagine a physician who discovers that her patient has a fever. Does she immediately order amoxicillin and send the patient off?
No! The fever alone is merely a sign of a problem. Yes, there is a disease.

But what is the disease? And how shall we treat it? 

That good diagnostic work takes more assessments, more diagnostic information, right? 

Even mainstream classroom teachers should have access to more information about what is remiss when their students are struggling. 

Is the child behind because of: 

  • limited reading practice?
  • poor decoding?
  • lack of comprehension strategies?
  • weak vocabulary knowledge, or
  • poor word recognition? 
These and other sub-processes are all possible causes of students' reading achievement struggle. But a comprehension test alone will not determine which problem, or problems, is/are the root trouble.

Just as we wouldn't want a doctor who diagnoses without understanding all the symptoms, classroom teachers need more refined assessments in their toolkit to solve students' reading problems.

Marnie Ginsberg, Founder, Reading Simplified Tweet

We need fewer outcome-based tests and more diagnostic-based tests if we want teachers informed for optimal reading instruction. 

Models of Reading Development Guide Our Diagnostic Thinking

A brief interlude about models of reading development will help guide our diagnostic thinking. So before we jump straight into tactics, let’s be sure we have a common understanding of reading achievement–and how it develops. 

This extensively-researched model suggests that reading achievement is simply the product of decoding (or word recognition) and language comprehension.

The Simple View of Reading by Gough and Tunmer (1986) is a super helpful model from which to begin. This extensively-researched model suggests that reading achievement is simply the product of decoding (or word recognition) and language comprehension.

Just 2 domains that interact can explain just about all of the cognitive explanations of why children may struggle with reading comprehension! 

What I observe with the older struggling readers I tutor, as well as what I learn from teachers of older struggling readers, is that older readers very frequently have weaknesses in their sound-based decoding. But the teacher is rarely aware of this missing piece. 

We can be tripped up by students’ appearance of “good” reading. 

Kids now may have a pretty large bank of sight words and have some decoding skills. Thus, when we listen to them read aloud a short selection, they make some mistakes here and there but we think, “They’re moving along. Reading the words isn’t the problem.” 

...older readers very frequently have weaknesses in their sound‑based decoding.

It seems as if they're able to work through these passages, but in reality, to be a good reader in middle and high school means being almost flawless with grade level reading accuracy. In other words, we should expect them to be accurate about 99% of the time. Therefore, when you hear a student miss one out of 10 words, or even just one out of 20 words, that is not good enough word recognition accuracy and fluency to be able to comprehend well. 

When we encounter this type of reading profile, we check their sound-based decoding skill, which can be easily measured with a nonsense word reading test (more on this below). It may be that they're still developing their decoding and word ID skills, and they'll get there soon, but it could also be that that is an undetected problem that is keeping them from becoming really fluent. 

This pattern of word reading errors from the Decoding/Word Recognition side of the Simple View of Reading is the most common problem I encounter. 

True, beyond that domain, they also likely have other language comprehension (both oral and written) weaknesses, likely due to the years of limited, successful reading practice. However, we still want to begin our remediation at the root of the problem… 

Reading Comprehension Develops in Phases

The Simple View of Reading is helpful and reliable, but it does not indicate the steps of how reading develops over time. The triangle model I developed below, instead, demonstrates the phases in which reading achievement develops over time. 

First, the foundation for cracking our written code is sound-based decoding. Does the child know how to attack an unfamiliar word by relying on sound-symbol relationships and a sound-based decoding strategy? 

Next, after the child has developed a reliable sound-based decoding strategy, has he practiced reading words with sufficient intensity so he can be automatic in recognizing, or identifying, these words? At the middle and high school level well over 4000 words should be recognized in the mere blink of an eye–not laboriously decoded. That’s the second phase labeled “Word Identification” in the triangle model. 

Then, reading with intonation, good phrasing, and a good reading rate would be the markers of Fluent reading. That’s dependent on the two phases that came before but is still a higher level skill that integrates automatic word recognition with more understanding of text-level ideas. 

Finally, comprehension, or understanding of the text, is the pinnacle of the triangle.  One really can only understand the meaning of a text if one understands the words in the text and can access them rapidly–building off of the skills of sound-based decoding, word identification, and fluency. 

Even though the triangle model is a bottom-up view, the bi-directional arrow suggests that all phases of reading development impact one another over time. Even with the earliest stages of cracking the code and learning to sound-based decode, the child is dependent on comprehension. All of these skills interact to support one another. 

Nevertheless, each prior “level” of ability is like a gate-keeper, allowing or preventing the reader to succeed. So we typically solve reading difficulties from the bottom to the top of the triangle. With so many students facing weaknesses in sound-based decoding, it’s common for us to begin there. 

Can you see how just assessing the top of the triangle, reading comprehension, ignores important aspects of the reading process? If the child is poor at sound-based decoding, she is almost guaranteed to be poor at word identification and fluency as well. These weaknesses produce a huge drag on her ability to reason through a text, hindering comprehension. 

Given that we should begin with the bottom of the triangle and so many students struggle with sound-based decoding, you’ll likely find a quick assessment to pinpoint these weaknesses essential… 

The #1 Most Powerful Reading Test

The #1 diagnostic missing test to track down the source of most reading problems in English is a nonsense word reading test.

Marnie Ginsberg, Founder, Reading Simplified Tweet


A nonsense (or nonword) reading test, like the example below, uncovers the reader's sound-based decoding ability. AKA, his phonological decoding ability. 

Strong sound-based decoding lays the foundation for all other reading skills; thus, without it, trouble with reading pops up in all sorts of places. And these troubles often get identified as comprehension problems. 

But, for a vast majority of students, the primary problem is simply poor sound-symbol decoding. 

The nonsense word test picks up this weakness because the reader can't have seen these “words” before and previously memorized them, especially using inefficient visual approaches to word recognition. 

One of the most influential reading researchers of all time, Dr. Keith Stanovich, has studied reading acquisition in depth. He writes in Progress Understanding Reading, “[T]he speed of naming pronounceable nonwords is one of the tasks that most clearly differentiates good from poor readers” (2000, p. 40). 

Stanovich also notes the “…incredible potency of pseudoword reading as a predictor of reading difficulty” (p. 207). As a reading tutor, I, too, find this measure extremely telling. 

Thus, when a teacher discovers that a student has poor sound-symbol processing, she then knows that the student's most pressing need for reading is to improve his sound-based decoding. 

Other reading sub-skills, such as Word Identification, Fluency, Vocabulary Knowledge, and Comprehension strategies, are still important but the urgent need for those with weak sound-based decoding is to improve sound-based decoding. All the other skills build upon, for the most part, the foundation of strong sound-symbol processing. 

Teachers, of almost every grade, who have access to standardized, norm-referenced tests of Word Attack or Nonsense Word Reading, such as the 

  • Woodcock-Johnson Reading Mastery Test or
  • Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (Pseudoword Reading),

should consider giving that test as a screener for students who are not doing well in reading. 

It will uncover a lot of surprising information! 

Truly 99% of the students I have tutored over the last 20 years who have been identified as resistant, struggling, dyslexic, learning disabled, or Asperger's have had poor word attack when I began tutoring them. 

After about 12 hours of tutoring with a focus on sound-based decoding, these students, on average, have above grade level outcomes in Word Attack. AND, their Word Identification, Fluency, and Comprehension scores go up significantly as well, usually to grade level or above

Free Nonsense Word Reading Tests

Many of us don't have access to expensive norm-referenced test, so I have 3 other FREE options: 

  • online-based, norm-referenced nonword and real word test (most appropriate for readers under 4th-5th grade),
  • a norm-referenced Diagnostic Reading Test for Nonwords (DiRT) from Macquarie University, and 
  • a Reading Simplified-created informal reading assessment of phonics, nonword decoding, and phonemic segmentation [download below].

The last option doesn't provide norm-referenced information but gives more clarity about other sub-processes, such as letter-sound knowledge, phonemic segmentation, and multisyllabic decoding. In addition, if you’d like to know 2 other pivotal reading assessments that can help guide instruction, read more here.

It is indeed discouraging to learn that older students are often lacking in foundational reading skills. The good news is that poor sound-based decoding can be resolved rapidly using the latest research findings! You can read about 2 case studies of older readers who rapidly grew using Reading Simplified strategies. For instance, a 15 year-old boy improved his word attack 8 years !! after just 12 one-hour tutoring lessons–from the 1.8 grade level to the 10.0 grade level. See the bottom of this post to read more details.

If you give a nonsense word reading test and your student doesn’t do well on it, then I suggest following our simple 3-part, Reading Simplified lesson plan which I’ll demonstrate below to remediate weak sound-based decoding, word ID, and fluency. 

3-Part Reading Simplified Lesson Plan to Resolve Foundational Reading Weaknesses

For beginners and struggling readers of all ages, we use the same 3-part lesson plan that includes just a handful of high leverage reading activities that integrate multiple reading skills simultaneously. The only difference across the ages is that older students are usually given more challenging words and texts. I go into depth with the 3-part lesson plan here, but read on for the brief version. We’ll also demonstrate aspects of the lesson with the help of a 6th grade student in her first lesson. 

First, we typically begin the lesson with Re-Reading for Fluency so we can kick off the lesson with an easy activity that helps the student feel more successful. The students would have read a new text the previous day for Guided Oral Reading. Then the teacher would have helped them to re-read at least part of the passage several more times, including modeling a slow read at least once herself. In centers or some other independent time, the students would practice the text at least 2-3 more times. 

Thus, when they return the following day, that selection of the text should be much easier for the students. They have likely mastered several words in the text and can sound almost fluent after the extensive practice. Read more about our Re-Reading for Fluency routine here.

Then the teacher chooses 2 to 3 Word Work activities that are high leverage activities that incorporate many skills simultaneously. She chooses from:

  • Build It or Switch It (Build It is a beginner version of Switch It),
  • Read It or Sort It (Read It usually includes short vowel words while Sort It is designed for Advanced Phonics, such as the long vowel sounds),
  • Write It, or
  • Search for the Sound.

That's it!

Reading Simplified teachers love only having a handful of activities to turn to because it streamlines their lesson planning and thinking. Yet, these are powerful activities. For instance, see all the reading sub-skills that are addressed with just Switch It with the graphic below:

A 6th Grade Struggling Reader’s First Reading Simplified Lesson

Switch It–Real Words

I kicked off an initial lesson with a 6th grade student who was reading words at the 4th grade level with Switch It with real words. Watch the clip below to see how she is learning to tune into the sounds in words (aka phonemic awareness)… 

Switch It–Nonsense Words

She progressed rapidly and didn’t find the activity that challenging. That was my sign to increase the difficulty. So we began using nonsense words for Switch It. 

Mostly we avoid using nonsense words because there are so many real words to read and spell! However, for the more mature reader, it can be helpful to test out Switch It with nonsense words so she can really be challenged in her phonemic awareness. This skill helps her to improve her sound-based decoding as it builds her speed of processing of how sounds and symbols “line up,” so to speak. 

Sort It

Switch It helps the student begin to understand more deeply how our code works. But we just keep Switch It at the short vowel, 1 syllable level. To ensure our student knows the many tricky spellings at the Advanced Phonics level (such as long vowels and diphthongs), we introduce the Sort It activity. With Sort It, students read, sort, and write 1 phoneme and its most frequent spellings. As with Switch It, Sort It addresses multiple reading sub-skills simultaneously as you can see in the chart below: 

Sort It diagram image

After doing a Sort It activity, students usually read a mostly decodable passage that targets the phoneme of the week. This is the 3rd part of the lesson, Guided Oral Reading. With this streamlined approach to learning the complexity of the English code, most students can learn most of the code in just 12 weeks. Indeed, our Streamlined Pathway–a type of scope and sequence–covers 12 levels. See these 12 levels in the version below for those readers at the 2nd grade reading level and above.

The Reading Simplified Streamlined Pathway for 2nd Grade and Up

Watch the following video to see me introduce the Streamlined Pathway to our student. Next, she will try Sort It for the first time with the /oa/ sound. Then she will read a passage that targets the /oa/ sound–”Let’s Go Skiing!” If we had more time, she would also Search for the /oa/ Sound after reading and summarizing the passage. Notice how many /oa/ sound words she is reading, writing, and manipulating in a short period of time. This is one of the secrets that allows Reading Simplified students to learn so  much phonics  information–and learn to apply it–in such a short time. 

Guided Oral Reading

So far, we’ve covered a lot for her first lesson! But I also want to get to some “real” reading if possible. So we squeeze in a brief excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. During Guided Oral Reading, this is typical for those students reading at the 2nd grade level or above–the child reads aloud a passage that targets the sound of the week but she also reads aloud from an authentic text. Reading these “real” books helps with motivation and engagement and also gives the opportunity for higher levels of challenge and transfer of learning. Where possible, I like to have the student select the text, but we want it to be truly challenging so she will make mistakes, the teacher will make subtle prompts, and the student will learn more from these encounters.

Enjoy watching her enthusiasm for reading aloud from Harry Potter: 

These video snippets have modeled the core elements in the 3-part Reading Simplified lesson except for Re-Reading for Fluency (since this was from her first lesson with me). We saw 2 Word Work activities (Switch It and Sort It) and 2 passages for Guided Oral Reading–a decodable /oa/ sound passage and an authentic text, Harry Potter

We would continue to do similar activities each week with any older struggling reader–moving ahead about 1 level per week on the Streamlined Pathway (see above). With this approach, many students who formerly struggled with reading will leap ahead multiple years in achievement in as little as 12 weeks. A small minority of children with profound learning challenges, such as true dyslexia, will take longer. But they will also grow faster in their word attack, word identification and fluency than most teachers think possible.

With this approach, many students who formerly struggled with reading will leap ahead multiple years in achievement in as little as 12 weeks.

This speedy growth in foundational reading domains allows the teacher to spend the rest of the year attacking any outstanding areas of written reading comprehension that are lacking. For a lot of students, by gaining a much stronger handle on word reading, their comprehension problems dissipate. For others, the many years of limited reading practice have strangled their vocabulary knowledge growth and understanding of written comprehension strategies. In these cases, their Most Pressing Need will now become comprehension, which is often where the middle or high school teacher begins remediation.

My hope is that by learning from this page, you now know a pathway for both pinpointing most older struggling readers’ true problems and for remediating the foundational problems, rapidly. Pathway (see above). With this approach, many students who formerly struggled with reading will leap ahead multiple years in achievement in as little as 12 weeks. A small minority of children with profound learning challenges, such as true dyslexia, will take longer. But they will also grow faster in their word attack, word identification and fluency than most teachers think possible. 

Learn the Full Reading Simplified System
to Solve Your Struggling Readers’ Needs

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