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Struggling Readers: Searching for the Students in the Scores

By Kathryn L. Roberts
 | Oct 01, 2015

shutterstock_210165319_x600In almost all schools, there are children who are not meeting reading proficiency benchmarks on statewide tests or standardized school or district measures. In order to support these students to achieve proficiency, many schools employ a Response to Intervention framework. Often, this means all students participate in Tier 1 instruction, the core instruction in the classroom. Students who are identified as at risk for reading failure or already struggling readers typically are grouped together for more intensive, Tier 2 instruction (intervention). If students don’t show progress with Tier 2 instruction, they are eligible for more intensive, often one-on-one, instruction and sometimes are referred for further testing to determine eligibility for additional services. Although we’ve certainly become more systematic as to how we identify who receives additional support, we tend to be less efficient in identifying and addressing the underlying issues of why and in what areas students need support.

In their 2002 study, “Below the Bar: Profiles of Students Who Fail State Reading Assessments,”Marcia Riddle Buly and Sheila Valencia took a closer look at the reading profiles of 108 fourth-grade students who failed to meet reading proficiency benchmarks on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Although the WASL scores indicated these children had difficulty identifying the correct responses to literal, interpretive, and analytic comprehension questions based on grade-level fiction and nonfiction passages, they did not illuminate the causes of those difficulties. After administering and analyzing a series of assessments focused on known contributors to reading comprehension (i.e., word identification, phonemic awareness, fluency, and vocabulary) and a measure of reading comprehension when reading a text that the child was able to decode with at least 90% accuracy (as opposed to a grade-level text, as on the WASL, for which many struggling readers were likely much less accurate), the authors determined that there were at least six struggling reader profiles that could be constructed from the assessments they administered:

  • Automatic Word Callers read with accuracy and fluency (they sounded like good readers when they read aloud), but struggled with the comprehension measure.
  • Struggling Word Callers read relatively quickly, but faced some difficulty with word identification. Like automatic word callers, they were challenged by the comprehension measure.
  • Word Stumblers had considerable difficulty with word identification and tended to read word-by-word, which made reading slow and laborious. Because some word stumblers had high rates of self-correction and strong vocabularies, they may have been able to construct much of the meaning of a text if given unlimited amounts of time (which is not the case for most standardized tests).
  • Slow and Steady Comprehenders were slow, but accurate readers, and relatively strong comprehenders. Like word stumblers, it is possible that the longer amount of time it took them to read a text had a strong influence on their performances.
  • Slow Word Callers were accurate, but slow readers who struggled with meaning making.
  • Disabled Readers had difficulty with word identification, fluency, and meaning making.

So what does this mean? Well, perhaps most important, it means that there isn’t one type of struggling reader. By extension, a singular intervention is unlikely to be effective for children who are grouped together simply by virtue of being below-grade-level readers. Also important to remember is that other assessments—for example, measures of motivation, prior knowledge, or cognitive flexibility—might have yielded different kinds of information about these students as readers. The authors urge us to “take seriously the complexity behind performance and students’ individual variability” (p. 235) because poor comprehension isn’t a diagnosis, it’s a symptom. Grouping all “at-risk” students together may seem like a time-efficient way to raise achievement, but a cost-benefit analysis is likely to reveal that the time spent (cost) is quite high in light of many students still failing to improve (benefit) when instruction doesn’t address their particular strengths and needs. Our time would be better spent using assessments (formal, informal, or both) to identify the unique strengths and needs of our students, thus perhaps allowing us to engage in quantitatively less, but qualitatively more appropriate instruction to support students’ reading growth.

Kathryn L. Roberts earned her doctoral degree in Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy, with a specialization in Literacy, from Michigan State University. Currently, Dr. Roberts is an assistant professor of Reading, Language, and Literature in the College of Education at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. A former kindergarten teacher, she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses focused on emergent and content area literacy, as well as theoretical foundations of literacy in the departments of Reading, Language and Literature; Early Childhood Education; and Bilingual-Bicultural Education.

The ILA Literacy Research Panel uses this blog to connect educators around the world with research relevant to policy and practice. Reader response is welcomed via e-mail.



Buly, M.R., & Valencia, S.W. (2002). Below the bar: Profiles of students who fail state reading assessments. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(3), 219–239.


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