Does the science of reading include middle school?

  • phonics
  • 06 January, 2024

Teacher Question:

We have been working on strengthening and refining our early literacy instruction to be in line with the science. This has me wondering about the middle level. What does the science prioritize for middle level ELA instruction? Is there a point when teaching into a phonics gap for students does not have a payoff? With limited time in a middle school classroom, I am thinking about what needs to be prioritized. Some parents are wondering if phonics instruction should continue into middle school. This may need to happen for some students, but I imagine that Tier 1 instruction would focus on higher levels of structured literacy like morphology. I would be interested what the research says about teaching phonics in middle school.

RELATED: Putting on Your Underwear First: Why Instructional Sequence Doesn’t Always Matter

Shanahan Response: 

Not surprisingly, most phonics instruction studies have been focused on preschool, kindergarten, and grade 1. The National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) and the National Reading Panel (NRP) reported clear benefits to such instruction: improvements in the ability to read words and nonsense words, spelling, oral reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Making explicit, systematic phonics part of a comprehensive reading and writing program for beginning readers is a no brainer.

There have been some studies focused on the teaching of phonics in grades 2 and up, but not many, and most of those studies were aimed at struggling readers or dyslexic students. That poses multiple problems – there are reasons to believe that those populations may be particularly difficult to teach effectively and the generalizability of those results to regular classrooms are dubious.

In any event, the NRP found few benefits to phonics instruction, beyond grades K-1.

Here are some relevant quotes from that report:

“However, phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades (i.e., children with reading difficulties and possibly other cognitive difficulties explaining their low achievement). The effect size was d = 0.15, which was not statistically greater than chance. Possible reasons might be that the phonics instruction provided to low-achieving readers was not sufficiently intense, or that their reading difficulties arose from sources not treated by phonics instruction such as poor comprehension, or there were too few cases (i.e., only eight treatment-control comparisons pulled from three studies) to yield reliable findings.” p. 2-94

“The effects of systematic phonics instruction on text comprehension in readers above 1st grade were mixed.
Although gains were significant for the subgroup of disabled readers (d = 0.32), they were not significant for the older group in general (d = 0.12).” p. 2-94

“Because most of the comparisons above 1st grade involved poor readers (78%), the conclusions drawn about the effects of phonics instruction on specific reading outcomes pertain mainly to them. Findings indicate that phonics instruction helps poor readers in 2nd through 6th grades improve their word reading skills. However, phonics instruction appears to contribute only weakly, if at all, in helping poor readers apply these skills to read text and to spell words. There were insufficient data to draw any conclusions about the effects of phonics instruction with normally developing readers above 1st grade.” 2-116

Of course, the NRP report is 23 years old… there must be lots of new research on this topic that would provide us with a more definitive answer to your question. Accordingly, I conducted a search of studies that focused on phonics in middle school and high school.

I found only 4 studies worth mentioning and none of these were particularly encouraging. One study had high school students tutoring struggling sixth graders in phonics, sight word phrases, and text reading fluency (Lingo, 2014). It reported fluency improvement, but it would be impossible to attribute this to the phonics portion of the intervention.

Another study focused on a district school improvement effort that provided district wide phonics teaching (Hutcheson, Selig, & Young, 1990). They reported gains in word identification in the elementary and high school grades, but not middle school; and gains in spelling and reading comprehension at all levels. This study had no control group, so it is not certain to what to attribute these fall-to-spring learning gains (e.g., phonics instruction, maturation, other instruction).

Denton and her colleagues (Denton, Wexler, Vaughn, & Bryan, 2008) implemented a multicomponent reading intervention in middle school, with English Learners who had learning disabilities. The intervention included phonics. The students did not do any better in word recognition, comprehension, or fluency than students in the regular program.

Finally, an intensive phonics program was delivered for 12 weeks to 8 middle school students with learning disabilities. They improved in word recognition and spelling.

In other words, no convincing evidence.

So, I dipped into the What Works Clearinghouse analysis of reading interventions. Few of the studies with older students focused on phonics. Nevertheless, I went looking for upper grades (Grades 2-12) evidence on programs that explicitly included phonics/decoding instruction as part of their routine. The Clearinghouse had such information on 8 programs: Achieve3000, Corrective Reading, Fast ForWord, Failure Free Reading, Open Court, Reading Mastery, SpellRead, and Wilson Reading System.

What I wanted to see was, first, whether these programs improved older students’ decoding ability. The reason this is important is because for the most part, these programs included multiple components. If a program taught phonics and fluency, but only obtained improvements in fluency, it is unreasonable to attribute that gain to phonics. If the students had improved in both decoding and fluency, then maybe part of the fluency gain was due to phonics. This is an especially important consideration if the study evaluated decoding and reported no improvement. It is damning if a program taught phonics without any gains in decoding.

What I found was that several programs fostered improvements in some reading skills. For the most part, however, they either didn’t bother to look for increases in decoding, or they looked and found none in grades 2-12 (Achieve3000, FastForWord, Failure Free Reading, Open Court, Reading Mastery).

The Wilson Reading System had improved students’ decoding skills in Grade 3, but without any accompanying gains in fluency or comprehension, while SpellRead improved decoding, comprehension, and reading fluency with students in grades 5-6.

To me, those reports are consistent with what NRP reported so long ago: not enough studies, most of the studies focused on Tier 2 teaching, evidence that it is possible to improve decoding skills in the upper grades with explicit instruction, but with little evidence that such improvement transfers or generalizes to overall literacy gains at least in regular classrooms.

I think it is fair to say that we don’t know much about how best to teach decoding in grades 2-12.

That doesn’t mean that students in grades 2 and up shouldn’t be receiving some morphology and spelling instruction, with a small amount of decoding work on things like multisyllable words or conditional spelling patterns. However, given current knowledge, phonics beyond grade 1 (and with the kind of limited scope just mentioned), it should mainly (though not entirely) be a Tier 2 issue. For most kids a regular daily regimen of vocabulary/morphology/spelling with those occasional decoding lessons should be sufficient. 

If you had written to me in 1999, I would have given a somewhat different answer.

At the time, the studies that I knew had shown no positive outcomes for phonics with older students. Consequently, I’d have discouraged any additional phonics beyond grades 1 or 2.

The NRP work (I served on the Alphabetics committee) convinced me that we could successfully teach phonics to older struggling students in Tier 2 settings. But given the lack of transfer of those skills when taught to older kids, it was evident to me that phonics alone would not be enough.

Now, I find myself shifting again.

Recent research has reported that a significant number of older students (here I mean middle school and high school) still lag in decoding ability to an extent not widely acknowledged in the field (Wang, Sabatini, O’Reilly, & Weeks, 2019, Magliano, Talwar, Feller, Wang, O’Reilly, & Sabatini, 2023). Those adolescents who can read at a third or fourth grade level – and higher – may need targeted phonics instruction despite those reading levels.

Not long ago, I’d have discouraged this. I would have taken those students’ reading levels as evidence that they had sufficient decoding ability.

What research now reveals is that below a particular level of decoding proficiency, older students do not seem able to improve in reading – no matter what interventions and instructional approaches we adopt. Students above that decoding threshold, do manage to improve in reading from a wide range of instruction.

My advice?

1.     Make certain that in your middle school classrooms that students spend considerable time on words – vocabulary, morphology, spelling, and occasionally phonics. I’ve long argued for 25% of the language arts time to be devoted to developing knowledge of words and how they work. I would suggest that such teaching be systematic and explicit.

2.     Be on the lookout for kids who are not able to decode proficiently. Vigilance is needed to keep kids from slipping through the decoding cracks. It doesn’t matter the source of those problems – inadequate primary grade instruction, learning disabilities, transfers from other schools – they need to be identified.

3.     Provide high quality Tier 2 phonics instruction for kids who need it. This kind of teaching is often available to elementary students, but it tends not to be in middle school and high school. At those levels, students may be assigned to an all-purpose intervention which can be enough for some kids. But those kids below the decoding threshold? They need a dedicated, explicit phonics intervention in addition to anything else you can provide to support their literacy learning. (Phonics is unlikely to be enough for those kids, but without it, they won’t advance).


Denton, C. A., Wexler, J., Vaughn, S., & Bryan, D. (2008). Intervention provided to linguistically diverse middle school students with severe reading difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 23(2), 79-89.

Hooks, L., & Peach, W. (1993). Effectiveness of phonics for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 20(3), 243-245.

Hutcheson, L., Selig, H., & Young, N. (1990). A success story: A large urban district offers a working model for implementing multisensory teaching into the resource and regular classroom. Bulletin of the Orton Society, 40, 79-96.

Lingo, A. S. (2014). Tutoring middle school students with disabilities by high school students: Effects on oral reading fluency. Education & Treatment of Children, 37(1), 53-75.

Magliano, J. P., Talward, A., Feller, D. P., Wang, Z., O’Reilly, T., & Sabatini, J. (2023). Exploring thresholds in the foundational skills for reading and comprehension outcomes in the context of postsecondary readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 56(1), 43-57.

National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Wang, Z., Sabatini, J., O’Reilly, T., & Weeks, J. (2019). Decoding and reading comprehension: A test of the decoding threshold hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 387–401.

LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sara Filler Jan 06, 2024 02:25 PM

What are some all purpose interventions that have been working in grades 2-6?

Jo Anne Gross Jan 06, 2024 02:44 PM

Structured Literacy Intervention designed with Orton Gillingham principals and the addition of phonological awareness training helps these children.
We test them and analyze their decoding and spelling and PA.
The gaps are from mild to severe.
The main symptom is reading the first syllable and guessing the rest.
Syllable instruction is incredibly helpful.
Fixable in a short time, that makes it sad.
You can’t possibly be fluent with all those gaps.

Katie Stewart Jan 06, 2024 02:56 PM

Thank you for this! We are using REWARDS Intermediate for Tier 3. We work on phonics, morphology, vocabulary, and spelling. There are fluency lessons at the end of the book, but we almost never get that far! Do you have thoughts on the effectiveness of REWARDS as an intervention?

David kleinbeck Jan 06, 2024 03:19 PM

Deciding and comprehension are an issue with my students. They read beautifully, yet comprehension is lacking. Are there specifics I can use to help them.

Shari Franco Jan 06, 2024 03:22 PM

I teach students with disabilities in high school that read under a third grade level, some as low as kindergarten. Everything I have tried has been unsuccessful in engaging them and helping them to work independently. I don’t know exactly where to begin to help them. I know they don’t decode and because of this they can’t be expected to comprehend the material. When I read aloud, they lose focus. They are just so checked out of school. Where do I begin? I don’t want them embarrassed because then behavior becomes an issue to save face. Any ideas?

MaryEllen Vogt Jan 06, 2024 03:33 PM

I’ve been teaching for the past 3-1/2 years in a reading intervention program affiliated with a local nonprofit. For our older kids (grades 4-up), we’re finding the Words Their Way program (Bear, et. al.) to be very effective. Kids work on increasingly challenging word sorts, that help them focus on “patterns” (the term I use with the kids), e.g., /au/, /ea/, /oi/). The diagnostic WTW spelling inventories (primary, intermediate/elementary, upper grades), provide information about what kids know about words, what they use but confuse, and what they don’t know. In our 45 minute lessons, we spend 15 minutes on word work, and then move to reading texts, alternating expository with fiction, writing summaries, etc. A card game that all the kids enjoy is Blah Blah Blah, which includes a variety of words with vowel combinations (“patterns”). It’s a fun way to practice the patterns they’re learning. Granted, we’re teaching one-on-one, but WTW works well in any classroom with partners and small groups. Are we teaching phonics? Yes, but we’re doing so through spelling and reading. Thanks, Tim, for your blog about the older kids!

Ed Jones Jan 06, 2024 04:21 PM

“ I’ve long argued for 25% of the language arts time to be devoted to developing knowledge of words and how they work.”

Do you break down the other 75% anywhere?

Ryan Parker Jan 06, 2024 04:33 PM

I wish the title of this post was different, as we know that the Science of Reading is more than just phonics, and this article seems to be directed at phonics instruction in grades higher than 2nd.

Great reminder that decoding is at the center of k-1 and I would argue 2nd grade included. But once decoding is solid word knowledge instruction should look different (e.g. vocabulary and morphology).

MaryEllen Vogt Jan 06, 2024 04:43 PM

Thanks ffor the question, Ed. After word work, our students read and write for about 20 minutes, and then we play a game for the remaining time (Blah, Blah, Blah; Splat!; Bingo---and other games I've created in file folders). I forgot to mention Word Ladders (Dr. Tim Rasinski's series of books). We alternate the word sorts and word ladders for students who have two 45-minute lessons/week. Most of the kids LOVE the word ladders (K-1; 2-3, 4-6) -- they're exposed to new vocabulary while they're solving the word ladder.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 06, 2024 05:16 PM


Yes, I've written about this a number of times... 1/4 words, 1/4 text fluency, 1/4 comprehension, and 1/4 writing.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 06, 2024 05:22 PM

Shari - unless you can solve the decoding problem, the research says there is little likelihood of success. Don Deshler once told me that his colleagues found it took about 2 years of intensive painstaking work on that to solve the problem using various programs (individual and small group). There are programs like System 44 that Marilyn Adams touts which may help. But, again, none of these solutions has been proven by research to successfully address the problem.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 06, 2024 05:25 PM

There are many things that teachers can do to address comprehension: vocabulary instruction, sentence comprehension instruction, text structure instruction, cohesion instruction, comprehension strategy teaching and there are blog entries on this site on each of those topics. It also can help to have kids writing about what they read.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 06, 2024 05:27 PM


I don't know the program and know of no research on it. However, I would encourage you to find time for those fluency lessons as well.


Diann Christensen Jan 06, 2024 05:29 PM

Have you looked into the research on Structured Word Inquiry? It leverages the strengths of intermediate students who struggle with the code in ways I've never seen before, and student engagement is sky high. It channels them to make sense of how words are constructed and weaves together morphology, phonology, and orthography in powerful, time-saving ways. I wish I'd known about it sooner.

Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J. R., & Deacon, S. H. (2010). The Effects of Morphological Instruction on Literacy Skills: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 144–179.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 06, 2024 05:29 PM

Jo Anne--
Perhaps you are correct, but there is no research showing that.


Tiara Beard Jan 06, 2024 05:31 PM

We are currently using REWARDS Intermediate for 6th graders and REWARDS Secondary for 7th-8th graders at the middle school where I work. What are your thoughts on REWARDS as an intervention for older students who struggle with decoding multi-syllabic words?

Beth Jan 06, 2024 05:32 PM

I've had success working one-on-one with older students with disabilities. One girl was in high school, but had been stuck in a special ed program where they didn't expect much. I don't know what they attempted to teach her, but at 15 she was reading at a 5th grade level - barely. I didn't want to go back to systematic phonics, so I tried to tackle her difficulties in the context of her reading assignments for classes. I had her read aloud, and of course there was a lot of guessing based on the beginning of the word. I would stop her and show her how to break down the syllables and sound them out one at a time. An added benefit was that she learned to spell this way at the same time. By graduation, she was reading at a 9th/10th level according to tests. I didn't specifically evaluate comprehension, but I found no major problems when she answered the assigned questions about her reading. When there was an issue, it was more about vocabulary knowledge than sounding out. If she asked about the word meanings or just happened to know them, her comprehension seemed fine. This is one example, but it's the general approach I take with older students.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 06, 2024 05:32 PM


I would suggest that you go to the What Works Clearinghouse site and examine their research summaries for various commercial intervention programs.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 06, 2024 05:36 PM


I've written about SWI before and as this blog entry points out, I think that such instruction is valuable... but to what extent it solves these older students' decoding problems is an open question. (The review that you point out, shows learning benefits from morphology instruction -- not necessarily SWI -- and it shows that it can improve reading beyond what phonics instruction provides, at least with younger children).


Tom Gunning Jan 06, 2024 05:51 PM

A number of years ago, as a Reading First consultant, I assessed the oral reading fluency of two classes of third graders. A number of students had very slow reading rates. Many of these slow readers needed extra time to process multisyllabic words. What appeared to be a fluency issue was actually a decoding deficiency. They needed instruction in syllabic analysis and lots of practice.

Miriam Giskin Jan 06, 2024 05:59 PM

I think that the older the student the more you have to identify the unique individual gaps for that student. I was once reading a book about snakes with a 5th grade student who had no difficulty with the word reptilian but could not decode the word sacs. I'm not kidding. That student really made me take a close look at how we address individual needs which is what it is all about for struggling older readers, in my opinion. Unfortunately what is often needed is targeted and intense one on one instruction that public schools simply do not have the manpower to provide. If these students were going to progress satisfactorily in a small group they would have before middle or high school. Now that I am retired I have literally been astounded by the results I am getting with my private tutoring students from grade 1 through adult. Did I suddenly become a way better teacher? I don't think so. And mind you I only see most students once or twice a week! The difference is I am not constrained by having to have 3-5 students in every group nor by requirements of mandated intervention programs. With respect to all my colleagues, I know teaching struggling readers is not simple or easy, but I meet individual needs one on one and have surprised myself with incredible results. Often it's that simple.

LeQuisha Underwood Jan 06, 2024 06:36 PM

Your words make sense for what I have seen in classrooms grade 4 and up. In particular I was practically crucified for teaching silent e to a group of 4th graders. The assessment data told me they didn’t know the concept.

I have lots of proof phonics/word study/vocabulary/spelling should be taught to all readers. My data also shows its effectiveness with gifted learners as well

Timothy Shanahan Jan 06, 2024 06:44 PM

That is an important point about reading. The skills are nested and hierarchical. Students may seem to have trouble comprehending, but it could be a fluency problem. Students might seem disfluent, but this may be due to decoding issues. Decoding may be showing up as a problem, while languishing phonemic awareness is undermining it. That's why it is so important that we provide comprehensive instruction -- devoting some instructional time to all of the components at a given point in development.


Rachel Jan 06, 2024 08:09 PM

What is the level of decoding proficiency older students need in order to improve in reading? Where can I learn more about the decoding threshold you mentioned?

Timothy Shanahan Jan 06, 2024 08:19 PM

This link will take you to what I have written about that and the references for that research which was carried at ETS:

and here is a link to the test they used:


Cecelia Bockenstedt Jan 06, 2024 10:15 PM

Whew, I don't know. I've had plenty of success teaching older kids to read and even spell quite well using what I guess is called "systematic phonics." (Barton.) It seems to take more time, is all--they have developed habits that need to be replaced.

I know it's anecdotal, but it's pretty consistent data within my own little system.

Rodney Everson Jan 06, 2024 10:29 PM

Tim, I worked with almost 200 struggling readers one-on-one over a decade, teaching them to decode. Most were in 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade. Here's one issue that came up with about 15 to 20% of the kids, the word "minus."
Now, they should all have had "minus" in their oral vocabulary by then, but here's a fairly common exchange when they hit the word "minus" (in isolation, not in text):
Child: "minutes"
Me (pointing to the last half of the word): You said "minutes." You put a /t/ sound in here. Try again.
Same child: "menace"
Me (pointing to the letter "i") You said "menace." This is not the /e/ sound.
Me again: What's the first chunk?
Child: "mi" (with short "i")
Me: What's the second chunk?
Child: "nus" (pronounced correctly)
Me: put it together.
Child: "mi-nus" (with short "i")
Me: Is "mi-nus" a word?
Child: No.
Me (pointing to the "i"): What else can this be?
Child: /ie/ (says the long "i" sound)
Me: Say both chunks
Child: "mi---nus" (all sounds said correctly)
Me: Put it together
Child: "minutes"

There might not be research supporting phonics instruction for older kids, but the kids I worked with usually needed it, along with an effective way to attack multisyllable words. By the way, I suspect a lot of this sort of behavior was evidence of balanced literacy casualties. Once a guess gets embedded, it can be difficult to dislodge.
Eventually, they would develop enough confidence in the multisyllable method I was teaching them to curtail their guessing in favor of trying to decode words chunk by chunk, but they also needed a good grasp of the phonics code to do that.

LeQuisha Underwood Jan 06, 2024 10:30 PM


Could it be possible that we should call phonics for older kids something different? Once students progress from cvc and cvce styles words syllabication and morphology are the natural next steps.
I personally have used REWARDS, Wexler’s Advanced Phonics and Word study and a few others. But this was only after diagnosis of student’s needs based on age and stage of word knowledge.

Terminology may be the crux of our issue with the progression of students learning to read.

Chris Jan 06, 2024 10:36 PM

We need more of these conversations Prof Shanahan!

I wonder if volume & lang comp is where we should be focusing on for middle/high school classroom ELA instruction.

My experience is entirely anecdotal and far from the most scientific of conditions, but would love to hear your & other folks' thoughts.

Only a few of my 7/8 graders had problems with 'the rules' they learned in primary, even with 80-90%+ underperforming on state assessments & screenings.

The most common problems were found in the irregular spellings & 3+ syllables.

And, most notably, the 10-20% at proficiency & passing state assessments almost always had a pleasure reading habit.

That single reading habit trait was the best predictor of reading achievement I saw in over a decade of ELA classroom experience in a high poverty school (Title I, 90%+ FRL).

Also, most of my classes had a small majority of students who shared the same teachers since early primary.

So, presumably, this group shared the same reading instruction.

But the pleasure reading kiddos achieved much higher than their non-habit peers.

katie stewart Jan 08, 2024 02:23 AM

Thank you, Dr. Shanahan! Anita Archer actually commented on this post as well, and she is the lead author of the REWARDS curriculum. It is really unique in its integration of morphology and phonics with grade-level vocabulary.

Yes, we want to get to the fluency... but we are never given enough time. I do use some cloze and choral reading in the classroom. I need to do more!

Jen Jazyk Jan 08, 2024 05:11 PM

It is funny how our beliefs about instruction at various levels shifts as we gain years in education. You mentioned 25% of 6-12 ELA class instruction be devoted to words (i.e. vocabulary, morphology etc.) I would love to hear your opinion on how to best spend the other 75%. We are currently having deep conversations about our instructional time in our district in our ELA department. Our state has moved to the SAT as it's graduation qualifying exam. Grammar is killing our student scores. We know we don't want to go back to the 80s and diagramming sentences to death, but we feel we need to somehow address our shortfalls to give our students a better chance at success. Teaching grammar and mechanics in isolation has little to no research to support its effectiveness that I have found, so what is the answer? How much time do we devote to grammar in 6-12? What about 3-5? We know K-2 is all about getting to a complete sentence, and eventually grouping like sentences/thoughts together to add detail.

Anita Archer Jan 07, 2024 05:49 PM

I highly recommend following the guidance issued in the IES (Institute Education Science) Practice Guide, Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4–9. The first evidence-based recommendation is to "Build students' decoding skills so they can read complex multisyllabic words" including teaching unknown phoneme-graphemes, high frequency affixes, and a strategy for systematically decoding multisyllabic words.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 08, 2024 02:03 AM

The test was ETS's Reading Basix and it is now available from a company called CAPTi.


Timothy Shanahan Jan 08, 2024 02:09 AM

Middle school and high school should focus on (1) words (including vocabulary and morphology -- and, for some kids, spelling and phonics; (2) text reading fluency -- this tends to be ignored in the upper grades despite large numbers of kids who are unable to translate text to oral language proficiently; (3) reading comprehension and learning from text, including disciplinary literacy insights and approaches; and (4) writing. Of course, students also should be increasing their domain knowledge (including knowledge from our literary heritage), both through these acts of literacy, but also from the other activities they are engaged in throughout their curriculum.


John Jan 08, 2024 08:44 PM

Dr. Shanahan,

Could you explain further what that decoding threshold is and how teachers best identify it? For context, I work with middle school students who receive reading intervention services.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 08, 2024 09:22 PM


The threshold was identified in some studies conducted by a team of researchers at ETS. The test they used to identify it was something that is now called ETS ReadingBasix and it is marketed by a company called CAPTI.


Nancy Rose Steinbock, M.A., CCC-SLP Jan 07, 2024 12:48 PM

Thank you for this thoughtful explication.

As a speech-language pathologist long-specialized in the diagnosis and treatment of challenged learners, I still use a classic Orton-Gillingham based series, Explode the Code, meeting each kid where they need learn speech-to-print/print-to-speech concepts. But, it is not about just doing the words on the page! Learning concepts such as onset and rime, highlighting them across words, seeing similarities between words, particularly the rime scheme, focusing on morphological markers and importantly, learning to write legibly in cursive to build fluency, are hallmarks of my approach. Strategies for active reading are emphasizied to improve reading for meaning.

As older kids gain traction in these practicies, a workbook series on Classical Roots is incorporated into each one-to-one session so that cross-linguistic knowledge is built along with learning spelling patterns that represent not only a spelling cluster but meaning is emphasized to build word recognition and the vocabulary necessary for higher-order thinking and writing. With older kids -- 4th grade and above -- who have been taught, e.g., with whole language approaches and who have not received meaningful speech-language intervention as part of the language acquisition/reading acquisition process, the intervention requires time! No screens are utilized so that we are tracking left-to-right across words -- syllables, morphological markers -- and practicing as well, paralinguistic cueing -- breath groups, intonation -- to build comprehension and grammar knowledge as well. Phonics underlies the work, again, always integrated with legible handwriting.

A novel is typically part of intervention as well so that these skills can be integrated into reading high-quality literature to evoke appreciation of narrative components and critical thinking. This is not a quick fix, but it is an indelible one as students report they feel more confident so that even if they make mistakes, they can self-correct them.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 09, 2024 02:15 PM

Likewise, I would invest 25% of the time into text reading fluency, 25% into comprehending/learning from text, and 25% into writing. The only one of these four components that can shrink is the fluency one (and, then, only if your students can demonstrate adequate fluency with your grade level texts). In secondary, this time needs to be pieced together with contributions from all of the academic courses the student is enrolled in. In other words, I dont care if much of the morphology time is accomplished in the science class or much of the fluency work is done in social studies...


Cherilyn Wilson Jan 07, 2024 03:23 PM

Thank you for addressing this important topic. I enjoyed working with grades 5 and 6 students who struggled with reading for many years. Addressing decoding deficits through both phonics and morphology (simultaneously building both decoding and encoding skills) was very importance to improve the students’ confidence, fluency, and comprehension.

What is the “level of decoding proficiency” or “decoding threshold” to which you refer? Can you be more specific? Are there specific assessment(s) you recommend to determine this proficiency level?

Jody Feb 03, 2024 08:49 PM

This is interesting. I am wondering, though, exactly what the "threshold" is? Where exactly in the scope and sequence is "enough"?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 03, 2024 09:11 PM

That threshold in the research was a cut point on a specific test (ETS's Reading Basix). Other research is finding the same pattern with some other tests.... Enough is when kids get beyond that threshold of performance.


Stephanie Feb 19, 2024 05:16 AM

I work at a middle school where we designate an intervention block and teach small targeted groups of struggling decoders using the SIPPS curriculum. This has been an exceptionally effective intervention and nearly every student who has received it has reached at 3rd grade level by the end of the intervention (from a starting point of K-2). I highly recommend it for folks in similar contexts. Students who don’t need the intervention take electives during this time.

Penny DePasquale Mar 18, 2024 01:43 PM

Katie-I have used rewards and have seen big gains in vocabulary. And students also get better in being able to break words into parts and read them. Many of my students have seen gains from this, but I also have some low readers who seems to be benefiting but then the next year, I don't see them applying those decoding strategies. And I don't see comprehension moving much. I believe it has to do with the threshold concept they discuss in this article. But, I do love Rewards and so do my students.

Deb DeLion May 20, 2024 08:22 PM

With my high school students I will have them cirle words that they do not understand

Sara Jun 25, 2024 06:12 PM

What assessment would you recommend for identifying middle school students' decoding ability? Do you endorse the Phonological Awareness Screening Test (PAST)?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 26, 2024 12:47 PM


No, I would not endorse that. The chances that PA is an impediment to a middle school students’ reading is quite low (I would only use a test like that if students were found – by some other measure – to be struggling with decoding). With students of that age, the chances that students are being blocked by basic phonics (like letters and sounds, the abilities to sound out single syllable words, etc.) is also very low, so again, I would only test for those if more advanced decoding/word reading measures suggested a weakness. You might want to try the CAPTI test or something else focused on multi-syllable words and morphology.


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