The Effects of an Intensive Reading Intervention on the Decoding Skills of H.S. Students with Reading Deficits

By: Susan Woodruff, Jean B. Schumaker, and Donald D. Deshler

Read the full text of the study. (574K pdf)


Many secondary students are failing their coursework and reading significantly below grade level. Research shows that students who begin their freshman year with reading deficits are at greater risk for failure across all subjects, and for dropping out. Increased federal, state, and local scrutiny of student achievement and school performance makes it imperative to bring these underperforming students to grade level. A high impact, short term reading remediation program is needed. This program must work with all underperformers, both learning disabled and at-risk students.

This study evaluates the Word Identification Strategy, an instructional program that teaches students how to decode words. Shown effective with improving reading skills among learning disabled students, this study investigates whether it will work more broadly. Will all students with reading deficits respond well to targeted, intensive instruction in word decoding strategies?

The problem

  • High school general education requires increased reading comprehension skills.
  • Incoming ninth graders with reading deficits are at greater risk for academic failure than their reading-competent peers.
  • Both students identified as at risk for failure and students with disabilities enter high school with poor reading skills.
  • Can one reading intervention have a high impact for all poor readers? Can an intervention proven successful with learning disabled students be successfully implemented for all incoming ninth graders who are poor readers?
  • Can a high school serve both types of poor readers with one school-wide intervention strategy?

The sample

A total of 124 ninth graders from two similar northeastern high schools participated. They were in two groups of 62, one from School A, the experimental site, and one from School B, the control site. The students were selected by their performance on the Word Identification Subtest of the Slossen Diagnostic Screening Test for Reading using Form A. The subject pool included all students who earned grade-equivalent scores below the 9.0 grade level; they were, on average, reading at the fourth- or fifth-grade level. School B students were matched with School A participants by grade level, race, gender, and age, and by grade-equivalent reading scores if possible.


The data show all experimental students improved their reading skills. Seven months after the initial testing, all experimental students had completed instruction and both groups took the assessment again. School A students gained as much as 6 grade levels, with both at-risk and learning disabled students improving. On average, male students gained between 2.8 and 3.8 grade levels, female students between 2.8 and 3.4 grade levels.

Implications for education

  • High schools may employ one strategy to support all poor readers, both at-risk and learning disabled.
  • Underperforming students who master the Word Identification Strategy significantly improve their reading skills.
  • This intervention helps students regardless of their race, gender, grade-equivalent, age, or other factors.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.