Personal Accounts: The Need for Integrated Decoding and Phonics Skill-Building

How to help struggling readers

In 2019 I’ll be celebrating thirty years as an educator with fourteen years of that time in a high school English classroom. Although perhaps celebrating is the wrong verb, I often think I should go back and apologize to students, particularly those in my first years of teaching, for all the well-intentioned but faulty instruction they sometimes received. Now I work on a daily basis with secondary reading teachers, and I hope daily that I’m helping them provide quality reading instruction to their students.

I realized lately that I had been thinking about reading instruction all wrong. While I knew dyslexic students clearly needed specialized and intensive reading instruction with a strong foundation of decoding, I now know the needs of non-readers who aren’t dyslexic is not distinctively different than their dyslexic peers. Dyslexic students are like the canaries in the coal mine. Their struggles are more significant and severe and deserve our attention. However, there are many children who don’t have a neurological difference but may appear to be dyslexic simply because they haven’t been taught the skills to attack words at the phonemic level.

Scientists have discovered that learning to read is not as easy and natural as they once believed, and it’s not like learning to talk by immersing yourself in your environment listening to other speakers. Students need structured, evidence-based instruction with phonics at its core. Effective reading instruction requires teachers to go beyond putting great books in their students’ hands and letting them discover the wonders of reading. While reading instruction is enhanced by giving students book choices and reading aloud in a balanced literacy or reading workshop classroom, those elements alone will not teach students to decode words. This need for phonics becomes more pronounced in secondary students who didn’t learning phonics skills in early elementary.

Experts estimate that approximately 50% of all kids will improve their reading skills with a structured reading program with integrated decoding and phonics skill-building. In 2007, I was a high school principal in northern California, and I lead the implementation of Xtreme Reading which was developed and researched by the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. Xtreme Reading is an evidence-based reading platform that gives struggling adolescent readers explicit and systematic instruction in how written language works with the Word Identification Strategy. My students in the reading intervention program dramatically increased their reading skills, and many of them passed the state reading assessment for the first time.

The code-based instruction of the Word Identification Strategy provides students with a strong phonics foundation, and it’s integrated with deliberate instruction in reading comprehension strategies. The research on Xtreme Reading showed the program has shown its success with low performing students in increasing their reading skills and was recently listed on the What Works Clearinghouse of effective reading interventions.

It is time to start looking at reading problems as a breakdown in our teaching not a flaw in students. We can’t hold students responsible for learning skills we don’t explicitly teach them. The structured approach of Xtreme Reading can close the gap in reading achievement for many of our adolescent readers with instruction in skills for decoding words and then comprehending what they read.

Learn more reading intervention strategies from our Strategic Instruction team

Mary Black

Mary Black

Mary Black works with teachers and principals in creative and strategic planning for curriculum and instruction at schools with diverse student populations. She has years of leadership experience in secondary schools, beginning her educational career as a high school English teacher in an urban high school, also serving as a high school principal. She is currently Program Manager and the Certified SIM Professional Development Leader for the SIM team at Region 13.

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