Going beyond best practice with at-risk readers

I think we can all agree that there’s a lot of research out there aimed at improving literacy outcomes for at-risk readers, and that the use of evidence-based practices is crucial to literacy success. But what about those students who still struggle to read, despite our use of evidence-based practices?  How do we get to those students?

The authors of this study looked at the evidence, identified the most effective current practices, and designed a new theory-driven intervention package to improve reading outcomes for those at-risk poor readers. They compared their Direct Mapping and Set-for-Variability Intervention (DMSfV for short) to a Current or Best Practices (CBP) approach with a big group of first graders with low word-reading scores. Interventions were delivered in small groups outside of the classroom for 30 minutes, 3 times a week for 10 weeks.

The CBP approach included typical phonics strategies (like blending and segmenting phonemes), along with teaching sight words and doing shared book reading.

The DMSfV included three components:

  1. Direct mapping: Teaching grapheme–phoneme correspondences, and then, critically, applying them by linking to texts, e.g., learning /sh/ and then reading a book with lots of /sh/ words
  2. Vowel digraphs: Teaching the various ways to pronounce vowel sequences and the rules associated with them, like how when vowels are paired together, the first one is usually long and the other is silent, as in “boat”
  3. Set-for-variability strategies: Teaching the students strategies to read “exception” words (those with spelling-sound inconsistencies), and how vowels and vowel digraphs can be pronounced differently (“ou” in touch versus soul)

A key goal of the DMSfV* intervention was to teach the skills necessary to read words even when they broke standard phonic rules.

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So, which intervention was more effective?

Immediately after the intervention, the DMSfV group performed significantly better on word reading and spelling measures. Five months later, they performed significantly better on word reading and sentence comprehension tasks. Despite this success, though, half of the children still remained relatively weak word readers and needed ongoing support—there’s no magic solution here. The takeaway? It seems that some struggling students will benefit from stepping outside of the box of current practices, even when those practices are generally effective. There is more than one evidence-based way to teach reading, and some students will benefit differently from different approaches.

If this study calls out to you, check out the full article (and don’t miss the Appendix!). The authors have included a lot of detail about the intervention procedures and materials, including the specific story books used and the frequency of specific phonemes/vowel digraphs in each story. If you’re working on vowels with a student, this list might be valuable!

*“Dims fuv”? We like our acronyms pronounceable!

Savage, R., Georgiou, G., Parrila, R., & Maiorino, K. (2018). Preventative reading interventions teaching direct mapping of graphemes in texts and Set-for-Variability aid at-risk learners. Scientific Studies of Reading, 22, 225–247. doi:10.1080/10888438.2018.1427753.