Improving reading and comprehension skills in the middle grades—we’re in it for the long haul

When students reach the upper-elementary years (4th and 5th grades, or ages 9–11), the curricular demands for reading get harder, and it gets harder for us to help struggling readers keep up. To address this need, Vaughn et al. tested an intervention targeting both word reading (i.e., decoding text) and reading comprehension (i.e., understanding what you read) for upper-elementary students.


Students in this study were 8–12 years old and were randomized to either the study intervention or to a control condition where they received whatever intervention their schools gave them. The study intervention was intense, with 30- to 45-minute group sessions, 5 days a week for the majority of the school year (October–April; almost 45 hours of intervention on average). The first phase of the intervention targeted word reading and reading fluency (sample lessons here). Then, students moved on to reading expository and narrative text, with comprehension practice (answering questions, summarizing, etc.; sample lessons here) and word practice (morphology instruction along with continued reading fluency practice).

Children in the intervention group improved significantly compared to control children on an experimenter-developed measure of word reading and on a measure of reading fluency. They did not improve significantly on measures of reading comprehension. Unfortunately, this is pretty typical; most reading comprehension intervention studies see mixed results or no improvement at all.

Improving word reading skills in upper-elementary students is hard, and improving comprehension is even harder. This is an all-hands-on-deck kind of problem, with intensive services needed to help students catch up. The authors conclude that “…students with significant reading difficulties require intensive reading instruction for many years. Students in fourth grade and beyond with intractable reading difficulties may require intensive interventions provided by highly qualified clinicians throughout their schooling.”


Vaughn, S., Roberts, G. J., Miciak, J., Taylor, P. & Fletcher, J. M. (2018). Efficacy of a word- and text-based intervention for students with significant reading difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/0022219418775113