How can a teacher help a student struggling with higher-level reading skills (like comprehension)?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of Ready to Read: A Multisensory Approach to Language-Based Comprehension Instruction


About the authors

Dr. Mary Farrell
Photo © William Heuberger

Mary Farrell, Ph.D., is a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She currently directs the Center for Dyslexia Studies, which offers the nationally accredited Dyslexia Specialist Orton-Gillingham Training Program for teachers. She is the university director of the Regional Center for College Students, a comprehensive support program for undergraduates with learning disabilities.

Dr. Farrell is also State Director of the New Jersey Masonic Children's Learning Centers and serves on the Executive Committee of the International Multisensory Structured Language Educational Council (IMSLEC). She maintains a small private practice in Ridgewood, New Jersey, specializing in teaching reading to students with dyslexia.

Dr. Francie M. Matthews
Photo © Dave Rossi

Francie M. Matthews, Ph.D., is the founder and director of a learning center specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities in Westfield, New Jersey. She has worked with children and adults with language learning differences for 25 years through her center, public schools, and clinical settings and has a long-standing interest in the relationship of oral language abilities to literacy.

Dr. Matthews is a recent past president of the New Jersey Branch of The International Dyslexia Association. She has also served on the Board of Trustees of the Winston School in Short Hills, New Jersey, a school for students with learning differences.


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Q: In the National Reading Panel report, comprehension was identified as the fifth of the "5 Big Ideas" of reading instruction. Why is comprehension so critical?

A: As the cliché goes, students initially learn to read and then they read to learn. Reading comprehension—understanding what they are reading—is essential for students to be able to access information from text, whether they are studying or reading for pleasure. Our new book Ready to Read addresses the goals for reading instruction at the stage in which students have learned to read and are now reading to learn.

The book addresses how goals and teaching strategies may be developed based on a student's individual oral language profiles.

Q: Is this different from what teachers are learning about reading instruction?

A: There is a vast amount of information on identifying and addressing an individual student's difficulties in learning to decode, and there are many books on how to teach comprehension in general. However, there are few texts on individualizing comprehension instruction.

A central tenet of this book is that student variations in oral language ability, such as their oral vocabulary level and understanding of syntax, should be a primary basis for planning individualized comprehension instruction. To that end, the book presents three case histories reflecting the spectrum of oral language difficulty represented in the population of students with reading disabilities. Using these case histories, we demonstrate how formal and informal data on oral language ability can be incorporated into selecting and adapting teaching strategies for higher-level reading skills.

Q: In Ready to Read, you offer strategies for developing the "higher level" skills necessary for mastering reading. What are signs that students are struggling with these higher level skills?

A: A number of signs may indicate that a student is struggling with higher level skills. First of all, there may be observable indicators of difficulty in a student's oral language, such as grammatically incorrect speech or inability to successfully understand directions. Teachers and parents may also have access to formal test results indicating poor oral language ability. Oral language difficulties will predictably translate into difficulty with higher-level written language skills.

In the written language context, teachers or parents may observe a student's struggle with higher-level reading skills directly, as when a student incorrectly answers questions about vocabulary, for instance, or fails to understand the nuances of morphological components (e.g., its vs. it's). They may note a student's failure to understand complex sentences or inability to correctly answer certain types of questions about a story or an expository text.

Q: Your book recommends a multisensory approach to vocabulary instruction. How does that differ from standard approaches?

A: In many classrooms, vocabulary instruction consists primarily of written language exercises accompanied by dialogue. Often, there is insufficient practice, inadequate visual back-up, or unsuitable background information for many students with reading disability. The approach recommended in our book would have teachers incorporate as many practice exercises as necessary for students to reach mastery, as well as the use of visual enhancements to fully represent meaning and hands-on activities to engage all the senses in fostering understanding.

For example, students are guided in the development of personalized vocabulary cards in which word meanings are depicted through pictures and sentences that use the words as they relate to the individual student. These cards are then incorporated into a variety of games that require students to use the words and their associated meanings.

Q: Can these strategies be used effectively with a whole class?

A: Absolutely. Given the current emphasis on inclusive education, differentiation of comprehension instruction is critical in today's classrooms. Learning how to determine each student's comprehension needs and the language strengths and weaknesses they bring to the reading task will help teachers optimize their instruction.

By using flexible grouping, menus rather than single assignments, centers, and tiered assignments, teachers can provide instructional activities suited to various needs. In the book, we provide an easy-to-use recordkeeping tool for teachers to consolidate information about their students' needs in order to make sound instructional decisions.

Q: Where did your own interest in overcoming reading difficulties develop?

A: Mary Farrell: My interest developed in a number of ways. As a clinician, I have derived great satisfaction from breaking down the reading process into the steps and strategies that suit an individual student. The satisfaction stems both from successfully applying my professional skills to teach a non-reader to read or a poor reader to read better, but also from being able to alleviate the student's frustration and sadness and observe the family's hopes for their child at least somewhat restored. It is also very satisfying to train teachers to individualize reading instruction and to use what we know about how learning occurs to teaching students to learn to read.

A: Francie Matthews: My first teaching position was as a teacher for children in a primary grade language learning disabilities class. My undergraduate reading training consisted of only one theory and methods class and I felt really ill-prepared to teach these children, who had many different types of language difficulties, to read. That humbling experience was the primary reason I pursued graduate training.

My graduate work involved a lot of coursework in language and the relationship of language skills and reading, so that is the lens with which I approach reading difficulties in children. By using the type of prescriptive programs presented in our book, I have been able to help many children overcome their reading challenges. Nothing is better than to see a child or adult regain their confidence and find joy in reading.


Ready to Read: A Multisensory Approach to Language-Based Comprehension Instruction


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