Three Things We Need to Learn

As we mention in the beginning of our article, there are many important things we do not yet know about how to teach struggling readers. We have a good grasp of what they need to know, but do not yet have a solid grasp on how to ensure they come to know it. Here, we discuss three critical issues for future research to address.

First, there is a good understanding of the symbiotic role of core reading instruction and intervention and the potential benefits from when these two approaches are working in harmony. Most schools provide core reading instruction (Tier 1) to students with reading difficulties and then a supplemental reading intervention that often has little alignment or correspondence with their core reading program. Thus, students with the most challenging reading problems are expected to integrate information from two often very different approaches to reading instruction.

Second, students with reading disabilities are heterogeneous; we know more about what many students with reading problems need to be effective learners than we do about what each learner with severe reading difficulties needs to be effective. Although the advantages of personalized, explicit instruction can be demonstrated through multiple large-scale studies in the general education classroom1 and in remedial environments,2 implementation is difficult. A summary3 of seven large clinical trials spanning grades 1–6 found that targeted instruction in grades 1–2 in the general education classroom brought many children to grade-level benchmarks within a year, but similar interventions begun in grades 3–6 took more than a year. That summary also explored group-size impacts; while there were no differences in small- and large-group placements for reading comprehension, the effects of small-group instruction in decoding were four times larger than whole-class instruction.

Third, we need to figure out how to close the practice gap. The number of words a student can read automatically, at a glance, influences significantly the student’s efficiency as a reader and thus their fluency. Automatic word reading is a bottleneck for many students with reading difficulties, yielding relatively slow reading fluency and thus impairing their understanding of text. There are two unfortunate outcomes of labored word reading: (1) students who are slow readers use an abundance of cognitive resources to decipher words, leaving minimal cognitive resources to remember, integrate, and comprehend ideas while reading; and (2) the effort necessary to read words reduces interest in reading, and thus students with word reading difficulties spend considerably less time reading. The hallmark of students with significant word reading difficulties is that they do not read for pleasure. Fifth-graders who are very proficient readers read more in a few days than weak readers do in a year.4 This gap in practice is very profound and contributes to many significant problems, including fluency, vocabulary development, and background knowledge. As we discussed in the article, the development of automaticity is tied to the brain reorganization that must occur in order for children to read.

Is it any wonder that students with significant reading problems display such profound challenges with reading comprehension and content knowledge and that this gap becomes more problematic as they advance through the grades? The practice gap is an extraordinary consideration and directly tied to the development of the neural systems that permit rapid word reading. Students with weak reading skills are less efficient and read more slowly, contributing to reduced practice. Continued low exposure to word reading over time has a cumulative effect beyond reading successfully. It slows the development of vocabulary and background knowledge, which then reduces comprehension, which then makes reading less enjoyable—and even less likely to be practiced.

Sharon Vaughn is the executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is also the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Teacher Education and a professor in the Learning Disabilities and Behavior Disorders program. She has earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute for Literacy and Learning and the Special Education Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. Jack M. Fletcher is the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston, where he is also the associate vice president for research administration. A former member of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, he has earned the International Literacy Association’s Albert J. Harris Award and the International Dyslexia Association’s Samuel Torrey Orton Award. This research was supported by grant P50 HD052117 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (the authors are solely responsible for the content).


1. C. Connor and F. Morrison, “Individualizing Student Instruction in Reading: Implications for Policy and Practice,” Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, no. 1 (2016): 54–61.

2. Morris et al., “Multiple-Component Remediation for Developmental Reading Disabilities: IQ, Socioeconomic Status, and Race as Factors in Remedial Outcome,” Journal of Learning Disabilities 45, no. 2 (2012): 99–127.

3. C. Connor and F. Morrison, “Individualizing Student Instruction.”

4. A. E. Cunningham and K. E. Stanovich, “What Reading Does for the Mind,” American Educator 22, no. 1–2 (Spring/Summer 1998): 8–15.

American Educator, Winter 2020-2021