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Stopping Reading Failure: Reading Intervention for Upper-Grade Studentss
by J. David Cooper, Ph.D.

J. David Cooper is senior author of the Houghton Mifflin reading programs and former professor and director of reading at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

The goal of every elementary classroom teacher is to ensure that all students become the best readers possible. Teachers in grades three and above often find themselves struggling to find ways to help students who are not making progress in becoming proficient readers. For many years, it was common practice to send the students reading below level to some form of remedial reading instruction (Harris and Sipay 1985). However, evidence that has accumulated over the last several decades has shown that most remedial programs have not been effective in helping below-level readers achieve success (Allington and Walmsley 1995). Students who appeared on the rosters of the remedial teacher the first year continued to reappear on those rosters year after year. Therefore, a different concept of instruction has been developing in more recent years; this concept is known as intervention.

What Is Intervention?
According to the dictionary, intervention is the act of coming into or between so as to hinder or alter an action. A reading intervention program is one that hinders or alters the action of reading failure by preventing it from occurring or stopping it if it has already started. Students who participate in intervention programs attain the goal of reading, or the program is discontinued and other alternatives are considered (Hiebert and Taylor 1994).

There are many very successful early intervention programs (Clay 1985; Pinnell, Fried, and Estice 1990; Taylor, Frye, Short, and Shearer 1992; Hiebert, Colt, Catto, and Gury 1992; Hall, Prevatte, and Cunningham 1995). These programs have been effective in preventing reading failure for children at the beginning of their educational experience (Hiebert and Taylor 1994). Early intervention programs provide intensive, structured, systematic instruction that is delivered on a daily basis in addition to the child's balanced classroom instruction.

Why Upper-Grade Intervention?
In spite of the successes of early intervention programs, reports of individual teachers and national studies of reading achievement (Mullis, Campbell, and Farstrup 1993; NAEP 1994) show that many students in grades three and above are reading considerably below their age-appropriate level.

Attempts to help students reading below level in grades three and above have focused heavily on the use of high-interest, easy-reading materials with controlled vocabulary (Harris and Sipay 1985). Lessons accompanying these texts usually follow a pattern of introducing vocabulary, reading to answer questions, and teaching one or more skills. Research has demonstrated that this type of instructional approach has not been effective in helping upper-grade readers achieve success.

The gap between the less able readers and the more capable readers continues to widen across the grade levels (Allington and Walmsley 1995). Therefore, there is a serious need for a reading intervention program rather than a remedial reading program to help below-level readers in grades three and above bring their reading up to level. The chart below summarizes the differences between intervention and remedial programs.


  • Time (30–40 minutes) is in addition to regular classroom reading instruction.

  • Literature consists of authentic trade books, sequenced from easy to grade-level reading.

  • The goal is to move students out ofhe program as quickly as possible and into success with grade-level instruction.

  • Instructional focus is on strategies that move students to reading independence.

  • Instruction is fast-paced and delivered daily in a structured routine.


  • Time has generally been pullout, often replacing classroom instruction.

  • Literature is typically high-interest, low vocabulary; texts are often rewritten to conform to a readability formula.

  • Students are often tracked for life. The remedial students remain the remedial students.

  • Instruction typically focuses on book-specific vocabulary words, comprehension questions, and often isolated skills.

  • Students are often pulled out two or three times per week for 20–30 minutes.

What Are the Major Needs of Struggling Readers in the Upper Grades?
Students reading below level in the upper grades have needs that are different from those of primary-grade students.

  • Students in the upper grades have already experienced failure in reading. Therefore, there is a real need to accelerate their reading progress as quickly as possible in order to help them begin to achieve success. They need a reading intervention program that delivers reading support quickly, as opposed to a remedial program that continues to try the same methods over and over again.
  • Below-level readers in the upper grades often can use decoding skills (phonics, structure) in isolation, but they do not apply them when they are reading text. If these students come to a word they do not know, they stop their reading, frustrated by not knowing how to use the skills they have. They often sit and wait or they skip the word, missing important information needed to comprehend the text they are attempting to read.
  • Other students in the upper grades often call every word correctly but they cannot retell what they have read. Teachers often refer to these students as "word callers." These are the students who need major support in constructing meaning or comprehension.

Given what we know about struggling readers in the upper grades, effective instruction is needed to accelerate their reading growth, help them apply decoding skills as they read, and help them develop strategies to comprehend and construct meaning. Although instruction should initially start with easy reading materials, it must gradually but systematically lead students to success with their grade-level materials.

Elements of Effective Intervention Instruction for Upper-Grade Students
Two important elements must be included in an effective intervention program for upper-grade students:

1. Appropriate reading materials
Books for upper-grade intervention need to be highly interesting, motivating texts that:

  • contain interesting subject matter that is applicable to a variety of curricular areas,
  • provide a balance of narrative and expository reading experiences,
  • go beyond texts used at the beginning levels of literacy development where the primary focus is on building decoding strategies and fluency in word identification,
  • are sequenced on a continuum from simple to complex, which gradually (but quickly) allows students to accelerate their reading ability with scaffolded support from a teacher.

Based on findings about texts for early intervention (Peterson 1991) and research with upper-grade intervention (Cooper, Boschken, McWilliams, and Pistochini 1997), we know that texts need to be sequenced from simple to complex in order to allow all students to start with a text they can read with teacher support. It is important that the books move students to grade-level reading difficulty.

The factors considered in these criteria differ from the usual readability formulas that have often been used to level texts. These criteria take into account the amount of print on the page, picture support, complexity of storylines, and/or complexity of facts presented.

2. Instructional strategies that promote acceleration
Students reading below grade level lack the skills that enable them to organize text, to understand what they are reading, and to stay on task. To acquire these skills, students need careful, systematic instruction that will help them overcome these problems.

Graphic organizers
Graphic organizers are effective in helping students construct meaning (Heimlich and Pittelman, 1986; Pehrsson and Robinson 1985). By visually representing the meaning they construct from reading, students improve their ability to comprehend.

Although more than one graphic organizer per book can help students visually construct meaning, research on upper-grade intervention has shown that it is most effective to use one graphic organizer for each text (Cooper et al. 1997). The single graphic organizer then becomes a prompt to help students retell and summarize what they have read.

Reciprocal teaching
Effective in helping below-level readers accelerate their reading, reciprocal teaching uses four strategies for constructing meaning: predict, summarize, question, and clarify (Palincsar 1984; Palincsar and Brown 1984; 1985; 1986; Snow, Burns, and Griffen 1998). The teacher and the students take turns being teacher, modeling the use of the strategies after reading each meaningful chunk of a text.

  • Predict: Students hypothesize what will occur in the text. To do this successfully, students must activate relevant background knowledge that they already possess regarding the topic. The students then have a purpose for reading: to confirm or disprove their prediction for the text.
  • Summarize: Students identify and integrate the most important information in the text.
  • Question: Students formulate a question that can be answered. In the beginning, questioning focuses on specific text information; later, it progresses to using the text plus one's own knowledge to form inferential and evaluative questions.
  • Clarify: Students learn to monitor their comprehension and "fix up" problems that occur as they construct meaning. They may focus on an idea, word meaning, or word pronunciation. Through clarifying, students learn to apply their decoding skills and figure out unknown words.

Each of these strategies aids students in constructing meaning from text, and provides a means of monitoring their reading to ensure that they are, in fact, understanding what they read.

The process of providing strong teacher support and gradually removing it until students are working independently, scaffolding is effective in helping students accelerate their learning(Pearson 1985; Collins, Brown, and Newman 1987). Scaffolding can be applied by sequencing texts (see earlier comments), and through teacher modeling that gradually leads to student independence.

Daily, fast-paced, structured lessons
Early intervention research shows that daily, fast-paced, structured lessons are important in helping students accelerate their reading (Pikulski 1994). The same has been found to be true for upper-grade intervention (Cooper et al. 1997). Fast-paced, structured lessons help to move students along and keep them focused on the task at hand.

Modeling good work habits
Students reading below grade level usually lack structure in their schoolwork. An effective intervention program should model the structures that successful students use every day: arriving on time, getting right to work, staying on schedule or task, and keeping to the topic.

Reading intervention for upper-grade students can serve a major function in helping struggling readers achieve success in reading. It must be delivered on a daily basis in addition to a balanced literacy program that all students receive.

Research shows that it is possible to help struggling upper-grade readers read on level or higher in a short amount of time. This successful model of instruction was developed by studying existing research and planning a systematic program to fit the specialized needs of upper-grade students. The effectiveness of this model is highly dependent upon in-depth training for teachers and ongoing support and coaching throughout the model's initial use.

Allington, R.L. and S.A. Walmsley, eds. 1995. No quick fix: Rethinking literacy programs in America's elementary schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Clay, M.M. 1985. The early detection of reading difficulties (3rd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Collins, A., J.S. Brown, and S. E. Newman. 1987. Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics (Tech. Rep. No. 403). Champaign: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Center for the Study of Reading.

Cooper, J.D., I. Boschken, J. McWilliams, and L. Pistochini. 1997. A study of the effectiveness of an intervention program designed to accelerate reading for struggling readers in the upper grade (Final report). Unpublished.

Hall, D.P., C. Prevatte, and P.M. Cunningham. 1995. Eliminating ability grouping and failure in the primary grades. In R.L. Allington and S.A. Walmsley, eds., No quick fix: Rethinking literacy programs in America's elementary schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Harris, A.J., and E.R. Sipay. 1985. How to increase reading ability: A guide to developmental and remedial methods. New York: Longman.

Heimlich, J.E., and S.D. Pittelman. 1986. Semantic mapping: Classroom applications. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Hiebert, E.H., J.M. Colt, S.L. Catto, and E.C. Gury. 1992. Reading and writing of first-grade students in a restructured Chapter I program. American Educational Research Journal, 29, 545–72.

Hiebert, E., and B. Taylor, eds. 1994. Getting reading right from the start: Effective early literacy interventions. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Mullis, I.V.S., J.R. Campbell, and A. Farstrup. 1993. NAEP 1992 reading report card for the nation and the states. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics.

NAEP 1994 reading, a first look: Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Rev. rd.). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Palincsar, A.S. 1984. The quest for meaning from expository text: A teacher-guided journey. In G. Duffy, L.H. Roehler, and J. Mason, eds. Comprehension instruction: Perspectives and suggestions (pp. 251–264). New York: Longman.

Palincsar, A.S., and A.L. Brown. 1984. Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), 117–175.

Palincsar, A.S., and A.L. Brown. 1985. Reciprocal teaching: A means to a meaningful end. In J. Osborn, P.T. Wilson, and R.C. Anderson, eds. Reading education: Foundations for a literate America (pp. 229–310). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

Palincsar, A.S., and A.L. Brown. 1986. Interactive teaching to promote independent learning from text. The Reading Teacher, 39, 771–777.

Pearson, P.D. 1985. Changing the face of reading comprehension instruction. The Reading Teacher, 38, 724–738.

Pehrsson, R.S., and H.A. Robinson. 1985. The semantic organizer approach to writing and reading instruction. Rockville, MD: Aspen Systems Corp.

Peterson, B. 1991. Selecting books for beginning readers. In D.E. DeFord, C.A. Lyons, and G.S. Pinnell, eds. Bridges to literacy: Learning from reading recovery (pp. 119–147). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Pikulski, J.J. 1994. Preventing reading failure: A review of five effective programs. The Reading Teacher, 48, 30–39.

Pinnell, G.S., M.D. Fried, and R.M. Estice. 1990. Reading recovery: Learning how to make a difference. The Reading Teacher, 43, 282–295.

Snow, C.E., M.S. Burns, and P. Griffen, eds. 1998. Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Taylor, B.M., B.J. Frye, R. Short, and B. Shearer. 1992. Classroom teachers prevent reading failure among low-achieving first-grade students. The Reading Teacher, 45, 592–597.

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Your Comments
Thank you for a wonderful explanation of the differences between remedial reading and intervention strategies. . . —K–12 Reading Specialist, Texas
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The U.S. Department of Education's two longitudinal studies of kids classified as having disabilities—SEELS and NLTS-2—both show that American special education "remediation" and services aimed at teaching/improving reading and math simply do not work. . . —Publisher, The Special Education Muckraker
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I wonder what Dr. Cooper would think about a program that was designed for second through fourth grade readers who could read but didn't like to read. . . —Former Teacher Trainer
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