Maureen W. Lovett, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Senior Scientist, Neurosciences and Mental Health Program
Director, Learning Disabilities Research Program, The Hospital for Sick Children
and Professor of Pediatrics, The University of Toronto

Although most children who struggle to learn to read do not outgrow their reading difficulties, many achieve very good outcomes with effective long-term remediation. In the past two decades, more and more good quality research has been published examining what works for children and adolescents with dyslexia and other reading difficulties. General principles of effective remediation for struggling readers can now be identified. My own research group has contributed to this progress.

For three decades, our team of psychologists and special education teachers at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto has worked to better understand the basic learning problems of children and adolescents with severe reading disabilities. We have evaluated the progress of more than 6,000 struggling readers, 6–16 years old. We have delivered focused reading remediation programs developed by our team in community schools and high schools. These remedial programs, delivered in small group formats, have been tested for their efficacy in research studies conducted in these school settings. Because we wanted to contribute to knowledge about what works for children and youth with reading disabilities, it has been important to evaluate our approaches using well-controlled research designs. We have focused on how to help struggling readers acquire basic reading skills and motivate them to become competent independent readers. We have tested these interventions with children and teens who have been severely impaired in reading development.

It is well recognized that most children, adolescents, and adults with reading disabilities (RD)—particularly those who are severely affected—have enormous difficulty working with the individual sounds (phonemes) that make up spoken words. They find it difficult to identify how many sounds there are in soft or to say flap without the first sound. This makes it difficult to learn to associate letters and sounds and develop basic decoding skills. Individuals with dyslexia struggle to develop accurate word identification skills and to apply these skills to reading fluently. Because they cannot easily segment spoken syllables and words into smaller units, it is hard to learn and remember letter- and letter-cluster sounds and to decode new words either phonologically or through analogy to a word they already know.

This bottleneck in learning to read words accurately and efficiently contributes to poor reading comprehension. We know that to be effective, remediation must target these difficulties and must increase awareness of, and an ability to work with, individual sounds both orally and in print. But this is not enough — effective remediation must offer more because struggling readers often have other obstacles impeding their reading acquisition.

Setting the Bar High: Generalization of Remedial Gains Required
With focused and systematic small group intervention, we found that struggling readers can make meaningful progress in decoding skills throughout elementary school and into high school. Improving word attack and decoding skills does not, however, always result in improved text reading, fluency, and comprehension skills. In our early studies, we found that struggling readers often made excellent progress in their remedial reading classes but they did not reliably transfer new skills to other settings and other types of text. In fact, helping struggling readers apply or generalize their new skills to a variety of reading tasks can be quite a challenge. Many special education teachers express frustration that the gains they see in a remedial setting are often not observed back in the regular classroom. An effective program explicitly teaches struggling readers how and when to apply and use newly acquired reading skills and practices to unfamiliar materials.

Why Multiple-Component Programs Are Essential to Remediate Reading Disabilities
Many struggling readers have other learning problems that also are obstacles to successful reading development. Many generalization failures may be due to a more general difficulty with learning effective strategies, being flexible in choosing and applying different strategies, and monitoring their effectiveness. Many struggling readers experience difficulties learning strategies and thinking about their use. We have focused on this learning difficulty and have incorporated explicit reading strategy training into all of our remediation programs, with very positive results.

Strategies about thinking about something are called “metacognitive” strategies. Metacognitive strategies are important to decoding and to all aspects of reading development and reading comprehension. We found that when phonological reading instruction was combined with teaching effective word identification strategies, and these strategies were used, practiced, and evaluated using self-directing dialogue (having students talk about loud about how they were applying the strategies, to remind themselves), these struggling readers achieved superior reading skills and faster learning than when they received an equal amount of either approach separately. This combined programming was also associated with greater generalization of their remedial gains. These findings provide strong evidence of the importance of strategy instruction and of teaching the pre-skills needed to use each strategy effectively.

Putting it Together: Teaching Foundational Reading Skills, Facilitating Generalization, and Building Motivation for Reading and Learning
In our research, we have developed an effective multiple-component reading intervention that includes motivational retraining to counteract the negative emotional experiences of reading impairment. We have woven elements into each lesson to enhance self-esteem about reading and encourage participation in successful reading experiences – We want students to know how it feels to succeed. Known as Empower™ Reading, the program retrains unproductive attitudes and misguided beliefs about effort and achievement, and builds perceptions of self-efficacy around reading and learning. Children learn that success, or lack thereof, when reading words is a matter of whether the appropriate reading strategy was selected and applied, and whether they were flexible and persisted when first attempts proved unsuccessful.

Struggling readers learn a dialogue structure that guides them through decoding unfamiliar words and acknowledges that their success is because they were flexible, tried different strategies, evaluated their results, and persisted. Before any strategy is learned, the children are taught and practice the knowledge and skills necessary to use the strategy effectively. We have found that it is motivating to students to use complex multisyllabic words for strategy practice. Readers who previously struggled to read one-syllable words can work through decoding ‘challenge words’ like unintelligible, comprehensive, and unrelentingly—if they learn effective strategies and the necessary pre-skills to use the strategies correctly.

Effective remediation attends to many motivational factors that affect children’s engagement in, motivation for, and attributions about remediation and about their own progress. The integrated skill-building and strategy instruction we have used in our research and in Empower™ Reading appear powerful in their ability to address maladaptive beliefs and attitudes about reading and one’s ability to succeed as a reader. Our common goal is to empower the struggling learner to become an independent reader, capable of reading a variety of text materials fluently and with good comprehension.

Effective Reading Remediation for Struggling Readers

  • Targets phonological difficulties and increases children’s awareness of, and ability to work with, individual sounds both orally and in print.
  • Combines strategy instruction with teaching of the pre-skills needed to use each strategy effectively.
  • Explicitly teaches struggling readers how and when to apply and use newly acquired reading skills and has students practice applying these to unfamiliar materials.
  • Retrains misguided beliefs and attitudes about effort and achievement, and builds perceptions of self-efficacy around reading and learning.

NOTE: This piece is based on an article of the same title written by
Maureen W. Lovett, Karen A. Steinbach, Maria De Palma, & Meredith Temple, and published in 2011 in Better: Evidence-based Education, Volume 4, Issue 1, pages 18-19.

Better: Evidence-based Education magazine is published by the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for Research and Reform in Education and the University of York’s Institute for Effective Education. For more information on Better, visit

Contact Information for Author:
Maureen W. Lovett, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Senior Scientist, Neurosciences and Mental Health Program
Director, Learning Disabilities Research Program, The Hospital for Sick Children
and Professor of Pediatrics, The University of Toronto

Mailing Address: The Hospital for Sick Children, 555 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario Canada M5G 1X8
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