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Reading Techniques for Struggling Learners

Joe P. Sutton, Ph.D.

Researchers1 tell us that struggling learners learn differently. We also know that more effective teachers of struggling learners will teach differently. Special education scholars have rightly concluded that struggling learners, particularly those with disabilities, need "specific, directed, individualized, intensive, remedial instruction"2 in order to be successful learners in basic academics, including reading.

Unfortunately, reading instruction in general education classrooms today is mostly group-oriented, not individualized, and emphasizes materials3 (i.e., textbooks, workbooks, teacher manuals) rather than methods (i.e., teacher-directed, intensive teaching techniques). When used alone, reading instruction driven largely by standard curricular materials is generally ineffective for struggling learners.4 These students fall behind early on, and the gap between their potential and their actual reading achievement widens across time.

More effective reading instruction for struggling learners should emphasize individualized, highly engaging teaching approaches. Like their nondisabled counterparts, however, struggling learners need a balanced reading program5 that includes a strong phonics component, couched in research-proven methods (e.g., direct instruction6), and remedial instruction in sight word acquisition and reading comprehension. Consider the following reading methods for use with struggling learners.

Sight Words

A major objective in teaching reading is sight word automaticity, that is, the ability to decode (pronounce) sight words within 2-3 seconds of sight. Brigance7 has identified 400 basic sight words in reading. Because they occur with such frequency in reading materials, sight words may be better taught to struggling learners through whole-word instruction. For example, teach "horse" as the whole word "horse," not by its separate phonetic parts, "h-or-se."

One of the best ways to teach sight words is through multisensory or VAKT (visual-auditory-kinesthetic-tactile) instruction. Dr. Grace Fernald,8 an early twentieth-century special educator, is credited primarily with pioneering the multisensory approach. The Fernald technique, which bears her name, centers on teaching sight words wholistically, one at a time, allowing the learner to process sight words cognitively and simultaneously using all four input modalities. Presentation of single words by the teacher takes no more than two to five minutes. The following materials are needed:

  • 3" x 11" strips of paper (typing paper, cut three times length-wise);
  • bold-colored markers that appeal to the student (let the student choose his own colors!);
  • 3 x 5 or 4 x 6 lined index cards;
  • index card box;
  • lined notebook paper;
  • pencils and pens; and
  • computer with printer, or typewriter.

As described by C. Mercer and A. Mercer,9 the Fernald technique includes four stages through which the student progresses. The student remains at the lower stage until he can demonstrate a high degree of word mastery over a consistent period of time. A synopsis of the first stage follows:

The teacher writes the word in cursive on a paper strip. Place the strip in front of the student, pronounce (model) the word, and then instruct him to look (visual) at the word, and trace (kinesthetic) the letters using his finger (touch) while simultaneously listening to himself pronounce (auditory) the word. The student repeats this process, perhaps as many as a half dozen times, until he is ready to write the word on separate paper without looking at the strip (turn the strip upside down). If he makes an error, direct the child to go through the procedure for several more repetitions and then attempt to write it again without error. Once the word is learned, the student records the word on an index card and files it alphabetically in the box. The student is then instructed to write a brief sentence or story using the word. The story is subsequently typed so that the student can see and read the word in print.

The great advantage to the Fernald technique is that poor readers can build a repertoire of basic sight words fairly quickly, albeit one word at a time. Another benefit of this technique is that spelling of sight words is concurrently learned. Gordon, Vaughn, and Schumm10 recommend presentation and learning of no more than three words per day, however.

Oral Reading

The Neurological Impress Method or NIM11 is a rapid, oral reading technique that is "based on the theory that a student can learn by hearing his own voice and someone else's voice jointly reading the same material."12 Using only a standard reading book, with no special preparation or alterations, on a level slightly below the student's functional reading level, the teacher implements the NIM technique as follows:

The student is seated slightly in front of the teacher, and the teacher's voice is directed into the student's ear at a close range. The objective is simply to cover as many pages as possible in the allocated time, without tiring the student. At first, the teacher should read slightly louder and faster than the student, and the student should be encouraged to maintain the pace and not worry about mistakes. The teacher's finger slides to the location of the words as they are being read. As the student becomes capable of leading the oral reading [over successive lessons], the teacher can speak more softly and read slightly slower, and the student's finger can point to the reading. Thus, the student and teacher alternate between leading and following.13

When using NIM, make sure that the learning environment is free of noise and distractions from other children. While the focus of the NIM technique is on modeling reading decoding skills and increasing oral reading rate, teachers can add a comprehension component by providing follow-up questions and discussion.


First introduced by Taylor14 in 1953, the Cloze technique has been used primarily as an informal assessment tool with students who have reading comprehension difficulties.15 Luftig describes how this technique works:

This technique involves selecting passages of approximately 260-275 words of varying degrees of difficulty. Words are then deleted from the passages and the child is asked to write in the missing words. In order to write in these missing words, the child needs to glean contextual clues from the surrounding words and sentences in the passage. The logic is that the ability to glean such contextual meaning from surrounding phrases is a sign of reading comprehension.16

Levey17 suggests that the Cloze technique can be adapted for use in developing reading comprehension skills. She recommends that teachers follow these steps in constructing reading comprehension activities for students who add or omit words during reading or for students who are whole-word readers:

1. Choose a passage of 100 words at the child's functioning reading level.

2. Leave the first and last sentences intact, but for all sentences in between, leave every fifth or tenth word blank.

3. Beneath the passage, provide the list of missing words in correct order that correspond with the blanks in the reading passage.

4. Have the student read the passage and place the words from the list to the blanks in corresponding order.

5. Once mastery has been achieved with this format, construct additional passages, but provide the list of missing words in mixed order from which the student may choose.

6. Finally, provide word lists that include only selected words (not all missing words) in mixed order, which forces the student to use contextual clues to determine the remaining missing words.


Few would dispute the critical importance of reading and the havoc that poor reading skills can wreak on a child's total education. When struggling learners begin to show learning gaps in reading, either separate remedial instruction (for those with more severe learning difficulties) or supplemental remedial instruction (for those with more mild learning difficulties) is warranted. Wise, effective teachers continuously evaluate their students and know when to prescribe a change in instruction. Early, corrective intervention is the key to helping struggling learners become successful readers now and independent learners in the future.


1Hallahan, D. P., & Kauffman, J. M. (2000). Exceptional learners: Introduction to special education (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. (back to article)

2Zigmond, J., & Baker, J. M. (1995). Concluding comments: Current and future practices in inclusive schooling. Journal of Special Education, 29, 245-250. (back to article)

3Sutton, J. A., & Sutton, J. P. (1996). Two views on the role of the teacher. Balance, 15 (5), 1-3. (back to article)

4Sutton, J. P., & Sutton, C. J. (1997). Strategies for struggling learners (2nd ed.). Simpsonville, SC: Exceptional Diagnostics. (back to article)

5Carbo, M. (1996). Whole language or phonics? Use both! Education, 117, 60-63. (back to article)

6Engelmann, S. E., & Bruner, E. C. (1988). Reading mastery: DISTAR reading. Chicago, IL: Science Research Associates. (back to article)

7Brigance, A. H. (1983). BRIGANCE® Diagnostic Comprehensive Inventory of Basic Skills (Subtest G: Functional Word Recognition). North Billerica, MA: Curriculum Associates. (back to article)

8Fernald, G. (1943). Remedial techniques in basic school subjects. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. [Reprinted in 1988 by Pro-Ed, Austin, TX.] (back to article)

9Mercer, C., & Mercer, A. (1993). Teaching students with learning problems (4th ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill. (back to article)

10Gordon, J., Vaughn, S., & Schumm, J. S. (1993). Spelling interventions: A review of literature and implications for instruction for students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 8, 171-181. (back to article)

11Heckelman, R. G. (1969). The neurological impress method of remedial reading instruction. Academic Therapy, 4, 277-282. (back to article)

12C. Mercer & A. Mercer (1993). (back to article)

13C. Mercer & A. Mercer (1993). (back to article)

14Taylor, W. L. (1953). Cloze procedure: A new tool for measuring reliability. Journalism Quarterly, 30, 415-433. (back to article)

16Luftig (1987). (back to article)

17Levey, E. (1984). Methods and materials for LDI. Lecture notes from a graduate course taught at East Carolina University, Greenville, NC. (back to article)


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