I Can Say the Words, so I’m Reading

This week I worked with middle school Special Education staff on strategies for their struggling readers. Often this is a hard group of students to work with due to the wide range of their educational needs. Our focus was on comprehension, which contrasts most conversations about reading deficits as they are on decoding strategies. Also, there is a belief that if a student is reading the words accurately, then they are reading.

Reading is multifaceted, though can be broken into two main abilities—decoding and comprehension. To me, each of these are equally weighted in importance. Sometimes you have students who cannot decode text, however if you read it aloud the same student can answer any of your questions. Likewise, you have a student can read every word on a page, but cannot tell you anything about what was just read. That is why both decoding and comprehension need equitable time during instruction.

With younger students, the teaching can become too heavy in decoding and the comprehension foundation is not laid. On the flip-side, with older students’ instruction can become centered on comprehension and the decoding is neglected. Students need a repertoire of strategies in both decoding and comprehension to become a successful reader.

Citing the National Reading Panel’s 2000 report:

“The National Reading Panel’s analysis made it clear that the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates:

  • Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
  • Systematic phonics instruction
  • Methods to improve fluency
  • Ways to enhance comprehension”


Intervention instruction is often rooted in decoding. However, we have done a disservice to students if that instruction does not also include comprehension. By the time struggling students’ ability to decode is brought to grade level standards, the students are still significantly behind in comprehension. This causes frustration in students because they have worked so hard to improve themselves as readers, yet they are still not finding success. Thus, the importance to build the whole reader.

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