Teaching students with word reading difficulties

This page discusses teaching strategies to improve reading accuracy for students of all ages.

Issues with word-level reading occur when students have consistent difficulty decoding written words in an automatic, accurate and efficient way.

Indications of a word reading difficulty include:

  • reading slowly and with difficulty
  • inaccuracies in word reading
  • poor reading fluency when reading out loud
  • guessing at words and, therefore, making numerous errors
  • finding reading tiring and unenjoyable
  • difficulty comprehending what they read because:
    • word reading errors interfere with meaning
    • reading is so slow that it is difficult to retain information in working memory while attempting to read a sentence.

Students with word reading difficulties may also find it difficult to identify and segment word parts (phonemic awareness) as well as understanding the relationship between graphemes and phonemes (phonics). While reading out loud, students with word reading difficulties are likely to read in a monotone voice, fail to notice punctuation markers and read with little evidence of understanding the text.

Along with poor reading comprehension, other secondary consequences of poor word reading include poor spelling accuracy and difficulty with extended writing. Many students become acutely aware of their deficits, especially when they see peers progressing. Self-esteem may be fragile for many poor readers along with various internalising or externalising behaviours and even school refusal.

Reading demands across school years

Reading instruction should align with the increasing reading demands that students face as they progress through school, with a focus on reading accuracy and reading comprehension.

Foundation and Year 1

Students learn to decode and read words of moderate complexity. This could include words with digraphs (for example, ship, each) consonant blends (for example, clip, east) and some bi- and tri-syllabic words that are easily decodable (for example, butterfly, rabbit). 

Many high frequency words are easily decodable (for example, and, on, I, right) with systematic phonics instruction although some high frequency words will need to be taught (for example, the, so, to). Reading comprehension is developing and follows the students' ability to decode.

Year 2 toward upper primary

Students build reading rate, accuracy and automaticity. Words with greater complexity are now decodable (for example, saucepan, caravan). Reading comprehension becomes an increasingly vital instructional focus as students move from learning to read to reading to learn.

Upper primary years and beyond

Students are required to read as a means of learning, researching topics and broadening their knowledge base. Reading comprehension skills are crucial to academic success.

High Impact Teaching Strategies to teach reading accuracy

The High Impact Teaching Strategies (HITS) are 10 instructional practices that reliably increase student learning and can be used as a framework for planning how to teach reading accuracy.

Adjust the use of each strategy for students with learning difficulties by considering their needs and how they learn best.

Strategy 1: Setting goals

Goals set for students with learning difficulties need to consider the foundational knowledge and skills they are missing but are required for them to be successful users of literacy. Goals might be drawn from the Victorian Curriculum F–10: English or the National Literacy Learning Progressions or include phonological/phonemic awareness and word reading goals.

Strategy 2: Structuring lessons

Lessons may need to include activities that scaffold foundational knowledge for students and help them to recall what they already know, for example, about letter-sound clusters and patterns. Use your assessment data to help you predict which words students may struggle with. This will help you provide differentiated support as needed.

For some students, you may choose to pre-load them with the words that will be important for upcoming lessons but that you predict will be challenging. This can be done by:    

  • teaching the words to students in a bespoke session prior to class
  • providing the student with the words and scaffolds such as an image of the word or a syllabified version of the word.

This will assist students to retain this knowledge and apply it other words to read or spell.

Strategy 3: Explicit teaching

Your lessons may need to model skills or concepts using more micro-steps for students with learning difficulties. When teaching phonemic skills, for example, you may need to teach and model the number of sounds in each word and gradually support the student to be able to identify and segment the individual sounds. Avoid asking the student to do tasks if you have not taught, modelled and practised the task with the student.    

Building in procedures such as regular checks for understanding will also help create opportunities for explicit teaching and reinforcing key knowledge and skills. Regular checks for understanding is good practice for all students.

Strategy 4: Worked examples

Worked examples are a powerful teaching and scaffolding tool. The worked examples that you use when teaching students with learning difficulties should be appropriate and matched to their level of ability. This may be different from their age or year level. Focus on using one or two straightforward examples with a clear purpose in mind. Over time, it will be possible to use more complex examples.

Strategy 5: Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning needs to be considered carefully when teaching students with learning difficulties. The nature of their difficulty may impact on their capability to participate in group activities and tasks. However, with planning and organisation, collaborative learning can be a successful and positive experience for students.

Strategy 6: Multiple exposures

Students with learning difficulties will benefit from being exposed to new literacy knowledge and skills in multiple ways. Multiple exposures may involve demonstrating or modelling a new idea initially by using physical actions or a visual aid and then pairing these with language descriptions. It is important not to overwhelm students when doing this. Explicit teaching with scaffolds, such as worked examples, are important.

Strategy 7: Questioning

There are several ways that questioning can be used in teaching: to improve recall, to enhance a student's knowledge of a topic, to provoke higher levels of reasoning. For students with learning difficulties, however, using questioning to learn can be challenging. These students will benefit from clear scaffolding, being shown explicitly how to ask questions and to link questions with the texts they read.

You may like to have short periods in your lessons where you call on non-volunteers to answer questions. If you do this, it is important to teach the students how this works and indicate when it starts and ends. Using this method, all students can contribute to question-answer sessions (and discussions) and you are able to scaffold and differentiate the questions for individual students.

Some students may have verbal retrieval difficulties and will benefit from being asked recognition questions prior to recall questions.

For example, instead of asking students, 'When do we use a capital letter?', you could first provide an example and ask them, 'Where are the capital letters in this sentence?'. Answering this recognition question first will assist them in answering the subsequent recall question. For students who struggle with this, step backwards and provide models and worked examples to foster greater learning.

Strategy 8: Feedback

The feedback you provide students needs to be clear, corrective and actionable. Feedback should acknowledge what the student is currently doing well and what they need to do next. It also needs to be delivered close to the time the task was completed.

Strategy 9: Metacognitive strategies

The teaching of metacognitive strategies is recommended for every aspect of literacy learning. This will foster greater student self-regulation. Students with learning difficulties commonly have challenges with using metacognitive strategies and will need additional scaffolding. This is often because completing the task is more cognitively demanding for them and they don’t have the energy to put into metacognitive strategies in the same timeframe as most students. Increasing practise opportunities with scaffolds is a good strategy.   

For example, teaching students sentence stems they can use will assist them when it comes time to reflect on what they have learned (for example, ‘I am learning about …’ ‘I didn’t know …’ ‘I now know …’ ‘I will remember when writing/reading/spelling to …’).    


Strategy 10: Differentiated teaching

Differentiated teaching is essential for students with learning difficulties and should be present in each stage of a lesson. It is important to draw on the assessment data you have collected to understand where students are in their learning and what their next steps should be.

Grouping students

Students with learning difficulties will benefit from individual or small group instruction. This is because the speed of processing among these students often differs from their peers. This also ensures that students with word reading difficulties can be taught using strategies that target the nature of their learning difficulty.

The Response to Intervention (RTI) framework can be helpful for thinking about how to embed academic support for students with learning difficulties within a school-wide approach to teaching and learning.

RTI is a framework of academic support that is often embedded within a Multi-tiered System of Support, alongside School-wide Positive Behaviour Support. It divides support into three tiers of increasing intensity, organised according to need.

Tier 1: whole school

Teachers have opportunities to design whole-class instruction that meets the needs of as many students as possible. All students receive high-quality, differentiated instruction. Classroom teachers gather evidence about which students are responding to Tier 1 instruction and which students require additional support.

Tier 2: targeted

Targeted intervention for select identified students is delivered at a classroom level or in small groups. This will comprise approximately five to 15 per cent of students. Students are provided with additional support to help them succeed in a general education classroom.

Tier 3: individualised

Intensive, individualised instruction for students needing additional and more intensive support to access and engage with the curriculum. This will comprise approximately one to five per cent of students. Student support services may be included in the collaborative learning team supporting the student.

For example, a student whose literacy knowledge and skills fall at or around the sixteenth percentile will likely benefit from the greater differentiation and small group teaching offered as part of Tier 2 intervention, in addition to the evidenced-based delivery of curriculum as part of Tier 1.

This more substantive differentiation may involve helping students develop organisational and planning skills, breaking down a problem or activity into smaller steps and providing additional opportunities to practise key or specific skills.

Students who do not benefit substantially from Tier 2 intervention will need to receive Tier 3 support. It is likely that these students qualify as having a learning disability. The support in Tier 3 is more intensive and targeted than Tier 2 and is typically delivered by a teacher with highly developed literacy capability in identifying and supporting students with learning difficulties.

Students requiring Tier 3 support for word-level reading problems are likely to need to go back to the basics of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction.

Students may also require explicit instruction in spelling and writing. Aim to personalise instruction based on each student's literacy profile and rigorous assessment data.

Structuring lessons

Teaching new knowledge and skills

Students with word reading difficulties will benefit from systematically learning about how the English writing system works. Whether you use a commercial program or your own system, it is important that your instruction is clearly sequenced, cumulative and well structured. This is helpful to all students but particularly those with word-level reading difficulties.

Students are not expected to read or spell words they have not yet been taught about. For example, if students are working at decoding consonant-vowel-consonant, consonant-consonant-vowel-consonant, and consonant-vowel-consonant- consonant words containing the sounds 's – a – t – p – i -n',  , they should be segmenting, blending and reading words such as 'sat', 'spat' and 'nips' but not expected to read the words 'sitting', 'skin' or 'pane' as these grapheme-phoneme combinations have not yet been taught.

When introducing new content to students with learning difficulties, instruction may need to be adjusted in the following ways:

Break learning down into smaller steps

Avoid making big conceptual leaps or moving through new content too quickly. Break them down into smaller steps than for most of your students. Focus on teaching and then embedding the key knowledge and skills that students need to know before moving onto the next step. Ensure that your instruction is sequenced clearly, is cumulative and well structured.

Make clear links between new ideas

Explain things clearly and in a way that makes the connections between existing knowledge and new knowledge explicit.

Help students focus their attention

Check-in regularly with students that have trouble focussing their attention and ignoring distractions, so that they are accountable for their progress on a task. Try asking things like 'can you tell me which sounds we are working on today' or 'Tell your partner when you have to use 's' at the end of words'.

Ask recognition questions

Students with learning difficulties may have trouble rapidly retrieving information so that answering questions can be difficult and may even create a sense of fear for some. It is important that all students feel able to contribute to class discussions, so scaffold your questions carefully for struggling students and provide as much support as needed to facilitate a correct response.

Ask a recognition question first. For example, 'Would you call this … or …?' and then follow up with recall questions once the student's knowledge has been stimulated.

Use actions

One way to help students with learning difficulties to understand phonemic skills is through actions. For example, you can explain segmenting spoken words into sounds by 'slicing up' the spoken word using a slicing action with your hand. You could also do this with rows of counters, pushing counters forward as you say each sound.

You can use similar gestures to show students how to blend sounds. Start by having students blend two sounds together first, then three sounds and so on.

Help students to recognise what they have learned

The purpose of doing a task is to change what students know or can do. It is important that students understand this. After they have finished a task, teach students to ask, 'What did I learn? What do I know now that I didn't know before?'.

For example, after reading and spelling the four words 'sat', 'sit', 'pat' and 'pit', ask students to tell you what they now know.

Make sure the student can explain or show you what they know once they have finished the task, to ensure they fully understand. In this case, you could ask them to spell the words 'astound' or 'around'. This type of teacher-student dialogue will help students with learning difficulties to transfer this knowledge from their working memory to their long-term memory.

Helping students to recognise what they have learned helps to build their confidence and self-efficacy as readers. It also shows students that they can be successful and motivates them to persevere with other activities in future.

Create a safe space in the classroom

Many students with learning difficulties will be anxious about responding to questions and initiating tasks in their learning. This can prevent them from fully benefitting from activities and tasks designed to extend them. Calling on non-volunteers is one helpful strategy to facilitate this environment.

Give students time to think

Providing students with enough time to process information and respond is important, particularly for students with learning difficulties. Avoid rushing students by allowing a little extra time but balance this with not letting struggling students stay for 'too long' when responding. This is a fine balance.

It may also be helpful to follow up with any students with learning difficulties after providing an explanation at a classroom level to ensure that they have understood. Ask a clarifying question or have the student repeat the explanation back in their own words to test this.

Give regular feedback

Provide regular, immediate and corrective feedback. Acknowledge what the student already knows or has done, discuss this in positive terms and then point them in the direction of what they need to know or think about next.

Teach language skills

Students with learning difficulties often have trouble thinking about texts and their meanings in different ways. This is because much of their cognitive energy is taken up with simply recognising and reading the text. This means that, compared to their peers, struggling readers may be missing out on opportunities to build their vocabulary, general knowledge and sophisticated use of language.

For example, you could say, 'You just read the word "tragic". Well done! Tragic means to be in extreme distress or sadness. In the sentence, the word "tragic" was used to describe the event. Can you tell me another time that might be "tragic''?' This type of technique is designed to continuously scaffold and build oral language skills.

Reviewing and reinforcing what has been learned

Students with learning difficulties may have trouble transferring what they have learned to long-term memory. This will be apparent when students are unable to recall knowledge or a skill they have learned before, even when they appeared to have understood it clearly at the time.

Teaching may need to be more intensively delivered (more opportunities to practise and additional scaffolding), differentiated or include scaffolding to assist students to embed learning. Adjustments include:

  • helping students to identify what new knowledge or skills they have learned. Encourage students to ask themselves, 'What did I just learn?' or 'What do I know now that I didn't know before?'
  • helping students to summarise this new knowledge or outline skills in simple language will help them more easily recall this information later. 
  • providing scaffolding for students to be able to make connections between what they have learned and what they already know. For example, exploring how it is different from their existing knowledge or how it adds to, extends or changes this.
  • creating opportunities for students to practise the act of recalling what they have learned. For example, 'Can you tell me what we learned about yesterday during reading?', 'What have we been learning about this week?'

You can use these adjustments to help plan reading comprehension activities and lessons.

Teaching and learning activities for reading accuracy

The Literacy Teaching Toolkit describes various approaches you can use to teach word reading, spelling and reading comprehension. Each activity can be adjusted for students with learning difficulties.

The approaches include:

  • modelled reading
  • shared reading
  • guided reading
  • independent reading
  • reciprocal teaching
  • language-experience approach
  • literature circles
  • close reading
  • teaching-learning cycle: reading and writing connections
  • reading conferences.