Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

The Impact of Explicit Reading Instruction on Student Achievement: Study Findings


Katherine Falk is a project coordinator for the Vanderbilt Behavior Research Center, Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.

Joseph Wehby is an associate professor at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.

Students identified with emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD) typically exhibit learning difficulties that further impede their success in school and contribute to dismal school and post-school outcomes. In fact, rates of student disengagement in school, absenteeism, course failure, and dropout are highest for students with EBD when compared to students with other kinds of disabilities (Wagner et al., 2003). More specifically, students with EBD often encounter difficulties in the area of reading (Maughan, Pickles, Hagell, Rutter, & Yule, 1996; Rock, Fessler, & Church, 1997). Deficits in phonological awareness, decoding, fluency, and comprehension become increasingly difficult to remediate as students progress through school and, as a result, inhibit students with EBD from experiencing school success. Unfortunately, there is an insufficient research base investigating strategies to improve the reading achievement of students with EBD. In a review of the literature, Coleman and Vaughn (2000) identified only eight studies that focused on reading interventions with students with EBD. While several studies have been added to that list since then, the research on this issue remains limited.

Information regarding effective reading strategies is necessary to prevent students with EBD from falling even further behind their peers in the most basic of reading skills. In addition, there has been some evidence that improvements in reading achievement effect decreases in problem behavior in the school setting (DuPaul, Ervin, Hook & McGoey, 1998; Locke & Fuchs, 1995). While no generalizations can be made about this association due to the limited research base, the fact that some findings reveal collateral improvements in behavior due to reading intervention suggests that effective academic instruction may be a vital component to addressing behavioral problems in school settings. Given the degree of negative school outcomes for this population of students, extending empirical investigations to focus on the reading and academic needs of students with EBD is essential.

In spite of the limited research base, the studies that have investigated reading interventions with students with EBD have yielded promising results (Babyak, Koorland, & Mathes, 2000; Falk & Wehby, 2001; Wehby, Falk, Barton-Arwood, Lane, & Cooley, 2003; Wehby, Lane, & Falk, 2005). Although the small number of studies and methodological issues associated with them make it difficult to generalize the findings for recommendation, it appears that, at the very least, students with EBD respond to reading instruction that is explicit and systematic. In addition, the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) has established that effective reading programs for all learners should include instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension. Studies that have incorporated explicit methods of teaching skills in these areas have demonstrated increases in reading achievement for students with EBD.

One instructional method that is explicit in nature and has proven effective with diverse learners is Direct Instruction (Adams & Englemann, 1996; Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997). Direct Instruction is a highly scripted teaching method that includes frequent questioning by the teacher, enabling students to constantly interact and be engaged with the lesson and allowing teachers to provide immediate corrective feedback. In particular, Direct Instruction has evidenced significant statistical improvement with students with disabilities (Lloyd, Forness, & Kavale, 1998), although specific work with students with EBD remains sparse.

In an attempt to extend the research in this area, one particular study (Barton-Arwood, Wehby, & Falk, in press) examined the effect of the SRA Horizons reading program supplemented with the PALS (Peer Assisted Learning Strategies) (Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathew, & Simmons, 1997; Mathes, Grek, Howard, Babyak, & Allen, 1999) peer-tutoring intervention on a group of third grade students with EBD. Horizons is a Direct Instruction program that focuses on the areas of phonemic awareness, explicit phonics, comprehension, fluency, and spelling. The lessons are fast-paced and include materials and stories that are both colorful and engaging. Visual prompts that highlight atypical word spellings as well as letter combinations and silent letters in the text are heavily included in the beginning of the program yet are gradually faded out. Additionally, the PALS reading program is a peer-tutoring program in which higher and lower functioning readers are paired together to lead one another through various reading activities. These activities focus on letter-sound correspondence, blending sounds, sight words, and reading stories. The lessons are initially scripted and teacher-guided until students grow comfortable enough with the routine of the lessons to lead each other through independently. The combined intervention lasted for an hour of instructional time each day and was implemented across pairs of students over a 27-week period. Throughout the course of the study, students demonstrated increases in phoneme blending, phoneme segmentation, nonsense word fluency, sight word reading, and oral reading fluency. Moderate to significant gains were also noted in percentile scores between pre- and post-test on subtests of the Woodcock Johnson Reading Mastery Tests-Revised and the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing. Such findings indicate that explicit instruction targeting a variety of reading skills is beneficial for students with learning and behavioral deficits.

While the research is limited in this area, even less is known about reading practices that are effective with older students with EBD who have a history of academic failure. There have been several studies, however, that have evidenced increases in reading achievement with older students with EBD with a program known as SRA Corrective Reading (Engelmann et al., 1999). SRA Corrective Reading is a Direct Instruction program developed particularly for older students who display significant difficulties in reading and who have not responded to other reading programs. The program includes scripted lessons focusing on two strands of decoding and comprehension as well as the materials and instructions for conducting ongoing assessment with the students. Students are placed into various levels of the program based on an initial placement assessment and may practice a range of reading skills from letter-sound correspondence and blending, to reading expository text, to more advanced comprehension and reasoning strategies.

Strong, Wehby, Falk, and Lane (2004) implemented SRA Corrective Reading with six junior high students attending a self-contained school for students with EBD. Based on the placement assessments, the B1 level of the SRA Corrective Reading Decoding Series was selected. This particular strand focuses on practicing a variety of word-attack skills as well as leading students in group reading in which they read stories out loud and answer a series of comprehension questions after short sections of the text. This instruction was implemented for 30-40 minutes each day. In this intervention, SRA Corrective Reading was also supplemented with a repeated reading strategy in order to provide students with additional fluency practice in text. With repeated reading, students read aloud short passages of text several times through in order to improve oral reading fluency. In this particular intervention, students were paired with a research assistant to read passages taken from the Great Leaps Reading Stories (Campbell, 1999). For the first reading, the students read the passage aloud with the research assistant. For subsequent readings, the students took turns reading aloud and providing corrective feedback to one another. After four readings, the students were given a new passage of the same difficulty level; these readings were timed in order to get a measure of both oral reading rate and accuracy. This portion of the intervention required 20-30 minutes of instructional time. After 19 weeks of intervention, the results of the intervention revealed that students exhibited growth in fluency and comprehension during the SRA Corrective Reading intervention and that the addition of the repeated readings effected further increases in these two areas.

As evidenced in these various studies, Direct Instruction offers a promising approach to increasing the reading achievement – and potentially the behavioral outcomes – of students with EBD. Although limited in scope, the research that does exist in this area has demonstrated that the type of explicit and systematic instruction found in Direct Instruction can improve the poor academic and school outcomes that this population of students so often experiences.


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