What Kind of Early Reading Intervention Should We Provide?

  • Reading interventions Language development reading instructions
  • 14 November, 2020

Teacher question:

It seems there is currently a focus on intervention solely for the word recognition side in the early grades. The explanation is that most students who struggle, struggle with decoding, and I of course agree. However, I would add that many of those also struggle with language comprehension, with language development deficits that are measurable and observationally apparent in conversation with them as preschoolers, kindergartners, and first graders. The district’s current assessment model pretty much excludes them any assessment of language comprehension. I was told that one of the main reasons that children struggle later with reading comprehension is from the missed opportunities for language development from lack of ability to read over the elementary years. So, if they can learn to read, their language comprehension will improve. While I do not disagree that this occurs (Matthew effect...), I do disagree that this is the main source of the language comprehension issue, when we can see it clearly before hardly any of the children are readers. Can you help me?

Shanahan responds:

I love the broad strokes of the “simple view of reading.” It eschews detail and embraces the big picture. According to the model (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) – and its predecessor (Venezky, 1972) – there are two things that determine reading comprehension. There is decoding (the translation of print to pronunciation) and language comprehension (the ability to understand oral messages). Readers can make sense of text to the extent that they are able to render oral language from print but then they must be able to understand that oral language.

If I can’t decode well then there won’t be much of a message to work with at all. We must make sure kids can decode proficiently. Nevertheless, no matter how well I decode, whether I comprehend depends on my language abilities.  

For instance, consider this French sentence:

“Le président américain donne du fil à retorde aux traducteurs et aux journalistes français.”

I can read that sentence aloud adeptly enough that my French friends will know what I’m saying. My French decoding may not be perfect, but it’s more than serviceable.

Despite my adequate decoding, my understanding falls apart due to my ignorance of what “donne du fil à retorde” means. I can pronounce all of the words, and I know the sentence is about President Trump and that he was giving something to French translators and journalists. But that gap in my knowledge of this French idiom is determinant.

It should be obvious from this example that there are two places reading can go wrong: in the decoding or in the language.

Reading is more complicated than the simple view makes out because decoding and oral language each include multiple components themselves, each differing in their scopes and developmental trajectories. Decoding includes knowledge of letters, phonemic awareness, orthographic-phonemic relations, spelling patterns, conditional rules, exceptions, fast mapping or statistical sampling, and so on. While language includes vocabulary, morphology, syntax, cohesion, discourse structure, world knowledge… well, you get the idea.

Nevertheless, it is broad strokes of the simple view that make it so useful. As a policymaker it helps me frame a response to children’s learning needs. Some kids will have trouble learning to read, and that there are two distinct categories of reading failure suggests the need for two distinct categories of intervention.

That makes sense… and yet… that isn’t necessarily what is really happens in many schools. Most young struggling readers – no matter the etiology – will exhibit problems with decoding. This is because, initially, decoding is what is needed to make the process go.

Accordingly, most schools send in the decoding/fluency cavalry early on when there’s trouble.

But it’s different with oral language. Language deficiencies may not even be noticed until the students can decode reasonably well and the text demands begin to outstrip their language attainment, even though studies suggest these language problems to be long standing (Catts, Compton, Tomblin, & Bridges, 2012).

More recently, Mercedes Spencer and Rick Wagner have published an impressive array of studies focused on struggling readers with average decoding ability (Spencer & Wagner, 2017; Spencer & Wagner, 2018; Spencer, Wagner, & Petscher, 2019).

Obviously, we are in need of two streams of intervention: one focused on decoding and one on oral language.

Unfortunately, the powers that be in many districts have decided that early language gaps will best be addressed by decoding interventions alone. It’s an interesting theory, but one far from proven and the evidence suggests that this is a bad way to go.

There are three possible explanations for how this all works:

(1)   Language problems show up early but are not detected by teachers and psychologists focused on ferreting out decoding problems.

(2)   Language problems are latent, not expressing themselves until children are 8- or 9-years-old (an age by which most kids have gained adequate decoding skills).

(3)   The language problems are late developing but result from the diminished amount of reading caused by the early decoding problems (the so-called Matthew effect).

Which is it?

The honest answer is that we don’t know.

For instance, my friend Herb Walberg postulated the Matthew effects idea long ago (Walberg & Tsai, 1983) based on a biblical quote taken from the Book of Matthew (“the rich get richer”). In reading, that means the kids who read earliest get to read more which builds their vocabulary giving them a growing advantage over the early strugglers (Stanovich, 1986).

This theory is accepted as fact by many, and there are some data that are consistent with the idea. However, there is at least as much evidence that challenge the Matthew effects contention (e.g., Cain & Oakhill, 2011; Pfost, et al., 2014; Protopapas, et al., 2011; Protopapas, et al., 2016).

What have school leaders done in the face of such uncertainty? In far too many cases, they have replaced the simple view of reading with what I’ll call the “even simpler view of reading.” According to them, one can bake this cake with a single ingredient, decoding. Get that right, and the rest will follow.

I suspect that such dogged single mindedness is one of the reasons that reading problems persist into high school for so many of these early strugglers. Increasingly evidence is suggesting that these significant language delays are there from the start (Catts, et al., 2012; Morris, 2020).

It seems to me that a high-quality multi-tiered response systems shouldn’t play dice with the universe. We shouldn’t be saying, “Gee, a large percentage of struggling readers have trouble with decoding, so let’s have interventions that teach decoding.” No, instead we should be saying that “there are two major abilities required for reading success and that we must have interventions aimed at both areas of need.”

According to the simple view, reading development is two-pronged. Success in developing strong readers is going to need to be two pronged as well. Take a look at some of the cool early language assessments and materials Trina Spencer and Howard Goldstein have developed (Brookes).


Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. (2011). Matthew effects in young readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44, 431-443. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219411410042

Catts, H. W., Compton, D., Tomblin, J. B., & Bridges, M. S. (2012). Prevalence and nature of late-emerging poor readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(1), 166–181. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025323

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education7(1), 6–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/074193258600700104

Morris, R. (2020). Predicting response to reading disabilities intervention. In Grigorenko, E.L., Shtyrov, Y., & McCardle, P. (Eds.), All about language. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing.

Pfost, M., Hattie, J., Dörfler, T., & Artelt, C. (2014). Individual differences in reading development: A review of 25 years of empirical research on Matthew effects in reading. Review of Educational Research84(2), 203–244. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654313509492

Protopapas, A., Parrila, R., & Simos, P. G. (2016). In search of Matthew effects in reading. Journal of learning disabilities49(5), 499–514. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219414559974

Protopapas, A., Sideridis, G. D., Mouzaki, A., & Simos, P. G. (2011). Matthew effects in reading comprehension: Myth or reality? Journal of Learning Disabilities44(5), 402–420. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219411417568

Spencer, M., & Wagner, R. K. (2017). The comprehension problems for second-language learners with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Reading, 40(2), 199-217. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9817.12080

Spencer, M., & Wagner, R. K. (2018). The comprehension problems of children with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research88(3), 366–400. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654317749187

Spencer, M., Wagner, R. K., & Petscher, Y. (2019). The reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge of children with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: Evidence from a regression-based matching approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000274

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–407. https://doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.21.4.1

Venezky, R.L. (1972). Language and cognition in reading. Technical Report No. 188. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.  ERIC 067 646 https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED067646.pdf

Walberg, H. J., & Tsai, S.-L. (1983). Matthew effects in education. American Educational Research Journal20(3), 359–373. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312020003359


See what others have to say about this topic.

Rebecca Miles
Nov 14, 2020 06:12 PM

I think this speaks more directly to the lack of explicit teaching with complex text in tier 2 rather than a need for improving intervention IMHO

Sam Bommarito
Nov 14, 2020 06:20 PM

Another home run! My take- decoding is necessary but not sufficient. Comprehension is much more than just listening comprehension. There are several quotes from this entry that will be going up on my "key thoughts" wall. The on most important one is "What have school leaders done in the face of such uncertainty? In far too many cases, they have replaced the simple view of reading with what I’ll call the “even simpler view of reading.” According to them, one can bake this cake with a single ingredient, decoding. Get that right, and the rest will follow." I hope school leaders reading your blog take heed. Reading is much more than the "even simpler view" makes it out to be. Thanks for these insights.

Susan Vincent
Nov 14, 2020 07:17 PM

What are your thoughts about the books we use with early readers in intervention, who may have decoding and language problems? Do you support high-percentage decodable books, which may alter natural sounding language? Or do you prefer multi-criterion books that have a somewhat lower percentage of decodable words (along with high frequency and some other words), but sound more like natural language?

Nathaniel Swain
Nov 14, 2020 09:48 PM

Thanks for your post! I was wondering whether you think such tier 2 and 3 interventions should be the focus of supporting students with oral language difficulties (and disorders), or whether the priority in schools currently needs to be on building language proficiency at tier 1.

Joan Kelley
Nov 15, 2020 12:10 AM

I agree with the thinking and applaud the message clarity. I also believe we need to be more innovative around oral language support by productively enlisting other stakeholders. It’s a 24/7/365 effort to raise a strong reader and families, as well as after-school and summer care providers, need everyday, easy support to play their essential roles. Language skills are hard to address and children need as many opportunities as possible to engage in rich experiences. Especially this year, the dearth of idea-filled back-and-forth conversations outside of school is exacerbating children’s, and teachers’, struggles to grow these key reading-related skills.

Dr. Nancy Hetterly
Nov 15, 2020 12:44 AM

As a Kindergarten reading specialist it is very apparent when children have language difficulties. These children have difficulty following directions, understanding a story, and expressing their ideas. When I first learned about the Simple View of Reading I knew I wanted that topic - the importance of both decoding and language to be my dissertation topic. Through my studies I discovered Peterson and Spencer's CUBED language assessment and their Story Champs language intervention and used it last year. If it wasn't a Covid year I would be using them again.
This year our district adopted The Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum which has two components - Skills (during which the children learn writing and decoding skills) and a Knowledge component which builds their background knowledge and vocabulary. Both areas need to be addressed. I am thrilled that everything I learned through my dissertation work is - finally - being addressed. Unfortunately language difficulties are not quickly or easily "fixed." By age three language gaps can be huge and twice a week with a language therapist or interventionist is not enough. We will see if this curriculum makes a difference - at least the situation is recognized in my district.

Julia B Serrano
Nov 15, 2020 11:41 AM

I see a lot of the ownership of the problem on school leaders. I don't think this is misplaced, but I do think there is more to it. I work in an urban district and what I hear is an English language deficit even among the English-speaking families. How do we raise the oral language proficiency of the English speakers, before we get to the phonics?

Megan Kelty
Nov 15, 2020 12:56 PM

Do you have any suggestions for early language assessments to be used in grades K-2 in the screening process? I see the materials you recommended are for ages 3-5. Thank you!

Lori Josephson
Nov 15, 2020 02:41 PM

You are spot on here, Dr. Shanahan. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful and thought provoking words. Appreciate the research references as well.

Tim Shanahan
Nov 15, 2020 04:02 PM

I think it is fine to have kids reading some decodable text within their phonics instruction. However they need to read other kinds of text as well (for instance, I’d combine decodables with controlled vocabulary texts with lots of word repetition — but not pattern books). That way kids get both phonics practice and with a better exposure to the statistical properties of English.


Tim Shanahan
Nov 15, 2020 04:06 PM

Language should be a big part of Tier 1 teaching, but Tier 2 and 3 interventions on language must be available for those kids who fall behind with weaknesses in those skills. We give classroom teaching in decoding and have interventions for kids who need more of that. This is the same thing.


Tim Shanahan
Nov 15, 2020 04:09 PM

First, it isn’t oral language before phonics — it’s both.
I would argue for an approach to English Learners similar to what is happening in California... a daily period of explicit oral English instruction.


Tim Shanahan
Nov 15, 2020 04:12 PM

Those materials are for ages 4-6.I don’t know of language interventions for older kids.


Sherri Givens, CCC/SLP
Nov 16, 2020 02:40 PM

So many people think of the "speech-teacher" as only someone who can work on speech sounds but speech-language pathologists are trained to work not only on speech (speech sound production, voice, fluency) but also on language (listening, speaking, reading, & writing). We are trained to identify language deficits during all stages of life. In the schools, many SLP's are spread very thin. Even so, I have an open-door policy for any teacher who wants to make a referral or just ask questions about language development. I have found that most teachers are good at spotting language deficits, but they just don't know what to do about it.

David Rogers
Nov 17, 2020 08:58 PM

For Second Language Learners, the language objective for our instruction is always front and center. Our community has observed for decades the advantages of literacy development in two languages (English and the mother tongue of our English Learners) where attention to oral language development is core to literacy development, while tending to the specifics of literacy development in English vs. Spanish (for example). We understand the similarities of these systems so we can maximize cross-linguistic transfer, and understand the distinctions to so we can be deliberate in teaching unique skills. Any comment on the power of biliteracy development and where decoding has its place in that development would be appreciated.

Margaret Lohner
Nov 18, 2020 02:57 PM

Sherri Givens - YES! Another SLP here. We should be an integral part of any team of professionals who evaluate/provide support for students presenting with reading difficulties. Underlying language disorders (receptive and expressive deficits) are akin to a foundation of Swiss cheese; every subsequent level is affected including reading and written language.

Raisa Dhuka
Nov 19, 2020 08:12 PM

Awesome blog! As a future teacher, it is very informative to read about the struggles prevalant in students in early elementary and how teachers can approach these issues to help them be successful. I agree that students who struggle with decoding also struggle in language comprehension and language development. They are in some way all connected and difficulty in one area will ultimately impact other areas as you mention. I also agree that schools need to do better when it comes to providing materials to teach literacy.

Elizabeth Ochoa
Nov 20, 2020 05:15 AM

This is a great blog! As a mother, who has a young virtual learner at home this is crucial information. Understanding the importance of the connection that both decoding and language comprehension play in the success of a developing strong reader has made a great impact. I am also a future educator, and this information is essential to the role that I will be taking on. Thank you.

Giovanni Flores
Nov 24, 2020 03:49 AM

Amazing article I never thought about how important language comprehension is in the classroom and I wholeheartedly agree that we should strive to prioritize this more in the classroom.

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What Kind of Early Reading Intervention Should We Provide?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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