In a recent post, I talked about the challenges that (ACT) tutors often face when working with struggling readers; I also discussed how different types of problems can signal difficulties in different component skills that combine to produce reading. In this post, I’m going to cover how to identify a reading problem and provide some strategies for determining whether it stems from decoding, aural comprehension, or both.

To quickly review, the Simple View (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that General Reading Ability = Decoding x Aural Comprehension, with the weaker factor limiting overall skill.

Proficient teenage-adult readers decode at approximately 200 words per minute, or the speed of speech; however, many struggling readers never learned sound-letter combinations well enough to “map” them orthographically—that is, to store them in their brains for automatic retrieval. As a result, they read slowly and dysfluently, and may guess at, skip, misread, reverse, add, or omit letters/words.

On the other side, weak vocabulary (particularly words denoting abstract concepts); difficulty making sense out of complex syntax; and poor general knowledge can cause students who are solid decoders to have trouble understanding what they read.

Problems can be restricted to either of these areas; however, they often involve both factors and together produce a general reading problem.

When I tutored, I treated scores below 600 on the (old) SAT Reading or about 24 on the ACT as potential red flags, but knowing what I know now, I’d go much higher to be safe: probably 650-700 on the SAT and 28-29 on the ACT, especially if there’s a time issue. Smart kids can often come up with impressive compensation strategies.

Remember that even students who are scoring well may still have subtle decoding weaknesses that interfere with their ability to process long and challenging words. An eleventh- or twelfth-grader who cannot decode words like confluence and prescience and natatorium (actual ACT examples) has a real disadvantage in terms of both comprehension and speed.

When people hear the word “phonics,” they tend to think of cute little six-year-olds sounding out c-a-t. At an eleventh-grade level, however, it means knowing that “au” and “aw” make the same sound in the middle of a word,  as do “oi” and “oy,” and that “eu” makes a “yoo” sound.

It also comprises things like suffixes (do they know what sounds -ive and -sion make?) and the ability to quickly chunk unfamiliar multi-syllabic words into strings of syllables that can rapidly be sounded out. These are not beginner skills.

To illustrate the hurdles that a student with less-than-stellar decoding faces, I’ve taken the liberty of tweaking a couple of paragraphs from an ACT passage to show how quickly the effects pile up:


One of my best races could hardly be called a race at all. I was a senior in high school, __________ to qualify for the USA Junior Nationals. The __________ summer I had missed the cut by less than a second in the mile, and just the day before, at my high school __________ meet, I had come within three-tenths of a second in the 500-yard freestyle. The __________ time was 4:39.69; I swam a 4:39.95. The next day, Sunday, I drove with my mother to the far side of Houston where a time trial was being held—an informal, __________ event thrown together at the last minute. The only races swum were those the swimmers requested to swim. Most were short, __________ sprints in which swimmers attempted to shave off a few one-hundredths of second. I didn’t have the __________ to face the mile, and since I’d struck out in the 500 the day before, I decided to swim the 1,000-yard freestyle. Forty lengths of the pool. It was a race I’d swum fast enough to believe that given the right __________ of __________—cold water, an __________ heat, an __________ meet—I could make the cut. I had fifteen seconds to drop to qualify. By the time I stood up on the blocks, I was not only the only one in the race, I was practically the only one in the __________. The horn sounded and I dove in. I was angry and __________ at having missed the cut the day before and I had little belief that I could go any faster today.


Distracting and confusing, right? You can get the gist, but you keep getting thrown off.

It’s what a student reading at about 95% accuracy would see.

This is why 100% is the goal.

So if there’s even the slightest chance that a decoding weakness could be affecting a student’s score, start by doing the following:

Have the student read aloud from a passage for one minute while you time them. (If you don’t want to bother counting, I’ve put together a number of 200-word excerpts from various ACT passages; you can contact The Critical Reader if you’d like a free copy.) They shouldn’t try to speed-read, but they should move at a good pace.

They should track the text with their finger—not a pencil—as they read. Physical contact with the paper reinforces the eye-brain connection to the text.




1) How many words they can read (goal is about 200/minute; below 150 is a big red flag). 


2) The number of errors: words that are skipped, misread, reversed, inserted, or deleted. Some students may also skip lines. Put a mark for each mistake.  


3) Their prosody—can they read with conversational intonation, adjusting their speed and tone of voice to reflect the content of the passage? Do they notice punctuation and adjust their reading accordingly, or do they plow right through?


Pay particular attention to how they handle names: do they try to sound them out, or do they guess (or say something like “Mr. Whatever” or “blah blah”)? Many of my students struggled considerably with these words and often were unsure whether they were names at all. Strong decoders might not be spot-on if irregular pronunciations are involved, especially when it comes to non-English names, but they’ll be somewhere in the ballpark. At any rate, your primary interest is in seeing whether they try to work through these words phonetically or just give up without even making an attempt. This is will give you some insight into whether they’re reading by sight-based memorization or have actually internalized phonetic rules well enough to be able to apply them automatically to new situations.

Also: if they do try to sound words out, do they get the sound-letter correspondences right, or do they pronounce, say, Sargasso as Sar-jasso (indicating that they don’t know g followed by a is hard)?

For students whose scores are already solid, pick a very challenging passage. If they can decode it accurately, at an appropriate speed (somewhere in the range of 200 words per minute), and ideally with good intonation, you don’t need to worry about this, and you can move on to traditional test-prep.

For students who cannot read with basically 100% accuracy—irregularly pronounced words aside—and who are decoding below, say, 175 words per minute, the next thing to do is try to gauge their aural comprehension.

Take an ACT passage, and read the whole thing aloud to the student while the student follows along with the text (passages are far too complex for students to be expected to remember the information from hearing alone). Then, give them 5-6 minutes or so to answer the questions on their own. If a student is scoring above a 24-25 and was able to read aloud with a high level of accuracy, they can probably handle the questions on their own.

If their decoding is clearly problematic, however, you should also read them each question, along with the answer choices, and forget about time completely. If a student has scored below 22-23 or so on their diagnostic, this is the safest best. Significant decoding problems tend to go hand-in-hand with comprehension problems, but not always, and you really want to separate out the two skills.

If you don’t have diagnostic-test score, or if you want to watch how a student works independently, you can also select a passage of comparable difficulty and give the student 8:45 to do the whole thing on their own.

if the student does substantially better on the passage that was read to them than on any of the passages in their diagnostic test/independent passage, then a decoding problem is probably playing a big role in their struggles.

Now, to anyone who worries that this sort of assessment is taking them into territory they’re not trained for, or that they’re stepping on the toes of the real professionals, I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret: many (I would wager most) of the “experts” responsible for diagnosing reading problems do not actually know very much about how the reading process works and have virtually nothing to offer struggling readers beyond extra time and maybe an IEP. If you asked them to explain the Simple View, for example, you would probably get a blank stare.

Exceedingly few university programs cover the so-called Science of Reading in even a cursory manner at either the undergraduate or graduate level. In fact, it is entirely possible for a person to graduate with reading-specialist degree from an Ivy-League school of education and virtually no knowledge of phonics, the importance of phonemic awareness and decoding speed, the Simple View, or orthographic mapping. If you don’t believe me, I can refer you to my colleagues Ben Tobin and Rachel Currie-Rubin, who received a master’s and a doctorate respectively from the Harvard Graduate School of Education; they’ll be more than happy to give you an earful.

But I digress.

Presumably you’re now wondering, “Ok, now I have all this information, but, um…. What exactly am I supposed to do with it?”

I’ll cover that part next.