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When Breaking the Code, the reading-instruction group I helped found in the summer of 2020, held its most recent workshop last week, I stuck an announcement in my newsletter almost as an afterthought. A test-prep tutor had participated in our previous workshop and seemed to have gotten a lot of out of it, and it occurred to me that others might be interested. Nevertheless, I was a bit taken aback at the number of inquiries I received from ACT tutors—more emails, incidentally, than I got from elementary-school teachers.

In retrospect, this should not have been at all surprising, but I guess that given all the current backlash over standardized testing, I neglected to realize how many students are still getting tutored for college-admissions exams, and how many tutors are encountering the exact same kinds of reading problems I repeatedly saw. The issues I discuss here do also apply to the SAT (and any other standardized test), but I’m focusing on the ACT here because it brings a set of specific issues into particularly sharp focus. 

Because of its time constraints, the ACT is ground zero for issues involving speed and fluency to become apparent. It’s also a test that students who are stronger in math/science tend to gravitate toward because the reading portion has a reputation for being more straightforward than the SAT’s. As a result, people who tutor this test are often responsible for shouldering reading problems that should have been picked up on when students were in elementary school, and that they understandably feel poorly equipped to deal with. When I talk about reading problems, these are the people who get it at the most visceral level.

All I can say is that I’ve been there: becoming a high-school reading-remediation specialist was not what I signed up for when I started tutoring the ACT, and some of the problems I saw quickly made realize that I was in way in over my head.

During the workshop, the tutors who attended spouted my thoughts almost verbatim:

“How is it even possible that in more than 10 years of schooling, no one realized this kid was struggling to read? Why am I the first person to notice the problem?”

“This isn’t what I was trained to do. I really want to help, but I’m not sure how.”

“How do I tell parents that their child needs more help than what I can provide? And how do I get them to believe me if that child has a 4.3 GPA? They’d think I was crazy.”

These were the questions that sent me tumbling down the rabbit hole of American reading instruction and sent me on a decade-long quest to understand why my students guessed at, skipped, and confused words, and why their eyes sometimes raced around the page in a way so bizarre that I could only conclude they had been taught by people who didn’t understand what reading was. Although I could not have imagined it back in 2009 (or even in 2019, when the puzzle was finally cleared up), that was indeed the case.

I’ve written extensively about the havoc that the three-cueing system has wrought on American reading instruction, but for anyone who doesn’t want to bother with the full version, here’s the most condensed synopsis I can offer:

Proficient teenage-adult reading typically occurs at a speed of around 200-250 words per minute, or approximately the speed of speech. A person who reads significantly slower than that will generally struggle to hold onto the “thread” of meaning: by the time they arrive at the end a paragraph, or even a sentence, they will have already forgotten the beginning. They will also struggle to connect text to spoken language—that is, to internally hear the kind of conversational intonation that can help them make sense out of what they’re reading. To decode text at the requisite rate, readers must have an immense mental library of sound-letter combinations that have been “mapped” orthographically, i.e., stored in the brain for automatic retrieval so that words can be processed in a fraction of a second.

This process was first outlined in the 1970s and ‘80s by a scholar named Linnea Ehri; however, by that point a competing—and wildly incorrect—theory had already begun to take hold. In 1967, Kenneth Goodman of the University of Arizona published a paper called “Reading is a Psycholinguistic Guessing Game” in which he argued that strong readers processed text by using three main types of context clues—syntactic (word order, knowledge of parts of speech), semantic (what would “make sense”), and graphic (pictorial)—to make predictions that were then either confirmed or rejected.

This became known as the three-cueing system, and it taught children to treat reading as a literal guessing game by using a combination of first (and sometimes last) letters, pictures, and general context; letters in the middle of words were largely ignored. Phonics, when taught, was/is presented as one option out of many—and one to be avoided as much as possible—with the result that many children failed to map the sound-letter combinations necessary to read at a proficient rate. This approach also encouraged students to repeatedly take their eyes off the text in order to look elsewhere for pictures and other context clues.

Goodman’s theory effectively formed the basis for Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study Program, the most frequently used elementary-school reading program in the United States. While many of the 40% or so of children who can learn to decode with only minimal instruction do fine with it, millions of others end up with huge and persistent gaps. (Calkins now claims that she “accepts” the science of reading and “has always believe in phonics,” but it’s unclear how substantive any intended to her program will actually be.)

If you’re an ACT tutor, particularly in the New York/New Jersey area, and are working with smart but struggling readers, chances are they got Lucy in elementary school and learned just enough to skate by for the next decade without anyone noticing the gaps. And if you’ve ever had a student persistently look at first letters and guess at words, or stare at you as if you’d grown a second head when you asked if they could sound out an unfamiliar word, they’re not being deliberately difficult. Rather, they’re almost certainly behaving this way because they were taught to 1) look at first letters and guess and 2) were never taught to use all the letters in a word to sound it out. In fact, they may not even fully realize that words can be sounded out at all; most likely, they’ve been reading through a combination of memorization and guesswork since first grade.

This, in a nutshell, is what I wish I’d known when I was tutoring and what I instead had to spend years figuring out. I sincerely hope it saves others some trouble.

Now, consider this:

The ACT Reading section consists of four passages, each with approximately 750 words and accompanied by 10 questions, to be completed in 35 minutes. Assuming that the time is divided equally among the passages at 8:45 per passage, most students will need to spend at least five-six minutes answering the questions, leaving them around 2:45 to 3:45 to read each passage. That works out to a reading speed of 200-250 words per minute.

Even if a student starts by looking at the questions, they must be able to extract information very quickly and efficiently while scanning and jumping around to different parts of the passage—something that is quite difficult for a slow reader to accomplish.

As a result, a lot of ACT reading tutoring is necessarily focused off getting students to use their time as effectively as possible, and to identify questions they have the highest/lowest chance of answering correctly and skip accordingly. Passage content and vocabulary may also be discussed, but much of the emphasis is on finding various workarounds to compensate for weaknesses in decoding.

Now, to take another detour into the Science of Reading, the standard model of reading ability, known as the Simple View (Gough and Tunmer, 1986), states the following:

Reading Ability = Decoding  x  Aural Comprehension

  • Decoding = the ability to interpret squiggles on a page as words
  • Aural Comprehension = vocabulary, syntax, and background knowledge—basically, everything else.

Problems can come from the decoding side only; the comprehension side only; or both. However, readers will inevitably be limited by the weaker side of the equation.

I’m going to consider each of these scenarios separately because they necessitate very different approaches.


Scenario #1: Poor Decoding, Good Aural Comprehension

It does not matter how well a student comprehends aurally or how strong their general language development is: if they can’t decode well, they will have trouble with written text. This is why so many students who can understand complex audiobooks easily struggle with the same works in written form. Students whose vocabulary and general knowledge far outpace their decoding are somewhat rare, but they do exist. Although the amount of work they require varies, and depends on factors such as phonemic awareness (the ability to discriminate between sounds) and working memory, they can sometimes progress very quickly with only a small amount of targeted instruction. I have a colleague currently working with a highly motivated sophomore, and he’s made astounding, potentially life-changing progress in barely a couple of months.

What’s really important to understand here is that students in this category don’t need complex comprehension strategies—if the decoding problem is fixed, they’ll just read and understand (as the Simple View predicts). So for them, a pure focus on decoding is actually the most beneficial approach because it addresses the root problem directly.

Yes, when students who are not reading too far below proficient speed manage to get extra time, they can often do quite well, but the underlying issue doesn’t get resolved. As a result, they may struggle to keep up with heavy reading loads in college and/or may effectively be locked out of majors that involve a lot of reading.


Scenario #2: Strong Decoding, Poor Aural Comprehension

If students can decode well but have poor general language skills, they will likewise have difficulty understanding what they read; good decoding ability on its own does not lead to comprehension.

My sense is that this is a fairly uncommon scenario in high-school readers; kids with strong decoding skills tend to get exposed to fair amount of vocabulary and subject-specific information, and their advantages accrue over the years. Virtually all the students I worked with in this category had a diagnosed learning disability, and their solid decoding was the result of intensive intervention; if this isn’t the case, there’s often something else unusual going on.

That said, the best approach is generally to get students get off autopilot, have them summarize and generally think about what they’re reading, and work on understanding more abstract language as well as how various parts of a sentence or paragraph relate to one another. For example, they can work on figuring out which nouns pronouns refer to, or you can discuss how nouns are created from verbs when certain ending are added (e.g., contemplate, contemplation).


Scenario #3: Poor Decoding, Poor Aural Comprehension

If students have trouble in both areas, as is common for many ACT students scoring in the low 20s or below, then… well, this is where things get sticky. Especially if a high GPA is involved.

As I emphasized during the workshop, there is no quick fix here, and it’s the case that has to be handled most delicately. In most cases, difficulty establishing sound-letter correspondences early on (something I should make clear is unrelated to intelligence) leads to a downward spiral of resistance and missed vocabulary/knowledge acquisition, and eventually produces kids who flat-out refuse to pick up a book. After 10 years of this, it’s a safe bet that “tips and tricks” aren’t going to have much of an effect.

What a particular tutor is able to do here really depends on a range of factors: how honest they’re comfortable being about a student’s level and the amount they can do in what is usually a relatively short timeframe; how open the family is to seeking remediation or to even considering that there might be a real problem; even whether a student has taken the test before and has already developed an image of themselves as a “bad test-taker.” This is not an easy situation for anyone involved.

In many cases, the best one can offer is strategy work aimed at identifying and answering only the most straightforward questions. But as one tutor commented to me, “By given them workarounds, it just feels like I’m perpetuating the problem.”

Ideally, both sides of the reading equation need to get worked simultaneously, but separately: as per the Simple View, a decoding issue cannot be addressed through comprehension work. As decoding ability develops via intensive phonics instructions, students are better able to apply the language skills they do have, work through more material at a faster pace, and more easily manage challenging vocabulary, improving comprehension. It’s not always a straightforward process, but it can be done.

As an increasing number of colleges go test-optional, it’s possible that tutors will encounter fewer students in this category; it remains to be seen how many schools will shift back to requiring scores when the pandemic is over, and presumably many students for whom reading is a real struggle will jump to avoid any optional testing.

But that said, the ACT will still presumably continue to be used as a graduation requirement in some states, and so the issue is unlikely to disappear entirely.