Early Intervention

Identification and Assessment to Prevent Reading Failure in Young Children

By: Joseph K. Torgesen (1998)

One of the most compelling findings from recent reading research is that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. As several studies have now documented, the poor first-grade reader almost invariably continues to be a poor reader (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998).

And the consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time. As Stanovich (1986) pointed out in his well-known paper on the "Matthew effects" (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) associated with failure to acquire early word reading skills, these consequences range from negative attitudes toward reading (Oka & Paris, 1986), to reduced opportunities for vocabulary growth (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985), to missed opportunities for development of reading comprehension strategies (Brown, Palinscar, & Purcell, 1986), to less actual practice in reading than other children receive (Allington, 1984).

The best solution to the problem of reading failure is to allocate resources for early identification and prevention.

It is a tragedy of the first order that while we know clearly the costs of waiting too long, few school districts have in place a mechanism to identify and help children before failure takes hold. Indeed, in the majority of cases, there is no systematic identification until third grade, by which time successful remediation is more difficult and more costly.

School-based preventive efforts should be engineered to maintain growth in critical word reading skills at roughly normal levels throughout the early elementary school period. Although adequate development of these skills in first grade does not guarantee that children will continue to maintain normal growth in second grade without extra help, to the extent that we allow children to fall seriously behind at any point during early elementary school, we are moving to a "remedial" rather than a "preventive" model of intervention. Once children fall behind in the growth of critical word reading skills, it may require very intensive interventions to bring them back up to adequate levels of reading accuracy (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1994; Vaughn & Schumm, 1996), and reading fluency may be even more difficult to restore because of the large amounts of reading practice that is lost by children each month and year that they remain poor readers (Rashotte, Torgesen, & Wagner, 1997).

The purpose of this article is to provide practical advice about methods to prevent reading failure that is grounded in the new knowledge about reading we have acquired over the past two decades. My primary focus will be on early identification of children at risk for problems in learning to read as well as methods for monitoring the growth of critical early reading skills. The goal is to describe procedures that will allow educators to identify children who need extra help in reading before they experience serious failure and to monitor the early development of reading skill to identify children who may require extra help as reading instruction proceeds through elementary school.

The advice provided in this article is based on the research my colleagues Richard Wagner, Carol Rashotte, and I have been conducting on both prediction and prevention of reading disabilities (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994; 1997; Wagner, et al., 1994; 1997) as well as the work of many other researchers that was reviewed in an earlier issue of this magazine (Summer, 1995).