RESEARCH REVIEW

Reading and writing disorders: Research-based assessment and intervention

This article examines the many definitions of learning disabilities and the IQ-achievment criteria used by APA to assess them

By Layne Neel, Ashton Johnson, and Jeffrey D. Shahidullah

Approximately one-half of all children who receive special education services are classified under the specific learning disability category (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). When one considers the role that reading and writing play in students’ educational outcomes, it is evident that educators and mental health practitioners are in need of empirically-based assessment and intervention procedures to help identify and treat children with reading and writing disorders. The primary purpose of this paper is to inform school psychology students and professionals of best practices within the areas of assessment and intervention for reading and writing disorders.

Approximately onehalf of all children who receive special education services are classified under the specific learning disability category (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). Thus, widespread concern exists among school psychologists regarding the assessment and intervention of children with learning disabilities. Of specific concern to educators, is the fact that reading disorders affect 4% of school-age children (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000), and constitute about 90% of students with learning disabilities (Hardman, Drew, & Egan, 2008). Additionally, writing disorders are estimated to affect 10% of the school-age population (Lyon, Fletcher, & Barnes, 2003), and are frequently associated with other learning disabilities (APA, 2000). When one considers the role that reading and writing play in students’ educational outcomes, it is evident that educators and mental health practitioners are in need of empirically-based assessment and intervention procedures to help identify and treat children with reading and writing disorders.

The primary purpose of this paper is to inform school psychology students and professionals of best practices within the areas of assessment and intervention for reading and writing disorders. First, definitions of these disorders are discussed. Second, best practices in the assessment of reading and writing disorders will be discussed, including what instruments should be used, the effectiveness of utilizing cross-battery assessment, and cultural considerations. Finally, empirically-based interventions, including those at the school level, classroom level, and individual level, will all be considered.

Definition

Many definitions of learning disabilities exist, but it has been common to identify a child as learning disabled if there is a significant difference (1.5 standard deviations) between cognitive and achievement test scores (Fletcher et al., 1994). That is not to say that the use of IQ-achievement discrepancy as an indicator for learning disabilities is not without its critics (Dombrowski, Kamphaus, & Reynolds, 2004), but debating the definition and specific criteria of a learning disability is beyond the scope of this paper. The federal definition of a specific learning disability is stated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004:

"Specific learning disability" means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disabilities, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (IDEA 2004, PL 108-446, Sec. 602[30])

Nevertheless, the APA continues to utilize the IQ-achievement discrepancy as an inclusionary criterion to diagnose learning disorders (Lyon, Fletcher, et al., 2003). According to the APA (2000), "the essential feature of Reading Disorder is reading achievement that falls substantially below that expected given the individual's chronological age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education" (p. 51). Additionally, the disturbance must significantly interfere with academic achievement or daily activities that require reading skills. The essential feature of Disorder of Written Expression, according to the APA (2000), is "writing skills that fall substantially below those expected given the individual's chronological age, measured intelligence, and ageappropriate education" (pp. 54-55). The disturbance must also significantly interfere with academic achievement or daily activities that require writing skills.

Assessment

In the evaluation of reading and writing disorders, empirically-based assessments provide school psychologists with reliable and valid data. School psychology assessment for reading and writing includes direct observation of students during instruction, teacher interview about reading and writing curriculum and teaching methods, administration of standardized tests of reading and writing and related processes or skills, and progress monitoring with probes linked to lessons or curriculum-based measures (Berninger & Wagner, 2008). Also, best practices in school psychology (Berninger & Wagner, 2008) encourages school psychologists to consider identifying children with learning disabilities on the basis of their limited response to effective instruction using a response-to-intervention (RTI) model, rather than using the common method of computing the ability-achievement discrepancy. Both norm-referenced instruments and curriculum-based measurement are useful in helping school psychologists with the assessment of reading and writing disorders within this problem-solving frame-work. Curriculum-based measurement techniques can be used to assess student progress in all three RTI tiers (Malacki & Jewell, 2003). Norm referenced tests allow comparison to age or grade levels based on national samples, and allows for a comparison group outside the local context of a particular school (Berninger & Wagner, 2008).

Flanagan et al. (2006) detail the norm-referenced instruments that can be used by school psychologists to assess for reading problems. The most commonly utilized tests to assess basic reading include:

Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, Second Edition (WIAT-II) Word Reading subtest, the Wood-cock Johnson III Tests of Achievement (WJ III) Letter-Word Identification subtest, and the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test, Revised/Normative Update (WRMT-R/NU) Word Attack subtest. These sub-tests include word lists involving real words or non-sense words where the examinee is required to read a series of words that are presented in isolation (Flanagan et al., 2006). The most commonly used tests used to assess reading comprehension include: WJ III Passage Comprehension and the WIAT-II Reading Comprehension subtests. Common measures of reading fluency include the WJ III Reading Fluency subtest, the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement, Second Edition (KTEA-II) Word Recognition Fluency subtest, and the Test of Silent Word Reading Fluency (TSWRF) subtest. These subtests require the examinee "to read a simple sentence (e.g., the sky is always green) and determine if the statement is true or not and mark it  accordingly" (Flanagan et al., 2006, p. 13). For a comprehensive list of basic reading subtests, reading comprehension subtests, and reading fluency subtests school psychologists and other educational professionals are encouraged to consult Flanagan et al. (2006). Flanagan et al. (2006) also detail the norm-referenced instruments that can be used by school psychologists to assess for writing problems. The most commonly utilized tests to assess basic writing can be found in the Test of Written Language, Third Edition (TOWL-3), the WJ III, and the Test of Early Written Language (TEWL-2). The basic writing subtests focus on evaluation of one’s spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. The most commonly used tests to assess written expression can be found in the WIAT-II and the Peabody Individual Achievement Test, Revised/Normative Update (PIAT-R/NU). For a comprehensive list of basic writing subtests and written expression subtests, school psychologists and other educational professionals are encouraged to consult Flanagan et al. (2006).

Curriculum-based measurement techniques are helpful when assessing for reading and writing problems.

Hosp and MacConnell (2008) recommend utilizing the following tests to follow best practices in curriculum-based evaluation in early reading: Phoneme Segmentation Fluency (PSF), Letter Sound Fluency (LSF), Non-sense Word Fluency (NWF), Word Identification Fluency (WIF), and Oral Reading Fluency (ORF). PSF is an assessment of phonemic awareness designed to assess a student's ability to orally segment words made up of three to four phonemes. LSF is designed to measure a student's ability to map sounds to letters.

NWF measures a student's ability to produce or blend letters that represent their most common sound. WIF assesses a student's accuracy and fluency on high-frequency words from early elementary and reading curricula. ORF is an assessment of reading accuracy and fluency in connected text. To follow best practices in curriculum-based evaluation in advanced reading Howell (2008) recommends using the following measurements: Cloze and maze, vocabulary matching, and ORF. Cloze and maze passages are designed to measure a student's ability in reading comprehension, vocabulary, decoding, and syntax. Vocabulary matching assesses a student's vocabulary knowledge. Additionally, Howell (2008) recommends utilizing think-aloud interviews in which educators can examine text comprehension strategies by simply telling the students to report what they are thinking about as they work. The evaluator then records the student's comments and later codes the comments in alignment of metacognitve and text comprehension strategies. Finally, Howell (2008) states that retell probes are useful for obtaining a qualitative impression of a student's comprehension of written text as well as skills at identification of main ideas and discernment of pertinent information.

Some classroom writing assessments that are appropriate for all writers, including those that struggle with writing include observations, inventories, and rubrics (Romeo, 2008). Informal observation is an effective method to assess students' writing. These anecdotal records can be done while students are writing drafts, working on revisions, editing alone, or with peers, or during conferences regarding the process or product (Romeo, 2008). After the observation is completed, it should be assessed to discover a student’s strengths, measure growth, and determine specific weaknesses (Rhodes & Nathanson-Meijia, 1999). The information can then be analyzed to form categories that can be used to drive instructional practices (Farr, 1999). Inventories are another effective writing assessment that could be used in a student’s curriculum. From them, information can be gained regarding students writing interests, their perceptions of their abilities in writing, and writer self-efficacy (Romeo, 2008). The knowledge gathered from these, can be used to guide writing instruction that is tailored to the specific student. Rubrics can be used to assess samples of various types of student’s writing throughout the school year (Romeo, 2008), and Piazza (2003) recommends using the six writing traits (ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions) as criteria when constructing rubrics. Also, a scale should be used to chart progress throughout the year.

While norm-referenced instruments and curriculum-based evaluations are both methods that school psychologists can employ when assessing for reading and writing disorders, evidence also exists supporting the use of Cross-Battery Assessment (XBA). XBA is a relatively new approach (introduced in the late 1990s) to intellectual and academic ability testing. Alfonso, Flanagan, and Radwan (2005) define XBA as a time-efficient method of assessment and interpretation that is grounded in Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory and research. It "provides a set of principles and procedures that allows practitioners to measure a wider range of abilities than that represented by most single intelligence or achievement batteries, in a theoretically and psychometrically defensible manner" (Alfonso et al., 2005, p. 192). One of the primary strengths of utilizing XBA when testing for a reading or writing disability, is that it allows the practitioner to examine a particular academic domain in a more in depth and selective manner than if just one battery was used to assess a broad range of academic abilities that are unnecessary for the goal of the particular evaluation. If using a XBA approach, the practitioner should examine the depth of coverage of a specific academic domain (e.g., reading ability or written expression) on particular batteries that they consistently utilize and supplement the reading or writing tests of a particular comprehensive core battery with tests from another battery (Flanagan et al., 2006). Overall, best practices in the assessment of reading and writing disorders do map on to XBA: "Cross-Battery procedures can aid practitioners not only in the comprehensive measurement of cognitive abilities but also in the selective measurement of both academic and cognitive abilities that are deemed important with respect to the examinee's presenting problem" (Flanagan, 2006, p. 91). The specific CHC domains that appear to relate most to reading achievement are Comprehension-Knowledge (Gc), Short-Term Memory (Gsm), Auditory Processing (Ga), Long-Term Retrieval (Glr), and Processing Speed (Gs) (Evans, Floyd, McGrew, & Leforgee, 2001; Flanagan et al., 2006). The CHC domains that appear to relate most to writing achievement are Ga, Gsm, Gs, and Gc (Flanagan et al., 2006; Floyd, McGrew, & Evans, 2008).

Intervention

Empirically-based interventions at the school, classroom, and individual level should all be considered when school psychologists utilize strategies for students who struggle with reading and writing. Graham, Harris, & Larsen (2001) examine how schools can help learning disabled children become skilled writers by applying six principles designed to prevent and alleviate writing difficulties. These include providing effective writing instruction, tailoring writing instruction to meet each child’s need, intervening early to provide additional assistance, expecting that each child will learn to write, identifying and addressing academic and non academic roadblocks to writing, and deploying technological tools that improve writing performance. Research studies have been done to examine the effectiveness of early intervention programs in writing (Berninger et al., 1997; Jones & Christensen, 1999, Graham, Harris, & Fink, 2000). Jones and Christensen (1999) show that at the end of a treatment period, both the handwriting and story writing quality of children who received extra writing instruction improved to the point where it was indistinguishable from that of their regular peers who were initially better hand writers and story writers. The Early Literacy Project (ELP) is an example of a literacy program that has been implemented recently in schools. In this program, reading and writing are integrated together, taught around thematic units and supplemented by more conventional skills instruction, as participants are explicitly and systematically taught reading and writing strategy (Graham et al., 2001). The writing process of students in the ELP program was compared to the performance of similar children in the same school district and showed that the ELP students made greater gains in writing even after just one year of instruction (Englert et al. 1995).

A study by Graham et al. (2000) found that supplemental handwriting instruction can boost compositional fluency. Both of these studies demonstrated that early intervention programs that provide instruction in either handwriting or spelling can have a positive effect on one aspect of struggling writers’ composting; namely, compositional fluency, as measured by children’s ability to either craft sentences or generate text when writing (Graham et al., 2001). These findings have important implications for the prevention of writing problems, as data collected by Berninger et al.

(1997), indicate that impaired compositional fluency in the primary grades may serve as the developmental origin of writing in later grades. Additionally, Graham et al. (2001) state that reading and writing skills are closely related, and so schools that increase the amount of reading experiences will likely enhance their students' writing skill development as well.

At the classroom level, Graham & Harris (1997) contend that an aspect of tailoring writing instruction to meet the need of the student is to emphasize instruction of meaning, process, and form, and to adjust emphasis placed on each child, depending on an individual child’s needs. Also, it is important to allow students to write about topics that interest them. Students do best with frequent and extended opportunities to read and write and when exposed to a body of literature that represents a variety of genres, topics, and styles (Blatt & Rosen, 1987). Providing students with choices in writing topics and reading materials, with opportunities to write about topics and ideas that interest them and with which they are familiar with, positively affects their attitudes toward learning (Hanson, 1991; Rubin & Hansen, 1986). Research from Englert et al. (1995) shows that children with special needs, including those with learning disabilities, can be taught to write within the classroom. An aspect of developing any successful writing program is for these students to recognize that they are capable (Graham et al., 2001). These children need to be positively engaged in class work without ever being stigmatized and high but realistic expectations should be set and expressed to these kids. Teachers help students explore their understanding by providing them with ample opportunities to consider personal responses to texts they compose and to make links between prior experiences and what they are reading and writing. Students share their ideas and insights with class members, believing the class community accepts them, and thus affirm their efforts in future writing (Blatt & Rosen, 1987). Another key component to enhancing the writing development of children is to identify and address any other factors that may be impeding their writing ability. Educators need to address any other roadblock that might impede the writing development of students (Graham et al., 2001).

Wendling and Mather (2009) give numerous researchbased interventions for writing that can be used at the individual level. A few examples include word sorts, spelling irregular words, writing aids, teaching text structures, and editing checklists. A study by Sexton, Harris, and Graham (1998) used a planning strategy to help students improve on written work. Following through with the strategy, students papers became longer and qualitatively better, and there was a positive change in attributions for writing. Furthermore, technological devices provide new options for minimizing writing difficulties by providing support for planning and revising through the use of outlining and semantic mapping software, multimedia applications, and prompting programs (Graham et al., 2001). When these are used as supplements to traditional writing instruction, they have been shown to accelerate writing performance. For a more comprehensive list of evidencedbased writing interventions, school psychologists and other educational professionals are encouraged to consult Wendling and Mather (2009).

In regards to the implementation of efficacious, empirically-validated interventions for reading difficulties and disorders, a comprehensive system including diagnostics and infrastructural supports is essential to ensuring the success and proliferation of educational programs throughout an entire school district. Sadler and Sugai (2009) reported on the Effective Behavior and Instructional Support Program (EBIS). This educational plan was modified and modeled to incorporate RTI in 2001, and was partially funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Key principles include district-wide educational screening, reading skill introduction with respect to sequential concept mastery, the utilization of reading programs such as Open Court and Success for All in regular education, and positive, proactive behavioral plans.

EBIS teams are school-based and are tasked with identifying students who display a pressing need for either Tier 2 or Tier 3 interventions. These teams accomplish their tasks by ensuring that regular education settings adequately promote student development, could not otherwise reasonably accommodate students in consideration for special education services, and that any student in consideration for special accommodation has displayed deficient academic achievement and progress in relation to their peers. These EBIS leadership teams also meet with school-based grade-level teams and behavioral support teams, in an effort to ensure that each school is properly monitoring the overall and individual academic and social development of the student body both as a whole and on a student-by-student basis. Specific program options for reading difficulties utilized by the EBIS program include both the utilization of Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literary Skills (DIBELS), as a bench-marking tool, and programs such as Open Court and Success for All in regular education. Tiers 2 and 3, which are assessed via criterion-referenced and curriculum-based testing, include a plethora of empirically-validated programs including Reading Mastery, Read Naturally, Great Leaps, and Corrective Reading. These systems have all been assessed and are considered highly useful as supplemental materials in the development or remediation of reading skills in students with reading difficulties or reading disorders. For a more comprehensive review of these programs see Sadler and Sugai (2009) and Wendling and Mather (2009).

Wendling and Mather (2009) give numerous research-based interventions for reading that can be used at the individual level. A few examples include decodable text, speed drills, predicting, and repeated reading. For a more comprehensive list of evidenced-based reading interventions, school psychologists and other educational professionals are encouraged to consult Wendling and Mather (2009).

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About Authors

  • Layne G. Neel, EdS, is a doctoral student in educa-tional psychology at Baylor University, Waco, TX.

  • Ashton B. Johnson, EdS, is a practicing school psychologist in Texas.

  • Jeffrey D. Shahidullah, EdS, NCSP, is a doctoral student in school psychology at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.