Identifying and Addressing Why Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers Struggle

By Suzanne Carreker, Ph.D., CALT, QI, Principal Educational Content Lead​ at Lexia Learning

One of the challenges of addressing the learning needs of non-proficient adolescent readers is the diversity of those needs. However, in the majority of cases, educators can determine the cause of non-proficient reading by applying the Simple View of Reading. This formula, which has been validated by several research studies, posits that reading comprehension is the product of two mutually dependent components: decoding and linguistic comprehension.

Decoding is the accurate and automatic translation of printed words into their spoken equivalents.

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Linguistic comprehension is the ability to derive meaning from sentences and texts through listening, and it requires the understanding of complex words, morphology (e.g., prefixes, roots, suffixes), phrases, clauses and ways of structuring text that together are known as “academic language.”

Non-proficient readers may struggle with one or both of these two components, leading to four distinct learner profiles. Each is listed below, along with associated traits and behaviors:

  1. Adequate linguistic comprehension, adequate decoding

These readers have adequate word recognition, academic language, and reading comprehension skills to meet the demands of grade-level standards.

  1. Adequate linguistic comprehension, inadequate decoding

These readers have a robust vocabulary and deep knowledge, which is obvious during class discussions and debates. But their written work shows little initiative, is rarely complete, and has many spelling errors. They avoid reading aloud, but when they do, they misread words, and their reading is labored and halting. They may have diagnosed or undiagnosed dyslexia.

  1. Inadequate linguistic comprehension, adequate decoding

These readers read accurately and fluently. They are competent spellers who often have neat and legible handwriting. However, they only have a literal level of understanding of what they read. They are unable to integrate textual information with prior knowledge. They also do not understand the nuances of language (shades of meaning) or non-literal language (e.g., idioms, metaphors, similes). They have difficulties following oral directions as well as processing and integrating information during class discussions. These students may have a language-based learning disability.

  1. Inadequate linguistic comprehension, inadequate decoding

These readers demonstrate inadequacies in both decoding and linguistic comprehension, possibly due to high mobility disrupting their learning, creating gaps in their knowledge, and impacting their motivation. They will go to any length to avoid reading and writing, both of which are labored and full of errors. They prefer listening to text read aloud and oral discussions and presentations, but lack overall depth of knowledge and vocabulary.

English Language Learners (ELLs) may exhibit any one of the four profiles. ELLs with limited exposure to English may struggle to read simply because they lack English language proficiency. But once they have learned English, their learner profiles in English will most likely mirror their learner profiles in their first language. Therefore, it is important to ascertain their linguistic comprehension and decoding skills in their first language.

A fine-grained and valid assessment program that measures the underpinnings of the components of reading comprehension can identify these underlying issues. Both lower-level reading skills (e.g., word recognition, spelling, syntactic awareness) and higher-level reading skills (e.g., listening and reading comprehension) should be measured. The right assessment can identify students’ strengths and weaknesses in critical reading skills (including their mastery of academic language) and help educators pinpoint the appropriate profile for each student, which can then guide the delivery of personalized instruction. From there, educators should look for programs that can simultaneously accelerate the development of both fundamental literacy skills and higher-order thinking skills through adaptive learning paths.

Such personalized instruction that comes from programs like Lexia PowerUp Literacy™, Lexia Learning’s latest offering for non-proficient readers in grades 6 and above, will address the skills and knowledge students need in order to comprehend, analyze, evaluate, and compare increasingly complex literary and informational texts. The result: proficient adolescent readers who are engaged, self-motivated, and confident.


Suzanne Carreker, Ph.D., CALT-QI, joined Lexia Learning in 2015 as Principal Educational Content Lead, where she spearheaded the curriculum design of a ground-breaking reading program for adolescents. Her illustrious career includes 28 years at Neuhaus Education Center, a nonprofit organization offering professional development in evidence-based reading methods to more than 60,000 teachers. Dr. Carreker served as Senior Vice President of Innovative Solutions at Neuhaus and just recently completed 10 years of service on the board of The International Dyslexia Association (IDA), where she led the development of a teacher certification exam. In 2009, Dr. Carreker was the recipient of the HBIDA Nancy LaFevers Community Service Award for her contributions to students with dyslexia and other related learning differences in the Houston community. Dr. Carreker received both her M.S. and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Texas A&M University.


1 Comment

  1. Pearson’s iLit is also an amazing program to engage those learners who are at lower reading levels. iLit engages students like no other reading program through its vast library of high-interest nonfiction, instant support, engaging activities, and built-in reward systems that motivate students and track their progress.

    Available for grades 4 through 10, Pearson’s iLit is a comprehensive literacy solution designed to produce two or more years of reading growth in a single year.
    Based on a proven instructional model that has produced successful results for students in districts across the country for more than a decade, iLit has been carefully crafted to meet the rigors of the Common Core State Standards and prepare students for success on the new assessments. Individual, small group, and whole-class instruction is personalized based on a constant stream of data from a wide range of embedded assessments, including text-based performance tasks.

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