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The Diagnostic-Prescriptive Reading Teacher and Foundational Reading Skills

Updated on
Modified on June 5, 2023
  • Literacy
  • Reading Intervention


As educators, our mission is to provide all of our students with opportunities as they move into the working world. Sadly, 32 million adult Americans read below a basic level. Locked into low-wage jobs, nearly 60 percent of those with low literacy earn less than $16,000 annually. These are people who lack foundational reading skills. What can we do about this issue?

Many districts have adopted assessments that screen for risk each fall, winter, and spring. These systems provide invaluable data in identifying students who are most in need of early intervention and support. Beyond identification comes a commitment to:

  • Schedule the time needed for effective Tier 2 and 3 intervention.
  • Adopt instructional programs that are evidence based.
  • Use curriculum-based (in-program) assessments that are sensitive to student growth.
  • Train teachers to use diagnostic-prescriptive teaching methods to help struggling readers become proficient readers.

Diagnostic-prescriptive teaching

Diagnostic-prescriptive teaching methods focus on identifying students’ strengths (what students can do) and identifying specific weaknesses (what students have difficulty with) in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and/or comprehension. From their observations, teachers then implement prescriptions that remediate difficulties.

Above all, diagnostic-prescriptive teaching requires teachers listen to their students read out loud regularly, so they reinforce success and remediate weaknesses. Diagnostic-prescriptive teachers are prepared to take great joy in each small step mastered.

This blog post provides two examples of how diagnostic-prescriptive teaching helps remediate common errors in word reading and fluency to improve reading for understanding.

Example 1—Overreliance on context

In the following passage, the student inserted the word “down” and read “food” for “farm.” Both errors result in poor fluency. Reading “food” for “farm” creates a comprehension problem. The errors are representative of the types of errors this student makes—especially when fatigued.

Passage: Plants and animals live in the big trees. People need the trees, too. Some people want the lumber from trees. Other people cut the trees (inserted “down”) because they need farm (read “food” for “farm”) land. Still, other people are working to keep the land as it is.

Diagnosis: In this example, the student knew the letter/sound correspondences for all consonants and for “ar” and “oo.” The error was not due to a lack of skills but rather to the student’s overreliance on context.

The student uses his knowledge of oral language to anticipate what he thinks the passage is going to say instead of reading the words on the page. In other words, the student periodically tries to “author” vs. “read.”

The following prescriptions are for an individual student but can be modified for use with a group.

Prescription 1: Accuracy goals and error counting

  • Set a goal. Say something like: I think you can read the whole page with only three errors.
  • Keep track of the errors.
  • Gently correct any errors and have the student reread the sentence.
  • At the bottom of the page, say something like: I only heard two errors. Wow! You beat your goal. Do you think you can read the page with just one error?

Prescription 2: Student as teacher

Read a paragraph at a pace similar to the student’s reading rate. Make errors that are similar to the types of errors the student makes. Let the student “catch” you. Say something like: I’m going to read. If you hear me make a mistake, say stop. Then, tell me the correct word. Reinforce the student. You are a great teacher. I appreciate you catching my errors.

Prescription 3: Reinforce accurate reading

Copy a decodable passage. Have the student read the passage. As the student reads, draw a star above each word read correctly the first time. Then, have the student reread so you can fill in any missing stars.

Prescription 4: Word study discrimination

During daily word study (Decoding Practice), include discrimination practice that forces complete letter processing.

Word Lists: Have the student read the underlined sound, sound out the word, then say the word. (Use known sounds.)

            farm harm hard                      food     mood   moon

Example 2—Accurate but slow reading

Diagnosis: In the following passage, the student read 42 words correct per minute with 100 percent accuracy. Phrasing was poor and the pace of reading slow. Underlined words were repeated or read with difficulty.

Passage: Friends were split up. Parents, teachers, and kids were mad. The teacher had said it didn’t matter. She said, “A team of you will go deep into the past—a team of six.”

Six kids were picked—Mindy, Zack, Tuppins, Ling, Shack, and Anna. Ms. X said, “You are lucky. Tuppins will go with you. You will need him.”

Prescription 1: Build automaticity with rhyming words and multisyllabic words

  • Build automaticity with rhyming words, using known letter/sound correspondences (e.g., sit, spit, split; sack, Zack, shack; last, past, cast).
  • Present multisyllabic words orally first (matter). Have the student segment and finger count the syllables (mat-ter, two syllables). Next, have the student read each word, first by syllable and then the whole word. (mat-ter, matter). Finally, build automaticity with repeated practice in a list of multisyllabic words.

Prescription 2: Build automaticity and phrasing with sentence fluency

  • Chunk decodable sentences into phrases.

(e.g., Where … Where did … Where did the two friends go?

The two friends … The two friends went … The two friends went to school.)

  • Have the student read the sentences for accuracy. Next, read with the student to guide expressive reading and appropriate phrasing.
  • Time the student once or twice.

Prescription 3: Provide corrective feedback

  • For insertions, say something like: Sometimes, you add words that aren’t there. That’s slowing you down and making it hard to understand what the author wrote. Use your finger to track the words so you just read what’s on the page.
  • For repetitions, say something like: You repeat yourself when you read, but you are reading very accurately. Trust yourself. Try reading each word just one time.

Prescription 4: Provide short passage practice

  • Have the student read a short decodable passage for accuracy (20 to 40 words).
  • When the student is accurate, model expressive reading at a pace slightly faster than the student’s rate.
  • Have the student reread with you.
  • Time the student once or twice for 30 seconds or a minute.

Results of diagnostic-prescriptive teaching

When Read Well® and other research-based curricula are used as tools by well-trained teachers, positive results are magnified even for our lowest performers. The following quote demonstrates the importance of teachers and training.

“We have been using Read Well for several years in our elementary special education resource rooms. After attending the Read Well workshop with Marilyn, we re-examined how we were using Read Well, focusing on increasing our diagnostic teaching skills within the program. Since our relaunch, we are seeing between 50 percent to 80 percent of our students certified in the area of reading make gains of at least 1.5 grade levels in one year on our districtwide reading assessment (NWEA). We have several certified students (30 percent) who are showing growth rates above two grade levels in one year's time.”  

—Kim Marquette, district teacher consultant, Farmington Public Schools

Mission accomplished

Our mission is to provide all of our students with opportunities as they move into the world of work. Doing education well means to create future opportunities for students. One small step at a time, we can help all children become stronger, more proficient readers. To read well or not is life changing.

Marilyn Sprick is the lead author of Read Well K–2 and The Third Quest (for struggling adolescent readers). Join Marilyn in June for an intensive workshop on training and teaching Read Well K–2 diagnostically, effectively, and with fidelity.

Visit readwellteachwell.com to learn more. Contact Marilyn at marilyn@ancorapublishing.com.

About the Author
Marilyn Sprick
Marilyn Sprick
Author of Readwell

Marilyn Sprick is the lead author of Voyager Sopris Learning’s Read Well®K–2 reading series, Read Well® Spelling 1–2, and Read Well® Composition 1. She has also coauthored SMART Kids with Susan Fister, a social skills program for young children. Sprick is also the lead author of The Third Quest Reading Intervention (grades 5–12) and the Parallel Universe (grades 4–8). As a nationally known reading specialist and literacy consultant, she provides inspiring and pragmatic presentations and training. 

Learn more about Marilyn Sprick