Screening for Reading Problems in Grades 4 Through 12

When RTI is implemented with fidelity in the early grades, the anticipated outcome is that students who are struggling readers will be identified early and provided intervention. Even with an effective RTI process in place in Grades K–3, however, there will continue to be students in the later grades who require intervention to support their reading development. For schools, this means that a system for screening to identify struggling readers needs to continue beyond the early elementary grades into the middle and high school grades. This article provides information about measures that can be used to identify students at risk for reading problems in Grades 4–12. Before reviewing these measures, however, it is important to first consider the nature of reading instruction at the secondary level and the characteristics of students who struggle with reading.


Reading Instruction at Grades 4–12


The conceptual framework underlying RTI stems from the preventive sciences approach. RTI is a tiered model of service delivery in which all students are provided with effective, evidence-based practices to support their reading development in Tier 1. Historically, once students move into the higher grades, formal reading instruction ceases and reading becomes the means by which students learn content. In recent years, though, reading accountability measures that span the grade levels have placed a new emphasis on continued literacy instruction in the middle and high school grades. For an RTI model to be effective in leading to improved student outcomes, the Tier 1 program in Grades 4–12 must include evidence-based practices that support literacy development for adolescent readers.

The recent emphasis on strengthening reading instruction in the early grades has demonstrated positive effects for improving reading achievement for students in Grades 1–3 (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006). These gains do not hold past the 4th grade, however, unless a strong, coordinated, and comprehensive focus on literacy instruction is maintained in the later grades (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006). The development of a strong Tier 1 literacy program is an important first step for secondary schools implementing RTI.


Although it is beyond the scope of this article to present a comprehensive plan for improving Tier 1 reading instruction, a synopsis of best practices is provided below. Further information on effective instructional practices for reading in the secondary grades can be found at the Center on Instruction, as well as in the Reading Next report (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006), which outlines recommendations for improving middle and high school literacy achievement.


Reading and writing skills are critical to student success across the curriculum, and they need to be an integral focus to "form a supportive web of related learning" (Langer, 2001, p. 877). Schools that have integrated the explicit instruction of reading and writing across the content areas support student achievement across the curriculum (National Association of State Boards of Education, 2005). In general, research has supported the following main ideas for developing literacy with older students:


  1. the explicit instruction of reading and writing strategies
  2. a focus on using reading and writing to support motivation and engagement
  3. a focus on developing student knowledge and understanding of essential content information (Torgesen et al., 2007)
  4. ongoing formative and summative assessment of students (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006)
  5. a comprehensive and coordinated literacy program (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006).


Additionally, when schools use consistent literacy frameworks across the content areas, students can more easily focus on comprehension and content knowledge—using reading and writing as vehicles to support their learning (Langer, 2001). For example, the use of graphic organizers to summarize and depict relationships across information (Swanson & Deshler, 2003), the use of "writing to learn" activities to process information in the content areas (Graham & Perin, 2007), and the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies (Torgesen et al., 20007) are all effective ways to focus on the development of literacy across the curriculum.


Which Students Are at Risk for Reading Problems?


Even with a solid instructional core in place, there will be students who struggle with reading. To develop and implement effective Tier 2 interventions, a system for identifying these students is critical. What are the characteristics of students who struggle with reading in the later grades? Though every individual student may have differences in their reading profiles, struggling readers in Grades 4–12 will, in general, fall into one of the following categories:


  1. Late-Emergent Reading Disabled Students: These are students who were able to keep up with early reading demands but for whom later demands became too great. Several research studies confirm that there is a category of students who will progress as typically developing students or respond positively to early intervention, only to develop reading problems in the later grades (Compton, Fuchs, Fuchs, Elleman, & Gilbert, 2008; Leach, Scarborough, & Rescorla, 2003; Lipka, Lesaux, & Siegel, 2006).
  2. Instructional Casualties: Although there has been a strong emphasis on improving reading instruction in the early grades, not all schools have strong reading programs in place. There will continue to be students who have not been the recipients of strong reading instruction in the early grades who will require supports in the later grades (Vaughn et al., 2008).
  3. English Language Learners: In the past decade, the number of English language learners (ELLs) has increased by 57% (Maxwell, 2009). All schools will need to provide instruction and intervention to meet the needs of a growing ELL population.
  4. Students Requiring Ongoing Intervention: Students who received intervention at the early grades may make progress, but perhaps not at a rate that is sufficient to allow them to be successful in the general education program without ongoing intervention. These students may require continued intervention in later grades before they are able to successfully perform at grade-level benchmarks.


For each of these categories of students, the initial marker of poor reading achievement will likely be the same—below grade-level performance on assessments of reading, and poor performance in the Tier 1 program. A coordinated screening system can identify these students early in the school year, allowing schools to provide and tailor intervention resources to support continued literacy development.


Developing a System for Screening


A common question of secondary schools related to screening is "Do we need to screen all of our students?" The short answer is yes. Universal screening is one component of a comprehensive literacy assessment system (Torgesen & Miller, 2009) that can inform the development of a strong literacy program. Although universal screening may seem overwhelming to implement at the secondary level, the early identification of struggling readers allows schools to provide intervention and support to better meet the needs of their student population.


Schools already collect an abundance of data that can be used to identify an initial pool of students who may require targeted reading interventions to be successful. General screening information from the previous year's summative assessment can be used to identify students who did not meet or who only just met grade-level performance benchmarks (Torgesen & Miller, 2009). When these results are reviewed at the end of the year they can help schools plan for the following year. For example, through this process an RTI team can determine approximately how many students will require intervention the following school year. This data should be confirmed by a benchmark test administered at the beginning of the next school year to all students. It is important to conduct beginning of the year assessments to confirm the previous year's results, to screen students new to the school system, and to identify students whose performance may have deteriorated over the summer months. Best practice recommendations for universal screening suggest that benchmarking be conducted at least two other times during the school year, typically in the winter and spring (Johnson, Mellard, Fuchs, & McKnight, 2006).


This initial pool of identified students then requires additional assessment to determine the extent and nature of their reading problems. A common perception is that the problems that older struggling readers face are primarily due to a lack of vocabulary and comprehension skills (Catts, Hogan, & Adlof, 2005). However, evidence suggests that older struggling students may have problems with comprehension, decoding, and/or fluency (Compton et al., 2008; Leach et al., 2003; Lipka et al., 2006). Among the initial pool of identified at-risk students, targeted screening tests of word-level reading skills, fluency, and comprehension can be used to identify students for specific intervention placements within a school (Torgesen & Miller, 2009).


Within the pool of struggling readers, there will be students who require minimal or very targeted assistance and others who will require much more intensive interventions (Torgesen & Miller, 2009). In addition to determining the nature of the reading problem, the severity of reading difficulty also needs to be identified. Is a student very below grade-level expectations? Students with reading performance significantly below benchmarks will require more intense interventions. Intensity of an intervention can be manipulated by increasing the frequency and duration, or by reducing the teacher-to-student ratio (Johnson et al., 2006).

Figure 1 provides a flowchart of a screening process that can be used to identify struggling students and determine the nature of the required intervention. The reading performance of all students is reviewed. Students whose performance is moderately to significantly below benchmark performance will require further assessment and subsequent placement in a Tier 2 intervention. Students whose performance is near benchmark will be provided with targeted support in the Tier 1 classroom and have their progress monitored more frequently. Benchmarking is completed on all students throughout the school year.


Johnson Pool screening for reading - grades-4-12

What Screening Measures Work Well for Students in Grades 4–12?

Identifying Students Who Are Not Performing at Grade-Level Expectations

State assessment data provide an overall measure of which students are not meeting grade-level benchmarks. Additionally, many schools now administer benchmark assessments in the fall that are used to predict performance on state assessments administered at the end of the school year. Examples of these measures include the following:


  • Alternate forms of state assessments: In Idaho, for example, an alternate form of the state assessment can be administered in the beginning of the school year to identify students who will need support as well as to identify content areas that may require more focused instruction.
  • State-aligned benchmark assessments: These include measures such as the Northwest Education Association's Measures of Academic Performance (MAP) assessments and CTB/McGraw-Hill’s Acuity Assessments.
  • Curriculum-based measurement (CBM) reading assessments: In later grades, these include oral reading fluency measures and maze measures. Student performance can be compared to published norms. Numerous measures have been developed in reading for Grades 4–12. A review of these measures can be found at the National Center on Student Progress Monitoring.

Identifying the Specific Reading Problems of Struggling Students

The measures discussed above will provide an initial sort of the students—quickly distinguishing those who meet performance benchmarks from those who do not and will require intervention. For schools to plan for and provide appropriate interventions, it will be important to determine the nature of a student's particular reading problem. The following measures (summarized in Table 1) may be used to inform this process.


  • Informal reading inventories (IRIs): An IRI is an individually administered reading assessment that allows a reading specialist to assess a student’s strengths and needs in a variety of reading areas. Several published IRIs are available.
  • Decoding measures: Research suggests that some older students who struggle with reading have decoding problems. Assessments such as the Test of Word Reading Efficiency (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1999), the Scholastic Phonics Inventory (Scholastic, n.d.), and the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test–Revised/Normative Update (Sutton, 1999) can be used to identify students who continue to struggle with basic reading skills.
  • Comprehension measures: Both informal and formal measures can be used to identify students who will struggle with reading comprehension. In the content areas, a maze procedure or a Content Area Reading Inventory (CARI; Vacca & Vacca, 1999) can be administered to identify students who will likely have difficulty comprehending content area texts without receiving additional support. Formal measures of reading comprehension can identify students who struggle with reading more generally. A test bank of assessments developed by the National Institute for Literacy provides information on a variety of reading assessments appropriate for use with older readers.
  • Fluency measures: The role that fluency plays in the older grades is unclear. Although oral reading fluency has been shown to be highly correlated with reading performance, some researchers caution that a focus on fluency when reading to learn does not promote the use of good comprehension strategies such as rereading, asking questions, and summarizing key points (Samuels, 2007). Fluency measures can be used as part of an IRI to inform the assessment of a student's reading difficulties, but interventions should not be limited to increasing a student's reading rate.
  • Interest inventories: Another common problem for adolescents with reading problems is a lack of motivation and engagement in school. Students who have difficulty learning to read often experience problems across the curriculum. Over time, the pattern of negative experiences with learning can lead to a loss of motivation and engagement. Identifying student interests to tailor interventions that are meaningful to the student represents one way that schools can increase student motivation (Fink & Samuels, 2007).

Table 1: Measures for Identifying Specific Reading Problems

Informal Reading Inventories (IRIs)

Decoding Measures

Comprehension Measures

Fluency Measures

Interest Inventories

The Critical Reading Inventory: Assessing students' reading and thinking (2nd ed.). Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (for use up to 8th grade) MAZE passage GORT-4: Gray Oral Reading Tests-Fourth Edition Reading Interest Inventory Fink, R. (2007). High interest reading leaves no child left behind. In R. Fink & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), Inspiring reading success: Interest and motivation in an age of high-stakes testing (pp. 19-61). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Bader Reading and Language Inventory (6th ed.). Scholastics Phonics Inventory PIAT-R/NU: Peabody Individual Achievement Test-Revised: Normative Update Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy (for use up to 6th grade) Reading Interest Inventories
Cooter, R. B., Jr., Flynt, E. S., & Cooter, K. S. (2007). Comprehensive Reading Inventory: Measuring reading development in regular and special education classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. Test of Word Reading Efficiency Test of Reading Comprehension-Fourth Edition AIMSweb (for use up to 8th grade) Reading Interest Inventory
Basic Reading Inventory (10th ed.). Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised/Normative Update Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised/Normative Updated Reading Fluency Progress Monitor (RFPM) by Read Naturally (for use up to 8th grade)
Qualitative Reading Inventory-4 GORT-4: Gray Oral Reading Tests-Fourth Edition
Shanker, J. L., & Cockrum, W. (2009). Ekwall/Shanker Reading Inventory (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Test of Reading Comprehension-Fourth Edition
Silvaroli, N. J. & Wheelock, W. H. (2004). Classroom Reading Inventory (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.


It is very likely that struggling readers will experience difficulties in more than one area. This is why a comprehensive literacy program that supports literacy development in the Tier 1 program as well as provides targeted intervention in Tier 2 is needed to fully support students for whom reading is a challenge. Screening data should be maintained and analyzed to inform not only individual student decisions but also program development.




Even with the increased emphasis on developing strong readers in the early grades, schools will continue to encounter older students who struggle with reading. At the secondary levels, a screening system that identifies struggling students, determines the nature of their specific reading problems, and is embedded in a comprehensive literacy program can provide support to these students. A number of resources are available to assist schools in this endeavor. The key to successful implementation will be the recognition that in Tier 1, all teachers must focus on the development of literacy in their content areas, and in Tier 2, intervention should emphasize targeted literacy instruction that can be generalized to and supported in the content area classes (Johnson, Smith, & Harris, 2009).


Screening can be a multiple-step process in which students who meet benchmarks are not further screened. This can help schools with larger student populations to keep the process manageable but informative. Reading assessments that provide insight into the nature of student reading problems can be used to inform individual student decisions as well as program planning.




Biancarosa, C., & Snow, C. E. (2006). Reading next—A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy: A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York (2nd ed.).Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.


Catts, H. W., Hogan, T. P., & Adlof, S. M. (2005). Developmental changes in reading and reading disabilities. In H.

Catts & A. Kamhi (Eds.), Connections between language and reading disabilities (pp. 23–36). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


Compton, D. L., Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., Elleman, A. M., & Gilbert, J. K. (2008). Tracking children who fly below the radar: Latent transition modeling of students with late-emerging reading disability. Learning and Individual Differences, 18, 329–337.


Fink, R., & Samuels, S. J. (2007). Inspiring reading success: Interest and motivation in an age of high-stakes testing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools: A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.


Johnson, E., Mellard, D. F., Fuchs, D., & McKnight, M. A. (2006). Responsiveness to intervention (RTI): How to do it. Lawrence, KS: National Research Center on Learning Disabilities.


Johnson, E. S., Smith, L., & Harris, M. L. (2009). How RTI works in secondary schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Langer, J. A. (2001). Beating the odds: Teaching middle and high school students to read and write well. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 837–880.


Leach, J., Scarborough, H., & Rescorla, L. (2003). Late-emerging reading disabilities. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 211−224.


Lipka, O., Lesaux, N. K., & Siegel, L. S. (2006). Retrospective analyses of the reading development of grade 4 students with reading disabilities: Risk status and profiles over 5 years. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 364−378.


Maxwell, L. (2009, January 8). Immigration transforms communities. Education Week. Retrieved April 25, 2009.

National Association of State Boards of Education. (2005). Reading at risk: How states can respond to the crisis in adolescent literacy. Alexandria, VA: Author.


Samuels, S. J. (2007). The DIBELS tests: Is speed of barking at print what we man by reading fluency? Reading Research Quarterly, 42, 563–566.


Scholastic, Inc. (n.d.). Scholastic Phonics Inventory. New York: Author.


Sutton, J. P. (1999). Woodcock Reading Mastery Test–Revised/Normative Update. Diagnostique, 24(1), 299–316.


Swanson, H. L., & Deshler, D. (2003). Instructing adolescents with learning disabilities: Converting a meta-analysis to practice. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36(2), 124–135.


Torgesen, J. K., Houston, D. D., Rissman, L. M., Decker, S. M., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., et al. (2007). Academic literacy instruction for adolescents: A guidance document from the Center on Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: RMC

Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.


Torgesen, J. K., & Miller, D. H. (2009). Assessments to guide adolescent literacy instruction. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.


Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R, K., & Rashotte, C. A. (1999). Test of Word Reading Efficiency (TOWRE). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.


Vacca, R., & Vacca, J. (1999). Content Area Reading Inventory. New York: HarperCollins.


Vaughn, S., Fletcher, J. M., Francis, D. J., Denton, C. A., Wanzek, J., Wexler, J., et al. (2008). Response to intervention with older students with reading difficulties. Learning and Individual Differences, 18, 338–345.


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