When We Harm Rather than Help – Some Thoughts on Reading Interventions


We read to Thea in the womb like all the fancy books told us to.  Surrounded her with books from the moment she was born.  We read every night creating memories.  We pointed to text, had her touch the books she loved as much as she wanted.  Some still have chewed up corners.  We followed all the steps that it takes to create a reader, and yet, when she started to learn to read, it did not come naturally.  It was hard and it continues to be hard.  She works for every single letter, for every single word, for every single page.  And she has incredible support from her teachers.  We are lucky.  They protect her love of reading with everything they’ve got.

Yet, some kids are not as lucky as Thea.  The very interventions that are meant to help end up harming their love of reading.  The very skills we try to teach end up taking precedent above everything else, leaving us with a child that perhaps can read better but will never do so on their own.

There are many well-meaning things that we have done throughout our teaching that is not good for children.  That is not good for those that so need us to be great teachers.  Those kids that need us more than others, need the very best of us, sometimes get the worst.

So as we think of our reading intervention, of the very programs and ideas that we have in place for those who need extra instruction, we must make sure that we are not harming.  That the very children we speak of so often do not end up victims of misguided attempts to help.  Because there are a few things that seem to happen more often to children who are in reading intervention than those who are not.  A few tendencies that can be problematic.

They get pulled from the “fun” classes.  How often do we schedule their intervention to be when the class is doing something that is more hands-on or exploratory?  I have had students that had not had science for several years.  Yet students who are developing readers need those experiences as much as the other students.  When a child gets pulled like that it signals that those classes are not as important, and that the child will not need those skills.  Yet, often this is where students can be the most successful.  The best solution is to create a school-wide resource time, different from grade level to grade level, that offers a window for all students to receive intervention or enrichment.

They get shorter text.   Thanks to the wisdom of Penny Kittle I have been thinking a lot about text length and how we do not give our developing readers long texts.  Instead much of our intervention instruction is based on short text, yet that means they build no stamina.  And without stamina they cannot be free of intervention since they will struggle with sustained concentration.  That doesn’t just happen, it is experienced over and over as we build the text lengths.  So vary the length and use an independent reading book (self-chosen, of course) to teach the skills.  Use actual reading materials and not just the scripted versions so that students can have true buy-in.

They are spoken at more.  With intervention comes more instruction, yet often what students need is more practice.  Why is it that when a child struggle our first inclination is to re-explain, give further instruction ,and then interrupt.  Rather than allow them to ask questions, teach briefly and then give them time to work with the skill.  We already have a teacher talk epidemic in our schools, think of how much more teacher talk these students receive.

They have more repetition.  I believe in revisiting texts, this is part of the reason I love picture books so much.  Yet, the constant repetition where students may read the same passage 5 days in a row is hard to understand.  When we know how intimately motivation is linked with student achievement, why do we create conditions where students automatically tune out because it is the same passage over and over?  Instead, use it for a few days and then change it up.  Find something with a common theme and then work on transfer of skills through that.

They have less choice.  It seems the older our students get, the less choice and control they have.  Yet, developing readers need more choice.  Sure, we can help guide them but telling them what their lexile level is, or whatever other box we choose to put them in, in order for them to select a text from that level but that is not guidance.  It is dictation.  Furthermore, expecting them to then develop natural reading habits which include the ability to self-select books as discussed by Donalyn Miller and many others, when they have not had the opportunity to makes little sense.  If we want students to love reading and to transfer the skills that they learn in intervention (or regular instruction) then they must have choice.  They must be able to have the chance to figure out what books work for them or not.  And why.

They have less time.  If we want students to become better readers they need more time to read.  So if we are doing intervention, giving them time to read a self-selected book should be a major component.  Not just all of the skill teaching.  And if a child is being pulled during their in-class independent reading time to receive intervention there is a serious scheduling and priority problem.

They get challenged less.  In the past, I was lulled into thinking that my developing readers could not handle complex thinking tasks.  However, my students have proven me wrong and I am thankful for that.  A developing reader, or a reader who struggles, does not have a thinking problem and yet we often differentiate in such a way that students who receive intervention do not get the same challenging questions or projects as other students.  Yes, we should differentiate to scaffold all learners, but not when they do not need it.  Access to text is one thing, access to thinking is another.

They stay in intervention.  If the same child stays in intervention year after year without the possibility of release then we must re-examine the very interventions we are implementing.  While many programs work, must do not work for ALL students.  Do we have instruction in place that will benefit each individual child or only some?

They get interrupted more.  Call it the plight of the conscientious teacher, but when students struggle we tend to interrupt all of the time.  We check in, we re-explain, we teach them more, often without checking to see if they need it.  We read aloud constantly interrupting the story to model our own thinking.  No wonder people who are interrupted have a harder time reaching a state of flow.  So before we are helpful make sure the help is needed.  Otherwise we are harming more than helping.

They tend to be asked to be vulnerable more often.  I see how my own daughter feels about reading and how hard it is.  I have had students confide in me how hard it is to admit in front of  others, especially good readers, how difficult reading is for them.  Yet, we tend to ask probing questions more often to the students who need intervention.  We ask them to open up in a way that we don’t expect of other students.  I know  this trust and intimacy of knowledge is necessary to be the best teacher  for them but we need to be aware of the vulnerable position we are placing students in.  We don’t have a right to know their feelings, we can earn their trust and then ask.

They tend to be defined by their struggle.  When a child struggles with reading we often assume they will struggle with everything.  After all, reading comprehension is the foundation of it all.  Yet, that mindset is dangerous as it leads to lower expectations which in turn leads to less challenges.  We get “pleasantly” surprised more often with lower expectations as we teach a child that if they cannot read well then they must be bad at everything in school.

I have seen incredible intervention programs that have created powerful readers.  I have seen programs that chopped reading into little bits that did little to help all students.  I think that most reading intervention programs lie somewhere in the middle.  They work for some and not for others.  So I write this post not to judge, but to question the things we end up doing, for in our habits we often dismiss our own flaws.  In our programs we sometimes forego common sense but that doesn’t mean we can’t change.  We just need to re-examine our practices honestly.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

12 thoughts on “When We Harm Rather than Help – Some Thoughts on Reading Interventions

  1. I am very grateful for this wonderfully, heartfelt post. At the present time, I serve some students as their Reading Recovery teacher while others as the academic intervention teacher. I consistently question many of the points that you have shared as I can testify to working with children that reading is difficult for. Thank you once again for your honesty, valid points and call for teacher reflection.

  2. Penny Little also says when we give students texts continually above their reading ability, we are actually setting those students backward and fostering a hatred of reading.

  3. Pingback: When We Harm Rather than Help – Some Thoughts on R… | EducatorAl's Tweets

  4. Pernille, this post could not be more timely for me as our PD meeting on Friday did not seem to reach true consensus on how to best “differentiate” reading strategies for our ELLs and other struggling readers. I understand your bullet points. But what do you recommend in terms of systems or strategies to apply this type of approach across a department or at least across a grade level? (Since you mentioned you have seen lots of different intervention systems, I thought I’d ask your POV on this)

    • I have been thinking about your comment since you left it and the truth is; no, I haven’t seen one system that works for all students. I have seen LLI used well but not for every kid, I am also worried when it is used year after year with the same students. Other face-to-face interventions also seem to have some success such as PALS, Early Reading Intervention. I worry about the computer based ones because there is something inherently wrong with a kid that needs intervention being plopped in front of a computer for essential drill and kill instruction. So I guess I don’t have a recommendation, I wish I did because then I would feel so much better about the whole world of reading intervention. I know that a passionate teacher who is adaptive to their students is a must, and those, fortunately, are there many of.

      • Thank you Pernille. I feel better that the lack of consensus is not a just me / just my school situation. I am aware of Fountas and Pinnel, and I think what I would like about it is that *I* would like to know my students’ reading levels. Not to use that to limit what they can read, but to have a consistent measure of change over time. That’s not in the cards right now though, so we’ll see how our intervention discussions continue to progress at my school. I appreciate your feedback!

  5. Brilliant blog! I’ve been thinking a lot about teacher leadership – with teacher leadership I believe more could happen; imagine, teachers collaborating as leaders to determine the best ways to navigate interventions, timing, delivery, student progress, comfort level, push harder, or give some breathing space… rather than relying on the “system”, the building, the principal, the pacing guide… AND, isn’t it possible that some students will simply struggle with reading? Or maybe it’s not a struggle, it’s a weaker part of there academic prowess (not a thinking problem as you mentioned). Instead of the pressure on the student, how about a release, a pass on it… I know when I’m working out there are portions of the workout when I simply need to stop or not do that part, don’t students get that option too? This topic is near and dear to my heart. Many thanks for your insight.

  6. A lot of what I have just read I disagree with. I think it is irresponsible to lump all teachers together and say we all do this or that. I do agree with the fact that often booster or support groups happen during other subject periods, but lets face it, there is no teacher who has control over anothers’ schedule. In a perfect world all literacy support would happen during literacy. With the constant decrease in funding for SERT support this will become a thing of the past. At my school we have two SERTS for the entire school and one has Gym coverage most mornings when Literacy is happening. As for the other items, I don’t do a lot of those things and neither do my colleagues. The assumption that we all do the same thing nullifies our individual professionalism.

  7. Fantastic post! Perfect world ideas can continue to be our stars to reach for – why not? Unfortunately in our district, the push for reading fluency K-3 as determined by the state is the game to play here. Kindergarteners spit out letter names and sounds with automaticity, yet seem like little robots. On top of that, a recently adopted basal that promotes the Common Core and a way of rigor is far beyond reach of all my little friends. I feel like I am in a time warp with top administrators who lift their head out of the sand only when the test scores are posted and are deaf and blind to what is right.

  8. I’d add that interventions, especially when they happen outside the regular literacy block, take time from other learning … science, social studies, art … you know the list. My last 2 years in the classroom we had a mandatory literacy block 90 minutes, a mandatory math block 90 minutes, mandatory ELA and math interventions 30 minutes each and a mandatory writing block 30 minutes 3 days and 45 minutes 2 days. See any time left in the day for anything else? … we weren’t told we couldn’t teach those other things … our schedule just made it nearly impossible. Our ELA and math blocks had to look a certain way, so we couldn’t integrate those other subjects. Many schools in my area were the same … that’s gotten better … but still literacy instruction, as you point out, requires lots of time to practice – and those project times, science, social studies, art … provide lots of chances for that practice that are student driven. Students don’t think of it as “reading” time, reading is just one of the tools used to get at the learning and presenting/sharing what we’ve learned.

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