A Reader Who Struggles – A Case Study of Steven

The following case study is a paper I submitted to the graduate faculty of Southeast Missouri State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Arts in TESOL degree.


This case study investigates what an individual struggling student’s reading difficulties are and how to remedy these difficulties. Steven (whose name has been changed for anonymity) is a second grade English language learner living in central Taiwan whose English reading ability is far below his classmates. Qualitative data was gathered through surveys, screenings and diagnostic reading tests. Information gathered from these tests helped pinpoint what this struggling student’s reading difficulties are. Using this information a series of teaching strategies are suggested to better meet this student’s instructional needs. One such strategy is differentiated instruction which varies rates of instruction, rates of complexity, and use of support systems to better meet the instructional needs of all learners. Explicit instruction using several research-backed strategies to teach phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension while addressing reading motivation are also essential to closing the reading performance gap for all readers.

Keywords: literacy, differentiated instruction, English language learners

Through interviews with his teachers and through my own observations while substituting in the classroom, Steven (whose name has been changed for anonymity) has a lot of difficulty reading English texts that his classmates can read with few or no errors. It is clear that Steven’s instructional needs are not being met. I chose to work with Steven and make him the subject of this study because I want the performance gap between him and his classmates to close. Since he displays no difficulties reading or comprehending text in Chinese I believe that by identifying his specific English reading difficulties, we can choose teaching strategies that better meet his instructional needs.

Best and Kahn (1989) emphasize focusing attention on typicalness in case study research. Reading their suggestion to focus attention on typicalness made me reflect on my decision to choose Steven as the subject of my case study. How can we best meet our struggling students’ instructional needs while still challenging our students who excel? Early in my teaching English as a foreign language career my trainer advocated a teaching to the middle approach under the assumption that a rising tide would raise all boats. However, in my experience working with students of a wide range of age and ability levels, differentiated instruction is a more appropriate approach to meeting the instructional needs of students. This observation is backed by the work by Tobin and McInnes in their 2008 study which found that all students benefited from differentiated instruction. In differentiated instruction, teachers take into account that every student’s roadmap to learning is different and customize their instructional strategies using various rates of instruction, various degrees of complexity, and various support systems (Tomlinson, 2014).

This case study of a struggling student seeks to answer the following two questions:

  • What are this student’s reading difficulties?
  • How can these difficulties be remedied?

Literature Review

Differentiated Instruction

There are a few common characteristics of differentiated instruction: knowledge of students’ literacy needs including strengths, weaknesses, interests, and how they respond to different methods of instruction; progress monitoring systems that guide student groupings and instructional strategies; flexible and creative use of your school’s or district’s core literacy curriculum; emphasis on strategic reading strategies to support all students to reach the highest level of literacy; and classroom routines that allow students to break off into small groups in which some would operate largely independently while the teacher gives targeted instruction to individual groups (Watts-Taffe, et al., 2012).

In differentiated classrooms, the teacher has an understanding that all learners are different and the teacher must vary rates of instruction, vary degrees of complexity, and use differing support systems to meet his or her students’ instructional needs (Tomlinson, 2014). Tobin and McInnes (2008) have found compelling evidence from grade 2/3 classrooms that all students benefit from differentiated instruction. The concept of differentiated instruction is not new: It has been used by teachers in one-room schools serving multiple grades for centuries.

Implementing differentiated instruction does not have to be overwhelming. Birnie (2015) suggests starting small by gathering information through interest surveys or diagnostic tests and experimenting with flexible grouping or tiered assignments to see what works best for your particular population of learners. Interest surveys can be essential in differentiated classrooms for selecting instructional materials and making available independent reading material that students are interested in reading.

Reading Motivation

Promoting student reading motivation can enhance the reading competency of struggling readers (Melekoglu, 2011). Reading skill and motivation to read influence one another. Young children who enjoy reading do so more often and tend to become more proficient readers. On the other hand, students who struggle to read often have low reading motivation. The performance gap between proficient, motivated readers and struggling, unmotivated readers can widen as students progress to higher grades where problems in reading can affect academic performance across content areas. Struggling, unmotivated readers often avoid reading altogether. Children who don’t read often grow to become adults who don’t read often. As teachers, it is our responsibility to prepare our students for participation in democratic society by giving them a strong foundation in literacy.

Half a century ago, Shnayer (1969) reported that struggling readers were able to read materials beyond their measured abilities if the materials were topics of interest. Shnayer’s findings are still highly relevant today. During the past two decades, researchers have learned a lot about the nature of childhood reading motivation and developed effective instructional practices that address students’ reading motivation (Wigfield, Gladstone, & Turci, 2016). Through selecting materials that match student interests instructors can increase a struggling reader’s motivation to read and thus improve his or her attitude towards reading. Krashen (2003) claims that free voluntary reading is perhaps the most powerful tool in language education as it serves to increase literacy while developing vocabulary. Students need access to texts that ignite their interest in reading.

Research-Backed Instructional Strategies

The National Reading Panel (2000) suggests that explicit instruction using a variety of strategies to teach the big five pillars of literacy (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) is essential in an effective reading program. Helping a struggling reader gain a solid foundation in the big five pillars coupled with finding avenues to increase that student’s motivation to read are paramount to closing the reading performance gap.

Research by Stuart (1999) concludes that inner-city English as a second language learners’ reading and spelling development improved after a 12-week program of phoneme awareness training. The experiment group was given explicit instruction using a commercially available product called Jolly Phonics – a comprehensive, multi-sensory phonics method popular in the United Kingdom. His findings support the National Reading Panel’s (2000) suggestion that phonological awareness should be explicitly taught.

Walker (2000) suggests that echo reading is helpful for students who need a model of fluent reading and assists students reading text that would otherwise be too difficult. With echo reading, the teacher reads one sentence aloud with appropriate intonation and the students try to imitate this reading model. Once the teacher feels the students are ready, he or she can start to read more than one sentence at a time for students to imitate (Gipe, 2014). This technique, coupled with repeated readings should help struggling students with fluency, recall, and comprehension. With repeated readings, a passage is reread orally until it is read with accuracy and fluency. Repeated readings can either be done as a class or in pairs. When using repeated readings with pairs it is important to partner stronger readers with struggling readers (Ashmore, Farrier, & Chu, 2011).

Hiebert and Kamil (2005) maintain that a primary goal of vocabulary instruction is to help students improve their reading comprehension. A large vocabulary contributes positively to reading comprehension. The National Reading Panel’s (2000) specific conclusions about vocabulary instruction include the need for: direct instruction, repetition and multiple exposures, active engagement in learning tasks, and the employment of multiple methods along with effective use of multimedia.

Reading comprehension is essential to both academic learning and life-long learning (Durkin, 1993). The National Reading Panel (2000) finds that in addition to vocabulary instruction, text comprehension and teacher preparation are essential in improving reading comprehension. The panel found the following methods of comprehension instruction to be the most promising: comprehension monitoring which students are aware of their understanding or lack thereof during reading, cooperative learning which allows for weaker readers to learn from stronger readers, graphic organizers which allow for readers to organize meanings and relationships graphically, and summarization which readers identify main ideas within a text and their supporting details.

Design and Methodology

A series of reading tests were administered to determine Steven’s instructional level in English and what individual English reading skills he has mastered and hasn’t mastered yet. Surveys with adults that Steven interacts with most were used to determine whether his reading difficulties stemmed from vision, hearing, or emotional maladjustment problems. Qualitative information gathered from an interest survey with the student and a checklist of demonstrated multiple intelligences aided in drafting recommendations for remedying his reading difficulties. I believe this case study has internal validity because the battery of tests administered gave an accurate and comprehensive picture of the participant. This case study has external validity because although no two students are the same, in classrooms all over the world one can find students who struggle while their classmates excel.


The participant of my case study research project is Steven, an eight year old student at Guangfu Elementary School in Nantou City, Taiwan. Every afternoon, he receives between one to three hours of supplemental English instruction at U-Best Educational Institute in Caotun Township. Steven has been learning English since he was five years old when he was enrolled in our school’s bilingual two-year kindergarten program. After finishing the program and starting elementary school, he continued learning English through our after-school program. Steven excels at his elementary school and has never scored below 95% in any of his subjects (Math, Chinese, Social Studies, Taiwanese Hokkien, P.E. and English). I should note that the level of English taught at the second grade level in elementary schools is much lower than that of most private cram schools. At Steven’s elementary school, he receives one instructional hour of English a week. First grade is focused on initial consonant sounds and single syllable consonant-vowel-consonant words learned out-of-context. Second grade is focused on greetings and brief dialogues. Most of the private cram schools in Taiwan build on what is taught at private bilingual or all-English kindergartens. A lot of the materials we use at our cram school for our second graders are designed to be used for second graders whose first language is English.


A variety of surveys and diagnostic tests were used to determine what Steven’s reading difficulties are and to provide a framework for developing specific recommendations for remediation. These included: an interest survey; a multiple intelligence checklist; vision, hearing, and emotional maladjustment screenings; an initial single consonant phonics test; a consonant blends test; a short vowel test; a long vowel test; a vowel digraph test; an auditory discrimination of word pairs test; graded word lists; and graded reading passages. The surveys, checklist, and screenings are from the eighth edition of Gipe’s Multiple Paths to Literacy: Assessment and Differentiated Instruction for Diverse Learners, K-12. The phonics tests, graded word lists, and reading passages are from the sixth edition of Bader and Pearce’s Bader Reading and Language Inventory.


The multiple intelligence checklist as well as screenings for vision, hearing, and emotional maladjustment were completed via interviews with the adults in the school that Steven interacts with most. Surveys and testing were completed with Steven in a quiet, distraction-free room after he arrived at our cram school from his elementary school on no more than three afternoons a week. It was important to ensure that Steven was comfortable otherwise this might have negatively impacted his performance and resulted in an inaccurate diagnosis. No single surveying or testing session exceeded fifteen minutes. Individual tests were stopped early when the student reached a frustration level or his interest had been exceeded.

The following instructions were given before each phonics test and graded word list, “Good afternoon Steven, here is a short list of words I would like you to read. Please point to each word as you read. If you don’t know how to read a word, just try your best.” The graded word lists were used to estimate Steven’s reading level and determine a starting point for the graded reading passages. Steven’s instructional level was determined by the graded word list in which he made no more than two errors (if he makes one error on the primer list and three errors on the grade 1.0 list his instructional level would be grade .5). A graded reading passage was chosen based on Steven’s performance on the graded word lists. We started with a graded passage that was one instructional level below his graded word list level. The following directions were given at the start of each graded reading passage, “Good afternoon Steven, here is a short passage I would like you to read. Please read it quietly to yourself. Tell me when you finish. After that, I will ask you to read it to me. Try to remember what you read so you can tell me about the reading and answer questions about it later.”

The following is the code and scoring guideline I used for the graded reading passages (Adapted from Bader & Pearce, 2009, pp. 32-33):

Behavior Coding Scoring
1. Substitutions and mispronunciations that disrupt meaning Write the response above the word 1
2. Substitutions and mispronunciations that don’t disrupt meaning Write the response above the word; draw curved line for inversions 0
3. Repeated substitutions or mispronunciations of the same word Write response each time, but count one error 1
4. Insertions Write the word with a caret 1
5. Omissions and partial omissions Draw a line through word or word part omitted 1
6. Words pronounced by the examiner Wait at least five seconds; write P above aided word 1
7. Repetitions of words or phrases Write R above each repetition; draw a line over the words repeated; score as 1 regardless of repetitions 1
Record but do not score the following:
8. Self-corrections Write C above the corrections 0
9. Repetitions to make corrections As above 0
10. Hesitations Put a check above each hesitation 0
11. Ignored punctuation Put an X over disregarded punctuation 0
12. Phrasing Insert lines to indicate phrasing 0

The graded reading passages have instructional level guides for numbers of errors and memories. For example, if Steven had fewer than four errors and can recall six or more memories for the grade one reader but experienced frustration during the grade two reader than his instructional level would be grade one. The graded reading passages also gave critical information regarding reading rate and comprehension. This information was essential for choosing strategies to meet Steven’s instructional needs.

Results and Discussion

Checklists for vision problems, hearing problems, and emotional maladjustment were completed with our school’s second grade foreign teacher and the room’s Taiwanese co-teacher. These two teachers spend more time with Steven than any other adults in the building. His foreign teacher teaches thirteen one hour classes in the second grade room. His co-teacher is there for most of these blocks and is responsible for the students during break time, snack time, and when they do their elementary school homework after their last English class of the afternoon. She is also responsible for communicating vital information to parents including behavioral and learning issues.

Steven has demonstrated very few behavioral signs of vision problems. According to his teachers he needs to use his finger or marker to keep place, he displays short attention span in reading and copying, writes up and downhill on paper, and mistakes words with same or similar beginnings. A government-subsidized vision test was administered to students at his elementary school at the beginning of the school year and there were no recommendations for follow up tests in a vision clinic. It would be unreasonable to conclude that Steven’s reading problems are related to vision issues. While substituting in the classroom I noticed three-quarters of the students using their fingers to keep place while reading. When I asked one of the students she told me that they are instructed to do so by the room’s co-teacher. Also while in the room, I checked Steven’s elementary school homework to see if he has trouble aligning characters when writing Chinese. His writing was neat and balanced. I asked him why his Chinese writing is so lovely and his English writing is so messy. He responded that if his Chinese writing is messy, his teacher will make him re-write it several times.

There is no reason to conclude that Steven’s reading issues stem from hearing difficulties either. He is articulate, has no difficulty understanding oral directions in both Chinese and English, he replies when spoken to, and doesn’t complain about earaches. A government-subsidized hearing test was also administered to students at his elementary school at the beginning of the school year and there were no recommendations for follow up tests in a hearing clinic.

There is also no reason to conclude that Steven’s reading issues stem from emotional maladjustment. He is not excessively shy, he doesn’t lack confidence, he has plenty of friends, and doesn’t have excessive absences. He has never arrived at school showing any signs of abuse. According to the Taiwanese co-teacher, Steven comes from a nurturing and stable household.

Steven’s behavioral log of demonstrated multiple intelligence was also completed with the help of our school’s second grade foreign teacher and the room’s Taiwanese co-teacher. For most of the items there was no disagreement beyond +/- one point on the scale. Steven demonstrates strong visual-spatial intelligence and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. The graph below charts the information gathered from the behavioral checklist:


In terms of visual-spatial intelligence, Steven is very eager to engage in activities that involve creating artwork. He is better at putting creative thoughts on paper for writing assignments when he is able to make a drawing of his ideas first. Steven is also enrolled in an extra-curricular art class that meets once a week for two hours. He frequently brings his work to show off to his teachers and classmates. In terms of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, he responds well to activities that involve getting up and surveying each of his classmates and using word cards to piece together sentences in grammar class.

I surveyed Steven about his interests and activities he enjoys. He likes action and adventure movies and television shows. His favorite movie is the Avengers and his favorite television programs are Dragonball Z and Dragonball Super. His favorite television character is Dragonball’s Goku because he can always find a way to defeat enemies. Although he doesn’t have pets he likes cats and wants to be a tiger because they are strong and beautiful. He has traveled abroad once. He visited Okinawa, Japan two years ago and has traveled extensively around Taiwan including two of its surrounding islands: Penghu and Green Island. As a result of all this travel he has experienced a range of different types of transportation. He really likes watching and playing baseball. If given the opportunity he would like to fly to the United States to see a Major League Baseball game. Math is his favorite subject in school because he finds the teacher humorous. He has many Chinese language books at home and likes reading Dragonball manga, and books about dinosaurs and insects.

I administered the phonics tests with Steven over the course of several weeks. I only administered one test per session. These were used to help uncover what specific reading skills Steven needs work on. He was able to decode initial single consonants with ease. He made no errors and did not hesitate while reading any of them. Consonant blends were a different story. He was able to slowly sound out the bl, br, and cl blends. These were the first three blends on the list. For the next ten on the list he often dropped the second consonant from the blend. For example, dr op drop was read as d op dop. Steven showed frustration after the thirteenth word of the list so we stopped testing. A week later I showed him the list again and asked him to start on the one he had difficulty with. He made the same errors and testing was stopped after his interest had been exceeded after incorrectly decoding six words. For consonant digraphs he could decode sh and wh but pronounced chop as cop, phop as pop, and thop as top. He had no difficulty decoding the lists of short vowel words, long vowel words with a silent e ending, and long vowel sounds with double-vowel combinations. In terms of vowel digraphs, he was able to decode tew and the ow accurately in both cow (/aʊ/), and tow (/oʊ/)] however he struggled with every other vowel digraph on the list. For example, aut became at, loi became low, and sook became sock.

The following chart summarizes Steven’s knowledge of sound-symbol association and his ability to blend sounds:

Steven’s Reading Abilities and Difficulties
Initial Single Consonants Ο
Consonant Blends Ο   [bl, br, cl]  × [all others]
Consonant Digraphs Ο   [sh, wh] × [ch, ph, th]
Short Vowel Sounds Ο
Long Vowel Sounds (Silent e Ending) Ο
Long Vowel Sounds (Double Vowel Combinations) Ο
Vowel Digraphs Ο [ew, ow (/aʊ/), ow (/oʊ/)] × [all others]

On the graded word list, Steven was able to read accurately every word in the pre-primer graded list. This list is comprised of ten high-frequency words such as here, am, the, get, is, and will. After administering the pre-primer word list Steven very excitedly began talking about a trailer he saw on Youtube for the movie Avengers: Infinity Wars. We talked very briefly about our expectations for this movie and continued to the primer word list. Like all the other graded word lists, it is comprised of ten words. Like the pre-primer list, these are also high-frequency words. Steven was able to accurately read without hesitation the words come, you, went, him, two, pet, and house. However, he read then as they, know as /k/, and around as arrow. Since he got more than two wrong on the primer level graded word list and none wrong on the pre-primer list, this puts his instructional level at the pre-primer level +0.5.

To see how Steven compared to his classmates, I also administered the graded word lists to each of his eleven classmates. The graph below illustrates where Steven stands compared to his classmates in reading ability as measured by the graded word lists:

Untitled Diagram.jpg

As illustrated, Steven is far behind his classmates. According to the room’s co-teacher, student 9 also struggles but does not need any assistance to complete classwork. The highest achiever, student 2 spends a lot of her free time engaging in conversations with native English speakers while playing a multiplayer online computer game.

There are three choices in the Bader Reading and Language Inventory at the pre-primer level. One is about cats, the other about dogs, and one about a bus ride. I chose to administer the one about cats because they are Steven’s favorite animal. Steven showed adequate background knowledge about cats. He mentioned that they like to eat fish, they don’t like water, and that they can live inside or outside. He also enthusiastically mentioned that they like to go to the bathroom in sand. I administered a prepared reading which means that Steven read quietly to himself first before reading to me. When Steven read to me he made two substitutions: he said wants instead of likes and shop instead of sleep. The first substitution did not distract from the meaning however the second one did. He also made a repetition when he read the third line as “She is a…She is a fat cat.” Steven read slowly, word by word, and in a monotone voice. He was able to remember three unprompted memories when asked to retell the story. He told me, “There’s a cat. Tip. Tip is a cat. And cats like fish. Tip likes fish.” He could also answer four comprehension questions about the reading but struggled to answer the following, “Where does Tip like to sit.” He answered, “On a sofa.” At this point Steven began talking about a neighborhood cat that likes to sit outside his house. He was so enthusiastic that I didn’t notice that I didn’t ask the last of the final comprehension questions. The last question was, “What kind of pet is Tip?” which I didn’t ask but I am confident Steven would be able to answer because he stated that Tip is a cat during his unprompted memories of the text. His performance reading this graded reader puts Steven’s instructional level at a pre-grade 1 level.

Since Steven reads at a level lower than his classmates I wanted to see if Steven could understand text that he listens to. To do this I picked a graded passage for second graders. This story was about a frog. Steven showed adequate background knowledge about frogs. He told me that they live in ponds and told me that they hatch from eggs. He also made a few frog noises. I read the passage to Steven once. Then I asked him to follow along with his finger as I read a second time. He was able to recall a lot of unprompted memories for the passage. He told me that, “Little Frog lived by a lake…. and…. he has a book. He likes birds because they sing nice. But he can’t sing nice.” He was also able to answer most of the comprehension questions without difficulty. He didn’t know why Little Frog read the same book and for some reason he answered that Little Frog liked birds because they were beautiful despite saying that Little Frog liked them because they sang nice when he recalled the story.

With what we’ve learned about Steven’s reading difficulties, how can we best meet his instructional needs? Given the performance gap between him and his classmates it is clear that his teacher will need to differentiate instruction to support Steven and at the same time challenge his higher ability students. Steven will need explicit instruction in word recognition and reading strategies to prevent him from falling further behind his classmates as text becomes more and more challenging.

One hallmark of differentiated instruction is flexible grouping. By having students who need more explicit instruction grouped together, the teacher can focus his or her efforts reteaching particular skills that others in the class have already mastered while higher ability students are engaged in other learning activities. In order to best meet Steven’s instructional needs, his teacher will need to design activities for students to complete largely independently from the teacher while he attends to Steven’s needs.

Gipe suggests personal dictionaries as a structured spelling best practice (2014). My suggestion would be to help Steven create thematic personal dictionaries for consonant blends, consonant digraphs, and vowel digraphs. In these dictionaries he could make lists of examples of each blend and digraph, include an example sentence for each one, and a drawing to accompany each word. He could also make one for unknown words he encounters in books he reads for pleasure and in expository text.

There is a word wall in the classroom with a list of twenty words with the suffix -ly. This accompanied a phonics unit on suffixes in the grade two curriculum but unfortunately that unit was several months ago and the list hasn’t been updated. Cunningham suggests that words students encounter on a daily basis are candidates for word walls (1999). This word wall can be filled with difficult words from their textbooks and high-frequency words that students make repeated errors when writing. This word wall can be used as a reference and students can be asked to read words from the word wall with partners before going outside for break time.

To better engage Steven who is a bodily-kinesthetic learner, his teacher will be encouraged to use arm blending to help him develop phonemic awareness. Arm blending involves sweeping one arm down the length of the other as words are being pronounced (Fox, 2000). For example: the teacher’s hand starts on his or her shoulders and the student mimics. The teacher says, “S-C-R, S-C-R, /skr/ /skr/ /skr/” and the student echos. Then, the teacher moves their hand to their elbow and says, “A-E, A-E, /ā/ /ā/ /ā/” and the student echos. Afterwards, the teacher moves their hand to their wrist and says, “P, P, /p/ /p/ /p/” and the student echos. Finally, the teacher and student move their hands to their shoulders and say the whole word while moving down to their wrists, “/skr/ ! /ā/ ! /p/ ! scrape!”

Conclusions and Implications for Future Research

Through a variety of reading and word recognition tests we have a clearer picture of what Steven’s reading difficulties are. Using these and data gathered from surveys we can design instructional strategies to better meet his instructional needs. I have included a handful of suggestions for Steven’s teachers to better support Steven. Preliminary observations by Steven’s teachers reveal that he is responding very well to having a selection of English books available in the classroom. Steven has been assigned a classmate to read a book of his choosing with during break time. Every other evening, he is given a book closer to his instructional level to practice reading with his parents at home. He has also started a personal dictionary for unknown words he encounters when reading for pleasure. For future research, it would be appropriate to retest Steven ‘s word recognition and reading ability after several weeks of modified instruction to see if his abilities improve.

References and Appendix