As a parent, you felt Warren's frustration. You heard his anxiety. You saw his last ounce of confidence vanish. Why? He struggled to read, and he "struck out" every time he tried. He felt horrible. In anguish, he screamed, "I'm stupid, stupid, stupid!"

Over the last three years, Warren has made little more than three months' growth in reading in his special education inclusion program. Entering fourth grade, he was reading at a mid-first-grade level.

So, you asked his Individualized Education Program (IEP) team to evaluate his reading and writing problems. They agreed. The learning consultant tested him with two widely-used, norm-referenced test batteries, observed him in class for 40 minutes, prepared a report full of statistical printouts and recommended a series of Orton-Gillingham (O-G) type phonics books and more intensive O-G phonics instruction.

After five months of O-G instruction, you asked the team to assess his progress. They did. And here's what you learned. His struggles had intensified. He had fallen further behind his age and grade peers. And he had developed a new, strong-willed attitude: Resist reading.

What happened? What was missing? How could you, his teachers and his IEP team have improved the outcome?

What happened?

You had asked a caring, well-intentioned, competent IEP team to complete a diagnostic reading evaluation and plan an effective intervention. They tried, but like Warren, they "struck out."

They gave him a "typical" evaluation, consisting of two batteries of norm-referenced tests that compared him to a national sample of his age and grade peers. Such tests offer relatively little information about what children know and what they can do in typical situations that are much more fluid and complex than testing situations.

Nor do they provide much if any information about critical topics, such as what instructional schedules and strategies will likely accelerate his learning, what topics and activities motivate him, and what kinds of group and one-to-one situations increase his focus and motivation, and what kinds don't .

What was missing?

Missing were specific questions that cost nothing but study, thought and time to create. By examining your child's school records and reading selected articles — such as this article and those listed at the end you're well on your way to creating such a list.

Once you have a list of specific questions that need answering, it's relatively easy for you and your child's evaluation team to identify the types of professionals who can explicitly and comprehensively answer the questions. For struggling readers, it's particularly important to distinguish between professionals with graduate degrees in literacy instruction and those with degrees in learning disabilities.

Such degrees whether masters or doctorates differ radically from one another. Compared to graduate programs in literacy instruction, learning disabilities programs provide little depth and breadth of knowledge and experience in reading and writing difficulties. Conversely, graduate programs in learning disabilities provide far greater knowledge and experience in special education and behavioral analysis.

If your list of questions deals with speech and language, or cognitive struggles, it's important to involve a speech and language specialist and school psychologist who are well-versed in reading disabilities. Thus, a quality reading evaluation often requires the expertise of several professionals.

How could you improve the outcome?

Identifying and discussing critical diagnostic questions with the other members of your child's IEP team (or an evaluation team if he's not eligible for special education) and agreeing on the questions are key to determining which experts need to evaluate your child's reading and writing problems. They're also key to focusing the evaluation on what's most important to learn about your child, so instruction can help him overcome the barriers to learning and substantially accelerate his rate of progress.

Developing a list of critical questions for the evaluation can dramatically influence its focus and nature. This includes the types of formal and informal tests used, the depth, breadth and focus of interviews and observations, and the type of diagnostic teaching needed to identify potentially productive approaches to accelerating the struggling reader's rate of learning.

To influence the focus and nature of your child or student's evaluation, you're encouraged to use or modify the questions below to fit your child's or student's needs. Though the questions cover four critical areas, many other areas may require a highly focused, question-driven diagnosis:

Sight vocabulary

  • How does my child's sight vocabulary compare to grade-level standards?
  • At what grade level is my child's sight vocabulary?
  • How large is his sight vocabulary?
  • What common, high-frequency words does he have difficulty recognizing within one second?
  • If his sight vocabulary is below that of average-achieving readers in his grade, exactly what is blocking him from developing a grade-level sight vocabulary? What can the school do to remove these blocks and strengthen his sight vocabulary? What research or related scholarship supports your recommendations?


  • Compared to grade-level standards, how well does my child apply decoding skills?
  • At what grade level are my child's decoding skills?
  • What decoding knowledge and skills does he have? With materials at his instructional level, how smoothly and effortlessly does he apply his knowledge and skills?
  • What critical decoding knowledge and skills does he need to learn?
  • Exactly what is blocking him from becoming far more proficient at decoding? What can the school do to remove these blocks and strengthen his decoding skills? What research or related scholarship supports your recommendations?

Self-confidence (self-efficacy)

  • To learn to read, to work independently in class, to succeed on homework, what does my child have to believe about his abilities?
  • Which of his self-efficacy beliefs are accurate? Which are inaccurate?
  • If his self-efficacy is weak in critical academic areas, what are the immediate causes? What can the school do to strengthen his self-efficacy, so he correctly believes that he will succeed if he makes a moderate effort, persists and correctly uses the correct learning strategy? What research or related scholarship supports your recommendations?


  • What subjects and activities does my child like? What does he dislike?
  • How motivated is he to learn to read?
  • How motivated is he to read lots of materials or books by himself?
  • If he's not highly motivated, what are the causes? What can the school do to remove or weaken these causes and strengthen his motivation, so he becomes a highly-motivated, enthusiastic reader? What research or related scholarship supports your recommendations?

In addition to these components of reading, you should also request that the evaluation report include:

  • A chart with your child's listening levels as well as his three reading levels: independent, instructional and frustration. Knowing and adapting instruction to these levels is critical for the success of all reading instruction. Yet, in practice, these levels are often ignored.
  • A plan to closely and frequently monitor and report your child's progress. Struggling readers like Warren need once- or twice-weekly monitoring probes. Such brief probes allow IEP teams to quickly modify ineffective programs, so struggling readers don't endlessly languish in ineffective ones.

In addition to these four areas of reading, you may need to develop and discuss questions for listening and speaking vocabulary, fluency, reading comprehension, study skills, independent work habits, homework and writing instruction.

Once you have a meaningful, well-organized list of questions, it's important to discuss and refine the list with all involved parties, especially the evaluators. Everyone needs a clear and explicit understanding of what the questions ask and how the information will be collected, analyzed and used to answer each of the agreed-upon questions.

Evaluators need to understand and accept these responsibilities, which will probably differ from what they're accustomed to. In line with this, everyone needs to understand that developing valid, explicit and comprehensive answers to instructionally important, agreed-upon questions may take far more time and effort than most evaluations.

Given the severity of many struggling readers' difficulties and their devastating social, emotional and economic consequences, the extra time and effort is well justified. As the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017):

"When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis' [trivial or minor] progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to 'sitting idly ... awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out' ... Every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives." (italics added)

Many parents and school personnel question the relevance of one question listed in each of the four areas of reading: "What research or related scholarship supports your recommendations?" Nevertheless, it's a critical question.

Struggling readers involved in administratively-supported, well-implemented programs based on strong research or related scholarship have a far greater chance of making accelerated progress than peers placed in programs lacking such support. Too often, in education, we eagerly implement new fads or ideologically attractive methods, only to see them fail so many struggling readers.

So, ask to see the research and scholarly support. Your child's future is at stake.

How can IEP teams improve outcomes?

As soon as schools or IEP teams suspect that a struggling reader is making inadequate progress in his or her reading and writing program, they should ask a reading specialist to join the reader's evaluation team. Then the entire team, which needs to includes the parents, can develop the critical questions.

Though this creates more work for the team, it yields important benefits:

  • Many parents will feel increasing trust in the team's motivation and professionalism.
  • Many parents will appreciate the complexity of the problems and the precision and focus of the questions.

Though these benefits are important, the most important benefit is the struggling reader's improved odds of making accelerated progress. In the long term, a question-focused evaluation followed by a program based on the findings, and modified by ongoing progress monitoring data, creates much greater odds of accelerating progress across all critical areas, including the struggling reader’s reading and writing, and his (or her) social and emotional well-being.

Ideally, this is what education is about: Creating opportunities that help children and families succeed.

Additional resources

The LD Source and MultiBriefs have many free resources that can help you focus your child or student's evaluation. Here's a partial list: