January 13, 2015

Scaffolding Reading Instruction Using Fountas and Pinnell, Reading Horizons, and Other Techniques

esl_instruction_readingWhat do English Language Learners (ELLs), dyslexics, and struggling readers all have in common? They are among the 30% of all students who require direct, explicit instruction to become proficient readers. And many of these students need additional scaffolding each step of the way.

Let me share the story of an ELL student who also has an Individualized Education Plan.

Knowing that I had used best practices and monitored data to determine instruction caused me to take a closer look at Lora’s lack of progress. Usually ELLs thrive and rapidly advance with daily English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction to supplement their classroom lessons. However, it was mid-December of last year and Lora was failing first grade with all of the standard ESL interventions in place.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Lora was instructed using Balanced Literacy in the first grade classroom and Reading Horizons for her ESL instruction, but still could not read. Lora is one of the 30% of learners who will not learn to read with implicit instruction. I knew I could teach her to read, but at her pace and level of understanding. I consulted with her first grade teacher and agreed I would provide all language arts instruction. I had been teaching her every skill she would need to know with direct, explicit instruction, but she was not able to learn the skills rapidly enough to keep up with first grade pace. An extra thirty minutes of daily online and direct instruction using Reading Horizons Discovery (RHD) began December 19, 2013. Parent conferences were held to enable her to receive support and encouragement practicing skills at home. Raising the parents’ levels of awareness regarding reading difficulties also caused them to encourage their child to work hard.

Letters and Sounds

We began reviewing letters and sounds. Next we blended two sounds as slides (RHD) until she could read those quickly and easily. Then we added a third letter to form a consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) word. Teaching her to tap the three sounds with her non-writing hand (Orton-Gillingham (OG) provided her additional support in this decoding process. She was experiencing success daily and gaining self-confidence. She mastered the five short vowel sounds with the use of vowel tents (OG). Each week she learned to spell 10 CVC words with different medial vowels. She could also read level A books— tapping unknown words. In RHD she was learning Most Common Words so Lakeshore Fiction and Non-Fiction Sight Word Readers were added to her library as well.


Next I introduced L-blends with the three-part drill (Orton Gillingham) and RHD online and direct instruction. She failed the spelling test that week, omitting the L in each word (flag, plum, glad, plug…). She also could not read any words beginning with L-blends. She was discouraged by her failure. I was motivated and challenged by her failure. I was teaching a first grader who spoke only Arabic at home but who truly wanted to be a good reader. She was overwhelmed. It was my responsibility to scaffold instruction so she could master these skills. 

My message to her always was that we would practice more until she ‘got it’. No need to be concerned, just practice more. With these discussions her mood would change from apprehension to optimism.  The next week the L-blends were posted on individual cards, then reviewed with the three-part drill. When I showed her the card with the blend in the word I would use the Reading Horizons Dictation process. She would say the word twice (RHD dictation), tap it (OG) then write it once. SUCCESS! Once she understood the concept of L-blends, learning the R-blends, S-blends, tw and dw blends, and three letter blends occurred with ease!


We hit another roadblock with contractions, but overcame it with additional practice. She was now reading on level B (Fountas and Pinnell) and sight word stories. She preferred an aqua transparent overlay (NRSI) and read more fluently and had better reading stamina using it. She felt like a reader. She could decode rapidly enough to become engaged in the stories. As teachers, we all know that feeling when a child giggles with excitement reading about a silly character or action in a story. It was evident that Lora would have to have extensive practice decoding words before expecting her to comprehend.  But we were on the right track.

Skills Required to Read Fountas and Pinnell Level C

By February she was still reading on a level B. I knew how much she had learned, which was documented by all of her assessments. But why was she reading on only a level B?  She could apply whatever skills I taught her, but she did not figure out any strategies on her own.

Thus, the reason for this research. I decided to see what skills she would have to know to read a level C text. I gathered the criteria for a level C book from www.readinga-z.com and Fountas and Pinnell. Level C texts include compound words, suffixes, and a variety of punctuation marks. For Fountas and Pinnell, a description of a level C text, follow: 

Fountas & Pinnell Guided Reading Text Level Descriptions PDF ›  page 2.

Lora had learned so much, but to read a level C book accurately and fluently a child must know these skills:

1. Phonemic awareness

               a. Rhyme

               b. Syllables

               c. Initial sound

               d. Blending

               e. Final sound

               f. Medial sound

               g. Segmentation

2. Upper and lower case letter recognition

3. Letter/sound recognition

4. Recognition of high frequency words.

5. L blends

6. R blends

7. S blends

8. Commas

9. Tw/dw blends

10. Special vowel combinations (-ang, -ank…)

11. Compound words

12. Voiced and voiceless th

13. Digraphs

14. Contractions

15. Short and long vowels

16. Ability to decode CVC words and CVC words with suffixes

17. Ability to decode CVCC words and CVCC words with suffixes

18. Ability to decode CV words and CV  words with suffixes

19. Ability to decode CVCe words and CVCe words with suffixes

20. Ability to decode CVVC words and CVVC words with suffixes

21. Ability to read words ending in –ck.

22. 3 sounds of –ed.

23. Vowel families.

To learn more about Fountas and Pinnell in your classroom, follow:

Leveled Book Samples: Level C ›

Learning A-Z Text Leveling Criteria ›

Stages of Development ›

Lora is not alone. 70% of all children can learn to read with implicit instruction. But 30% will need direct, explicit instruction in decoding words.

Key Takeaways

So I will continue to teach Lora to decode words. I will make her a master of decoding with automaticity. She will not be able to look at her teacher and say, “I don’t know this word” because I will make decoding clear and simple for her. This is how she will become a confident reader. The thrill of reading must happen early in life. Children should not be afraid or unable to read.

To provide all children this opportunity, we need to change the format of early reading instruction! As we incorporate the above-mentioned tools (Orton-Gillingham three part drill, vowel tents, tapping words, and Reading Horizons Discovery) we provide our students with the direct, explicit instruction they need to become successful readers.

If you're interested in learning more about emergent readers, check out our free resource section.

Learn more about Reading Horizons Discovery software for your classroom ›


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