What happens when a child cannot learn to read through phonics? Educational researchers have a word for those children: they call them nonresponders. Sometimes, instead, they call them treatment-resisters.1 Either way, it’s the same thing: they have come up with a term that blames the child for not learning. Their reasoning: most other children learn with their methods, so the method must be “effective.” If the child doesn’t learn, and the method works for others–then the problem must lie with the child.
The researchers who use this term are generally proponents of traditional, phonics-heavy approaches to teaching struggling readers. They would like to be able to assemble statistics to show that students uniformly benefit from their favored intervention. However, the numbers don’t come out the way the researchers would like because, no matter what the intervention, there is always a significant segment of students who simply make no progress at all, and in some cases seem to lose rather than gain skills over time.
Unfortunately, there are also too many nonresponders to ignore. In fact, researchers Stephanie Al Otaiba and Douglas Fuchs report that anywhere from 30% to 50% of children with learning disabilities fit into the nonresponder category.2 3 Think about that for a minute: the methods that are often labeled “evidence based” (as if they were proven), simply do not work for at least a third, and maybe half, of the students who are in need of support or remediation.
Here’s a chart that shows what happens to those nonresponders — bear in mind that for this particular study, roughly 25% of the students fell into the nonresponse category. 4
I personally have a hard time with the use of the word “effective” to describe an intervention that leaves 25% of the kids worse off than they were in the first place. Perhaps “experimental” would be a better term?
In any case, we have to remember that the “intervention” is being given to primary level students who are already lagging behind their peers. That means that some of those kids are bound to be dyslexic; others may be lagging due to lack of exposure to books and reading prior to beginning school, and some may be second language learners, coming from homes where English is not spoken.
Brain scan research has shown that pre-intervention measures of brain activity is correlated to nonresponse to intervention. The brain scans of nonresponders showed reduced activation in brain regions tied to processing the sounds of language, a signature characteristic of dyslexia. 5 Simply put, nonresponders showed greater pre-intervention brain differences from typically developing readers than responders. 6
In other words, it is likely that most of the students who do “respond,” do so precisely because they are not dyslexic, but simply need help to fill in gaps caused by life experiences.
We also know from research that after the unsuccessful intervention, the nonresponders tend to have behavioral characteristics that are commonly associated with dyslexia: they perform poorly on tests of phonological awareness and rapid automatic naming, and they exhibit problems with attention focus. And a post-intervention fMRI study has shown that the nonresponding children had reduced left hemispheric brain activation patterns consistent with dyslexia.7
The other takeaway from the research is that non-responders don’t seem to change. That is, the students who are nonresponders early on usually stay that way.8 As the chart above shows, things just get worse for them over time.
I haven’t found many researchers writing about “nonresponders” who question the validity of trying to teach phonics to that group in the first place. Rather than suggesting reforms in the way that nonresponders are taught, the researchers are more likely to suggest that the students need a more intensive version of the same thing — as if someone putting greater pressure on the children will force them to learn. Or they imply that the children will never learn: if they can’t learn with the favored approach, no use trying anything else.
One exception came from a pair of Florida researchers (Wanzek & Vaugn, 2008) who wrote, “more of the same intervention was not beneficial” for low responders, and suggested that an “individualized approach” focused on the “differentiated needs of students” might be more effective.
In my view, the true “nonresponders” are the researchers who refuse to consider that another path for reading may be better for dyslexics.
It’s hard enough for a dyslexic kid to learn to read, without also being blamed for the failures of a method.
- In 2012, a researcher reported that following implementation of a systematic phonics-based reading curriculum in primary schools throughout Britain, 16.4% of children were “behind expectation” in reading achievement, and that these nonresponding students “showed the core characteristics of dyslexia – poor phonological awareness, poor verbal memory and slow verbal processing speed.”9
- In a study published in 2017, researchers reported that dyslexic children who showed the greatest weaknesses in word and pseudoword reading a the outset were also the least likely to benefit from a 50-week phonics intervention. The dyslexic children also remained significantly behind when followed up to a year later.10
- In 2018, based on findings from pre- and post-intervention fMRI scans of dyslexic children, researchers recommended that interventions should shift to strategies to foster connections between “cognitive control networks and reading systems that may allow for alternate learning pathways” and which “emphasize both reading and executive functions.” 11
- In 2018, researchers emphasized the importance of moving beyond the current “wait-for failure approach to intervention.” Instead, they urged that educators identify important characteristics of learners at the outset, to inform the “selection of personalized interventions that could be effective for many more children.” 12
This article was originally published in October 2012. It was most recently updated with additional research and citations in July, 2023.
- Joseph K. Torgesen (2000) Individual Differences in Response to Early Interventions in Reading: The Lingering Problem of Treatment Resisters, Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 15:1, 55-64
- Al Otaiba, S., & Fuchs, D. (2006). Who Are the Young Children for Whom Best Practices in Reading Are Ineffective?: An Experimental and Longitudinal Study. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39(5), 414–431.
- Al Otaiba, S., & Fuchs, D. (2002). Characteristics of Children Who Are Unresponsive to Early Literacy Intervention: A Review of the Literature. Remedial and Special Education, 23(5), 300–316.
- The North Yorks Reading Intervention Project. (University of York)
- Davis, N., Barquero, L., Compton, D. L., Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Gore, J. C., & Anderson, A. W. (2011). Functional correlates of children’s responsiveness to intervention. Developmental neuropsychology, 36(3), 288–301.
- Barquero, Laura Alley. Predicting Responsiveness to Reading Intervention with fMRI. Ph.D. Dissertation (Vanderbilt University). 2015.
- Odegard, T.N., Ring, J., Smith, S. et al. Differentiating the neural response to intervention in children with developmental dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia (2008) 58: 1.
- Wanzek, J., & Vaughn, S. (2008). Response to Varying Amounts of Time in Reading Intervention for Students With Low Response to Intervention. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41(2), 126–142.
- Snowling, M. J. (2012), Early identification and interventions for dyslexia: a contemporary view. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. Vol. 13 (1): 7-14.
- Van der Kleij, SW; Segers, E, Groen MA, Verhoeven, L. (2017) Response to Intervention as a Predictor of Long‐Term Reading Outcomes in Children with Dyslexia. Dyslexia. Vol 23, Issue 3, pp 268-282
- Aboud KS, Barquero LA, Cutting LE. (2018) Prefrontal mediation of the reading network predicts intervention response in dyslexia, Cortex, Vol 101, Pages 96-106.
- Ozernov-Palchik, O., & Gabrieli, J. D. (2018). Neuroimaging, early identification, and personalized intervention for developmental dyslexia. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 44(3), 15-20.