Is your child a “nonresponder”?

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.  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. Think about that for a minute:  the methods that are often labeled “scientifically 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.

From The North Yorks Reading Intervention Project

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.  Unfortunately, no one seems to have spent much time trying to tease out how many responders vs. non-responders are likely dyslexic at the outset.

In other words, it is quite possible that 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 do know from research that after the unsuccessful intervention, the nonresponders tend to have 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.

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.  As the chart above shows, things just get worse for them over time.

I haven’t found any researchers writing about “nonresponders” who question the validity of trying to teach phonics to that group in the first place. Rather than suggest 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.

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.


Stephanie Al Otaiba and Douglas Fuchs. Who Are the Young Children for Whom Best Practices in Reading Are Ineffective? An Experimental and Longitudinal Study.  Journal of Learning Disabilities. Vol 30, No. 3, September/October 2006, pages 414-431.

Stephanie Al Otaiba and Douglas Fuchs. Characteristics of Children Who Are Unresponsive to Early Literacy Intervention: A Review of the Literature. Remedial and Special Education. Vol. 23, No. 5, September/October 2002, pages 300-316.

The North Yorks Reading Intervention Project Report

Implications of Research cited in The Rose Report, from


See Research Update, summarizing the findings at  Early identification and interventions for dyslexia,