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Helping students with learning disabilities tackle the tough words

Researcher: Jennifer Diliberto
picture of e reader

Jennifer Diliberto, clinical associate professor of special education, knows what strategies work when teaching students with dyslexia, a language-based neurological disability.

She is dyslexic and learned to read using an approach that included syllabication, the process of dividing words into syllables. Diliberto relied on her experiences as a student, a special education teacher, and educational researcher to develop her own curriculum, “Taking on Tough Words,” which has now been adopted by school districts in 12 states.

“It’s a very targeted intervention specifically designed to help students that are struggling with decoding multi-syllabic words,” Diliberto said.

The curriculum helps students with and without reading disabilities learn to decode (word read) and encode (spell) phonetically regular multisyllabic words to increase reading achievement in higher level text. “Taking on Tough Words” offers an effective intervention to use with middle school students reading below grade level.

Many children with learning disabilities struggle with learning how to read due to their inability to quickly and automatically read text and retrieve words. While this makes learning to read and write challenging, these children often possess strong oral language, good problem-solving skills and are highly creative.

The Edge
Children who read below grade level struggle with quickly and automatically reading text and retrieving words. This makes learning to read and write challenging for students with and without learning disabilities, even though these children often possess strong oral language and other skills. Research conducted by Jennifer Diliberto led to development of a curriculum that targets syllabication skills, teaching young readers – particularly those with learning disabilities – how to decode and encode multisyllabic words to increase reading achievement.

Diliberto says all multi-sensory structured language programs include syllabication within literacy instruction. But not all programs include direct, explicit instruction in syllabication.

“(There are) different philosophies out there, and a lot of people like to encourage students to find recognizable chunks within words rather than learning all of the rules for syllabication because there are a lot of rules, and it’s not for every student,” Diliberto said. “Not every student can memorize those rules to use them as tools for decoding.”

While conducting research for her curriculum, she found that there was not a lot of “hard-core” scientific research focused on syllabication, even though interest in teaching the technique dates back many years to when textbook writers and researchers contended that the methods dictionary makers used to divide words would help students learn to read and spell (Diliberto, J. A., et al. 2009)

But “Taking on Tough Words” is different in that it isolates, or targets, syllabication skills. Most prior packaged programs included syllabication as part of the entire program and not a separate supplemental intervention. Schools are now using a multi-tiered system of support to determine which students are in need of further reading invention. That means students get targeted intervention in specific areas of need based on assessments. Many students in upper elementary to high school who struggle with reading and read below grade level need further intervention in decoding and encoding of multisyllabic words.

“This curriculum allows schools to purchase a packaged, evidence-based curriculum that targets the needed skills while monitoring progress in roughly 90, 15-minute lessons,” Diliberto said.

Diliberto said that while teaching students to find recognizable chunks can be helpful in decoding words, the method is not as consistent for teaching reading and spelling as knowing the steps for syllabication.

There are rules with syllabication that are consistent with roughly 80 percent of words in the English language. Using the “recognizable chunk” method without knowing where the syllables divide the chunk might not be consistent with the division. Depending on where the word is divided, that chunk may not sound the way it does when it is outside of that word. The student could be dividing that chunk in the middle, and that is going to change the sound of the vowel. Therefore, it is not as consistent as when a student knows the steps for syllabication, she said.

Diliberto said students should learn how to look for those consistent pattern chunks, rather than just looking for recognizable chunks.

To make it easier for students, Diliberto’s curriculum condensed the steps for syllabication, showing students how to look for patterns based on the six syllable types — closed, open, vowel-consonant-silent e, vowel team, r-controlled, consonant-le. Those types determine how the vowel is going to sound, and Diliberto said the vowels are really the tricky part of our language, especially when it comes to spelling.

Diliberto said by knowing those six syllable types, students then know what sounds those individual vowels are going to make. They can learn about accenting once they start mastering those six syllable types.

“Taking on Tough Words” includes lessons for reading and spelling multi-syllabic words. The first couple of lessons teach students how to define and describe characteristics of a syllable, while the third lesson teaches them how to define and understand terminology needed for syllable pattern instruction. By Lesson 13, they are learning to decode and encode open and closed syllables.

Diliberto said the level of detail used in the curriculum is very effective for students with dyslexia, who have high cognitive ability but struggle with different parts of the language, but also works for students who have difficulty with their reading skills for other reasons.

The motivation

Diliberto’s curriculum grew out of her dissertation research at UNC-Charlotte. Prior to her dissertation, she and her mentor in the doctoral program were conducting a research study using a reading program that was not explicitly teaching how to divide words into syllables.

Diliberto noticed in the study that students were not making any progress in the area of word reading and word identification, and that the reading program did not provide direct instruction in syllabication. There were no gains from the beginning of the study from pre-test to pro-test in the area of word identification and word attack, also known as decoding, Diliberto said.

At the same time, Diliberto and her mentor were co-teaching a literacy method course, in which her mentor did a lesson on syllabication. Diliberto felt that was the piece missing from the reading program, and that syllabication could be the key to success for students struggling with reading.

In the “Effects of Teaching Syllable Skills Instruction on Reading Achievement in Struggling Middle School Readers,” (Diliberto, et. al., 2009), Diliberto tested her theory on students with mild to moderate disabilities and students at-risk for failing reading, instructing them in syllable patterns, syllabication steps and rules, and accenting patterns. They practiced these skills by decoding and encoding nonsense and low-frequency mono- and multisyllabic words. The students in the study either had an identified disability and were part of the exceptional children’s program and/or received a 1 or 2 on the end-of-grade test the year prior to the study.

In the 2009 article, published in the journal Literacy Research and Instruction, Diliberto and her collaborators outlined their research comparing two groups of participants: those receiving instruction in syllable skill and those who did not receive instruction in syllable skills. Both groups included middle school students with high-incidence disabilities, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and those students at risk of failing reading.

The question they wanted answered: To what extent is there a difference between students with high-incidence disabilities and those students at risk for reading failure who received direct, explicit, and systematic supplemental instruction in syllable skills versus students with high-incidence disabilities and those at risk for reading failure who did not receive instruction in syllable skills on reading achievement? Word identification skills, word attack skills, comprehension skills, and fluency skills were the specific areas of reading achievement that the study measured.

She found that, statistically, there were significant differences between pre-test and post-test scores for three measures: word identification, word attack and reading comprehension. The treatment group showed greater increase from pre-test to post-test in those areas, and the gap in fluency performance decreased between the groups.

Diliberto then developed teaching lessons that would address syllabication and could be used in conjunction with core curriculums.

What’s next?

Diliberto tested her curriculum with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and witnessed the most gains among sixth-graders. She is pursuing how it would work with upper elementary students as a tiered intervention within North Carolina Public Schools’ Multi-Tiered Systems of Support model, which relies on evidence-based academic and behavioral practices to promote school improvement.


Diliberto, J. A., Beattie, J. R., Flowers, C. P., & Algozzine, R. F. (2009) Effects of teaching syllable skills instruction on reading achievement in struggling middle school readers. Literacy Research and Instruction, Vol. 48 n1 pp. 14-27.