Reading PI and Super Solvers were prepared through research conducted at the National Center on Accelerating the Academic Achievement (A3) of Students with Severe and Persistent Learning Disabilities, which was funded by Grant No. R324D130003 from the National Center on Special Education Research, Institute of Educational Sciences.

A3 Focus

The Problem

Over the last 10 to 15 years, strides have been made in the development of reading and mathematics instruction to improve student achievement, yet there is a wide and persistent achievement gap between students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities. The proportion of students determined to be at high risk for disability or school failure decreases with more intensive interventions and students who receive more intensive instruction show significant improvements compared to students who receive instruction typically provided by their schools. A number of students, however, show limited or no progress despite receiving secondary, tertiary, or both levels of more intensive instruction. Thus, there is a need to develop a science of intensive instruction for students who have disabilities in reading, mathematics, or both, or are at high risk for being identified as such. This need is more urgent for students in late elementary school and higher. By late elementary school, academic deficits and achievement gaps between students with disabilities and their peers have become well established, and the likelihood of accurately identifying students who need more intensive interventions (i.e., true positives) is improved.

A3 Research Goals

  • Identify effective practices in teaching reading comprehension and fractions that accelerate achievement in reading and math for students with persistent learning disabilities.
  • Identify through mediators what cognitive and linguistic characteristics of these children need to be strengthened.
  • Try to determine through moderation analysis for whom and in what conditions math and reading interventions work.

A3 Interventions

  • Randomized control trials: Separate years to allow for changes based on evidence and feedback
  • Participants recruited in Nashville public schools: Consistent eligibility requirements, such as English language proficiency
  • Implemented by trained research assistants: Master’s students at Peabody College
  • Treatment duration: 13-16 weeks, 40-50 minutes per session

A3 Highlighted Achievements

Super Solvers Overview 

  • Includes students in grades 3-5 (ages 8-11) at risk for math difficulty.
  • Focus on fractions, with a strong emphasis on understanding the magnitude of fractions (i.e., comparing fractions, ordering fractions, and placing fractions on a number line).
  • Practice on multiplication to help students with fraction equivalences and reducing fractions.
  • Strong emphasis on fraction word problems.
  • The intervention is supplemental to the core general education program.
  • Submitted for validation as a Tier II fraction intervention on What Works Clearinghouse.
  • Intervention occurs in dyads and spans 13 weeks (three 35 mini lessons per week).
  • The program also includes an executive function component designed to motivate students to work hard and set goals to monitor their academic progress with challenging learning tasks.

Program Components

These Tier II fraction interventions are designed to build a solid foundation in fraction concepts among students at-risk for mathematics difficulties (i.e., students who have shown previous difficulty with mathematics). The fraction intervention relies on explicit instruction to increase students’ proficiency with assessing fraction magnitude (comparing two fractions, ordering three fractions, and placing fractions on a 0-1 and 0-2 number line), and solving fraction calculation problems.

Lesson components include:
  • Multi-Minute: whole-number multiplication, including speeded practice
  • Problem Quest: fraction word problems
  • Fraction Action: fraction magnitude activities, including naming fractions from regions (part-whole foundation), defining numerator and denominator, comparing two or three fractions using conceptual comparing/ordering strategies, and bench-marking fractions on a number line
  • Fraction Flash: speeded practice on fraction magnitude concepts
  • Power Practice: individual practice (includes cumulative review)

Benefits for all Participants

  • Students identified as at risk for mathematics difficulties are randomly assigned to a tutoring or control group. Two-thirds of the identified at-risk students receive tutoring in dyads, delivered by a well-trained Vanderbilt graduate student. Tutoring helps students become proficient in comparing, ordering, and placing fractions on a number line using benchmark fractions.
  • Tutors receive intensive training to administer the tutoring program as designed (all materials are provided).
  • Teachers receive student data following the post-testing phase.
  • Lesson materials and activities vary by grade.
  • The program is aligned with College and Career Readiness Standards and the TNReady Standards.

Program Evolution

Developmental Studies: Years 1 – 3

  • Year 1 Conditions (2013-2014): Multiplication Component vs. Algebraic Thinking Component vs. Business-as-usual (BAU)
  • Year 2 Conditions (2014-2015): Fraction Word-Problems with Transfer Instruction vs Fraction Word-Problems without Transfer Instruction vs. BAU
  • Year 3 Conditions (2015-2016): Base instruction vs. Base Instruction plus Executive Function Component vs. BAU

Efficacy Studies: Years 4 – 5

  • Year 4 Conditions (2016-2017): Base instruction vs. Fraction Word-Problems with Transfer Instruction vs. Base Instruction plus Executive Function Component vs. BAU
  • Year 5 Conditions (2017-2018): Base instruction vs. Base Instruction plus Executive Function Component vs. BAU (Grade 3); Base instruction vs. Base instruction with Error Analyses vs. BAU (Grades 4-5)

Highlighted Results

  • Across Grades 3, 4, & 5, Super Solvers significantly strengthens students’ magnitude understanding of fractions, measured by their ability to proficiently compare fractions, order fractions, and place fractions on the number line. Most notably, students receiving the intervention demonstrate greater accuracy on a far-transfer number line estimation task.
  • Across Grades 3, 4, & 5, Super Solvers’ schema-based word problem instruction significantly strengthens students’ fraction word-problem solving skill.
  • At Grades 4 & 5, a fraction calculations component, designed to promote understanding about how and why fractions increase or decrease with calculation and how to estimate and check the reasonableness of the magnitude of their fraction calculation answers, significantly boosts students’ skill with fraction calculations.

Reading Comprehension at a Glance for Intermediate Grades:

  • Students from intermediate grades 3 – 5 include ages 8 – 11.
  • Intermediate grades approach reading comprehension with the assumption that students have mastered basic reading skills in phonics, decoding, fluency, and sight words.
  • Students are expected to have transitioned from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”.
  • Students are introduced to “independent learning”.
  • Students no longer receive reading skill and strategy instruction.

Why is There a Need for an Effective Comprehension Intervention?

Only 1 out of 3 students in the United states are proficient in reading comprehension according to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), US Department of Education, 2017. Students who lack proficient reading comprehension will struggle across academic domains. In addition, in later grades, and in life, the ability to read and understand nonfiction text is essential because poor reading comprehension can eventually lead to a host of poor life outcomes:

  • Less likely to graduate
  • Less likely to pursue post-secondary education
  • Lower employment
  • Less likely to own a home
  • Adverse health outcomes
  • Increased involvement in criminal justice system

Why Nonfiction Texts?

  • Also referred to as expository or informational texts.
  • For students with and at risk for a learning disability, nonfiction text is specifically problematic.
  • Nonfiction text is often more difficult to comprehend because it has more complex structures, more difficult vocabulary, unfamiliar topics, and lower engagement.
  • According to NAEP, lack of reading proficiency can be most clearly seen on nonfiction items.

Features of the Reading PI Comprehension Programs:

Principles of Instruction:
  • Use of high quality texts
  • Peer collaboration and discussion
  • Support for inference making and knowledge building
  • Training in self-regulation, motivation, and other areas of executive function
  • Explicit strategy instruction:
    • clear, systematic instruction with direct modeling
    • many opportunities for feedback
    • fading of scaffolded support
    • systematic review
    • sufficient opportunities for independent practice
Comprehension Strategies:
  • Summarizing
  • Answering literal and inferential questions
  • Clarifying
  • Making connections
  • Pre-viewing
  • Identifying and using text structure
  • Generating questions

Purpose and Rationale

During the first 3 years of the A3 project, 3rd grade students did not adequately respond to our treatment. Thus, it was determined that different approaches were needed to better address the needs of these students. To this end, we conducted a separate 3rd grade pilot study in year four of the A3 study. In the 3rd grade pilot, we sought to identify the essential components of a comprehension intervention, to refine our instructional procedures, and to develop more appropriate texts for 3rd graders. At the conclusion of the 3rd grade pilot study, anecdotal evidence and evidence from researcher created measures suggested that we were on the right track, but questions remained.

In year five of the A3 study, we continued to iterate our instructional program for 3rd grade students to address the following questions:

  1. Can we streamline the instructional package to improve efficacy and feasibility for practitioners?
  2. Can we improve our selection procedures to ensure that students in our sample are those most in need of this type of intervention?
  3. Can we further develop our researcher created measures to better understand intervention efficacy?
  4. Can we embed executive function training within our program to promote instructional transfer?


Participants: In our culminating study, we screened 209 students nominated by 56 teachers in 16 elementary schools in a large urban public-school district to identify students who met the following criteria:

  • Adequate word reading: Standard Score on the Test of Word Reading Efficiency-2, Sight Word Efficiency in the 25th percentile or above.
  • Risk for Comprehension DeficitRaw score on comprehension screener less than14 & Gates MacGinite Reading Test, Form S Normal Curve Equivalent Score below 50.
  • Ability to benefit from tutoringAverage IQ, schedule availability, language proficiency.

85 students met our eligibility criteria and were randomly assigned to our treatment or BAU control. 7 students (8%) were lost to attrition over the course of the study (3 from treatment and 4 from controls). 78 students completed the study and were included in our final analysis. There were no significant differences between treatment conditions on demographic or screening variables at pre-treatment.

Intervention: Treatment students were assigned to pairs. Pairs were tutored by trained graduate research assistants. All students received 42 instructional sessions. Sessions were 45-50 minutes in duration. The treatment utilized high quality, appropriately leveled texts, explicit instruction, peer mediation, and training for transfer to support student’s mastery of nonfiction comprehension strategies.

Program Components

Nonfiction Texts

19 original texts were arranged in 4 instructional units. Units and texts were designed to be engaging to 3rd grade students, to resemble authentic texts, to provide exposure to nonfiction text features and structures, and to be at an appropriate readability level. The mean Lexile of all texts was 600. The mean Fleischman-Kinkaid Grade Equivalent was 3.8. We used Coh-Metrix to further titrate readability.

Student Workbook Samples

Take a Look Inside:

Instructional Components

Explicit Instruction was used to teach students 7 comprehension strategies. Students were taught to use strategies before, during, and after reading in order to identify the author’s theme, or the most important information the author wanted to impart. In the model above, before reading strategies are shown in green, during reading strategies are yellow, and after reading strategies are pink. Darker shades are used to denote strategies that supported literary synthesis while lighter shades indicate strategies meant to help students develop schema and make inferences. All strategies were introduced one at a time using mnemonics, modeling, and visual aides. As students practiced the strategies, tutors provided immediate feedback and faded support as students developed independence.

Peer Mediation was employed to facilitate guided practice and facilitate opportunities for students to engage in authentic discussion. To encourage increased peer interaction, tutors were provided with open-ended questions and prompts throughout the lesson. Media was used primarily to build background knowledge, but also as another opportunity for students to interact. Students took turns being Coach and Reader throughout the lesson. As students became more confident with the strategies, the tutor passed off the primary job of providing feedback to the Coach. Stickers and points were used to encourage teamwork and strengthen the peer dynamic.

Training for Transfer. We attempted to tap a variety of skills related to executive function in the hope of improving instructional transfer. To support self-regulation, we taught strategies with the help of mnemonics, connected strategy use to student’s favorite activities, used strategy checklists and awarded special stickers for independent strategy use. To improve generalizationstudents used post-it notes checklists in their classrooms, talked with tutors about outside reading during each session, and received a series of individualized bookmarks to use in other contexts. To strengthen working memorystudents were asked to recall in order all paragraph main ideas after reading each text. To support attention, engagement, and motivation, we incorporated writing, media, and games.

Sample Lessons

Take a Look Inside the Manual

(Best viewed when downloaded)


Data were analyzed separately for each outcome measure using cross-classified hierarchical linear models with random effects for school, teacher, and pair (where appropriate). All models estimated the fixed effects of pre-treatment score, TOWRE sight word standard score, and a dummy variable comparing treatment to control. Hedges’ g effect sizes were calculated using model-estimated coefficients and an adjustment for small sample size.


Results indicate diminishing returns across degrees of instructional transfer. Treatment students clearly learned and remembered content and vocabulary, were able to demonstrate taught strategies, and could apply those strategies to comprehend expository text. However, treatment students did not outperform controls on a standardized measure. In view of our previous work and the work of other research teams this result is not particularly surprising. It reinforces the need to improve instructional transfer, but more importantly the need for better more sensitive standardized measures.

Closer examination of our proximal transfer results suggests that inference training was particularly successful when compared with business as usual instruction.

Program Components

Student Workbooks

Workbooks contain 28 original texts and are arranged in 4 instructional units. Units and texts are designed to have the following four qualities:

  • They are engaging to 4th and 5th grade students.
  • They resemble authentic texts.
  • They provide exposure to nonfiction text features and text structures.
  • They are at an appropriate readability level for students with poor comprehension.

Take a Look Inside:

Training and Practice Manuals

Take a Look Inside:
Highlighted Manual Components:

Each strategy has a related poster. Tutors use explicit instruction techniques to teach students the 7 comprehension strategies. Students are taught that strategies should be used at different points in the reading process: before, during, and after reading. Strategies are introduced gradually and reinforced with immediate corrective feedback from tutors. Tutor support is faded gradually to promote independence.

Peer Mediation is employed to facilitate guided practice and create opportunities for students to engage in authentic discussion. Tutors are provided with open-ended questions and prompts to increase peer interaction throughout the lessons. Media is used to build background knowledge, but it also serves as another opportunity for students to interact collaboratively with each other. Students take turns being Coach and Reader throughout the lesson. As students became more confident with the strategies, the Coach (rather than tutor) assume responsibility for providing corrective feedback to their partner.

Explicit instruction on “transfer,” or the generalizing of strategy use to novel texts and situations, is built into the program via Reading Challenge activities. Reading Challenges are essentially independent practice opportunities. Students work independently on passages, and questions based on the passages, that are similar to the instructional passages at first, but the Reading Challenge passages gradually become less similar. The script includes discussion about transferring strategy use; and students are encouraged to use the strategies outside of tutoring.

Student Worksheets allow students to practice forming main ideas and answering comprehension questions. There are two types of questions: factual and inferential. Finding the main idea of each paragraph and the main idea of the entire passage is a critical strategy that supports comprehension of informational text. Learning to distinguish the main idea of a paragraph or passage from details ensures that students are focused on remembering the most important information, instead of less important details. Students learn to answer comprehension questions by finding evidence in the text and combining that information with their background knowledge.

Intervention Description

This program was developed to strengthen the reading comprehension of 4th and 5th grade students who have adequate decoding skills but poor comprehension skills. More specifically, this program is appropriate for students with near grade level word recognition skills, but who struggle to answer comprehension questions, including the accurate summarization of what they have read. In a recent large-scale study, half of the tutored students received our standard comprehension (Comp) program. The remaining half received a version with embedded transfer activities (Comp+Transfer), which was designed to promote the independent use of strategies in and outside of the tutoring sessions. The efficacy of the two programs was evaluated with a combination of commercially-developed and researcher-created tests of reading comprehension. The commercial tests assessed students’ transfer of reading skills and comprehension strategies to contexts substantially different from what they experienced during instruction. That is, these tests represented Far Transfer. The researcher-created tests, in contrast, were designed to more closely resemble the instructional context of tutoring. They included tests of Near Transfer (highly similar) and Mid-Transfer (less similar than near-transfer tests and more similar than far-transfer tests). A separate researcher-created test, Knowledge Acquisition, measured students’ factual recall of information presented in tutoring texts. All students received instruction in 40 sessions. Sessions were 45 minutes. The program used high quality, appropriately leveled texts, explicit instruction, peer mediation, and training for transfer to support the students’ mastery of nonfiction comprehension strategies.

Results and Conclusions

The graph below shows the effect sizes (Hedges’ g) obtained for each comprehension outcome, separated by treatment group and grade level. Both groups of tutored students (Comp and COMP+Transfer) at both grades (4 and 5) significantly outperformed control students on our tests of Knowledge Acquisition (ES = 2.03 to2.82) and Near Transfer (ES = 0.67 to1.30). However, the two tutored groups did not significantly outperformed controls on the Far Transfer commercially developed tests. However, at 4th grade, there was a statistically significant difference on the Mid-Transfer Reading Comprehension test in favor of the Comp+Transfer students. No significant differences were found for Comp+Transfer students at grade 5 or for the Comp program at either grade. So, generally speaking, our tutored students reliably and importantly outperformed controls with stronger effects on reading comprehension measures more closely aligned to the tutoring, and with weaker effects on commercially-developed measures. There was also evidence suggesting added benefit of explicit transfer instruction (Comp + Transfer) for 4th graders.