The Importance of Controlled Readers

What are Controlled Readers?

And Why are they Important to Emerging and Struggling Readers?

Controlled Readers are an excellent resource for beginning and struggling readers, yet they are seldom used in most reading programs.   They are extremely effective for helping students gain confidence in reading while also building fluency.  Controlled Readers are a series of short stories that typically follow the sequence of skills taught in a particular program.  What makes them different from Leveled Readers is that they only contain the skills the student has specifically learned.   A Leveled Reader may emphasize a particular skill the student is practicing but they also contain many patterns the student has not learned.

Syllable Patterns

Some of the main syllable patterns that are taught to students are listed below.  They are listed in the order of frequency that they are used in the English language.

In Kindergarten, students often start learning the first pattern, the Consonant-Vowel-Consonant pattern (CVC) or closed syllable pattern.  These are typically one syllable words with short vowels, like “sit”, “hot” and “pan”.  This is the most common syllable type, so it makes sense that we start to teach reading with this pattern.

Leveled Reader vs. Controlled Reader

The next set of pictures shows an example of a Leveled Reader vs. a Controlled Reader.  The words in the text are color-coded to match the syllable types listed above.  Both contain beginning first grade level text.


At this point, most students have learned the CVC pattern (blue) and a few sight words (red).  As you can see, the Controlled Reader (right) has all blue and red words, whereas, the Leveled Reader contains a mix of syllable types, including patterns the student has not learned.

My Story

When my daughter was in Kindergarten, the teacher focused on teaching the CVC pattern.  My daughter could read and spell words containing this pattern pretty accurately.  She left kindergarten on grade level.  Three weeks into first grade, I received a letter stating she was behind in reading and they wanted to pull her out a half hour a day for remediation.  I was shocked and berated myself for not working with her more over the summer.  I readily agreed to the extra help.

When conference time came around, I saw the reading specialist and asked her what they were working on.  She looked at me and said, “short u makes the /u/ sound”.  I thought this was odd since my daughter could read and spell words containing short vowels with accuracy.   The reading specialist must have noted the expression on my face because she said, “Well your daughter is at a Level 7 and she really should be at a Level 10”.  I asked her what was the difference between a Level 7 book and a Level 10 book.  She looked at me and asked, “What do you mean?”  I wasn’t exactly sure how to reword my question, so I did what many people do, I slowed my words down and enunciated my question more clearly.  “What is  the  skill  difference   between   a   Level  7  book   and  a  Level  10  book?”  In our program, Phonics First®, three levels would mean the difference between three specific skills.  She still didn’t understand my question so I asked her to send me a copy of a Level 7 book and a Level 10 book.

When I took a look at both books I was shocked.  I thought, “of course she can’t read these books!”  They contained silent-e words, vowel teams, diphthongs; patterns that had not been taught to her yet in the first two months of first grade.  To me, this is similar to teaching a child addition and then giving her a worksheet with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and then saying there is something wrong with the child because she isn’t successful.  I found it shocking that this is standard practice with most reading programs!


Fast-forward fifteen years.  As a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner and Instructor, I see this scenario happen often.  Many of the students we see at our Learning Centers do not have a learning disability; they simply struggle to learn to read the way it is presented.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against the use of Leveled Readers.  But they should be used in conjunction with Controlled Readers.   The Leveled Readers give the student the practice they need to read uncontrolled text.  Yet, if we truly want to assess students’ reading skills based on the skills we have directly taught, it’s important to provide texts that limit the patterns that have not been taught.  And if we want students to practice reading the skills that have been directly taught, then we must provide controlled text.

Controlled Readers are Important!

Controlled Readers can be difficult to find.  They are typically part of a particular program and follow the sequence of that program.  The good news is most Orton-Gillingham based programs use Controlled Readers and they all follow a similar sequence.  At our Learning Centers we use the Controlled Readers that go with our Phonics First® program, however, we supplement them with additional Controlled Readers such as S.P.I.R.E., Wilson, and Alphabet Readers.  Over the years, we’ve worked with many struggling and emerging readers.  They are often pleasantly surprised to find they can, not only read the controlled text, but that it takes less effort.  They start reading more accurately, build speed, and gain confidence.  For many students, Controlled Readers are an essential tool for creating fluent readers.

Stephanie Cork, CALP CDP

Stephanie is the Director of Program Development for Brainspring Educator Academy.

Director of Program Development


The Struggling Reader with the Thick, Exciting Book


Sliding in between student desks I glanced over small shoulders, peeking at the pages they were engrossed in. I wandered around, enjoying the quiet classroom and the busy, noisy brains hard at work during our Reading Workshop. Just as I was about to invite a student up to my desk for a reading conference, I spotted him. An earnest young man pouring over the pages of the massive book, How Things Work, by David Macaulay. My heart went out to him since I knew that 1) the book was far above his reading level and he most likely did not understand what he was reading, and 2) that he loved non-fiction books about machines and had probably been excited to choose the book.

During my years teaching 4th grade, I encountered this scenario many times.  My students who struggled with reading often picked books far above their reading levels. As much as I disliked telling a student they couldn’t keep a book in their reading box, I knew it was important for them to practice reading on their own at an independent reading level, meaning a book they can read with 95% accuracy.

“Fluency (reading words smoothly and accurately) is important because it provides a bridge between word recognition and comprehension. Because fluent readers do not have to concentrate on decoding the words, they can focus their attention on what the text means.”         – From “Reading Interventions: Fluency”.

As a teacher, I wanted to help my students to choose books for independent reading that they could read fluently on their own, but I did not want to squash their enthusiasm or make them feel embarrassed. Thus, I started a routine I called “desk books”.

Desk books were kept in the student’s desk and were separate from the books kept in student reading boxes. Everyone had a desk book. Reading boxes had rules (only books at a student’s reading level were allowed) but desk books were blessedly free from rules. Desk books could be any book the student was interested in, at any reading level and for any reason. This gave the students and I a lot more freedom in the way we talked about who could read what. Instead of, “You can’t read that, it’s not at your reading level.”, I could say, “Hmmm…this seems a bit tricky for you. How about you keep it as a desk book and we’ll choose another book for your reading box?”

This routine was empowering for all my readers. During Reader’s Workshop students read only from their reading boxes, ensuring that they spent the most time with independent level books, but at other quick reading times, desk books reigned supreme. Struggling readers had the opportunity to choose any book in the classroom library, quite a wonderful thing when usually confined to a narrow section. They could choose a book they found fascinating or could even try to read the popular series that half the class was buzzing about. Most importantly for some, their peers would see them reading bigger, harder books. Surprisingly, desk books also gave more choice to my more advanced readers who wanted an easier book because they loved the story or a break from more challenging work.

Desk books were also a wonderful management routine. Desk books, as aptly named, were in the desks, right at the students’ fingertips. We used desk books for quick quiet moments, like reading for a few minutes to settle down after lunch, as a quiet way to transition from one subject to another, or when a student was done with regular work and had a little extra time. If I misplaced my teacher manual or the stack of math practice papers I could say, “Desk books out” and continue my search in a relatively quiet classroom. We also packed in 10-20 extra reading minutes a day, slipping more learning into the often-unused moments of a school day.

There were a few guidelines for desk books to help things run smoothly. Students could have up to two desk books and could switch them out if something more interesting came along. New desk books could only be chosen first thing in the morning or at the end of the day in order to avoid having wanderers searching for the library for a new one instead of reading. Students who forgot to switch desk books during allotted times had to re-read the one they had in their desk or borrow one from someone at their table group.

As I squatted down next to the possible budding engineer, he looked up at me and set down the heavy volume. Because of previous conversations he knew what I was thinking. “Oh,” he said, “I forgot. I should read this during desk book time, right?” I nodded, and he quickly slipped the book into his desk and grabbed another from his reading box. He settled in to work with a more appropriate level story without too much fuss, knowing he would still get to read his fascinating book later on.

Audrey Bon, A.B.Ed.

Audrey is a tutor at Brainspring Learning Center in Plymouth.


“Independent Reading”, Spear-Swerlinghttp, Louise. <>.

“Leveled reading: The making of a literacy myth”, Pondiscio, Robert, 2014.       <

“Reading Interventions: Fluency”, Educational Service Unit #1. <>


It’s Not Nonsense to Teach Pseudo Words!


As in many areas of education, there are differences of opinion as to what constitutes valuable instruction.  Regardless of on which side one falls, the measure should always be student understanding and achievement.  One classic divide in the approach to reading instruction is between a whole language approach and a phonics-based approach.  Proponents of whole language believe that students acquire the ability to read by being immersed in the language.  Advocates of a phonics-based (Orton-Gillingham) approach hold that success in reading comes from direct and systematic teaching of the structures of language.  The pendulum is currently swinging between the efficacy of using pseudo words versus real words during instruction and practice.  One Orton-Gillingham tenet is that one must learn to read before one can read to learn.  A major criticism of those who oppose the OG approach is that pseudo words carry no meaning, therefore, they cause more confusion than anything.  This misnomer comes from a lack of understanding about this aspect of teaching reading.

The English language is approximately 85% predictable, meaning that there are consistent patterns which can be taught that give beginning and struggling readers a solid base on which to build their reading skills.  For example, when a single vowel comes between two consonants, it almost always makes its short sound.   Once this skill is taught using the OG multisensory approach, it is crucial to give students ample time practicing the new skill.  One way to ensure that new readers are mastering a new skill is to conduct a rapid drill using the consonants and vowels which they have been taught.  By placing letter cards in a C-V-C pattern and randomly switching the cards, students practice blending the sounds together.  Sometimes the letters make real words, and sometimes they make pseudo words.

There is, however, a method to the teacher’s madness!  For example, the teacher would never place the X card at the beginning of the word, nor would she place the J, QU, W, or H cards at the end of the word.  The students have learned that words in English almost never start with the letter X, which makes the /ks/ sound; they have learned that words in English never end with the letter J or QU; and, they are directly taught that when you follow a single vowel with the letters Y or H, for example, the sound of the vowel is no longer short.  The point is, students are explicitly taught these patterns, so when they are asked to read a pseudo word like D E T, it doesn’t throw them for a loop!  In this case, the students might say, “Hey! DET is a real word.”  To which, the teacher would reply, “Yes, the word DEBT is a real word, but it is not spelled like DET, it is a sight word, which we will learn later.”  This is what causes so much consternation with the pseudo-word naysayers.  They insist that this kind of dialogue just causes confusion.  On the contrary, this kind of dialogue is enriching the student’s understanding of our language.  As the student progresses, more advanced phonemes, graphemes, and syllable types are introduced.  By this time, they completely understand the pseudo word’s place in their instruction.

The whole language approach to reading by word recognition often gets more difficult and less effective as the students are introduced to more complex Greek and Latin-based words. Because students are not always taught word attack skills in the whole language approach, when an unfamiliar word presents itself, students often do not know where to begin trying to decode it. Using the OG approach, students are explicitly taught to break down a word by syllables, giving them a clear understanding that multisyllabic words consist of detached syllables, like SED.  So, when the word SED shows up in a blending drill, students might say, “That is not how you spell the word SAID.”  To which, the teacher would reply, “That’s correct, but remember SED can be part of a larger word like SEDIMENTARY or SEDATIVE.”  An important thing to remember is, teachers are not teaching students to read pseudo words for the sake of reading pseudo words.  They are teaching students to read syllables that are part of larger words.  While the ability to read PATE, EX, and CUL has no meaning as individual syllables, a student who is comfortable reading each pseudo word will also be comfortable reading EXCULPATE.  If a nonsense word is defined as one that has no meaning, and therefore no value in the process of teaching decoding, then why would a teacher have a student read COG if they do not know the meaning; yet, they will be expected to read the word INCOGNITO later on?

The bottom line is, pseudo words have a very important place in learning to master reading.  They help the teacher know for certain that her students are using their skills to read words, not just memorizing; they are critical to diagnosing students with dyslexia; and, they give kids confidence that they can read any word that is presented to them.  Actually, students find reading these pseudo words fun—and isn’t that the goal of reading, for if we inspire students to enjoy the process of learning to read, we will create lifelong, inquisitive readers.

Esther J. Moreau, M.Ed., CDP

Master Instructor

Reading and Anxiety

If you watch television, are on social media, listen to the radio, or read magazines, you have likely seen dozens of advertisements, stories, and mentions of anxiety. It seems that anxiety is on the rise, especially in children. As a parent and professional educator, I can attest to this. I see more and more children with symptoms of anxiety today than I did 20 years ago, especially when it comes to reading.  Today let’s take a closer look at reading anxiety.


Some of the biggest fears people have are death, illness, and public speaking. Imagine yourself in a room filled with your peers. You are on a stage and there is a bright spotlight shining down upon you. You are about to give a speech. It’s time to begin; You glance at your note cards, but you don’t recognize any of the letters or words. Knowing that you must begin your speech right now – your peers are prodding you on, “Come on, Jimmy,” and so is your boss, “Jimmy? Can you get started please?” – you begin. You stumble over the words. Laughter erupts. You lose your concentration. Your hands are shaking. Your forehead is sweating. Your face turns red. You try again, but the words aren’t coming out right. You begin to sweat and shake. You are frustrated and embarrassed and want to run off stage, but you can’t.


For many children, reading aloud in the classroom feels just like that. It feels like public speaking combined with the pressure of giving a good and accurate performance, all while being evaluated by a boss (the teacher) and several peers. When you consider it this way, it is no wonder that some children experience reading anxiety.

How can I help?

There are a few things teachers and parents can do to help alleviate reading anxiety in children, such as allowing an anxious child to practice pre-reading a passage before being asked to read it aloud in class. Teachers also might assign shorter and less complex passages for anxious readers. They might also develop a signal for students (such as standing next to the student or tapping the desk) to alert them that they will be asked to begin reading shortly as this allows the students a brief time to prepare to read. Students themselves may also have ideas on what would help them to feel more comfortable reading aloud and managing their reading anxiety.

Is it anxiety?

Reading anxiety, as with any official diagnosis, cannot be given by teachers or parents – only a licensed medical professional such as a psychologist can offer a diagnosis. However, there are symptoms you can watch for to see if a child is struggling with reading anxiety. If you suspect your child is developing or struggling with reading anxiety, talk to his or her teacher about it, set up a meeting with a counselor or psychologist, and develop strategies that may help alleviate the anxiety.


What should you watch for?

Below is a list of common reading anxiety symptoms:

  • Avoiding reading at home or school
  • Seeming restless while reading
  • Complaining of fatigue (“I’m too tired to do this.”)
  • Frequent headaches
  • Frequent stomachaches
  • Seeming inattentive
  • Refusing to participate
  • Asking to leave the room during reading group (“May I use the bathroom?” or “I need to get a pencil from my locker.”)
  • Expressing a sense of dread (“I hate my reading group.” or “Reading is stupid.” or “Do we have to?)
  • Expressing worry about reading group activities (“Are we going to read out loud today?” or “Will I have to do that, too?)
  • Expressing concern about reading group status (“Why does that group get all the good books?” or “Why do we have to read baby books?”
  • Stalling or not coming to reading group on time (“I can’t find my book.”)
  • Hands shaking while holding a book or while reading
  • Fidgeting or not paying attention
  • Face or turning read or splotchy when reading
  • Giving up too easily (“I can’t do this.” or “I don’t get it.”)
  • Removing accountability from self (“You have to help me.”)
  • Throwing a tantrum
  • Shutting down, quitting, or refusing to try (“You can’t make me.”)
  • Sweating
  • Feeling of butterflies in stomach

Do you notice any of these symptoms in your students?

Tammi Brandon, M.Ed., CDP

Tammi Brandon is a Master Instructor and Education Consultant with Brainspring Educator Academy.