Expert Connection : August 08

What Should We Look for in Good Reading Software?—Joseph Torgesen


My LEA is planning on investing in reading software for help with elementary students who are struggling in any area of reading. There's such a bewildering mass of different programs out there and I don't want to waste the money. What should we look for in good reading software for decoding, fluency, comprehension, etc.?—Kevin F., Herndon, VA.

Additional Info:

To address this question, TeachingLD turned to one of the world's top researchers on the use of technology in reading, Dr. Joseph Torgesen of the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University. Here's the beginning of Dr. Toregsen's answer. Joe, thanks a lot for you help!—WebEditors.

Expert Response:

This is an excellent question, and I’m glad that your LEA is considering the purchase of computer software to assist in providing instruction and systematic practice for students struggling in learning to read. I have believed for some time that part of the solution to preventing serious reading difficulties in students with learning disabilities involves the use of computer technology as a support for teacher-led instruction. Well-designed computer assisted instruction and practice has a number of features that may be particularly important for students with learning disabilities such as:

  1. The ability to provide timely and useful feedback and error correction;
  2. The ability to alter, or provide additional instructional sequences based on the student’s learning rate;
  3. The ability to tirelessly present systematic and explicit instruction, and to repeat explanations as needed;
  4. The ability to set precise criteria for movement through an instructional sequence;
  5. The ability to provide variety and incorporate uniquely motivational features and feedback;
  6. The ability to effectively multiply the amount of direct instructional time available to each student.

The primary limitation of computers, of course, is that they are not yet as “intelligent” as a well trained, experienced teacher in adapting instruction to individual student needs. Often, the kind of error correction they provide is not tailored to a student’s individual response, but rather is a generic request to “try again” or a simple identification of the correct response. For some students, computers may also not be quite as interesting as high-quality, “eyeball-to-eyeball” instruction provided by an engaging teacher. For these and other reasons, computer assisted instruction should never be used as the complete answer to the intervention needs of struggling readers. Computers may be a very useful adjunct to intensive, high-quality, and focused teacher-led instruction, but they should not be relied on to provide the only intervention that struggling readers receive (Blok, Oostdam, Otter, & Overmaat, 2003). We routinely combine CAI with other effective instructional methods (see Mathes, Torgesen, & Allor, 2001, Torgesen, Wagner, Rashotte, & Herron, 2003).

With all that as background, I’m going to give a two-part answer to your question. I will first provide what I consider to be useful guidelines for selecting software to support intervention instruction for students with reading difficulties, and then I’ll provide some guidance that may help you narrow the range of programs you consider before making your final selections.

First, it is important to understand that many computer programs have been written to provide general developmental support for reading instruction in the regular classroom. These programs tend to cover all the critical dimensions of early reading development such as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. They may be suitable to provide extra practice and instruction as part of reading instruction in the regular classroom, but they may be less appropriate for providing more intensive and focused instruction for students with learning disabilities.

One of the key features of software for students with learning disabilities is what I refer to as instructional depth. Operationally, this means that the software is capable of providing many different opportunities, or examples, for students to acquire specific knowledge or learn specific skills. For example, if the program is teaching phonics, there should be many, many opportunities to learn to blend individual phonemes to make words, and these examples should cover a complete range of difficulty from simple three phoneme words like cat, sun, and fan, to words with different combinations of initial and final blends (i.e. flat, soft, blast), to multi-syllable words. There should also be several different kinds of instructional or practice activities designed to support blending skills, both for variety, and because we know this is an early reading skill that is frequently difficult for students with learning disabilities to master.

Before you purchase a piece of software, you should sit down with the product and go through all the different types of lessons it contains while asking yourself questions whether the routines represent sound instructional practices. You should also carefully examine the scope and sequence of the program (and there should be one available) to see whether it is aligned with the instruction provided by your teachers. Some questions to consider:

  1. Does the program have good, explicit directions and explanations?
  2. Does the program focus on the right knowledge and skills–those that are consistent with what the child is being taught by the teacher?
  3. Does it provide good reports of student progress that are easily available to the teacher?
  4. Does it provide systematic review opportunities?
  5. Does it incorporate a mastery orientation, in the sense that before moving to new skills, the student must meet performance criteria that can be set by the teacher?
  6. Does it provide engaging, varied, and useful feedback about responses?

The best judges of whether a computer program is likely to provide effective support for teacher led interventions in reading are likely to be the teachers who will use the programs. Since they are the ones, in the end, who will determine whether the program is used effectively, they must thoroughly understand, and be in agreement, with its potential to support and extend their work with students.

To help you narrow down potential selections, or at least gain some initial experience in evaluating reading software for students in elementary school, I refer you to the Web site for the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR; see resources). For the past four years, FCRR has been reviewing many different kinds of instructional materials in reading, and the results of these reviews are posted as brief “FCRR Reports”. These reports are written by knowledgeable and experienced teachers, and their purpose is to describe the materials, and to identify strengths and weaknesses based on the findings from current research on reading. If specific research has been conducted on the program, that is also described and evaluated. At this point, there are over 30 reviews of technology based reading programs for students in elementary school, and you may find the site to be a useful starting place.

One final piece of advice. I would narrow your choices initially to no more than two or three programs that meet your most critical needs. The key to obtaining good results with computer software in reading is the same as for any other educational innovation: the software must be implemented properly. Effective use of software to support interventions for struggling readers will require initial professional development for teachers as well as follow-up support to refine implementation and insure that the software is being used for a sufficient amount of time with each student.


Blok, H., Oostdam, R., Otter, M., & Overmaat, M. (2002). Computer-assisted instruction in support of beginning reading instruction: A review. Review of Educational Research, 72, 101-130.

Florida Center on Reading Research (www.fcrr.org). Go to the section titled “FCRR Reports”

Mathes, P., Torgesen, J., & Allor, J. (2001). The effects of peer-assisted literacy strategies for first-grade readers with and without additional computer-assisted instruction in phonological awareness. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 371-410.

Torgesen, J., & Barker, T. (1995). Computers as aids in the prevention and remediation of reading disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 18, 76-87.

Torgesen, J.K., Wagner, R.K., Rashotte, C.A., and Herron, J. (2003). Summary of outcomes from first grade study with Read, Write, and Type and Auditory Discrimination In Depth instruction and software with at-risk children. Technical Report #3, Florida Center for Reading Research, Tallahassee, FL.

To cite this article, please use the following format: Torgesen, J. K. (2007, August 8). Expert connection: What should we look for in good reading software? TeachingLD.org. Retrieved from http://TeachingLD.org/expert_connection/CAI-reading.html.


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