Research Study on Reading Upgrade:

Effect of Reading Upgrade Program with Adolescent Struggling Readers
with Specific Language Impairment

Patricia Lohman-Hawk, Ph.D.
New Mexico State University

Reading failure not only constitutes an urgent challenge for our schools, but it has been deemed a public health problem according to the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (Lyon, 1995). Today 1 in 5 Americans is functionally illiterate, and these numbers continue to rise by approximately 2.3 million per year (Adams, 1990). Once students fall behind in reading, they usually do not catch up to their peers.  For example, 74% of students who are reading disabled in the third grade will remain disabled in the ninth grade (Lyon, 1994).

Reading serves as the major foundational skill for all school-based learning. Without it, the chances for academic and occupational success are limited. When children do not learn to read, their general knowledge, spelling, writing abilities, and vocabulary development suffers. This is especially true for students who have language-learning disabilities or Specific Language Impairment (SLI). Students who have low reading skills suffer increased frustration and higher rates of school dropout than their peers. Sadly these students often leave high school functionally illiterate.

Teachers, researchers, and theorists have stressed the importance of reading as a way to improve reading. There are few ideas more widely accepted than the statement that “reading is learned through reading” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000, p. 3-21).  However, for struggling readers, this may be a very difficult task. The problem of how to encourage students to read when the task of reading is so difficult for them is overwhelming. One promising method may with the introduction of technology into the reading curriculum. Today computer programs have the capabilities of using animation, music, and speech in order to make learning to read fun. Students may become more motivated to learn to read when technology is introduced into the reading program. Thus, students may be motivated to want to read more.

However, the National Reading Panel concluded that credible and experimental qualitative research on the uses of technology in teaching reading is lacking (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). The current study was undertaken to help meet this challenge by evaluating the effectiveness of a computerized reading program, known as Reading Upgrade. Specifically this study investigated the effectiveness of the Reading Upgrade Program on improving adolescents’ decoding ability, comprehension, reading fluency, phonics, phonemic awareness, and spelling skills. The research question asked was: “In what way does the Reading Upgrade web-based computer program impact adolescents’ reading skills who have SLI?”



Eighteen adolescents (9 males, 9 females) who were between the ages of 13.9 and 17.1 years (X = 15.3) and attended a vocational high school completed the entire study. The Speech-Language Pathologist assigned to the students’ high school reviewed students’ Special Education files to determine who met the selection criteria. All participants had an active Individualized Education Plan (IEP), average intelligence, reading scores below a third-grade level, and had a label of Specific Language Impairment (SLI). Twenty-three students qualified for the study. One moved, 2 transferred to another high school, 1 was suspended, and 1 did not complete testing, thus leaving a total of 18 participants. Sixteen of these participants spoke Spanish as their native language. Two participants spoke English only.


All participants were enrolled in a computer class for 20 minutes daily. When pre-testing was completed, each began the self-paced reading program. Participants worked on the program during their computer class time until all 50 levels were completed. Most participants completed the program in 7 weeks (range 4 to 12 weeks). Following completion, participants were post-tested.

Three assessments were used to measure participants’ reading and spelling skills pre- and post-training. All instruments were standardized and contained two versions. Form A was given during pre-testing. Form B was administered during post-testing. The Gray Oral Reading Tests, Diagnostic (GORT-D) assessed reading level, fluency, comprehension, knowledge of phonics, phonemic awareness, word associations, inflections, contractions, compound words, contextual analysis, and word order. The Test of Written Spelling (TWS-4) measured participants written spelling skills. Participants understanding of sound-symbol relationships was measured with The Test of Word Reading Efficiency (TOWRE).

Reading Upgrade Computer Program — The program is a web-based course containing 50 levels in five critical areas of reading. The curriculum is based on the National Reading Panel’s April 2000 recommendations regarding how reading should be taught and includes the following areas of instruction (Learning Upgrade, 2002):

Phonemic awareness – the ability to manipulate the sounds that make up spoken language. Participants are required to identify and manipulate sounds in words and rhyming words.

Phonics – the understanding that there are relationships between letters and sounds. Participants receive phonics instruction involving consonants, vowel (long and short sounds), and consonant blends. Activities incorporate songs, videos, and games.

Word skills – the understanding that words are made up of syllables, prefixes, suffixes, compound words, contractions, and word families. High frequency sight words such as days of the week, months of the year, and numbers are also included in instructional activities.

Fluency – the ability to read fluently with accuracy, speed and expression. Fluency is taught through a game metaphor to motivate participants to read and comprehend words, sentences, and passage quickly. For example, participants receive written directions to a surprise party. They must quickly read each direction sentence and select choices on maps and views of a town to get there in time.

Comprehension – a necessary skill in order to enhance understand and enjoyment of what was read. Activities include cause and effect, fact vs. opinion, conclusions and inferences, and details. Comprehension is taught through key strategies wherein participants must actively read passages and answer questions involving “who, what, when, where, and why.”

Motivation – the National Reading Panel strongly recommends the use of engaging and entertaining techniques to motivate participants. The Reading Upgrade Program uses pop music, animated videos, and engaging games to “grab” users’ attention.


A pre-post test analysis was conducted using Paired Samples t Tests to determine whether participants made improvement following instruction using the Reading Upgrade Program. Significant improvement was made on the Gray Oral Reading Test, Diagnostic (GORT-D) for mean raw score differences (t 17 = 3.05, p < .01).  In addition to total test improvement, significant improvement was made on 3 subtests: Decoding, Morphemic Analysis, and Word Identification (p < .01). No significant improvement was found on Paragraph Reading, Word Attack, Word Ordering, or Contextual Analysis (p >.05). The figure below reflects pre-posttest grade-level differences on the 7 subtests of the GORT-D.


Significant improvement was made on the Test of Word Spelling (TWS-4), (t 17 = 2.4, p < .01).  However, no significant improvement was made on the Test of Word Reading Efficiency (TOWRE), (p >.05). Additionally, no significant difference was found between the Spanish and English-only speakers on any of the test measures.  The table below reflects pre-post-test grade-level differences on the TWS-4 Total Test and the two subtests of the TOWRE (Sight Word Efficiency and Phonemic Decoding).




Participants made significant improvement in three areas of reading and language knowledge: Decoding Words, Analysis of Morphemes (including knowledge of contractions, word endings, and compound words), and Word Identification (knowledge of associated words). Knowledge of word associations and morphemes involves language comprehension. All participants in this study had language impairments. Results indicate the Reading Upgrade Program may also improve language skills that are critical for reading. Many of the activities included to improve reading comprehension involve language, such as understanding cause and effect, conclusions, inferences, comparing and contrasting, sequencing, following directions, and answering “WH” questions (e.g., who, what, when, where, and why).

It should also be noted that contractions are not in the Spanish language. Participants in this investigation made significant improvement in their understanding of contractions, although more lessons were needed for mastery. Overall, no significant differences between Spanish and English speakers were noted on any test measures. In other words, the Reading Upgrade Program appears to be beneficial for all users, regardless of native language.

Participants also made significant improvement in spelling. They made an average of approximately one-half grade-level improvement (average mean difference = .6). This amount of gain is surprising and is in contrast to research with students who have reading disabilities. According to the National Reading Panel Report (2000), phonics and phonemic awareness activities have little to no effect on improving spelling skills of poor readers. However, the Reading Upgrade Program incorporates word skills, such as word families, prefixes, suffixes, compound words, and high-frequency sight words along with phonics and phonemic awareness activities. Perhaps the combination the three areas of instruction contributed to participants’ significant gains. In addition, phonics and phonemic awareness activities have been found to be beneficial for students who are learning English (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). As you will recall, 16 of the participants spoke Spanish as their first language. (They received instruction in English at school).

No significant improvement was made on the TOWRE.  This test measures the ability to decode isolated “real” and “pseudo” words (pronounceable words that have no meaning). Participants may recognize many of the “real” words, but must use phonics skills to sound-out “pseudo” words. Since the Reading Upgrade Program incorporates phonics skills, it was hypothesized participants would make significant progress on this portion of the assessment. However, they did not. Only slight progress was made on the TOWRE. In contrast, participants made significant improvement on the Decoding subtest of the GORT-D, which measures the ability to blend phonemes into “pseudo” words. The two tests appear to be similar in nature. It is currently unknown why participants did not make significant gains on the TOWRE, unless they were not motivated to “try their best” on this third test.

In conclusion, the Reading Upgrade computer program shows promise for improving reading, spelling, and language skills of adolescents with SLI. Due to the pop music, videos, and game format, participants were motivated to complete the program. However, many participants were not motivated to be post-tested, and several performed significantly poorer than they had during pre-testing. Limited motivation may therefore be a factor in determining the overall effectiveness of the program. Participants may have made gains that were not shown on the standardized posttests. Overall, participants commented that they enjoyed the Reading Upgrade Program and indicated they wanted more lessons.

Acknowledgements —  The author wishes to thank the Las Cruces Public Schools Special Education Department for the cooperation and assistance provided to conduct the current study, including Ms. Toni Trujillo, Field Coordinator. I am also grateful to my Graduate Assistant, Ms. Brenda Lankford for her invaluable help. Lastly, I wish to thank the Learning Upgrade Company for furnishing the computer codes for students’ use.

1Patricia Lohman-Hawk, Ph.D. is a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist and Assistant Professor in the Special Education and Communication Disorders Department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NM.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Learning Upgrade (2002).  Reading Upgrade Teacher’s Guide. San Diego, CA: Learning Upgrade LLC.

Lyon, G. R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27.

Lyon, G. R. (1994). Research in Learning Disabilities at the NICHD. Technical document. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2000). Report of the National ReadingPanel: Teaching children to read. National Institute of Child Health and HumanDevelopment. (NIH Publication No. 00-4754).  Washington, D.C.

© March 5, 2003. Patricia Lohman-Hawk, Ph.D.

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