Reading Research Publications by Dr. Kay MacPhee

Posted in Reading Matters on by Ooka Island

Dr. Kay MacPhee, Ooka Island Co-Founder

Dr. MacPhee’s initial reading program, SpellRead, was founded in 1994 and is a successful intervention program. After years of researching and teaching SpellRead in classrooms and clinics across North America, Dr. MacPhee co-founded Ooka Island. In 2012, the technology-based prevention program was introduced to children ages three to seven, to eradicate illiteracy at its root.

A Selection of Dr. MacPhee’s Scientifically

Based Reading Research Reviews & Publications

A number of rigorous studies have examined the implementation of Dr. MacPhee’s reading instruction in a variety of settings and locations, with elementary, secondary, and adult students. Results from a number of experimental studies yield gold standard evidence that the SpellRead program reliably improves word-reading skills, fluency, and comprehension across diverse populations, including special education students, English language learners, and students more than two years below grade level. Findings of these studies are summarized below.

What Works Clearing House, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Educational Sciences, July 2007

SpellRead was recognized as one of the top rated reading intervention programs by What Works Clearing House, the leading authority in analyzing results of educational programs in the United States. SpellRead was one of the highest ratings of any programs being at the top of the list for improvement in comprehension.

The WWC released their report where they initially reviewed 153 programs, only 24 programs had research that matched evidence standards. Only 7 programs were shown to provide significant increase in comprehension and out of those 7 – SpellRead was #1, with an average percentile point gain of 20 points.

What Works Clearing House

See the Full Report of SpellRead’s What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) evidence

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Power4Kids Reading Initiative

Submitted by the Haan Foundation for Children and Mathematica Policy Research

  • Grant Coverage: May 2003 through May 2004
  • Report Coverage: May 2003 through June 2007

SpellRead was one of only four reading interventions programs selected for inclusion in the Power4Kids clinical trial, the second largest clinical trial of its kind ever undertaken in the United States. The trial involved 800 third and fifth grade students from 40 schools in Pittsburgh, PA.

The Power4Kids Study was designed to answer questions about what kinds of reading interventions work for which students. The study evaluated four widely used intensive, small-group intervention programs for elementary-level struggling readers. The four programs, selected by members of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Haan Foundation for Children, were SpellRead, Corrective Reading, Failure Free Reading, and Wilson Reading.

Fifty schools from 27 school districts in Pennsylvania were randomly assigned to one of the four interventions. Within each school, students in grades three and five identified as struggling readers by their teachers, and scoring at or below the 30th percentile on word-level reading and at or above the 5th percentile on vocabulary, were randomly assigned to a treatment or control group.

In all, 772 students participated in the study, receiving small-group instruction in one of the four interventions for approximately 50 minutes per day from November 2003 through May 2004. Treatment group students received an average of 90 hours total of small-group intervention instruction over the course of the study. Control-group students received a similar amount of reading instruction to those in the treatment groups, while the kind of instruction control-group students received was considered similar to what they would ordinarily have received in their schools.

SpellRead improved scores on both the Word Attack and Phonemic Decoding Efficiency tests, with effect sizes of approximately 0.4 to 0.6, corresponding to moving students up the distribution of reading ability approximately 12 to 19 percentile points more than they would have gained had they not been in one of the interventions. Students in the SpellRead program scored significantly better on these measures than their matched control peers and the students in the other interventions.

power4kids reading research

power4kids reading research

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Preventing and Remediating Reading Difficulties: Bringing Science to Scale, edited by Dr. Barbara Foorman (York Press, 2003) – Progress towards understanding the instructional conditions necessary for remediating reading difficulties in older children – Torgesen, J.K., Rashotte, C.A., Alexander, A.W., MacPhee, K.

*The research reported in this chapter was supported by grant HD 30988, “Prevention and Remediation of Reading Disabilities,” from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Florida Center For Reading Research (FCRR), 2003

The FCRR’s goal is to assist educators in making informed decisions as they select instructional methods for reading. The following is an excerpt from a 2003 report on SpellRead. “…The content and design of the SpellRead progam are aligned with current scientifically based reading research. One study showed the SpellRead program can produce significant and substantial effect on reading skills for children ranging in age from grade one through grade six.

As part of its overall reading research agenda, the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) evaluated the SpellRead program. The FCRR identified that SpellRead is a scientifically based reading intervention program that delivers explicit instruction and practice in phonemic awareness, phonemic decoding, spelling, reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing.

The following eight strengths of the SpellRead program were identified:

  1. Multiple and varied phonemic awareness and phonics activities, often in an instructional game format, are a motivating and integral part of the program.
  2. The explicit, highly structured, step-by-step format, with frequent repetition and immediate feedback can be helpful for struggling readers.
  3. A priority of the program is the intense focus on fluency, contributing to eventual mastery of skills.
  4. Review begins each phase to ensure a firm foundation of the previous level’s skills.
  5. The teacher’s manual is clear and easy to follow.
  6. The type of consistent questioning during Share Reading can be effective in guiding students’ focus to the gist of the story.
  7. Written responses to writing clarify whether students understand what they have read.
  8. Research studies for this program have demonstrated substantial gains across grade levels and among students with differing ability levels.

No weaknesses were noted.

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The Effectiveness of a Group Reading Instruction with Poor Readers in Multiple Grades – Rashotte, C.A., MacPhee, K., Torgesen, J.K. Learning Disability Quarterly, Spring, 2001 (Volume 24, No. 2, Page 119)

*The research in this manuscript was supported by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education and by grant number HD 30988 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

In St. John’s, Newfoundland, all 171 first- through sixth-grade students in a predominantly low socioeconomic elementary school (75% from families on social assistance, 55% from single-parent homes with low levels of adult literacy) were assessed and 115 were found to be impaired readers based on poor phonetic decoding and word-level reading skills. These 115 students were matched and randomly assigned to either the treatment group (Group-1) or the control group (Group-2). The treatment group received SpellRead instruction in groups of three to five same-grade students for approximately 50 minutes per day for eight weeks (35 hours total, or about one-third of the complete SpellRead program). The control group received only regular classroom reading instruction. All students in the treatment
and control groups were pre- and post-tested via a battery of standardized measures that assessed phonological processing abilities (phonological awareness), word-level reading (word, text reading, and phonetic decoding accuracy), fluency, comprehension, spelling, and verbal ability.

Post-test-1 was administered at the end of the first eight-week, 35-hour intervention with impressive results. Data were analyzed by grade-level groupings (grades 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6). Students in the SpellRead treatment group performed significantly better than those in the control group on phonological awareness and decoding, reading accuracy, comprehension, and spelling. Effect sizes were strong for most measures across all grades, even after only one-third of the SpellRead program had been completed. (Note: Effect size is a generally accepted measure of potency – the pace at which the student skills improve. An effect size of .2 is considered small, .5 medium, and .8 large.)

  • Average effect sizes for the three phonological awareness measures were .96 for grades 1-2, 1.35 for grades 3-4, and 1.56 for grades 5-6.
  • Average effect sizes for phonetic decoding were 1.67 for grades 1-2, 1.81 for grades 3-4, and 2.20 for grades 5-6.
  • Average effect sizes for the comprehension measures were 1.48 in grades 1-2, .73 in grades 3-4, and .54 in grades 5-6.

At the end of the first eight weeks, Group-2 (the original control group) received seven weeks (31 hours) of SpellRead intervention. These students showed positive results at Post-test-2 similar to those achieved by Group-1 on Post-test-1. Further, growth was sustained from Post-test-1 to Post-test-2 for Group-1 and improved reading skills were evident in students in both groups and across all grade levels, regardless of level of deficiency prior to instruction.

In summary, results of this study showed that SpellRead:

  • made a significant impact on the reading skills of deficient readers in grades 1 to 6.
  • improved reading skills after only 35 hours of SpellRead instruction at all grade levels.
  • was effective for both moderately and severely deficient readers when delivered in groups of three to five students.
  • enabled newly trained, certified teachers, and paraprofessionals to be equally effective.

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The Maryland Middle School Study (Torgesen et al., 2003):

Twenty sixth- and seventh-grade students (mean age, 12 years) received 100 hours of SpellRead instruction in daily 70-minute classes provided to groups of four or five students over approximately five months. Predominantly from working class families in suburban Baltimore, 54% of these students were receiving special education services, 60% qualified for free/reduced-price lunch, 45% were Caucasian, 45% were African American, and 10% were of other ethnic backgrounds. Students began the intervention with word-level skills at approximately the 10th percentile and attained scores for phonemic decoding, text reading accuracy, and comprehension that were solidly in the average range, while reading fluency remained an area of relative impairment.

In addition to the SpellRead treatment group, a control group of students was randomly assigned to an intervention that emphasized silent reading and larger-group instruction in comprehension strategies, but did not involve explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and decoding.

The control group showed no significant change in their standard scores from pre-test to post-test, while the SpellRead treatment group made very substantial gains (at least one standard deviation) in all areas of reading skill, with the exception of fluency in reading isolated words, so that these students essentially “closed the gap” in reading ability with their same-age classmates.

  • Average effect size for phonemic decoding was 3.8.
  • Average effect size for reading accuracy was 1.9.
  • Average effect size for reading comprehension was 1.3.
  • Average effect size for reading rate was 1.7.

Maryland reading research

These results provide evidence that older children who are severely reading disabled can experience significant gains in both their reading comprehension (ability to understand what was read) and fluency (ability to read at a reasonable rate, smoothly, and without errors). In addition, students achieved these gains rapidly as evidenced by the robust effect sizes.

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The Washington, DC Area Study (Torgesen et al., 2003):

Forty-eight students, whose average age was 11 years, received SpellRead instruction after school in groups of two to four in a clinic setting in suburban Washington, DC. These students were from upper middle-class families, and many had previously completed training using other science-based reading interventions. Seventy-nine percent of the students were Caucasian, and 67% were male. This group of students took less time than average to complete SpellRead (averaging 60 hours of instruction) because they entered the program with relatively strong skills in phonemic decoding and reading accuracy (close to the bottom of the average range), although they were very impaired in reading fluency.

As a result of the SpellRead instruction, these students rapidly bridged their newly acquired (and automatic) phonological skills with their previously developed high-level vocabulary and language skills.

washington, dc study reading research

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The Florida DIBELS/FCAT Study:

In 27 Reading First schools in Florida, 480 students (94% were third graders) received an average of 106 hours of a planned 140 hours of small-group SpellRead instruction in 2004-2005. (Three hurricanes prevented completion of the entire 140 hours of intervention). Most students completed Phase A and were just starting to move into Phase B in which they learn secondary vowel sounds, consonant blends, and begin to work at a two-syllable level. No students reached Phase C in which they would be taught clusters (e.g., “tion”, “sion”, “cian”, and “tian” are all pronounced “shun”), verb endings, and syllabication while primarily working with real words.

In the fall, prior to SpellRead instruction, and again in the spring, after SpellRead instruction, these students took the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment, which monitors the development of reading skills and categorizes performance in terms of level of risk for reading failure.

DIBELS Results:

Between the fall and spring DIBELS testing, the number of SpellRead students identified as “high risk” was cut in half, the number identified as “moderate risk” was doubled, and the number identified as “low risk” increased. The same pattern appeared across all groups of students; Hispanic, African American, and Caucasian, those identified as requiring special education services (ESE), those identified as having limited English proficiency (LEP), and those qualifying for free or reduced-price meals (FARMs).

dibels reading research

The DIBELS data discussed above compare student progress through the course of the school year, from fall (August 2004) to spring (May 2005). Meanwhile, in March 2005, after receiving only a portion of their SpellRead instruction (approximately 65 hours), the 480 students in this sample took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in Reading. The FCAT is a challenging state-wide test that is strongly correlated with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Student performance on the FCAT is categorized according to five achievement levels, with Level 1 indicating that the student has demonstrated little success with the challenging content of the Sunshine State Standards and Level 5 indicating that the student has demonstrated success with the most challenging content of the standards.

FCAT Results:
Despite having completed less than half of the SpellRead program by the time of FCAT testing in March, the 480 students in this sample experienced dramatically improved FCAT success rates, with 44% moving up out of Level 1 and 41% moving up to Level 3 or higher, demonstrating a significant link between SpellRead classroom activities and FCAT success.

fcat reading research

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Evaluation of SpellRead Instruction with Incarcerated Youth (Rashotte, 2001):

Thirteen male youths at a detention center in Whitbourne, Newfoundland were selected for SpellRead instruction based upon low scores on the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test. The mean age of the group was 17.4, with ages ranging from 16.4 to 18.1. Each participant was given a complete pre-test battery of reading tests prior to SpellRead instruction, and the same tests were re-administered at the end of his participation in the SpellRead program, which usually coincided with his release from the center.

Participants received SpellRead instruction in groups of two or three in 90-minute sessions two to three times per week. The average number of hours of instruction completed by the participants was 23, within a range of 10 – 46 hours. Most participants worked only on the first phase of the program, since the length of their incarceration did not allow time for the entire SpellRead program.


Mean Standard Scores (SD) on Reading Measures and after SpellRead Instruction

incarcerated youth reading research

The reading measures showed significant improvement following instruction for accuracy, rate (fluency), comprehension, and word identification.

The results of this study indicate that it is possible to significantly increase the reading skills of low achieving incarcerated youths using an intensive, small-group reading program that is phonologically based, yet combines reading for meaning.

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The SpellRead Study of 19 Adult Students (MacDonald, & Cornwall, 1995):

Independent evaluators, Dr. Wayne MacDonald, an American Board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and head of the Department of Psychology at the IWK Grace Health Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and his colleague Dr. Anne Cornwall, a psychologist, assessed the effectiveness of SpellRead with groups of adult students. In one of these groups 19 adults, 13 males and six females ranging in age from 19 to 56, received an average of 76 sessions of SpellRead instruction.


Mean Grade-level Equivalent Scores for 19 Adult SpellRead Students

adult reading research

These dramatic statistical results were augmented in Dr. MacDonald’s report by his observation regarding student satisfaction. In his words, “we were also deeply moved by the very profound effects your program has had on the personal lives of your students. They spoke with pride of their recent successes and appeared to have a renewed sense of optimism for the future.”

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The SpellRead Study of 50 Adult Students (Cornwall, 1998):

Dr. Wayne MacDonald and Dr. Anne Cornwall also evaluated the effectiveness of SpellRead instruction with another group of 50 adult students. These students ranged in age from 18 to 56, with a mean age of 31.7 years, and received an average of 491 hours of instruction (98 sessions over 19.6 weeks), although actual hours of instruction received ranged from 200 to 800.


Mean Grade-Level Equivalent Scores for 50 Adult SpellRead Students

50 adult reading research

This study further validates the effectiveness of the SpellRead program in substantially improving the word-level reading, spelling, and reading comprehension skills of adult students.

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If you have any questions regarding Ooka Island’s reading methodology, you can reach Dr. Kay MacPhee by email at

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