When Samantha Urban began fifth grade, reading was still a halting, baffling chore for her.
"I could sound out the words," the Moon Middle School student recalled. "But I'd have to stop after each one. I'd kind of get lost."
It made for many tense nights doing homework, said her mother, Michelle.
"She'd say, 'Reading just doesn't click, Mum. I just can't get it. Why can't I get it?' and her top would be ready to blow," Samantha's mother said.
Then, Samantha was selected to be one of about 770 children in Allegheny County to participate in an intensive, experimental reading program called Power4Kids. For nine months, they got an hour a day of small-group reading intervention from specially trained teachers, using one of four well-regarded commercial reading curriculums.
Today, the eighth-grader is doing much better, and this year, she stopped taking special education classes in reading.
"It's easier to do my homework and it's faster, and I can comprehend more things instead of slowing down every time," she said.
Many Power4Kids families can relate those kinds of encouraging anecdotes, said Rosanne Javorsky, a senior program director at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which helped coordinate the reading experiment.
But overall, the results of the study disappointed its leaders.
Even though most of the Power4Kids third- and fifth-graders did better than a control group that didn't receive the special instruction, they didn't come close to closing the gap with good, mainstream readers in the same schools.
The Learning Disabilities Association of America is scheduled to hold its annual meeting at the Westin Convention Center hotel, Downtown, from Wednesday through Saturday.
The association will feature keynote speeches by University of Pittsburgh education professor Naomi Zigmond, Pitt lead poisoning researcher Herbert Needleman, and Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy, who will speak about his experiences with dyslexia at the Friday night awards banquet.
The third-graders in the study were able to close about two-thirds of the gap in word identification skills, but showed few gains in reading comprehension. The fifth-graders made even less progress.
Brain imaging done on some of the students at Carnegie Mellon University showed that the parts of their brains critical for reading success showed greater activity after the study than before, but it wasn't enough to help them catch up with regular readers.
Power4Kids had been touted as the first large-scale, school-based comparison of remedial reading programs in the nation. It was led by Joseph Torgeson, director of the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University.
The good news, he said, is that Power4Kids proved that these remedial programs can have a big impact on the ability of children to decode accurately the sound and meaning of individual words.
What was much harder, he said, was getting most of the children to read fluently enough to make major progress in comprehending sentences and paragraphs.
That's a particular challenge for children who have dyslexia, a brain abnormality that makes it hard for them to figure out the sounds of words.
"The thing we don't have any demonstration of at all," Dr. Torgeson said, "is if you take kids who are really far behind in reading, and you give them a strong dose of intervention, whether over the long term they'll be able to sustain those gains."
Does that mean there is little hope for poor readers?
Not at all, he and other experts say, but parents, legislators and school officials need to come to grips with how much time and effort it will take to turn subpar readers into good ones.
"It will mean the bloody hardest, most painful changes in the way we're doing business in school systems that you can imagine," said Paul Worthington, director of research and development for Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, one of the most respected remedial reading programs.
Lindamood-Bell has 40 centers in the United States and one in London, and has contracts to work with 38 school districts in nine states, including two in Eastern Pennsylvania.
It also has one striking success story.
The Pueblo, Colo., school district has incorporated the Lindamood-Bell system into every grade from kindergarten through high school, Dr. Worthington said, and has gone from being one of the worst-performing districts in state assessment tests to one of the best.
To accomplish that, though, every reading teacher in the district took a full year of training, Lindamood-Bell kept a mentor on site for the first year of the program, and even then, it took seven years to turn the scores around.
That has taught him that "if you're going to get involved in a serious school reform initiative, it's going to take a minimum of four to five years to turn any school into a robust learning environment."
Besides special programs like the Pueblo one, there are some other signs of promise around the nation.
For all the criticism that has been aimed at the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law, Dr. Worthington said, its focus on reading and teacher quality means "you can no longer be content to keep doing things the way you used to."
Dr. Torgeson pointed to the Reading First initiative that is part of that law, which is pouring $1 billion a year into K-3 reading programs in more than 5,000 schools around the country.
He also noted that "there is just an enormous amount that's been learned about reading over the past 20 years."
The trouble, he said, is that "most people don't know about it."
The reading instruction that takes place in most schools is particularly poor at helping children with dyslexia, he said, because they often need many hours of phonetically-based remedial work.
It's a bigger problem in affluent suburbs than it is in poverty-stricken cities, he said, because there are fewer poor readers in those districts, and many of their parents can afford to take them to private remedial clinics.
So the challenge in suburbia, Dr. Torgeson said, is: "Do you set up elaborate screening programs to identify maybe 5 percent of the kids?"
Marcel Just, a brain researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, said he would love to see a special school for reading-disabled children in Pittsburgh, similar to the renowned Landmark School in Prides Crossing, Mass.
Robert Broudo, the Landmark School's headmaster, said the school selects students with strong intellectual ability, even if they have serious reading deficits.
It then gives them concentrated help with their reading difficulties, he said, including one-on-one tutoring each day and grouping students by reading ability in each of their classes.
The results? About 90 percent of Landmark's graduates go on to college, and all of them passed Massachusetts' state graduation exam last year, compared with 65 percent of special education students elsewhere in the state.
The problem with most public schools, he said, is that their curriculums are based on teaching content to students rather than skills.
"This would be my approach," he said. "Take a piece of paper for any given subject in school. List the content to be taught in one column. List the assignments in another. And then, list the skills needed to learn the content in another.
"And then, teachers should concentrate first on teaching the skills students need to learn the content," he said.
And if that means three hours a day to learn reading skills, added Lindamood-Bell's Dr. Worthington, so be it.
"You know," he said, "there's no such thing as a social studies disability. But you're going to guarantee that they do poorly in social studies if they can't read."
Mark Roth can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-263-1130.