an overview of the fernald method for teaching reading to individuals with severe learning disabilities, learn with emily dot com

The Fernald Method for Severe Reading Disabilities

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The Fernald Method is a whole-word multi-sensory approach to teach reading to individuals with severe learning disabilities. The approach has been documented in research as effective with this population (as cited in Boss & Vaughn, 1998). This article provides an overview of the Fernald teaching methodology. The Fernald Method can also be used for spelling instruction.

The Fernald Method

This is a multi-sensory approach to whole-word reading instruction. This approach using copying and writing selected words. Although this method can be highly effective with children with learning disabilities, it is only appropriate for children who also possess sufficient fine motor skills for copying and writing letters. The child should also possess the prerequisite skills for whole word instruction. The Fernald approach consists of 4 stages that the child progresses through as they become more proficient at learning new words (Boss & Vaughn, 1998; Lerner, 2000).

Stage 1:

  1. The child selects the word they want to learn to read (this is important for motivation).
  2. The instructor writes the selected word down with a crayon or marker while saying the word. The instructor points underneath the word as she says it again. Boss & Vaughn (1998) recommend writing the word on a 4″ x 11″ paper.
  3. The instructor models tracing the word as they say it. Each part of the word should be articulated while tracing the corresponding letters; however, the word should articulated smoothly as it would in natural speech. Once again, the instructor says the word while sweeping the finger underneath the printed version.
  4. The instructor repeats step 3 multiple times and then moves on to step 5.
  5. The child traces that word with a finger, making contact with the paper. While the student traces the word, the instructor says the word. The instructor observes and corrects any errors by saying, “Watch me do it again” and modeling the correct response. This tracing process is repeated until the child thinks he can write the whole word from memory.
  6. Remove the model and have the child write the word from memory, saying the word as he writes it. If an error is made, attempt to write the whole word again. Back up a step, if needed.
  7. Mastered words (ones written 3 time correctly from step 6) are saved together.
  8. Within the same day, type out the new word and have the child read the typed font.

Once the child has enough words saved to form sentences, these words can be used to compose stories. The stories can be typed and read for fluency practice.

Stage 2:

This stage is similar to stage 1, except the tracing component is removed from the process. The student naturally moves to stage 2 when they no longer need to trace a word to remember it.

  1. The student selects the word.
  2. The instructor writes the word.
  3. The student looks at the sample word and says it while copying the word.
  4. This is repeated until the child can write the word correctly without looking at the sample.
  5. Mastered words are saved and can be used to compose sentences and stories.

Stage 3:

In this stage, the copying from sample component is removed from the process. A child will begin reading from books. While reading, the child will come across words they do not know. These words can be selected for the learning process.

  1. The student selects the word.
  2. The instructor reads the word from the printed source.
  3. The student looks at the word and repeats it before writing it from memory.

Mastered words can be saved for review and practice.

Stage 4:

The student recognizes words based on their similarity to previously mastered words. Word knowledge is generalized.

Final Thoughts

As described in Bos & Vaughn (1998), the Fernald method has been demonstrated in research to help children with severe reading disabilities. The Fernald method, particularly stage 1, is very time consuming and intensive. Due to this limitation, the Fernald method is generally only used when other approaches have failed.


Bos, C. S., & Vaughn, S. (1998). Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavior Problems, 4th ed. Allyn and Bacon.

Lerner, J. (2000). Learning Disabilities: Theories, Dianosis, and Teaching Strategies, 8th ed. Houghton Mifflin Company.

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