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A Stimulus Fading Whole Word Reading Method

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Stimulus fading is a procedure where an extra stimulus, like a picture or cue, is used to teach a correct response and then is systematically faded out. Stimulus fading is a research based instructional approach that has been effectively used to teach children to recognize whole words (Birkan, McClannahan, & Krantz, 2007; Cory & Shamow, 1972; Redhair, McCoy,  Zucker, Mathur, & Caterino, 2013). This instructional approach can be used alone or in conjunction with a time delay procedure.

Reading programs that use images or pictures paired with the printed word may actually block a child’s ability to recognize the printed word without the picture (Didden, Prinsen, & Sigafoos, 2000). This is called the picture blocking effect. With stimulus fading, the picture blocking effect is prevented by systematically fading out the corresponding image.

Overview of Stimulus Fading Approach to Teach Whole Words

Method & Sample Images

After selecting a set of words to teach, find corresponding images to use for the stimulus fading procedure.

Level 1:

For each word selected, take the corresponding image and superimpose the printed word on top. I did this in my paint app. In this example, I used a photograph I had of a banana but drawings can also be used. The level 1 cards are used for initial teaching. Once the child can correctly identify the word with this card, move on to level 2.

a photo of a banana with the word banana superimposed over the image

Level 2:

The level 2 cards start to fade out the corresponding images. In my paint app, I took the banana photograph and set the opacity at 50%. I then put the word banana on top. Once the child can correctly identify the word with a level 2 card, move on to level 3.

a photo of a faded banana (50%) with the word banana superimposed over it

Level 3:

In level 3, the corresponding images are faded out even more. In the example below, I set the image opacity at 25%. Once the child can identify the word with a level 3 card, move on to level 4.

a photo of a banana faded out (25%) with the word banana superimposed over it

Level 4:

In the example below, the image opacity was set at about 10%. As in the previous levels, once the child can correctly identify the word, move on to level 5.

a photo of a banana faded out (15%) with the word banana superimposed over it.

Level 5:

In level 5, the extra stimulus prompt (in the example, the photo of the banana) is completely faded out.

The printed word banana


*Note: The number of levels and % opacity are provided as examples. These can be changed to meet individual learning needs. For example, some children may be able to skip from 100% opacity to 25% opacity.


Stimulus fading is one way to help children learn to read whole words. In the included examples, the corresponding image was faded out by changing its opacity. If you are going to use this stimulus fading technique, I recommend changing the opacity over other fading methods (such as just cutting out part of the image). If the child is getting stuck between the last level (no picture) and previous levels it may be due to difficulty with visual discrimination or the picture blocking effect. As with other whole word approaches, a child will only be successful if he/she is able to visually discriminate between groups of letters that form words.

CLICK HERE to read about the prerequisite skills for learning to read.

CLICK HERE to read about how to assess the prerequisite visual discrimination skills required for learning to read whole words.



Birkan, B., McClannahan, L. E., & Krantz, P. J. (2007). Effects of superimposition and background fading on the sight-word reading of a boy with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 1, 117–125.

Corey, J. R., & Shamow, J. (1972). The effects of fading on the acquisition and retention of oral reading. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 5, 31l–315.

Didden, R., Prinsen, H., & Sigafoos, J. (2000). The blocking effect of pictorial prompts on sight-word reading. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33, 317-320.

Redhair, E. I., McCoy, K. M., Zucker, S. H., Mathur, S. R., & Caterino, L. (2013). Identification of printed nonsense words for an individual with autism: A comparison of constant time delay and stimulus fading. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 48, 351-362.


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