Students who make it into middle and high school with persistent reading difficulties need as much concentrated time as possible to catch up with their peers before their years in school run out. ~ Reed, Wexler, & Vaughn, 2012
If we take a look at the amount of federal funding spent on adolescent literacy versus early literacy research, it’s probably not surprising that there are far fewer intervention studies on older students. Within studies with struggling readers in middle and high school, we have also tended to focus more on early to middle adolescent (4th-8th grades) than high school and post secondary students. This is important to note as we think about generalizations we can make for adolescent literacy interventions because treating adolescent struggling readers as a homogenous group of learners is a fallacy.
Does One-size Fit Anyone?
There are a number of variables that make it a challenge to show significant and sustained growth with older students reading below grade level. One difficulty is how we define struggling or striving readers in middle and high school. How do we differentiate between the various types of struggling readers we find in our classes? Too often a “one-size-fits-all” approach to literacy intervention occurs in schools but with more research clearer profiles of adolescent struggling readers will allow us to target the variety of struggling adolescent learners in our classes and schools.
Reading instruction at the fourth grade and beyond has historically focused on what Chall (1983/1996) termed “reading to learn” instead of “learning to read.” Not surprisingly, a “reading to learn” focus on developing reading comprehension skills has been reflected in many reading interventions targeting adolescent struggling readers even though very little is truly known about the profiles of adolescent struggling readers whom the interventions are designed to help.
Research has shown that some adolescent struggling readers may still require instruction in foundational skill areas such as phonics and oral reading fluency because “low reading comprehension scores at older ages might often be attributable to difficulties with word-level processing rather than to true deficits in understanding” (Leach, Scarborough, & Rescorla, 2003, p. 212). We also have a rapidly growing population of older, English language learners that often require long-term literacy supports, yet we have an even murkier understanding of their literacy needs given the significantly smaller number of adolescent literacy intervention studies that have included English language learners.