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Designing Adolescent Literacy Interventions

It often seems like research is mumbling rather than speaking clearly. ~ Tim Shanahan

Tim Shanahan (2017) writes that “it often seems like research is mumbling rather than speaking clearly.” This certainly is the case for much of our intervention research. As we wait for further research to help us better understand the various profiles of adolescent struggling readers and the types and lengths of supports our middle and high school striving readers need, guidelines for effective intervention practice have emerged from our limited research base.

1. Don’t just focus on comprehensionResearchers have suggested that older students may need support with comprehension as well as word-level skills and reading fluency (Scammacca, Roberts, Vaughn, & Steubing, 2010). Older readers who mastered phonemic awareness and phonics needed for basic reading may still need support with reading and writing multisyllabic words, applying structural and morphemic analysis while reading, and building their vocabulary knowledge.

2. Motivation and engagement matter. Roberts (2008) and others have suggested that the five areas identified by the National Reading Panel (2000) report (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary) should be adapted to include motivation/engagement for older struggling readers.  

3. Cooperative learning, tutoring, and extensive professional development for intervention are necessary for success. Programs that emphasize cooperative learning structures paired with intensive professional development for teachers, feedback/progress monitoring, and cooperative learning yielded positive results (Dietrichson, Bøg, Filges, & Jorgensen, 2017; Herrera et al., 2016; Slavin, Cheung, Groff, & Lake, 2008).

Providing Reading Interventions For Students in Grades 4–9 (2022)

This recent What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) practice guide makes three recommendations for designing literacy interventions based on strong evidence from their review of current adolescent intervention research.

1. Build students’ decoding skills so they can read complex multisyllabic words

2. Provide purposeful fluency-building activities to help students read effortlessly

3. Routinely use a set of comprehension-building practices to help students make sense of the text

The review panel of researchers also found moderate evidence for providing students with opportunities to practice making sense of stretch text (i.e., challenging text) that exposes them to complex ideas and information. They suggest switching between stretch and instructional-level text as you work with adolescent readers in an intervention across weeks.  

How Do Adolescent Literacy Interventions Fit into a Tiered System of Support?

Let’s listen as literacy expert Joan Sedita discusses the components of adolescent literacy in a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) model.

Other Considerations

1. Provide an additional or longer block of time for learning to read and write for students with reading difficulties.

2. Promote powerful instructional techniques that benefit diverse learners during intervention, e.g., cooperative learning structures, explicit vocabulary learning, and advanced comprehension strategies.

3. Support vocabulary instruction within all content/discipline areas.

4. Provide professional learning so ALL teachers know how to implement strategies and instructional techniques within their specific disciplines.

5. How much time students need in intervention or tiers of intervention is still unclear. What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) review of studies concluded that it should be “a reasonable amount of time” but they were unable to pinpoint an exact length of time needed to move students through interventions or tiers of support. Wanzek and Roberts (2012) note that even randomized controlled trial studies have been unable to pinpoint the tipping point for older, struggling readers. The question of time remains, as teachers and researchers try to discern what works and what doesn’t for adolescent literacy interventions.