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Enhancing Outcomes for Struggling Adolescent Readers

With so much required of high schools today, there is little time or money to spend on the students who lack basic skills. This article presents important factors leading to success for struggling adolescent readers, taken from successful reading programs.

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“There is a need for a solid understanding of basic skills. I have never met the guy who doesn’t know how to read and do math who created software.” —Bill Gates

This statement highlights the challenges and educational needs of individuals preparing to enter and successfully compete in the global economy described by Thomas Friedman (2005) in his book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. According to Friedman, our world has become flattened because the Internet has enabled people, regardless of their location or status in life, to share their ideas and engage others on a playing field that has been leveled (flattened) by innovations associated with technology. Foundational to ensuring that the Western world can successfully respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by a flat world is its ability to develop students who have the skills and knowledge necessary to compete in a global economy. The ability to read, comprehend, and apply knowledge to novel learning situations is essential. In fact, if individuals cannot read well, much knowledge will be beyond them (Adelman, 2006).

During the past few years, a spate of reports detailing the challenges facing secondary school have been released (e.g., Alliance for Excellent Education, 2004; Kamil, 2003; National Governors Association, 2005). Running throughout most of these reports is a dual challenge for secondary teachers and administers. Namely, raise standards so graduates of secondary schools are better able to compete in the world economy and close the achievement gap for the growing number of struggling adolescent learners who do not possess sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to respond to demanding course requirements.

More specifically, as students leave high school during the first decade of the 21st century, they must be prepared to compete for jobs that require markedly different skill sets than most currently possess. In the last quarter century, the economy could provide students who lacked a high school diploma with relatively well-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector. However, between 2000-2010 more than two thirds of all jobs will require some postsecondary education (Carnevale & Desrochers, 2003). The jobs requiring the most education and offering the highest pay are the fastest growing. In light of these trends, it is important for students to be taking rigorous classes that prepare them to enter into and successfully compete in this new environment. In light of limited time and financial resources, high schools can’t afford to deal with the large numbers of students who arrive in the 9th grade without the fundamental literacy skills and at the same time raise standards. In short, the likelihood of successfully “raising the bar” for high school graduates is extremely remote unless a way is found to “raise the floor” for the large number of middle-school students who are entering high school lacking the necessary literacy skills. It is logical that the time and place to build a strong literacy foundation so students can benefit fully from a challenging high school curriculum is in the late elementary and middle school years (Deshler, 2006).

The reading skills of adolescent readers

The magnitude of the challenge that high school educators face if the achievement gap is not closed prior to students becoming 9th graders is underscored by data recently collected on a large sample of high school freshmen. A descriptive study was conducted with 346 adolescent readers in which 83% of the students attended urban schools (Hock, Brasseur, Deshler, Catts, Marquis, 2005). The goal of the study was to develop a profile of the reading component skills adolescents have mastered and those they have not mastered. Adolescents were administered a battery of reading assessments to determine their reading proficiency in rate, accuracy, fluency, comprehension, sight word decoding, word attack, phonemic decoding, vocabulary, motivation for reading, listening comprehension skills.

Findings from the study indicated that struggling adolescent readers (those with an overall reading skill profile at or below the 40th percentile) need intensive word-level interventions in addition to comprehension interventions. These students scored significantly below expectations in decoding, word recognition, vocabulary, fluency and reading comprehension on multiple measures of reading skills. Specifically, they scored at the 1st to 7th percentile in all reading skills measured. In contrast, highly proficient adolescent readers had acquired both word-level and comprehension skills but still needed higher-level reading comprehension instruction. They scored just above average in reading comprehension, which does not make them competitive in a rapidly changing flat world. Thus, it seems likely that in some schools (especially those in inner-city urban areas) large numbers of struggling adolescent readers may require both word-level and comprehension interventions in order to make it over the fourth grade hump (Chall, 1983; Pressley, 2002) and those who have acquired word-level skills would benefit from reading comprehension instruction. The case for balanced reading instruction is strengthened by this initial analysis of the descriptive data set, particularly for adolescents who struggle with reading comprehension.

Performance on the Woodcock-Johnson Learning Proficiency Battery subtests for reading comprehension, listening comprehension, letter/ word identification, word attack, and vocabulary defined the general reading profile of the adolescents assessed in this study. While the reading skills of those students assessed increased from lower levels of proficiency to higher levels as expected, the standard scores of the struggling readers were significantly below expected mean scores, generally by more than one standard deviation. These standard scores place the readers in the 8th to 19th percentile across all reading component skills assessed. Clearly, these students will require a markedly different instructional focus, intensity, and balance than students in the Proficient and higher groups. If proficient reading requires sufficient skill in word level reading, as characterized in the National Reading Panel (2000), these skill deficits must be addressed if reading comprehension achievement gaps are to be significantly narrowed.

A theory of adolescent reading: A simple view of a complex process

To help us understand how to best close the achievement gap that struggling adolescent readers face, it is important to ground the way we conceptualize and offer instruction in a theoretical formulation of the reading process for older students. Over the last 15 years considerable knowledge has been gained about the nature of reading and its development. Much of this work has focused on skilled adult readers or young beginning readers (e.g., Lyon, Alexander,& Yafee, 2004; McCardle & Chhabara, 2004). However, recent efforts have also examined literacy in adolescent populations (Catts et al. 2005). This work has shown that reading involves a complex combination of word recognition and language comprehension abilities. Research indicates that skilled readers are efficient at sight-word recognition and decoding of new words. Such efficiency leads to fluent reading of text-length material and provides the substance for comprehension (Stahl & Hiebert, 2004).

Beyond word reading, skilled readers rely on language and metacognitive skills to derive meaning from text. Walter Kintsch’s Construction-Integration theory of reading provides a useful framework for understanding these comprehension processes. Kintsch argues that skilled readers use their knowledge of word meaning, grammar, and text structure to build an initial understanding of text. This understanding consists of links between words and larger meaningful units (e.g., propositions). It is often incomplete but may be sufficient to enable readers to provide a short retell or answer questions like those found at the end of chapters in textbooks. Kintsch makes a distinction between this type of understanding and the deep understanding that is needed for “learning from text.”

For readers to achieve a deep understanding, the material in a text must be integrated with their prior knowledge and experience with the topic. This integration results in what Kintsch calls a situation model, a mental model of the situation described in the text. This model often goes beyond the verbal domain and may include such components as visual imagery, emotions, or personal experiences. Constructing a situation model may proceed automatically, but often involves conscious, effortful mental activity, much like solving a problem. Skilled readers are strategic. They begin reading with a plan, monitor their understanding, deploy repair strategies when necessary, and critically evaluate text material (Pressley & Hilden, 2005). The resultant situation model is a much deeper understanding of the text. One that allows for true learning to take place such that new knowledge is created and can be assessed easily and used in novel situations.

The above considerations suggest that there may be a number of obstacles to adolescent reading comprehension. First, struggling adolescent readers may lack fluency in word reading. It is often assumed that by adolescence, readers have acquired adult-like decoding and word recognition abilities. However, recent work suggests that many struggling adolescent readers lack sufficient fluency in word recognition and can benefit for intervention targeted at word reading strategies (Hock, et. al, 2005). Second, struggling readers may not have vocabulary, grammar, or text-level language knowledge to form an initial understanding of the text. Such limitations may be the result a lack of language experience (i.e., English as a second language) or a developmental language impairment (August, in press; Catts, et. al, 2005). A further obstacle might be the lack of relevant background knowledge. As noted above, this knowledge is critical in order to build a deep understanding of the text. Adolescents without knowledge of the subject matter would be expected to gain far less from reading a text than those with such knowledge. Finally, an especially likely problem for comprehension is the lack of efficient strategies for relating the text to past knowledge and experience. Adolescents with reading difficulties are frequently reported to lack good reading comprehension strategies (Swanson & Hoskyn, 1999, Vaughn, Gersten, & Chard, 2000).

Defining features of effective programs for struggling adolescent readers

The primary and very obvious function of schools is to ensure that all students learn critical skills and content, however, the energies and time of many secondary administrators are devoted to activities other than instruction (e.g., facilities, staffing, scheduling). While these things are necessary, they sometimes end up becoming the primary focus and ends rather than means to ends. Elmore (2005) has stated, “until leaders and teachers relentlessly focus on things that are core to the instructional process, student outcomes will not improve markedly.” In short, the key to transforming students from struggling to competent learners is to put in place programs that bring a “laser-like focus” on teaching and learning (Deshler, 2006). The following are features that should be considered foundational to effective programming for struggling adolescent learners.

A Continuum of Literacy Instruction. Because the literacy needs of struggling adolescent readers are so diverse, the most effective literacy programs are ones that offer instruction at various levels of intensity, are comprehensive, and are well coordinated. For example, some students benefit when teachers use graphic organizers to help them master critical subject matter content; others need learning strategies embedded in content material, explicit strategy instruction, or instruction in basic skills or even the basic language elements that are the foundation of literacy competence. A framework for conceptualizing literacy instruction in secondary school settings, called the Content Literacy Continuum, has been defined by Lenz, Ehren, and Deshler (2005). In essence, this framework posits that some students require more intensive, systematic, explicit instruction of content, strategies, and skills and that there are unique but very important roles for each member of a secondary staff relative to literacy instruction.

A Continuum of Literacy Instruction

  • Level 1: Enhance content instruction (mastery of critical content for all regardless of literacy levels)
  • Level 2: Embedded strategy instruction (routinely weave strategies within and across classes using large group instructional methods)
  • Level 3: Intensive strategy instruction (mastery of specific strategies using intensive explicit instructional sequences)
  • Level 4: Intensive basic skill instruction (mastery of entry level literacy skills at the 4th grade level)
  • Level 5: Therapeutic intervention (mastery of language underpinnings of curriculum content and learning strategies)
  • Tutoring: Strategic Tutoring (extending instructional time through before or after school tutoring)

Instruction that is especially intensive and focused is necessary for students reading several years behind grade level (at or below the 3rd grade level). Classes of no more than 15 students that meet for at least one hour per day are generally required. A highly skilled teacher would use a combination of whole-class and small-group and one-on-one instruction. These classes should have computer technology to provide supported reading practice and quality feedback and error correction. The focus of instruction should be on word recognition, fluency, vocabulary and strategies for encouraging persistence in reading. As students master the basic skills of reading, the instructional focus needs to shift to comprehension strategies with continued emphasis on vocabulary building. Finally, it is important to provide well-supplied classroom libraries of leveled/high-interest materials that capture student interest and increase the amount of reading students do (Torgesen, 2005).

Systems for managing student behavior effectively. The climate that exists within secondary schools needs to be conducive to student learning. Regrettably, it is not unusual for the behavior in classes and commons areas in secondary schools to be unruly and out of control (Public Agenda, 2004). In the absence of effective school-wide and classroom management systems, quality instruction and focused learning cannot occur. Evidenced-based management systems built on the principles of positive behavioral supports have been effective in creating school and classroom climates conducive to learning (e.g, Sprick, 2006) Screening system. A school-wide screening instrument(s) administered to all students as they enter a middle school can be helpful in identifying those students most in need of literacy instruction. Such a screening should provide information on word analysis skills, fluency, and comprehension. With predetermined cut points, these data can be used to assign students to instructional programs best designed to meet their needs.

High-quality teaching practices. Teachers who achieve the greatest gains with students who have literacy deficits are those whose instruction is consistently responsive, systematic, and intensive (Deshler, Schumaker, & Woodruff, 2004). These factors are central to much of what is embodied in effective instruction, regardless of whether a student is being taught subject matter content or a learning strategy or skill to facilitate the learning of subject matter content. Swanson’s (1999) meta-analysis on effective components of explicit cognitive learning strategy instruction (e.g., advance organizer, skill review, demonstration, modeling, guided practice, independent practice, and corrective feedback) underscore some of the defining features of highly effective teaching practices.

Progress monitoring. Remedial education is very costly in economic (e.g., smaller class sizes, highly skilled teachers) and non-economic (e.g., increased sense of hopeless by adolescents who continue to fail) terms. Hence, it is important to carefully monitor how responsive students are being to instruction, and if they are on a proper trajectory toward meeting benchmarks. Adjustments in the instructional program are made in response to the data collected. Monitoring probes in key skill areas should ideally be taken at least four times per year.

Access to engaging, leveled reading materials. Making engaging and leveled reading materials readily available to struggling adolescent readers can help capture and/or reignite their interest in reading. One of the reasons many struggling readers don’t read is because they have little or no interest in the materials available to them to read (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Perencevich 2004). Well supplied classroom and/or school libraries are a key feature to increasing the volume of reading that students do and ultimately them becoming independent self motivated readers.

Create a “culture of growth and achievement.” The prevailing culture within a secondary reading classroom should, among other things, focus on: student goal setting, holding students accountable for achieving outcome goals, good habits of learning (e.g., using time wisely, working hard to achieve goals, building reading endurance, etc.), high expectations for each student, and personalized, respectful, caring interactions between teachers and students.

Structures that support instruction. High-quality instruction does not take place in a vacuum. One of the most important roles that school leaders can play is to create the kinds of conditions that enable this to happen. As Elmore (2005) states: “The schools that succeed in changing practice are those that start with the practice and modify school structure to accommodate it” (p. 4). In other words, form should follow function. One of the structures that can promote improved student outcomes are opportunities for teachers to plan together for the purpose of coordinating instruction across classes so critical reading strategies are modeled, prompted, and practice in each class. This coordinated approach to instruction helps to reduce the fragmentary learning that most secondary students experience. Additionally, school administrators can provide leadership in creating decision-making teams (mechanisms that bring teams of 6-8 teachers together to discuss students who are having difficulty meeting standards, identify ways for members of the team to alter their instruction to address identified needs, and review data on student progress), ensure that school schedules are sufficiently flexible to enable students to move seamlessly from one instructional level to the other with ease (see description of the Content Literacy Continuum above). In short, the only way that student learning can become the overriding focus of attention is if teachers have the necessary instructional supports to teach students and to work with other teachers to address each student’s needs.

High-quality professional development. The degree to which a school staff is successful in improving outcomes for students is directly tied to the capacity of members of that staff to effectively teach research-based practices with fidelity. This capacity is developed through a program of high quality professional development. High quality professional development programs are defined, among other things by being coordinated, addressing major learning needs of students, being grounded in validated principles of adult learning, and directly linked to the accountability system for teachers and administrators. While districts generally make substantial annual investments in professional development, a recent study has shown that many of these funds are not clearly tied to directly improving student outcomes and are not a part of the accountability system in the district (Deninger, Curtis, & McIntyre, 2005).

Instructional coaching. When properly used, instructional coaches serve as central partners in the instructional change process. Their sole role should be to assist teachers improve the quality of their instruction so student outcomes are directly improved. There is evidence, however, that instructional coaches often end up being used to perform non-instructional roles such as overseeing the school’s state assessment program or administrative support duties for the principal (Knight, in press). Working one-on-one with teachers, instructional coaches can make it easier to adopt instructional methods that make a difference in student outcomes. They can also serve as members of teacher decision-making teams to facilitate instruction on targeted student benchmarks (Knight, in press).

Final Comments

An interesting metric is being used by some secondary schools to determine the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school. It is called the “on-track indicator” (Allensworth & Easton, 2005). This research has shown that students who remain on track (that is, earn at least five credits and get no more than one semester F in their freshman year) are three and one-half times as likely to graduate from high school than students who do not stay on track. This study underscores how devastating freshman-year failure can be. Namely, just one semester F decreases the likelihood of graduating from 83% to 60%; a second semester F decreases the likelihood to 44%; and an alarming 31% of students with three semester F’s graduate from high school.

These data highlight the vital importance of making certain that middle school students enter high school prepared for the rigorous course demands that they will face. The key to transforming students from struggling to competent learners is to put in place programs that are grounded in sound learning theory and embody the features described above that bring a “laser-like focus” to teaching and learning.

Deshler, D., Hock, M., and Catts, H. (2006). Enhancing Outcomes for Struggling Adolescent Readers. IDA Perspectives. Reprinted with permission from the author.