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Interventions for Struggling Adolescent Readers

This article presents a round-up of intervention initiatives aimed at struggling adolescent readers. It provides a snapshot of program characteristics and research findings for Reciprocal Teaching, Apprenticeship in Reading, Read 180, Language!, SRA Corrective Reading, and Strategic Instruction Model (SIM).

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A growing number of intervention initiatives aimed at struggling adolescent readers have emerged in the past several years. The instructional approaches described below have been shown to have some efficacy in improving outcomes for struggling adolescent learners. However, for most of these interventions, considerably more research is needed to verify their robustness and broad-scale generalizability.

Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984, 1988) is an instructional model that emphasizes teaching students key cognitive reading comprehension strategies for predicting, clarifying, summarizing, and questioning in the context of authentic text. The strategies are taught explicitly using scaffolded guided practice to engage students in conversations about what they are reading and learning. Discussion gradually moves from teacher-mediated to student mediated interactions. After a while, students assume the role of teacher as they use the strategies to support comprehension. Thus, instruction is reciprocal between teacher and students.

Numerous evaluation studies have shown that reciprocal teaching is effective in improving reading comprehension (e.g., Lysynchuk, Pressley, & Vye, 1990; Taylor & Frye, 1992). For example, a summary of the major results of 16 studies with experimental and control groups found a median effect size of 0.32 with standardized test measures, and an effect size of 0.88 when experimenter-developed measures were used. Adolescent readers in middle and high school benefit from reciprocal teaching (Rosenshine & Meister, 1995).

In particular, the effects of reciprocal teaching in improving reading comprehension in intact high school remedial reading classes has been studied. Fifty-three 9th grade students were taught four reading comprehension strategies using the reciprocal teaching model. These students were compared to 22 9th grade students in control classes. Students were administered pre- and posttests using experimenter-developed measures and the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests (MacGinitie, MacGinitie, R., Maria, Dreyer, 2000). Instruction in both conditions lasted for about 20 sessions. As in previous studies, no significant differences between groups were found over time on the standardized measure. However, on the experimenter-developed measures, significant differences between experimental and control groups were found (Alfassi, 1998). The approach is widely used with struggling adolescent readers (Westera & Moore,1995).

Apprenticeship in Reading

Using reading apprenticeship as a framework for reading instruction, researchers have developed a ninth grade course, Academic Literacy (Greenleaf, Schoenbach, Cziko, & Mueller, 2001). In contrast to typical skill-based remedial reading courses, in this course students engage in ongoing, collaborative discussion of text-based information, have scheduled time for independent reading, and access to a variety of engaging materials directly related to content class curricula. Subject area teachers deliver the interventions in their classes.

In one study, three units were developed to help teachers focus on the role and use of reading in the personal, public, and academic arenas. In addition, explicit instruction was provided in reading strategies through the use of reciprocal teaching. Specifically, teachers engaged students in learning and practicing the cognitive strategies associated with reciprocal teaching (questioning, summarizing, clarifying, and predicting) as they read a variety of content texts.

Growth in student reading proficiency was assessed with a standardized measure, the Degrees of Reading Power (DRP; Touchstone Applied Science Associates, 2004), which was administered to students in the Academic Literacy class pre- and post-intervention. There were gains from pre- to post-test. When compared to national norm data in the DRP, these gains were statistically significant, and the students moved from an average of a 7th-grade reading level to an average 9th-grade level at posttest. That is, on average, students made progress in closing the gap in reading achievement (Greenleaf et al., 2001).

Read 180

Read 180 is a comprehensive reading intervention for struggling readers in grades 4 through 12. The program consists of four major components: (a) whole-group instruction (with the teacher modeling fluent reading and the application of various reading strategies); (b) intensive small group instruction; (c) computer instruction designed for building background information, vocabulary, reading comprehension, fluency, and word study; and (d) silent reading in engaging, leveled books supported with audio books. The initial project design for Read 180 came from research conducted on students with mild disabilities (Hasselbring, 1996; Hasselbring & Bottge, 2000).

Most studies on Read 180 have employed quasi-experimental pre-/post-test designs. In a large study of low-performing middle school students in Dallas, Houston, and Boston, there was a significant advantage for those instructed with Read 180 on SAT-9 results. Similar trends were found in a study conducted in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Scores on both the NCES (2002) and Reading and Language Arts SAT-9 subsections showed significant gains for the experimental groups (Scholastic, 2005). While these findings are encouraging, we are cautious in our interpretations because of a lack of random assignment to instructional conditions or appropriate quasi-experimental matching (Smith, Rissman, & Grek, 2004).


Language! is a comprehensive reading program that integrates reading, spelling, and writing instruction (Greene, 1998). Designed for students who struggle with literacy skills and who are two or more years below grade placement, the program is highly structured and instruction is explicit. Language! was intended be used in general or special education settings and as a mastery-based program with students progressing at their own pace. Instruction is provided to students in small groups and they also engage in independent practice. Specific units of instruction include vocabulary, pre-reading activities, written expression, and questioning techniques related to reading. Specific reading skill units include phonemic awareness, word recognition, and reading comprehension.

Several studies have been conducted with Language!; however, only one included a control and experimental group design. This study was conducted with middle and high school adjudicated youth (Greene, 1996) for 23 weeks. The control group received unstructured whole-group instruction whereas the experimental group received individualized and small-group instruction using the Language! program. The Gray Oral Reading Test-3 (Wiederholt & Bryant, 1982) and the Wide Range Achievement Test (Wilkinson, 1993) were used to measure reading growth. The treatment group gains were statistically and socially significant for both measures. Thus, students in the treatment group gained an average of three grades in word identification and reading comprehension. These findings are encouraging.

SRA Corrective Reading

Corrective Reading is another comprehensive reading intervention program designed to improve word level reading and comprehension (Adams & Engelmann, 1996). Intended for students in grades 4-12 who are reading one or more grade levels below grade placement, Corrective Reading may be implemented in general or special education classrooms with small groups of students or in a whole-class format. Corrective Reading is a highly structured, sequenced, and scripted program. Teachers follow a direct instruction model as they teach decoding skills focusing on word attack skills, group reading, and individual mastery. A comprehension strand includes instruction in thinking strategies and oral group exercises (Adams & Engelmann, 1996).

The effectiveness of Corrective Reading is supported by a sizeable research base (Adams & Engelmann, 1996; Borman, Hewes, Overman, & Brown, 2002; Campbell, 1984; Gersten & Keating, 1987; Thorne, 1978). However, to date, the research with adolescents has not been conducted in a random assignment of treatment and control group designs. Thus, while initial findings are encouraging, they are somewhat limited.

In one study, with 7th- and 8th-grade students in remedial reading classes, Campbell (1984), students received either Corrective Reading or regular high school English. Students in the Corrective Reading condition made gains of 2.2 grade levels on the Woodcock- Johnson Reading Mastery Test (Woodcock, 1998) after 6-9 months of instruction. The comparison group made an average gain of 0.4 months after the same period of instruction. Finally, there have been two meta analyses of multiple studies of Corrective Reading each documenting significant gains for students receiving the Corrective Reading treatment (Adams & Engelmann, 1996; Borman et al., 2002). All that said, to date, there has not been a randomized experimental evaluation of the approach which could better inform about the effectiveness of the intervention that the existing studies.

Strategic Instruction Model (SIM)

Since 1978, researchers at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (KU-CRL) have developed a broad array of interventions designed to improve literacy outcomes for struggling adolescent learners (e.g., Deshler et al., 2001; Schumaker & Deshler, 2006). In one line of research, Content Enhancement Routines (CER) enable subject matter teachers in secondary schools to select and present critical content information that is potentially difficult to learn in a way that is understandable and memorable to all students in an academically diverse class regardless of literacy levels.

CERs ensure learning by (a) actively engaging students in the learning process, (b) transforming abstract content into concrete forms, (c) structuring or organizing information to provide clarity, (d) ensuring that the relationships among pieces of information are explicitly discussed, (d) tying new information to prior knowledge, and (e) distinguishing critical information from less critical information (Lenz & Bulgren, 1995. Teacher use of CERs can increase the test scores of all students, including low achievers and students with disabilities, an average of 10-20 percentage points (e.g., Bulgren, Deshler, & Schumaker, 1997; Bulgren, Deshler, Schumaker, & Lenz, 2000; Bulgren, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1988; Bulgren, Schumaker, Deshler, Lenz, & Marquis, 2002). A major function of CERs in enhancing literacy outcomes is to support the instruction of critical vocabulary and critical conceptual knowledge, including background information (Lenz & Deshler, 2004).

In a second line of research, teachers instruct students to use various learning strategies to enable them to successfully negotiate the demands of the curriculum, teaching them how to learn (Lenz, Ehren, & Deshler, 2005). Two major questions have guided this line of programmatic work: (a) Can adolescents be taught to use complex learning strategies? and (b) Does their use of the strategies result in improved performance on academic tasks? Over 20 studies have been completed (e.g., see Schumaker & Deshler, 2006, for a review). Each learning strategy intervention includes the instructional procedures and materials teachers need to teach adolescents to apply a given strategy using an eight-stage explicit instructional methodology (Brownell, Mellard, & Deshler, 1993; Ellis, Deshler, Lenz, Schumaker, & Clark 1991).

In general, this research has shown that adolescents greatly improve their use of a particular strategy when the eight-stage instructional methodology is implemented. In all of the studies, students generalized their application of the strategy across stimulus materials. In the studies focusing on reading strategies (Clark, Deshler, Schumaker, Alley, & Warner, 1984; Lenz & Hughes, 1990; Schumaker, Deshler, Alley, Warner, & Denton, 1982) generalization occurred across materials written at varying reading (i.e., grade) levels. Several studies showed that student performance on academic tasks also improved when they used the strategy. In particular, when an array of reading comprehension strategies (e.g., paraphrasing, questioning, imaging) are taught in semester-long high school classes of approximately 12-15 students showed nearly two years’ growth in one semester of instruction using the Gates-MacGinitie as the pre- /postmeasure, (Deshler, Schumaker, & Woodruff, 2004). Inasmuch as the foundational research on learning strategies conducted by the KU-CRL targeted adolescents with LD, these interventions can be characterized as being relatively structured and explicit in nature (Deshler, 2003). Table 1 show effect sizes of studies testing these reading interventions (Schumaker & Deshler, 2006). (Note: These effect sizes are calculated from single subject design studies, which usually result in higher effect sizes that experimental designs.)

Table 1. Effect-Size Information for Example Strategy studies
Author Date Effect Size N
Beals 1985 1.50 28
Bulgren, Hock, Schumaker, & Deshler 1995 1.77 12
Ellis, Deshler, & Schumaker 1989 1.48 13
Lenz & Hughes 1990 0.64 12
Scanlon, Deshler, & Schumaker 1996 0.80 17

In a second line of research, teachers instruct students to use various learning strategies to enable them to successfully negotiate the demands of the curriculum, teaching them how to learn (Lenz, Ehren, & Deshler, 2005). In particular, an array of reading comprehension strategies (e.g., paraphrasing, questioning, imaging) are taught in semester-long high school classes of approximately 12-15 students. Using the Gates-MacGinitie as the pre-/postmeasure, students showed nearly two years’ growth in one semester of instruction (Deshler, Schumaker, & Woodruff, 2004).

In summary, a partial but still sketchy profile is emerging of the characteristics of adolescents who struggle with literacy problems and the kinds of interventions that hold promise for this population of students. Because few programmatic studies have been conducted, a clear taxonomy of the specific characteristics across critical dimensions of literacy is not available. Similarly, several intervention initiatives have been designed and evaluated in middle and high school settings, but few studies have been conducted with random assignment to conditions. Without controlling for the critical factors that may influence outcomes, conclusions should be drawn cautiously. In short, a great deal remains to be done before teachers and administrators can answer the following question with confidence: What interventions works best for which students under what conditions?

Deshler, D.D. and Hock, M.F. (2006). Shaping Literacy Achievement. Guilford Press: New York. Reprinted with permission.