In today's age where there is an expectation that high schools are preparing students to attend college, teachers who support struggling readers at the high school level feel constant pressure. Students need to have the skills to succeed, whether that be increased reading skills or compensatory strategies or some combination of both. One especially large barrier for high school students with disabilities upon entering college is that the supports available undergo a giant transition. No longer are support services required and modifications and accommodations are more limited. We need to prepare students for this piece of their transition as well.
Lauren Capotosoto looked at the problem of college students with reading problems in her article, Decoding and Fluency Problems of Poor College Readers, located on the National College Transition Network. Interesting statistics of note include the idea that full time college freshmen are assigned an average of 250 pages of outside reading a week. Our current high school program comes no where near this. The average college student silently reads 263 wpm. If there are an average of 400 words per page (a low estimate) that equates with over 6.3 hours per week. A rule of thumb that college students should spend an hour outside of class for every hour in class. While high school students might spend 30 hours a week in classes, a college student might spend 15-21 hours in classes. If the student spends approximately half of that time reading, studying and completing homework could easily occupy the remaining time.
For a slow silent reader who reads only 133 wpm that means over 12.5 hours per week reading. If he needs to spend an additional 6-10 hours studying and completing homework, that means slow readers need to be especially disciplined when it comes to work. Just thinking about the time commitment means we need to be honest with our students- they need to be willing to put in significantly more time than their peers. I have advised students to plan on spending 2 hours per week per credit on homework for college classes.
The author highlights several strategies that have demonstrated success in increasing reading skills among college students. These include text-to-speech software, whole class and individual phonics instruction, untimed tasks and assessments to ensure that remediation and classes match student needs.
The author also highlights some unsuccessful practices for increasing reading skills among college students. These include independent work, either text or computer based, texts with cue boundaries and speed reading instruction. If these strategies are not helpful at the freshman in college level, they are unlikely to be constructive for high school struggling readers either.
The implications for secondary teachers is clear. We need to focus on increasing reading skills. Generic reading programs will not be enough. Our students need programs that are focused on their individual needs. Slow readers need to work on fluency, those with limited vocabularies need language development, those with comprehension weaknesses need strategies to derive meaning from text, those with poor decoding skills need phonics development. We need to teach compensatory strategies like using audiobooks, text-speech software, when to use cliff notes or skimming and how to use assisted note taking strategies such as copies of notes, recordings of notes and livescribe pens. We need to teach them to advocate for themselves and to take advantages of support services that are available. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to teach them perseverance so that they will spend the extra time and energy to complete the work they need to do in order to achieve.
When advising students, we may consider indicating that a reduced load may be worth considering. Students who may be able to complete 12 credits successfully, may be overwhelmed by 15 or 18. A summer session or two might be well worth the investment, if it is what helps a student manage his workload and perform at an acceptable level.