I am currently providing remedial reading instruction for a group of adolescents. As such I am trying to research programs that make significant impact on reading skills for adolescent struggling readers. Douglas Fisher and Gay Ivey's article, Evaluating the interventions for struggling adolescent readers, was published in the November 2006 edition of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. In this article they describe key components for interventions related to secondary students.
They describe two key features to any literacy program: opportunities for wide reading and instruction in strategies across the school day. For those people thinking about Response to Intervention, this could be considered the tier one program. Reading in the content area strategies, school-wide sustained silent reading (SSR or Drop everything and read (DEAR) programs would be components of this sort of program as would classroom libraries that have materials at a multitude of reading levels and topics. It would be especially important to have trade books that reflect the content area. For example during a unit on the Civil War books such as James McPherson's Fields of Fury, Patricia Polacco's Pink and Say, Paul Fleischman's Bull Run, John Jakes' North and South, Allan Gurganus' The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass could all be available to students to read and/or for snippets to be read to the class. For a geometry class or a geometry unit books like Area by Jane Jonas Srivastava, Speghetti and Meatballs for All by Marilyn Burns, The Great Pyramids of Gisa by Janey Levy, the Sir Cumference series by
After the foundation has been developed, the authors present five key features of adolescent literacy interventions. First is an expert teacher. While computers may be motivating, they generally do not pinpoint needs and adjust instruction the way a human can. Further, computer responses can often be found merely by process of elimination. In a computer program students are often to start at the beginning of the program and move through every lesson set. All students go through each module regardless of whether they need instruction in that area or not. While some programs are improving in this area, many have this limitation. Teachers are critical in assessment and instructional delivery. That is not to say that computers cannot play a role in instruction, but computer programs alone are inadequate to meet the needs of students.
Second, the authors propose that a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction is essential. This means addressing reading AND writing not just skill development. Expert teachers need to identify where the reading process breaks down and intervene there. Very rarely are high school students that have had quality alphabetics (phonemic awareness and phonics) instruction in elementary school going to benefit from training in alphabetics. This means that much of the rote phonics instruction that I am asked to provide is not likely to increase reading skills in secondary students. Comprehension breakdowns due to limited fluency, poor background knowledge and limited vocabularies certainly plays a role in reading difficulties as do weaknesses in other comprehension skills. Further, memory related issues can reduce reading performance. The authors, however, note that presenting isolated skill and strategy instruction is rarely useful for this age group. They propose using a comprehensive approach integrating the skills with the reading of real texts, potentially those the students are being asked to read in other subject areas.
Third, the authors note that reading instruction should be engaging. "Babyish" passages need to be avoided. Many reading intervention programs use short inane passages that high schoolers are uncomfortable reading. Student interests need to play a role in text selection. This could be self selected novels or assigned texts the individual needs to cover. In one on one settings where the material is very easy, students may be compliant but not engaged. This is a careful line a teacher must consider regularly.
The fourth component they describe is instruction driven by useful and relevant assessments. This is unlikely to be the state tests in reading or ELA or standardized tests that students take. The authors advise obtaining good baseline data about student performance from a variety of sources such as writing samples, informal reading inventories, interviews and observations. This must be in a variety of contexts, in a variety of formats for a variety of purposes. A nonfiction sports story from the newspaper may reveal very different information from a passage from a history textbook or an on-line celebrity blog. All bring important information to the table. Interestingly, the authors do not point out that on-going formative assessment is essential as well. Having read many of Fisher's writing, I believe that he would contend that such data collection is also essential to understanding progress and creating responsive instruction.
The last component is significant opportunities for authentic reading and writing. If we want students to get better at reading, they need to read. Lots of reading means lots of time. According to Mary Dorinda Allard's study on how teenagers use their time, young people spend an average of less than fifteen minutes a day reading. If we just rely on outside reading to get the job done, we will fail to support struggling readers. This means we need to create time in our school days for reading, especially for our struggling readers. This creates an interesting logistic problem. Struggling readers tend to be struggling students. Typical freshman in New York have full schedules with ELA, math, science, social studies, fine art elective, PE, and foreign language. If they are language exempt or are satisfied with a single language credit they earned in middle school, they have some room for an alternate elective. Rarely is reading remediation provided as an "elective." If it is, it is rarely more than twice a week/rotation. Further, it tends to be more of a general cross content remediation or class specific intervention (i.e. social studies AIS). As such, students are not provided with significant dedicated time to develop reading skill in school. I read one study that indicated three hours a day for six weeks was successful at improving reading instruction, but most schools do not have such flexibility. If a student attends summer school at the high school level, it is for a particular content area rather than reading. Because we are culturally bound by a four year high school, we are willing to allow our struggling learners to squeak by or fail rather than receive the interventions they need to become more capable students. The irony of this is that as a result of poor performance and frustration, many will drop out anyway. Without a true commitment to reading intervention our half-hearted attempts are unlikely to lead to any significant growth. The authors recommend that over half of the intervention time be spent on reading and writing activities rather than skill instruction. They imply that this must happen on a daily basis.
The authors discuss two case studies. One student has a computer based intervention which does not generate significant growth. The other has a multidimensional program that bridges both in and after school care, incorporates SSR of self selected work, guided reading of more challenging content, small group and center based reading activities and daily individualized instruction. The authors suggest that the later program will be far superior to the former.
Clearly the implication is that a school wide intervention in reading instruction is essential to meet the needs of struggling learners. Potentially this means either an extended school day or extended school year where reading as a program can occur on a daily basis for a block of time (ex. an hour). If we are not willing to systematically adjust programs to meet the needs of these struggling learners, we may be providing interventions, but the research shows they will have limited impact.
One interesting piece of this article is the inclusion of a rubric for evaluating intervention programs. If someone were to be influencing decision makers about selecting or designing a reading intervention program, it would be a useful tool for analyzing the approach.