Monday, January 19, 2015

Enhancing Outcomes for Struggling Adolescent Readers

Donald D. Deshler, Michael F. Hock and Hugh Catts published an article, Enhancing Outcomes for Struggling Adolescent Readers, in IDA Perspectives, April 2006, that discusses struggling adolescent readers. They begin with a discussion of the importance of reading as a skill set that students must successfully master in order to become economically successful adults. In light of the limited time and resources that high schools have, they argue that it is imperative that we intensely address literacy skills in middle school.

They identify two main levels of literacy instruction- students that struggle with foundational word-level skills and students that struggle with comprehension skills.
The authors go on to identify obstacles to reading comprehension as:
  • lacking fluency in word reading
  • lacking vocabulary, grammar, or text-level knowledge
  • lacking background knowledge
  • lacking efficient strategies for relating the text to past knowledge and experience.
Students who do not have the foundational skills, do not benefit from the reading comprehension skills that more proficient readers require. Therefore, it is imperative to carefully screen students to identify needed intervention areas.

The authors define features of effective intervention programs. First is a continuum of literacy instruction; proficient readers need instruction in higher level comprehension strategies through intensive instruction for students reading several years below grade level. Next are systems for managing student behavior; chaos in behavior prevents learning. Third is systematic screening to assess the literacy skills of the entire student body- you cannot identify who needs intensive instruction without assessing skill sets. Fourth is high quality teaching practices. Fifth, actually a part of the last feature, progress monitoring. Sixth, is access to engaging leveled reading material. Seventh is a culture of growth and achievement characterized by high expectations, student goal setting, and teaching good habits of learning (executive function skills!!). Eighth is structures that support instruction- co-planning time, flexible scheduling, decision-making teams, and teacher supports in order to design individualized instruction. Ninth is high quality professional development- coordinated, valid, and tied to student outcomes. Lastly, instructional coaching used to help teachers, not administer programs, analyze data, or provide non-instructional duties.

The Response to Intervention (RTI) approach utilizes many of these features- notably screening, effective instruction, and progress monitoring. For states, like New York, that mandate use of RTI in order to obtain a diagnosis of a reading learning disability for grades K-4, this means we have processes already in place to support effective reading remediation before students make it to secondary placements. We can expand these processes into the middle school levels to meet the on-going needs of our students.

My fear is that there are not enough teachers who are skilled instructors in reading. We may utilize effective, research-based practices without fidelity. We group in sets larger than interventions are designed for in groups not specified by instruction for time periods that are far less than the interventions are designed for. We say logistics interfere with our ability to meet the needs of students, that we do not have the resources to implement interventions with fidelity, and that state requirements interfere with our ability to carve out adequate instructional time. These are real concerns. If, however, we are serious about a world class education, about reducing the prison population, the percent of people living in poverty, and raising the bar for our graduates, we need to find a way. Perhaps mandated summer school for elementary struggling learners, afterschool tutoring in reading for struggling middle and high school learners, and increasing the cultural acceptability for high school to extend beyond four years.

Research on fluency indicates that with consistent daily instruction, we can radically change reading skills for a significant percentage of our struggling learners. If we implement fluency instruction such as repeated reading of poetry with word-study on a consistent basis and monitor success of the intervention, we can meet the literacy instructional needs of the majority of our students. If students fail to respond within ten weeks, alternative interventions could be used so that time would not be wasted. We can help our students become more successful readers. It does require a commitment and middle school is an ideal time to hammer home interventions for students that struggle. We also need to acknowledge that some students require a higher level of basic instruction than others. With that extra instruction, they can keep up, without it they may fly when they receive support and plummet when they do not.

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