Improving Literacy for Struggling Readers

According to the recently released The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study Final Report, supplemental literacy classes can improve reading comprehension, grades, test scores, and even behaviors.  But not always by much.  And not always for long.

The study examined the effect of year-long literacy classes as electives for struggling readers.  Students, who were on average, at a 5th grade reading level, increased their comprehension more than comparable students who took Freshman English but no additional literacy course.  The increase was slight, but statistically significant.  Their math and English state assessment scores rose more than the comparison group and they completed more courses with higher grades. Unfortunately, these differences were lost by the end of the year following students’ enrollment in the supplement course.

What’s the import of this study?

  • It’s one of the few rigorous scientific studies of adolescent literacy programs.  The very nature of school systems makes it difficult to randomly assign treatments and students, but government funding allowed researchers to use classrooms in over 30 schools.
  • The supplemental courses followed research-based, well-respected models, with students assigned to either Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy (designed by WestEd) or Xtreme Reading (designed by the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning).  These programs support key areas of literacy development: (1) motivation and engagement, (2) reading fluency, (3) vocabulary, (4) comprehension, (5) phonics and phonemic awareness (for those students who need it), and (6) writing.
  • The courses were taught by experienced teachers who received professional development before and during the courses, including on-site coaching.  By the end of the 2nd year, over 75% of the teachers were observed implementing the program faithfully.

In other words, it was a good, solid study of programs that avoid quick fixes and teacher-proof scripted lessons.  The researchers, the literacy specialists, the teachers and the kids did a lot right. 

What does this study mean for Adolescent Literacy?  What’s the good news?

  • We can make gains even with students far below grade level.  And those gains go beyond reading scores to include other content areas and general school success.
  • We need to keep asking questions and exploring answers:
    • How would those classes have worked if students had been, on average, closer to 2 years below standard, as the original study plans intended?  Would the strategies have worked and perhaps been sustained?
    • Are different programs needed for students who are more than 2 or even 3 years below standard?  What do they look like?
    • Since teachers were learning the program and refining their own practice as the study occurred, would gains increase if the study continued into 3 and 4 years? 
    • Since gains were made each year while students were in the program, how might the program grow with them?  Can elements of it be woven into other courses they take or would they continue to take elective courses?  Might the gains begin to “snowball” overtime? How might the program have been different if teachers and administrators had planned with continuity in mind, rather than having an artificial end point?
    • If sustaining separate elective courses for struggling readers is not feasible, how can teachers integrate differentiated literacy instruction into the required English classes?  Into classes across the curriculum? What resources do they need?  What kinds of professional development?

Improving adolescent literacy will require long-term commitment of time and resources.  Students don’t suddenly fall 5 grades below standard – and they don’t do it without reasons, many related to events outside of school.  One suggestion would be great to have a single literacy course that could teach literacy and school skills, provide encouragement and counseling for personal issues, and establish supportive home environments that sustain students’ growth.  Of course, sustaining such a model is easier said than done.  But a model that builds on the encouraging results of this study is still worth considering.

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