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October 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 2

After Third Grade

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When asked what struggling older readers look like, teachers often respond that they cannot describe a "typical" struggling reader. One urban middle school teacher who shared her views with researchers from the Boston Higher Education Partnership Research Collaborative commented that only 10–20 percent of these students have problems decoding words. Another teacher observed that the good readers in her classes have "learned how to make up for any of their weaknesses.... And for the bad readers, it's one of two things: Either they don't know the strategies, or they are just so frustrated from failure in the past."
Given the many different reading and writing skills that middle and high school students need to master, it is no wonder that struggling adolescent readers exhibit a range of difficulties. As a third teacher bluntly concluded, "It really depends on the kid."
With more than two-thirds of U.S. adolescents struggling to read proficiently (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003), the poor rates of reading performance among students in grades 4–12 have become a prominent topic in education policy discussions. Offices within the U.S. Department of Education have cosponsored several calls for studies designed to improve the research base in adolescent literacy, and many nonprofit and charitable organizations have also turned their attention to the question of how to meet the diverse needs of struggling adolescent readers and improve these students' reading proficiency.
The Alliance for Excellent Education responded to the challenge by inviting a panel of researchers—Donald Deshler, David Francis, John Guthrie, Michael Kamil, James McPartland, and myself—to look at the adolescent literacy research base. The panel's discussions led to the publication of Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004). The report identifies 15 key research-based strategies for improving adolescent literacy—nine focusing on instruction and six focusing on structural supports.
Educators seeking to promote adolescent literacy might consider how well their current programs implement these key strategies and identify areas where they want to focus improvement efforts. To start, educators can examine the nine instructional elements and their implications, which I describe here. (For the other six elements, see "Structural Elements That Support Effective Adolescent Literacy Instruction," p. 18.) Although only a sampling of the research literature is cited here, readers can find the full list of literature supporting each of the elements in the full report, available at

1. Direct, Explicit Comprehension Instruction

Each successive year in school, students need to gain an exponentially greater proportion of new knowledge by reading. Accordingly, comprehension instruction must occur throughout a student's education, especially in the grades where demands increase: 4th through 12th grade.
Several meta-analyses and reviews of the research have found that direct, explicit instruction in such specific strategies as summarizing, identifying text structure and visual clues, calling on prior knowledge, and using graphic organizers improves students' reading comprehension (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000; Pressley, 2000). Effective teachers don't stop at describing a strategy—they model how the strategy works and tell students why they should use particular strategies in particular situations. Effective comprehension instruction also gives students lots of practice using new strategies with a wide range of texts. As students begin to demonstrate success at using the strategies, the teacher gradually withdraws support until students are able to use the strategies independently and flexibly.
Research has documented the effectiveness of a number of different approaches to direct instruction in comprehension strategies. For example, in reciprocal teaching, the teacher models four strategies: questioning, clarifying, predicting, and summarizing. Students then work in small groups and use the strategies with a series of texts, gradually learning to apply the strategies independently (Palincsar & Herrenkohl, 2002).

2. Effective Instructional Principles Embedded in Content

Because of the role that reading plays in content-area learning, good instruction in middle and high school integrates comprehension instruction with content. This takes place in two ways.
First, language arts teachers should use informational and content-area texts when they teach such reading comprehension techniques as outlining. This approach improves students' ability to comprehend and learn from content-area texts (Alfassi, 2004; Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, & Worthy, 1996).
In addition, content-area teachers should provide reading comprehension instruction in their classes. A number of models and frameworks provide well-defined practices and strategies to help content-area teachers support readers of all skill levels. For example, the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM) enables teachers in all content areas to communicate complex academic content while helping to improve their students' reading abilities. Teachers use SIM routines to show students how lesson or unit content is organized and to clearly explain new concepts. The Strategic Instruction Model also provides instruction in four strategies—word identification, visual imagery, self-questioning, and paraphrasing—to help students become better readers and deal with academic tasks more effectively (Center for Research on Learning, 2001).

3. Motivation and Self-Directed Learning

Students' images of themselves as readers strongly predict both how much they read and their reading comprehension (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). Unfortunately, as students progress through school, their sense of competence in reading and writing often declines (Jacobs, Lanza, Osgood, Eccles, & Wigfield, 2002).
Reading instruction that promotes engagement and self-directed learning has been found to improve students' motivation, sense of competence, reading comprehension, and strategy use (Guthrie & Humenick, 2004). A simple but powerful way to engage students is to provide them with choices in their reading and learning—for example, by building independent reading time into the school day or by allowing students to select research and writing topics (Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Reynolds & Symons, 2001). Schools can also improve both learning and motivation by teaching students to set literacy and learning goals for themselves or by letting them decide independently how to meet teachers' goals (Schunk, 2003). Such self-directed learning is even more effective when coupled with teacher feedback on goals and progress (Schunk & Rice, 1991).

4. Text-Based Collaborative Learning

In text-based collaborative (or cooperative) learning, students perform reading and writing tasks with a partner or in a small group. They may work with literature or with content-area materials, such as math word problems, scientific reports, or historical documents. Research has found that cooperative learning can improve reading comprehension and achievement across the content areas for students in the upper-elementary through high school grades, as well as for English language learners and students with learning disabilities in inclusive settings (Klingner, Vaughn, Arguelles, Hughes, & Leftwich, 2004; Langer, 2001; NICHD, 2000).
Effective collaborative learning groups include readers of varying ability, thus providing struggling readers with peer models and helpers (Klingner & Vaughn, 2000). Another key to the effectiveness of this approach is that it encourages students to grapple with their preconceived notions in the face of their peers' alternative ideas (Guzzetti, Snyder, Glass, & Gamas, 1993). For instance, in discussing what happens to a cube of sugar when it dissolves in water, one student in a group may believe that the sugar crystals have joined irrevocably with the water molecules; another student may believe the sugar has only temporarily joined to the water molecules; and a third may believe that the sugar remains entirely separate from the water but has changed from a solid to a liquid state. Text-based collaborative learning has been fruitful in helping students build, contemplate, and revise their scientific theories, especially because it forces students to "articulate and support their views with evidence from texts" (Guzzetti, 2000, p. 93).
Text-based collaborative learning has also been used successfully in social studies and reading instruction. For instance, when using the Questioning the Author strategy (Beck et al., 1996), teachers engage students in text-based collaborative learning by posing open-ended queries about texts and challenging students' ideas about the inviolability of text by exploring the role of an author's purposes and choices.

5. Strategic Tutoring

In any classroom, there are students who would benefit from more intense intervention. Research has generally shown that tutoring is an effective way to meet these students' needs, particularly in grades 4 and above (Elbaum, Vaughn, Hughes, & Moody, 2000).
Research suggests that the most effective tutoring strategies do not simply give students support in completing specific tasks but also teach them strategies that will enable them to read, write, and learn independently. The strategic tutoring approach recognizes and targets each individual student's needs and focuses on instilling independence. Strategic tutoring is supplied as needed and is therefore not necessarily a long-term undertaking (Gaffney, Methven, & Bagdasarian, 2002; Hock, Schumaker, & Deshler, 2001; Staub & Lenz, 2000).

6. Diverse Texts

Giving students access to and experience with a wide variety of texts is another essential element of effective reading instruction for older students. Students who read more kinds of texts have demonstrated higher reading achievement (Campbell, Kapinus, & Beatty, 1995). School and classroom libraries that represent a wide range of student interests help encourage wide and frequent reading (Dreher, 2003; Ivey & Broaddus, 2001). When combined with effective instruction, increasing the number and variety of books in classrooms has been shown to improve achievement (Guthrie, Schafer, Von Secker, & Alban, 2000).
When developing school and classroom libraries, educators should ensure that texts vary in style, genre, topic, and content area, thus supporting students in learning to use reading comprehension strategies flexibly across a variety of texts. Providing access to texts with age-appropriate content but at a range of difficulty levels is also important. Both higher-achieving students and struggling readers need books on their level that are interesting enough to motivate them to read and learn (O'Connor et al., 2002; Schiefele, 1999).

7. Intensive Writing

Effective reading instruction for adolescents should integrate writing as a measure of comprehension and as a tool for learning across content areas. Research suggests that giving students the opportunity to write in conjunction with reading fosters more critical thinking in response to reading (Tierney & Shanahan, 1991) and improves students' acquisition of comprehension strategies (McCrindle & Christensen, 1995).
The research suggests that schools should increase the amount of writing instruction that students receive—especially instruction connected to the kinds of writing tasks that students will have to perform well to succeed in high school and beyond, such as reading multiple texts and synthesizing them in writing (Britt & Aglinskas, 2002). It is also essential to increase the quality of writing instruction and assignments. Research suggests that high-quality writing instruction is characterized by clear objectives and expectations (such as using more figurative language) and activities that provide opportunities for high-level peer interactions (Hillocks, 1984). Research also indicates that more challenging writing assignments—ones that require higher levels of reasoning and more engagement with academic content—inspire better content in student essays, regardless of student ability and school characteristics (Matsumura, Patthey-Chavez, Valdes, & Garnier, 2002). According to one literacy expert, adolescents should receive 10 hours of literacy instruction each week, and a full quarter of those hours should be devoted to writing instruction that occurs across the content areas (Shanahan, 2004).

8. A Technology Component

Technology has quickly become a potent presence in modern life, and the potential for technology to improve education has generated much excitement. Technology can leverage instructional time by providing additional supports and individualized practice for students. Although research in this area is still relatively young, technological applications designed to support students who have literacy problems can improve adolescent students' word reading and reading comprehension (MacArthur, Ferretti, Okolo, & Cavalier, 2001; NICHD, 2000).
Merely using technology, however, will not necessarily produce benefits. Effective technological applications use sound design principles and offer struggling students individualized instruction, opportunities for targeted practice of skills, and support for tackling grade-level texts that they might not otherwise be able to read. For example, Hasselbring and Goin (2004) describe a multimedia application called the Peabody Literacy Lab, which provides instruction in comprehension as well as in decoding and word recognition skills. The program continually monitors the individual student's progress and adjusts activities accordingly. A controlled study found that struggling readers in grades 6–8 who used the program for 30 minutes a day throughout the school year achieved significant gains in reading comprehension.
The advent of hypertext and multimedia texts has also fundamentally altered the reading and writing experience (Kamil, Intrator, & Kim, 2000). For instance, multimedia that mix audio, animations, and text make greater demands on readers' attention and comprehension processing (Moreno & Mayer, 2002). This finding suggests that an effective reading comprehension program needs to give students experience with and instruction in the use of multimedia technologies (Brinkerhoff, Klein, & Koroghlanian, 2001).

9. Ongoing Formative Assessment of Students

Instruction should be continually informed by assessment. Formative assessments give teachers information about students' progress that they can use to improve instruction. Such assessments can take many forms; they are often informal and occur frequently, even daily (Boston, 2002). Research shows that good formative assessment can have positive effects on student learning and achievement (Wiliam, Lee, Harrison, & Black, 2004), particularly when the assessments are linked to clear criteria (Fuchs, Deno, & Mirkin, 1984).
Frequent formative assessment is useful because it helps a teacher measure students' progress in reaching curriculum goals and their responsiveness to instruction and intervention. Whereas summative assessments measure students' overall progress against benchmarks or other students' scores, good formative assessments provide detailed information about students' specific strengths and weaknesses, enabling teachers to plan and adapt reading instruction more effectively (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Hamlett, 1989).

A Flexible Mix

Although the nine instructional elements for improving adolescent literacy are discussed separately here and in the Reading Next report, much of the research supports using several elements together. For instance, in some studies that found benefits in teaching comprehension strategies with content-area texts, the results seemed to depend on having a diverse classroom library (Guthrie, Schafer, et al., 2000).
Educators should not consider the list of Reading Next instructional elements as a menu from which they should order one thing, but as a list of ingredients that they will want to mix with care, depending on their schools' strengths and needs. As educators seek to improve adolescent literacy, they will ideally use each of the ingredients but vary the precise mix.
It is also crucial to remember that the nine Reading Next instructional elements are accompanied by six structural elements. It would be unfair and foolhardy to place all the responsibility for improving adolescent literacy on the shoulders of classroom teachers. Teachers need support—including high-quality professional development—to improve teaching and learning. A dual attention to supportive school environments and to high-quality reading and writing instruction will yield better results than either approach will alone.

Structural Elements That Support Effective Adolescent Literacy Instruction

Structural Elements That Support Effective Adolescent Literacy Instruction

  1. Extended time for literacy.

  2. Professional development.

  3. Ongoing summative assessment of programs and students.

  4. Teacher teams.

  5. Leadership.

  6. Comprehensive and coordinated literacy program.

Source: Biancarosa & Snow (2004).


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