Extra Literacy Class Helps Struggling Readers—Some

By Debra Viadero — February 14, 2008 3 min read
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A federal study suggests that giving struggling 9th grade readers an extra literacy class can boost their reading-comprehension skills, but not dramatically enough to get them up to grade level by the end of a single school year.

The findings came this month in the first of three reports to be issued under the Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study, a federal program that is testing promising strategies for low-performing adolescent readers in 34 high schools across the country.

“We know very little about what it takes to improve reading skills of struggling adolescent readers,” said James J. Kemple, the director of K-12 education policy for MDRC, the New York City-based research firm that is leading the study under a contract with the federal Institute of Education Sciences.

“The fact that these programs did produce an effect suggests some promise,” he added, “but the fact that three-quarters of students would still be eligible for the programs at the end of the year also suggests there’s a long way to go.”

Begun in 2004, the $6.5 million study focuses on two intervention programs—Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy, developed in 1996 by a pair of researchers from WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group, and Xtreme Reading, a 2005 creation of the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, in Lawrence. Those programs were chosen from a pool of 17 by a panel of reading experts.

Within each of the 10 districts involved in the study, high schools were randomly assigned to try out one of the programs, which students take for at least 225 minutes a week on top of their regular language arts classes. Each of the high schools then identified 85 9th graders who had tested two or more years below grade level in reading and randomly assigned them at the start of the 2005-06 school year to either the experimental literacy class or a regularly scheduled elective.

Although some of the classes got off to a late start, overall they helped move students’ reading performance over the course of the school year from the 16th to the 25th percentile. Researchers calculate that’s a 26 percent improvement over where the students would have scored had they remained in a regular class alone.

Even so, nearly 90 percent of the students still scored below grade level in reading comprehension in the spring, with 76 percent lagging by two or more years. When the programs were analyzed separately, the gains that each produced faded in statistical significance, the researchers found.

Wait and See

But developers of the two programs said they were not discouraged by the first-year results.

“We think the study is well designed, and we’re confident that broader measures and a longer look at what’s happening in these classrooms are going to show more progress,” said Cynthia Greenleaf, who devised the Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy program with WestEd colleague Ruth Schoenbach.

Researchers will continue to track the original group of students through 11th grade and follow a second cohort for two years. Besides measuring students’ reading comprehension, the final study will look at whether students are getting promoted to the next grade, what grades they get in their core academic classes, and whether they improve on state exams.

“Our research tells us this is a fairly steep learning curve for teachers,” said Michael F. Hock, who crafted the Xtreme Reading program at the University of Kansas with researchers Donald D. Deshler and Jean Schumaker. “It’s quite a change for high school teachers who might’ve taught social studies or language arts to become reading teachers.”

Some of the classes also didn’t get under way until 10 weeks into the school year. Not surprisingly, the study showed the gains in reading comprehension were larger in the 15 schools where special classes began within six weeks of the start of the school year.

The two supplemental programs take a similarly comprehensive approach to addressing students’ literacy problems. Both, for example, attempt to motivate students and teach them cognitive strategies for tackling difficult texts.

“What we’ve found in our work with these adolescents is that the absolute first step is to gain their trust and entice them into re-engaging into the academic enterprise,” Ms. Greenleaf said.

The biggest difference between the two approaches, the study says, is that the WestEd program gives teachers more instructional flexibility, while the Xtreme Reading lessons are a little more scripted. Mr. Kemple of the MDRC said the difference seemed to have no effect on the magnitude of the program gains or the rocky start some schools experienced in implementing the approaches.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week as Extra Literacy Class Helps Struggling Readers—Some


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