One of the most complicated and critical issues facing post-secondary district leaders today may be hiding in plain sight. Literacy rates among secondary students are staggering. Millions of high school students are struggling to read at grade level, and at least 70 percent of these struggling readers require some form of remediation to function successfully in their core content studies.
There is a misguided perception that once students learn to read in elementary school they will be fully prepared for success in middle and high school classrooms, but that’s simply not true. Read our full report on below proficient readers here: https://www.apexlearning.com/resources/white-papers/201901/special-report-unlock-success-below-proficient-readers.
And learning to read is only the initial step. Adolescent students must apply “reading to learn” strategies as they strive to make sense of increasingly complex concepts. While much attention has been focused on early literacy, far less attention and funding has been directed to “reading to learn” efforts, specifically comprehension and content area reading strategies which are prerequisite skills for secondary and post-secondary success. Very few older struggling readers need help reading the words on a page; their most common problem is that they are not able to effectively comprehend what they have read.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading assessment measures reading comprehension and presents a broad view of student reading knowledge, skills, and performance over time. The most recent NAEP results highlight the low percentage of students scoring at or above the proficient level on literacy tasks and the extent of the proficiency problem across the country.
Fortunately, there are solutions. Districts can apply four evidence-based practices that have a dynamic and powerful impact on literacy and comprehension to unlock success for struggling, adolescent readers.
1) Identify Individual Needs. The task of differentiating instruction for older struggling students can be difficult to operationalize and manage at the secondary level. We know that providing instructional safety nets for students who have fallen behind in meeting proficiency standards can make all the difference, but to do so, districts must understand what each student needs.
This requires ongoing diagnostic and prescriptive formative assessment that informs teachers how individual students are progressing in real time. Learning actually improves when assessments are used to formatively guide instruction. For greatest effectiveness, formative assessment needs to be embedded within the context of lesson activities, not the result of a several-times-a-year assessment.
Technology applications and online learning can simplify this process and provide immediate data on student performance so student needs are identified early and often. The valuable student performance data that ongoing assessment delivers will provide teachers—and students—with an effective method for monitoring academic progress and pinpointing student needs. In addition, administrators should use this timely information to establish school-wide professional development priorities and provide focus for systemwide instructional support.
2) Appropriate Intervention Tools and Scaffolded Support. The implementation of evidence-based strategies can improve students’ ability to read and understand complex, grade-level texts.
Below proficient readers need help understanding individual words and, most importantly, broader reading comprehension. What specific things can be done to effectively address the problem of students with below proficient reading skills? Recent studies from Reading Next and the Meadows Center for Preventing educational Risk indicate that several evidence-based, classroom practices are proven to effectively improve reading achievement, including:
• Provide explicit vocabulary instruction.
• Provide direct and explicit comprehension strategy instruction.
• Provide intensive and individualized interventions for struggling readers.
• Increase student motivation and engagement in literacy learning.
• Have students read a variety of texts and analyze them across a variety of disciplines; discuss and provide feedback on their responses.
• Build background knowledge through exposure to rich content.
• Teach students, through modeling and direct instruction, to monitor their comprehension while reading.
3) Student Motivation and Engagement. Motivation is critical for struggling students to reach grade level. To stay motivated, students need to believe they can do it. Secondary students routinely report that they do not take their studies seriously, feel disengaged in the classroom, and are alienated from school. However, engagement increases when the perceived challenge of the task and a student’s skills are in balance, instruction is relevant, and the learning environment is in their control.
This means student motivation should be considered a contributing factor in the proficiency problem. Findings from research synthesized by Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Online scaffolds that support adolescents’ comprehension, found that adolescents are motivated when they believe they have some control over their learning. Students need instructive feedback when they struggle and immediate feedback when they succeed. Providing content that is relevant, interesting, and instructionally sound can help keep adolescent students interested and motivated to learn, all necessary steps toward building reading proficiency.
4) Instructional Coherence. Avoid “curriculum chaos” and leverage technology to create a coherent instructional strategy to each all students effectively. Districts should strive for instructional coherence to ensure their goals become a reality. Implementing a number of programs on a single campus has little chance of success. Over time, these programs and strategies have contributed to a number of instructional problems, one of which is the “curriculum chaos” students experience when working in multiple programs targeting their skill deficiencies.
For example, a student may be placed in one program for core instruction, receive intervention support in another, ELL support from yet another curriculum, etc. The problem is exacerbated when the scope and sequence of skills in these solutions do not align and teachers have not been effectively trained on each platform. To meet the needs of a wide range of learners, a comprehensive program that serves multiple instructional purposes may make more sense. Many recommendations for programs for below proficient readers are also consistent with best practice for ELL students, which can maximize time and money in a district’s search for solutions that work effectively across student populations.
Moving Literacy Forward
These evidence-based practices outline a path to help below proficient readers find success in grade-level instruction. Of all the school-related factors impacting student performance, evidence-based instructional materials matter most. By implementing these tangible and intangible roots of evidence-based practice, educators can effectively utilize digital curriculum to place more below proficient readers on a trajectory for academic success.