How to Help Struggling Readers?

Reading interventions can suffer from two lamentable problems.

First, they can — paradoxically — benefit strong readers without helping weak ones. Here we see the dreaded “Matthew Effect,” where the rich get richer — in this case, the strong readers get even stronger.

Second, they can require lots of training in complex theories and pedagogical strategies.

We would, of course, like a strategy that benefits everyone — especially the weaker readers. And, one that can be implemented without lots of time-consuming, pricey training.

If that sounds good to you, keep reading…

It’s So Simple, It Just Might Work…

Researchers in Great Britain wanted to test a remarkably simple proposal. What would happen if classrooms stopped teaching “leveled” short reading passages, and simply read two long, challenging books?

To answer this question, they worked with ~350 12-13 year-olds, and 20 teachers, in 10 schools. Teachers chose long novels that they deemed challenging; often, they chose books typically reserved for “higher ability” students: Frankenstein, for instance, or Now Is the Time for Running.

The researchers insisted that the teachers move at a fast pace. The classes had only 12 weeks to get through both challenging books. In fact, some participating teachers worried that the combination of challenging book + fast pace would be too much.

As long as they moved briskly, teachers had lots of freedom. Most read the books aloud for long stretches of time. Others used audio-book recordings, or had students take turns reading in circles. Many would stop to ask or answer questions. Basically they used their teaching skills in whatever way they deemed fit.

So, what happened? Were the teachers right to worry about the challenging book and the fast pace?

Dramatic Results

To measure the effect of this strategy, the researchers used a test of “reading age.” Students in these classes took that test before and after their 12-week reading adventure.

Students in all the groups they measured improved, including the average readers and the advanced readers.

But, what about the struggling readers? That is: what about those who were more that a grade level behind in their reading?

Their “reading age” score improved by 16 months. Three months of this strategy produced almost a year-and-a-half worth of gain.

That’s astonishing.

I should note: those struggling readers remained well behind their peers. But, gosh, they were a lot less behind than before. In other words, this intervention produced a reverse-Matthew Effect: everybody got richer, but the poor started to catch up.

A Hidden Surprise

Part of this research finding, by the way, surprised the researchers.

Half of the teachers in the study simply relied on their experience to make this strategy work. The others got a day-and-a-half of training in…

cognitive reading processes […], and pedagogic strategies including reading the text aloud in class at a fast pace, inference-making, guided group reading and the use of graphic organisers.

How much difference did that additional training make? Um. None. Students who had “untrained” teachers made as much progress as those who had “trained” teachers.

It was the strategy, not the training, that helped. (To be clear, the training led to some statistically significant differences, but not in the ultimate measure: who learned more?)

So, as far as we can tell from this research, we don’t need fancy training to make this strategy work. Our own teacherly experience is — on average — enough.

Boundary Conditions

First: this research was done with 12-13 year olds in an English education system. It might not apply to your teaching context. And, it isn’t remotely claiming to be a method for teaching students to read in the first place.

Second: I don’t know if this research has been replicated. We’re always more comfortable with a strategy when it’s been shown to work many times.

Third: the fact that this strategy seems to have worked for reading doesn’t mean it will work in other disciplines. We should not assume that, say, students will learn to play the violin simply by hearing someone play the violin; or learn to do math simply by watching others solve math problems.

At the same time, I do find this research helpfully intriguing. In fact, if you’re thinking about this strategy, I encourage you to read the initial study. It’s unusually well written. And, it includes helpful details — including comments from teachers in the study.

If you give this a try, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes. According to the initial study, the students loved it.

tags: category: L&B Blog

One Response to How to Help Struggling Readers?

  1. Matt Brown says:

    I wonder how the results were determined, what improved the understanding of what was read?
    Reading is a very difficult thought process, and statistics show that most teenagers and adults cannot read (i.e., understand what they have read).
    Were there any tests, discussions or essays? What has made it possible to measure the increase in understanding and improvement of reading?

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