Seventy years ago, Vladimir Nabokov put pen to paper to share his vision of what a good reader possesses: “imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.” That vision holds true for those who are able to read for pleasure, but what about those with reading difficulties?
The reality is that in almost every middle level and high school, there are students who struggle in reading, despite years of interventions.
Teachers face countless challenges helping students become eager readers of written works. In a world with time crunches created by high-pressure classes and the easy availability of SparkNotes, Shmoop, eNotes, and similar resources, it can seem like an exercise in decadence to take time for literature. (Does this sound familiar in your own life outside of work? I have my slight bias, but I must urge you to let time for literature be a necessity.)
Thankfully, in addition to teachers who inspire a love of literature, there are countless intervention options that can answer challenges based on your school community’s culture and resources. Such systems and programs cannot be expected to function alone without support; every brick or building block needs mortar. That is where support strategies come in.
Whatever reading intervention you choose for your school—and, as you know, there are many—consider taking in this tried-and-true advice to quickly get middle level and high school students on board and invested so they can get the help they need.
Strategies for Student Success
- Set goals. The best way to know whether a program or its implementation has succeeded or fallen short is to put measurable goals in place. Goals help your teachers and students get to higher ground and give everyone involved something clear to reach for. “Better reading ability” is not a goal. To paraphrase the now-popular saying: If you treasure it, you must measure it.
- Create a culture that embraces the intervention. When we go abroad, it is comforting and encouraging to know that someone, even if they cannot speak our language, has heard of our country. Sometimes when a student is using an intervention in a course, it can feel like they’re stranded on an island rather than part of a continent. Why keep an effective, evidence-based program a secret or invite quizzical expressions from other teachers? In addition to those actively using the intervention, let other departments know that the program will benefit students across the curriculum, for we are all readers.
- Have teachers try it themselves. We are all learners, too, and it can be stimulating to engage in that role again. If possible, carve out time for those teachers who will be implementing the program to play with and test it, and discuss how it will be received by their students. An hour now can save hours later. Even better, invite teachers from other courses and departments to try the program—and be sure to share its benefits with them so they understand why it’s important for students.
- Be consistent. Snow days happen. Storms take out power. Holidays predictably arrive with their excitement. The implementation of an intervention should be as constant as the fact of dawn and dusk. As you know, there are also instances in which the very factors that have made literacy difficult for students have come from instability in their lives in general, so this reliable structure is key. Thirty minutes means 30 minutes. Three days a week means three days a week. Hold both students and teachers accountable by monitoring data such as participation and completion rates, in addition to student achievement and growth. This will help ensure that the intervention is being implemented as recommended and that your school is getting the most from its investment.
- Have students keep their own progress charts. If there is a way to measure student achievement that students themselves are able to monitor, make sure they do so. Just as we remember what we actively write better than what we passively read, we recognize the numbers going up and down better if we write them ourselves.
- Create a “wall of fame” for students; they notice it! It can sometimes be mortifying for a middle level or high school student to be recognized, but when one’s accomplishment is noted, there is often a shy smile that veils a heightened sense of motivation. Even for those for whom a spot on that bulletin board is not the strongest motivation, it serves to make those who do value it strive that much more to reach it.
- Put students into teams, track points on a scoreboard, and award a prize—or at least recognition or bragging rights—for the best average score. One of my students wrote recently that he enjoyed wrestling more than football because “if I lose, my team won’t suffer.” Just as the individual motivation of the “wall of fame” can be a helpful tool, so too can that sense of responsibility to several peers. The key to this strategy is to reset frequently enough that students do not become dispirited—that they have plenty of opportunities to help their team “win” in addition to the educational gains they are making.
- Hold competitions. It is incredible to behold the power of competition; students who previously may have felt ambivalent or uninterested enjoy seeing clear growth and progress, as it also means that their peers can see it. To boost literacy schoolwide, create a chart for each class and hold competitions to encourage students to strive for more. One colleague of mine actually used race cars moving along a track located at the top of the wall to indicate individual progress with a program. Yes, these were high school students, and yes, it was a strong motivator.
- Talk to parents to enlist their support. Fortunately, the vast majority of parents want to help their children succeed; they just don’t always know how to make that happen. With that in mind, make sure that you and your teachers understand the intervention program and can express in layman’s terms how it is done, what it makes possible, and how it can help. That bridge of simplicity will also allow parents to reinforce the program through explanation at home.
- Assign a grade based on each student’s participation and attendance in the program. If the intervention is a part of the regular class schedule and can be graded, do it! For those students who are not motivated by competition but by grades, this is a good plan. Better still is when they can see that coming out on top in competition and earning a good grade for their effort—things that are within their control when a consistent implementation is in place—are directly connected.
Providing Positive Results for Our Students
The reading intervention program that we have been utilizing for the past year and a half in standard English classes for grades 6–10 is Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord program, which includes Reading Assistant Plus. Unlike other interventions we’ve tried, it provides students with the foundational language and cognitive skills, deliberate practice, and guided reading support they need to address the root causes of their reading difficulties.
Consistency really is key here, so we ensure that students have time available in class as well as during their study hall to complete the recommended 30-minute session three times per week. We also ensure that teachers are monitoring student progress and engagement by circulating and noting where they may be struggling. This work has not always been easy.
Almost 800 students have used the program to date, and we have witnessed extraordinary gains in those students who have put forth the effort to work at it. For example, over the course of nine months, 39 percent of our students who finished at least one level in the Fast ForWord program made up to half a year’s growth; 9 percent made up to one year of growth; 15 percent made 1.1 to 1.5 years of growth; and 35 percent made more than 1.5 years of growth. The results have been most pronounced in students who receive special education services and students who are English-language learners—who frequently leap up by several grade levels within a year’s use of the program.
The variety of students in your school matches the variety of the whole human spectrum of abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, so no singular approach can remedy every weakness for every student. However, employing at least a few of the strategies here can help ensure that whatever program you choose will have the best possible chance of success.
Emily Holloway-Costa is an English teacher and dual-enrollment instructor at Goochland High School in Goochland, VA. She taught English to elementary school students in Taiwan for four years and has been teaching high school English in North Carolina and Virginia for 11 years.