Technology helps teach complex reading skills

With the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act targeting elementary and middle school students until now, and with the knowledge that a strong foundation in reading begins at an early age, it’s easy to see why school leaders might focus their attention on reading instruction in the early grades at the expense of high-school reading programs. But a new report from ACT–the Iowa-based, not-for-profit assessment, research, and management-services organization once known as the American College Testing Program–suggests the danger of this approach. The report, titled “Reading Between the Lines,” concludes that too many American high school students are graduating without the more sophisticated reading skills they’ll need to succeed in college and in workforce training programs. Substantial experience with complex reading texts in high school is the key to developing college-level reading skills, ACT says–and it calls on policy makers and school leaders to revise their standards and curricula to incorporate the reading of more complex texts.

“The research reveals a very serious problem,” said Richard L. Ferguson, ACT’s chief executive officer. “Too few students are developing the level of reading skills they’ll need after high school.”

ACT’s research shows the benefits experienced by students who are ready for college-level reading: They are more likely to enroll in college in the fall following high school graduation, earn higher grades in college social science courses, earn higher first-year college grade point averages, and return to the same college for a second year in higher proportions than do students who are not ready for college-level reading.

ACT’s findings suggest the ability to read complex texts is the clearest differentiator between students who are more likely to be ready for college-level reading and those who are less likely to be ready. Unfortunately, the majority of states don’t define the types of reading materials to which high school students in each specific grade should be exposed, and not a single state defines what complex texts are, ACT says.

The ACT report defines the types of materials that should be included in all high school courses in English, math, social studies, and science, and it provides a number of sample reading passages that illustrate the six essential features of complex texts. These six features are:

  • Relationships–Interactions among ideas or characters in the text are subtle, involved, or deeply embedded.
  • Richness–The text possesses a sizable amount of highly sophisticated information conveyed through data or literary devices.
  • Structure–The text is organized in ways that are elaborate and sometimes unconventional.
  • Style–The author’s tone and use of language are often intricate.
  • Vocabulary–The author’s choice of words is demanding and highly context-dependent.
  • Purpose–The author’s intent in writing the text is implicit and sometimes ambiguous.

    The report also offers a number of recommendations to educators and policy makers on how to help increase the number of high school graduates who are ready for college-level reading, such as strengthening reading instruction in all high school courses by incorporating complex reading materials into course content, and offering targeted interventions to help students who have fallen behind in their reading skills.

    One challenge to implementing these suggestions, however, is the often wide disparity in the reading abilities of students who are enrolled in the same high school classes. Another challenge is time: Educators already are hard-pressed to make sure students understand the core curricular material–and adding another dimension to the course, especially if it’s not an English class, takes time away from instruction in the core subject matter.

    But some educators have found solutions to these challenges with the help of technology.

    At University High School in Orlando, Fla., the graduation rate has risen from the mid-80s to 92 percent, and reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) have registered significant learning gains for the lower 25 percent of students, pushing the school’s state rating from a “C” to a high “B.” Principal David Christiansen attributes these gains, in part, to the school’s use of Academy of Reading software from Autoskill Inc.

    “Our school happens to be extremely diverse, socio-economically and racially: [We have a] 62-percent minority rate and [a] 42-percent free and reduced-price lunch status,” Christiansen said. “We’ve seen movement on the FCAT, SAT, graduation rate–across the board. Not that one product is the sole reason, but I believe it’s a big factor.” He added: “What happens in high school is every student is different. Some students come into the high school environment at a third-grade reading level. A lot of times, at the high school level, we don’t have the ability to deal with that. But this software pretests the students [and] places them in the reading process where they belong.”

    Students use the software two days a week in the school’s computer lab. The solution incorporates headphones and a microphone, targeting reading instruction to address each student’s unique needs.

    “In high school, if [students aren’t] reading at the level they should be, they kind of shut down. But if you’re at a computer, nobody else can see what you’re doing, and you’re able to sound out the words,” Christiansen said. Salt Lake Community College is one of many schools using Merit Software’s reading programs to help students learn to understand complex texts. The software has “allowed us to add more reading to our curriculum without being overwhelmed,” said Kathleen Johnston of the school’s Reading and Learning Enhancement Department. She added, “Research tells us that people who read a lot are better readers.”

    With Merit reading comprehension software, students practice reading complex texts and answering several questions about each one. They work on a variety of questions that help develop important reading skills, such as discovering the main idea, figuring out the meaning of words in context, and inferring the meaning of complex passages. Assessments place students at an appropriately challenging level, and passages advance in difficulty as students demonstrate readiness.

    Student scores are kept in a management system that allows teachers to view individual student progress. This feature helps teachers see where students need additional, offline support.

    “With the Merit software, students can get a lot of information, and the readings are short. That builds confidence,” Johnston said. “Also, [visually] the information is all there on one page, and it’s very colorful. And students know these activities are going to be over soon, so the activities are very motivating in that regard–students know the work will be completed relatively quickly.”

    Using Merit reading software as a supplement to everyday instruction can increase the reading skills of low-achieving students, according to a recent study. Researchers at Marshall University monitored the progress of students at Calhoun Middle-High School in Mount Zion, W.Va., where the software was used for two years in a row. The lowest-achieving quartile of students there made greater test-score gains than students who did not use the software, researchers found.

    At Salt Lake Community College, educators have just started using the software. “We’re hoping, over time, and as more and more of our instructors take advantage of this, we’ll gather more concrete proof that it is helpful,” Johnston said.

    The Miami-Dade County Public Schools are using Read On! software from Steck Vaughn, an imprint of Harcourt Achieve, in their high school and adult-education programs. Students “get very interested in it, because it’s paced at their individual level–writing lessons, vocabulary lessons, directed reading lessons. It seems to have all the elements to pique the interest of the students,” said Dale Keith, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, instructional supervisor for adult education.

    Available through a site license covering an unlimited number of students, Read On! provides more than 1,000 hours of instruction and practice in 20 reading comprehension strategies and across 10 skill levels, said Harcourt’s Bill Walker. Each lesson provides about four hours of instruction, and the software bookmarks where students leave off so they can resume again after school, or whenever it’s convenient to receive instruction.

    At the end of each lesson, students are referred to a print-based book to read a passage and answer comprehension questions. “The aha’ for that is that it encourages students to apply the learning from the software to the printed page,” Walker said. “There is a transfer of learning to the printed page.”

    He added: “We’re trying to train students who have never picked up a book that reading can be not only informational, but also fun. That has a direct correlation to success in their content-area classrooms. It helps them transfer those 20 reading comprehension strategies to their social studies, science, math, and English classes.”

    eSchool News readers chose their favorite reading software in 2004 (see surveys/editorial/rca/srs/pdf/srs04.pdf). A new reader poll will be taken in July, with results published in our September issue.

    eSchool News Staff
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