In the USA, the most developed country in the world but one with hugely disappointing disparities between the haves and the have-nots, six million high school students were estimated to have reading skills significantly below their grade level (Joftus & Maddox-Dolan, 2003). Of course, this has its effects on students' career aspirations, the likelihood of leaving school with a diploma or - if they make it that far - high levels of achievement at university.
This post will look at teachers' roles in helping low income students improve their reading skills.
But, first, some alarming statistics: The Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2014 found that only 20% of grade 4 kids from US low-income families had proficient reading skills compared to more than 50% from high-income families. The study points out that poverty - manifested in everything from low nutrition diets and cold, damp housing (and the health problems these give rise to) to the absence of reading materials at home - can permanently impair cognitive development. So, for many, the damage has already been done long before high school.
Looking at reading difficulties in students ten years later in their educational careers, The American Diploma Project showed that poor reading skills were a major obstacle for university students who simply could not cope with the complexity of the texts they had to deal with, even though they had passed the exams that got them into the institutions in the first place. To make matters worse, inability to read comfortably was an important reason for these students dropping out of their courses. Slavin et al. found that this affected not only social science and humanities students but also those following courses in maths and physical sciences at high school.
So, difficulties with reading affect the poor far more seriously than their wealthier peers and these impact on all areas of their academic and professional lives. Yet, amazingly, very little attention has been paid to the effectiveness of remedial reading programmes at high school (although much more has been focused on elementary programmes, perhaps understandably).
Slavin et al. in 2008 though tried to redress this balance by applying consistent criteria for evaluating a wide range of US high school reading programmes. Their findings have interesting implications for high schools across the world, whether they are in developed nations or not. They concluded that the introduction of high tech solutions had little or no more positive effect on the development of reading skills than the old-fashioned printed page. By contrast, training to help education professionals understand their students' needs and to respond to them with effective support in and outside the classroom was the most advantageous form of intervention. Alongside this was expert support in designing and implementing remedial reading projects with texts that students found engaging. Importantly, an eclectic methodology - one drawing on different forms of teaching practice - was more useful than any individual approach.
I have posted many times on reading and the vital importance of teachers acting as role models for their classes but I think this needs repeating again and again and again. Teachers showing an interest in what their students are reading, showing them that they too read, and focusing on the meanings of stories rather than the grammar that goes to make up individual sentences are all essential to getting kids into the written word. It is this commitment by teachers that can make a difference to the reading skills of students who don't enjoy access to the Internet, adequate housing or the availability of books.
Please get in touch with me if you think that I might be able to help with your own reading projects, either using Read Listen Learn or by helping to design remedial reading programmes for your school - there's no charge.
American Diploma Project (2004, 2006): Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts
Annie E. Casey Foundation (2014): The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Success
Joftus, S. & Maddox-Dolan, B. (2003): Left Out and Left Behind: NCLB and the American High School
Slavin, R., Cheing, A., Groff, C. & Lake, C. (2008): Effective Reading Programs for Middle and High Schools: A Best Evidence Synthesis
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