Is It Too Late for Struggling Readers To Catch Up?
Two experts say there's hope.
It is no secret the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically affected literacy instruction across grade levels while also exacerbating previous delays due to a failure to apply evidence-backed instruction models in classrooms.
The Nation’s Report Card—produced by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—shows reading proficiency for fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-grade students hovering around 30%. Similarly, studies from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) indicate substantial achievement gaps that would require more than four months of additional learning to close and catch up students to pre-COVID achievement levels.
In light of these findings and other studies that draw similar conclusions, is it too late for these students to catch up?
Is it too late for these students to cultivate life-changing literacy skills?
Is it Too Late For Struggling Readers?
To kick off season two of Lexia’s All For Literacy podcast, host Dr. Liz Brooke sat down with two influential educational researchers—Dr. Sharon Vaughn and Dr. Jeanne Wanzek—to discuss the question at hand.
Vaughn is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and the executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin. Wanzek is a professor and Currey-Ingram Endowed Chair in the Department of Special Education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.
Vaughn and Wanzek brought their extensive research to discuss the future of struggling readers. In short, there is reason to be optimistic.
“Sharon particularly has done some incredible work showing that it may take more time,” Wanzek says during the episode, “it may take more intensive interventions, it may take alignment with core classroom instruction…but we see really great progress.”
The pair worked together to be at the forefront of defining and refining literacy intervention methods responsive to the needs of students, especially those who have not acquired proficiency by second or third grade. “We've really sort of broadened our view on what these interventions need to look like, how long they need to last,” Vaughn says.
Vaughn and Wanzek have revisited one key question time and time again: What other components need to be integrated into inventions to improve their power? In short, the team has seen how the right combination of components can help struggling readers cultivate crucial literacy skills, proving there is always hope. Despite lagging reading proficiency in a post-pandemic world, it is not too late for these students.
Components of Effective Literacy Intervention Methods
In the episode, Vaughn and Wanzek stress the importance of a certain level of customization for literacy interventions based on student needs while presenting listeners with an evidence-backed list of effective intervention components.
The pair recommends including the following while developing and implementing literacy interventions for struggling readers:
Through their research, Vaughn and Wanzek have concluded effective interventions include multiple literacy components versus a singular method of study.
“We [talk] a lot about the science of reading being the big five—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension,” Vaughn says. “But we've also learned, ‘Hey, what about spelling and writing?’ Maybe we got a big seven here.”
Executive function practices
“How do we think about these self-regulation practices in ways that will allow us to build interventions…” Vaughn asks.
Executive function difficulties can often hinder a student’s ability to gain key literacy skills. Vaughn and Wanzek recommend including components around mindset, anxiety management, attention, memory, self-regulation, and other important executive functions when developing intervention methodologies to bolster direct literacy instruction.
Weaving literacy enhancements throughout the entire class schedule
Interventions are often more effective when woven through a student’s entire day versus daily targeted sessions. Including literacy intervention throughout the day and across subject matter provides students with the helpful opportunity to learn in context. Having the context of a science experiment or a history lesson can improve the memorability of practice while also increasing vocabulary and comprehension.
“I am surprised how very simple and small things make a difference,” Wanzek says about the importance of making literacy instruction related to content throughout the day. “Each of these things does not have to happen every single day, but each of these things happening a few minutes on different days throughout every unit has been very impactful for the entire class.”
Highlighting important elements upfront
Making it clear from the beginning what students need to know or understand at the end of a literacy instruction session has also proven helpful. This allows students to focus on the most important part of a lesson while also emphasizing what to continue to work on after the fact.
Literacy as a fundamental civil right
Multiple All For Literacy guests have stressed the idea of literacy as a fundamental human right—a skill capable of drastically affecting the quality of a person’s life.
In Episode 2, Co-Founder and Executive Director of FULCRUM Kareem Weaver says, “It matters to me if my neighbor can read or not. It matters to me if their child can read…My country is safer. My wife is safer when she walks to her car. I'm safer when I'm fishing on the bayou. Like our economy is safer when we can read. When people can't read, they get desperate.”
It is critical for struggling readers to gain literacy skills, and thankfully, the opportunity to empower students with effective reading skills persists into the upper-elementary years and beyond when the appropriate supports are provided. With evidence-backed, customized intervention methods, all students can gain this fundamental human right.
Listen to Episode 12 of All For Literacy with Dr. Sharon Vaughn and Dr. Jeanne Wanzek to better understand effective literacy interventions for students across grade levels.
You Might Also Like
Lexia’s top 7 resources for adolescent literacy learning and instruction
Curious about adolescent literacy learning? Not sure how to approach professional development for teachers of older students? These resources support school and district leaders in addressing the diverse literacy needs of students in grades 4-8.
Meet Individual Student Needs With Lexia PowerUp Literacy
Discover why educators at Nokomis Elementary School in California implemented Lexia® PowerUp Literacy® for adolescent learners. Plus, learn more about how PowerUp meets individual student needs with self-administered pacing.
How a New Approach to Professional Learning can Help Accelerate Learning for Adolescent Learners
Many students arrive in middle school without the foundational skills they need to be proficient readers—and their teachers have not been trained to teach reading. Learn how training late elementary and middle school teachers in explicit reading instruction can improve outcomes for these students.