Perspectives on Struggling Readers
by Chase Young

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Approximately five to seven percent of students in a school are classified as at risk for reading failure (Denton & Mathes, 2003). Implementing reading intervention can reduce this statistic to 4.5 percent. While impressive, no child can be left behind, therefore struggling reader research continues to explore effective models for early intervention.

Many changes have occurred to support struggling readers. The desire to close the achievement gap, and ensure success for all students has prompted constant reorganization of early intervention. This paper will discuss the shift from pullout programs to teacher led intervention and two variations based on theoretical perspectives. Finally, this author will discuss thoughts regarding one of the teacher led intervention perspectives.

Reading Recovery (Clay, 1985) was developed as a pullout program to support struggling readers. The model was based on a scaffolded approach reflecting a Vygostkian approach to learning. Students work through the program and advance when appropriate. Reading recovery teachers undergo intense training, and implement a prescriptive program with students. The program’s consistency among instruction and teacher training make it a solid method for supporting the struggling reader. However, training and implementation is expensive. Many schools cannot afford the full program, but continue to intervene based on its pullout model. The emerging pullout programs might not possess the consistency and training like some models, thus creating fragmentation in student learning.

Pullout program scrutiny stems from the intervention program being a separate entity from core classroom instruction. Teachers often relinquish responsibility to intervention specialists, thus creating disconnect between pullout and classroom instruction (Allington, 1995). Recent perspectives assert that intervention should happen within the context of the classroom, and should supplement instruction rather than exist separately (Walmsley, 1995). Effective classrooms provide high quality instruction in tandem with small group intervention.

To clear up the disparity among intervention and general instruction, struggling readers can be supported in the classroom. Two approaches with different theoretical foundations will be discussed. The first approach is a behaviorist approach, and the second is based in constructivism. It is important to note early on that both approaches have rendered positive results when implemented (Mathes et al, 2005). Although there are many more approaches, this discussion is limited to two.

The behaviorist approach utilizes direct instruction. Knowledge is shared directly with the student, leaving little room for inference. The instruction is direct and intense. Intensity is increased by providing small groups with highly engaging, targeted lessons. Students are rewarded for learning the desired content (Skinner, 1953).

This method of direct instruction is typically based on a scope and sequence. Students are enrolled in a step by step program that targets discrete skills learned to mastery. For example, phonics is learned in isolation before being applied to decodable text.
The second variation in classroom intervention is based in constructivism. It applies cognitive theory to the instructional methods. The end goal is create a reader with effective problem solving skills. The goal is developed my making the teacher’s expert knowledge transparent to the learner. This is done by modeling, guided practice, and coaching. Cognitive apprenticeship guides the student to becoming a proficient reader (Harris & Pressley, 1991).

The teacher creates contexts to challenge the learner. These contexts are not based on a scope and sequence, but previous observations made by the teacher. Through coaching and interaction, the teacher guides the student in strategy use. Guided reading (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996) is an excellent example of this. Leveled texts are chosen to support students in their current zone of proximal development (Vygotski, 1978).

Contrary to direct instruction, reading strategies are taught in context of authentic reading as well, including phonics. Essentially, the teacher coaches the reader in the application of useful strategies while engaged in authentic reading.
Both perspectives in a study conducted by Mathes et al (2005) were found to be effective. Both closed the gap between the struggling readers and the rest of the classroom. It was evident in the steeper slopes of achievement and statistical significance. However, word attack skills in the direct instruction group were higher than students in the group based on cognitive theory. This supports Allington’s (1983) claim that students learn what they are taught. Therefore, the discussion shifts to adding value to which perspective contains the most desired content, a critique that cannot be done without bias.
Heretofore, this author’s bias has not been made explicit in this paper; however, it may be more evident in the following discussion. Considering both methods yield positive results for struggling readers, it comes down to choosing that method that best fits the philosophy of the teacher. The cognitive approach seems a better fit for this teacher.

Reconsider the cognitive theory’s method for coaching students in the application of useful strategies. Readers who lack metacognitive skills struggle. Metacognition is knowing about knowing. In reading, the focus is on student awareness of comprehension and strategy use. Students need to be aware when they do not understand text, and apply fix up strategies to repair their comprehension (Garner, 1987).

Metacognition might be best instructed through cognitive apprenticeship (Harris & Pressley, 1991). Struggling readers need access to a proficient reading brain to practice good reading behaviors. Giving students access to an expert brain requires thinking aloud, modeling, and authentic opportunities for practice with expert guidance.

Because reading is so complex, various strategies are employed for a variety of different reasons. This might be controlled by the brain’s executive function. Impaired executive function might inhibit complex processes related to reading. For example, orchestrating the selection of fix up strategies for application is arguably done through executive function, the brain’s control center (Garner, 1987). What can be done with readers who with impaired executive function?

Although it is unknown to this author whether impaired executive control can be repaired, compensatory strategies might be employed to support the struggling reader. It seems the behaviorist method seems inadequate for compensating for lack of executive control and metacognition. The strategy of being aware when comprehension breaks down has to be modeled by a proficient reader. Application of useful strategies must be modeled by a strategic reader. Readers lacking in executive function might struggle with this process. Subsequently to modeling, students need opportunities to practice utilizing strategies in authentic contexts with an expert coach. Executive control cannot be taught in isolation because it is only truly utilized in the complex process of actual reading.

Research on struggling readers needs to focus on integral processes necessary for proficient reading. This cannot be done without a look into the brain. Although the cognitive model might seem whimsical to some, additional research in neural processes in reading should help teachers hone their observational skills, and respond with appropriate instruction.
© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.