• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 21st February, 2011

What might save adolescent readers from sinking

Secondary school can be the last-chance saloon for an adolescent with reading difficulties; left without help he or she is unlikely to excel academically. But adapting the curriculum is not the key to rescue; it is what teachers and students actually do in the classroom every day that counts, and there the progress of the individual depends on the success of the team. So conclude Robert Slavin and his colleagues at the UK Institute for Effective Education following a systematic review of what the education market-place has to offer. They cite The Reading Edge and Student Team Reading as good examples of the type of collaborative program that has passed the test.So-called mixed methods programs also produce good results, they report in Reading Research Quarterly. One example is Read 180 which involves students in a mixture of small- and large-group activities that include straightforward teacher instruction as well as computer-assisted instructional reading and use of audio books. Read 180 also requires teachers to attend workshops and special training, and this latter element of professional development for teachers is common to almost all of the effective programs. At the other extreme, interventions that rely solely on computer-assisted instruction had only very small effects on reading ability. Nor was there evidence that programs based entirely on working through a particular text book had much to offer. This does not mean that they were never effective, the team says – only that the review did not uncover any rigorous, scientific studies of impact. We don’t know how effective they are because nobody has evaluated them.The research analysts relied on “best-evidence syntheses” that apply “consistent, well-justified standards to identify unbiased, meaningful information from experimental studies…pooling effect sizes across studies”.They scoured electronic databases, the contents pages of relevant journals and they “Googled” reading programs. They uncovered hundreds of programs designed for adolescents (in grades seven through to 12), but only 33 met the criteria required for inclusion. These were studies that involved random assignment of participants to the program or a control condition, and the measurement of program effects by standardized measures of reading performance. To be included they also had to work across a time-frame of three months or more. On the basis of the quality of the research design and the size of the program effects observed, categories were drawn up indicating strong, moderate, limited or insufficient evidence of effectiveness. None of the studies could show strong effects and only a handful qualified for the moderate category. One of the most important findings to emerge, Slavin says, was that, in the main, reading programs were being evaluated using weak scientific methods. High quality and large scale research studies were needed, particularly to evaluate the merits of reading curricula - a form of program widely adopted but yet to be properly evaluated.But he adds: “We already know enough to take action, to use what we know now to improve reading outcomes for students with reading difficulties in their critical secondary years”.• See: Slavin R, Cheung A, Groff C, Lake C (2008) Effective Reading Programs for Middle and High Schools: A Best-Evidence Synthesis, Reading Research Quarterly, 43, (3), 290-322.A summary of the research review is also included in the Best Evidence Encyclopedia.

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