Middle school students lacking in basic reading skills rarely get the intervention they need on these skills because their teachers and peers are busy working to meet the curriculum objectives for their grades.
In a recent study in the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, a team of researchers describe a research-based reading intervention for middle-school students they found effective in improving the reading comprehension of a disadvantaged group of seventh graders in one school in Australia.
Called QuickSmart, the program was developed at the University of New England in Australia. Participating in the study were 47 students from a school that had a large population of Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders and refugees and a significant number of students from families with unemployed parents.
All but one student improved on a reading comprehension standardized test as a result of the study.
“Although it is accepted that improvement on standardized measures is hard to achieve through intervention research, all but one of the Year 7 students increased their post-test percentile rank scores,” report the researchers.
The average percentile score for QuickSmart students at pre-test was 34.42 (21.9) compared with 52.7 (25.5) percentile points at post-test.
The QuickSmart lessons focus on word recognition, vocabulary knowledge, fluent reading and use of comprehension strategies. Each lesson followed a sequence of learning activities that included automatic word recognition, repeated reading of texts, practice of memory and retrieval strategies, timed independent practice activities.
Major goals of QuickSmart are to help students to become quicker and more accurate as well as smarter in their strategy use while reading.
The response time for word recognition decreased from 1.3 seconds pre-test and .63 seconds post-test, the researchers report, and the response time for sentence comprehension decreased from 6.92 seconds pre-test to 2.42 seconds post-test.
Increased Automaticity in Academic Skills
“This result supports the proposition that increased accuracy and automaticity in basic academic skills results in improvements on more challenging literacy activities,” the researchers say.
“In general, poor readers take more time to decode words, and have more difficulty constructing meaning from text because their limited working memory capacity is allocated almost entirely to decoding,” the researchers note.
“Students with learning difficulties are visibly ‘slowed down’ by their lack of automaticity,” the researchers write. “Automaticity develops when processes ‘become fast, obligatory and autonomous, and require only limited use of cognitive resources.'”
An important feature of QuickSmart is the use of the Computer-based Academic Assessment System (CAAS) developed at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. CAAS is a software package with record-keeping capabilities that measures simple perception, letter naming, word, naming pseudo word naming, concept activation and sentence understanding. Students respond to the computer-based tasks by answering into a computer microphone. CAAS measures how rapidly and accurately students complete their tasks. Students quickly get results in a graph or report form that is easy for them to interpret.
In the study, brief CAAS assessments on a particular skill were administered at the end of most lessons. The information was useful in teaching and learning and also became a powerful motivator for the students, the researchers say. Students and teachers got other on-going assessment data from flashcards and other timed activities, repeated reading, worksheets and from reading books.
“Of major importance in this research is the finding that when placed in a motivational and supportive environment, low-achieving middle-school students will, over time, replace ineffective and resource-draining strategies with more appropriate and more efficient mental processing.
The QuickSmart program ran for 32 weeks with Year 7 students over three consecutive school terms. The students attended lessons in pairs for three half-hour sessions each week with the same instructor. Students were matched with peers who had similar learning obstacles whenever possible.
The authors note that the program helps meet social and emotional needs of children at this developmental stage. The program helps build the confidence of students who, having experienced repeated failures in school, are likely to be low in self-esteem. The intervention also addresses the importance of peer connectedness and group interactions for students in middle school, they add.
While QuickSmart provides an individualized, responsive and carefully monitored intervention, it takes considerable financial and human resources to operate it, the researchers note.
“Improving the reading achievement of middle-years students with learning difficulties,” by Lorraine Graham et al., Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Volume 30, Number 3, 2007, pp. 221-234.
Published in ERN December 2007 Volume 20 Number