What kinds of interventions should teachers use with their 5th and 6th graders who need help becoming better readers?
Much of the research on the response-to- intervention (RTI) model has been focused on struggling readers in the early elementary grades. Educators who work with older students have been frustrated with the lack of guidance on RTI from the research for students in the middle grades age group.
Two studies in a recent issue of Learning Disability Quarterly provide some of this guidance on this pressing issue. RTI is indeed relevant at this grade level, one group of researchers writes, but educators need to increase the intensity of instruction at Tier 2 and make it more explicit.
One study tested Tier 2 literacy interventions to help 5th and 6th graders improve reading comprehension and the other tested Tier 2 interventions with 6th graders with and without learning disabilities who were “far below” or “below” the basic level of literacy in order to improve their reading skills. Both studies conclude that Tier 2 interventions make a difference for students and describe in detail the Tier 2 interventions that were used.
The reading comprehension study found that 6th-grade students who received explicit instruction in reading skills performed better in comprehension measures than students who simply engaged in Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). The results were more mixed for 5th-grade students.
The other study found that students below grade-level literacy who received Tier 2 interventions improved in oral fluency. Each study was conducted in urban middle schools with one group of researchers working with a school in California and the other with a school in Connecticut.
“Clarity around which students could benefit from Tier 2 instruction and whether those who respond well should be labeled or not are matters to be grappled with by general and special educators in the 21st century,” write the team of researchers from San Diego State University.
Reading comprehension study
Students in the Connecticut study on improving reading comprehension were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 study conditions: Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), a Story Structure (SS) reading intervention, or reading interventions selected and delivered by reading specialists in the school (Typical Practice).
Participants were 5 female middle school teachers and 86 5th and 6th grade at-risk students. Students were selected based on their scores in the state’s high-stakes test, the Connecticut Mastery Test. Intervention instruction took place in 30-minute sessions 2-3 days per week over 18 weeks or the first 2 quarters of the school year.
The SS intervention was a modified version of the Embedded Story Structure ESS Routine (Faggella-Luby et al., 2007) developed by one of the authors. The intervention teaches 3 strategies to improve reading comprehension.
First, students learn to ask themselves 7 story-structure-related questions (self-questioning). These elements are, main character, initiating event, time, place, central conflict, climax/turning point, resolution and theme. Second, students conduct a story-structure analysis by identifying the elements on a Story-Structure Diagram. Third, students learn to use a 5-sentence summary writing formula to create an account of the narrative using its critical elements. Students use a graphic organizer to record self-questions and answers, the SS diagram and written summary.
During the 18 weeks of instruction, approximately 9 weeks are devoted to defining terms and to self-questioning, 2 weeks to story structure analysis, 2 weeks to summarizing and 5 weeks to student independent practice. In the Typical Practice (TP) condition, each reading specialist independently designed instruction which usually consisted of mini-lessons on active reading, vocabulary instruction, guided reading through the use of Literature Circles or independent reading. Finally, a significant amount of time was spent on journal writing. In the SSR condition, students engaged in silent reading for 30 minutes each day. Students sat alone or at small tables of 2-4 students.
Measuring impact of Tier 2 interventions
Researchers used 3 measures to evaluate the impact of the Tier 2 interventions. Cloze The AIMSweb Maze (Shinn & Shinn, 2003), a timed, multiple-choice assessment that measures sentence-level reading comprehension. Students silently read an approximately 375-word passage in which every 7th word has been replaced with 3 words in parentheses, of which one is the correct answer to complete the sentence. Students have 3 minutes to complete as many items as possible.
The Strategy-Use Test measures how well students learned the SS strategies taught in the intervention by asking them to correctly label a Story-Structure Diagram based on their reading of a 375-word narrative. Students also are asked to write prereading questions and a 60-word summary of the passage. Results from this measure were used later to compare student performance on reading comprehension. Gages-MacGinitiennReading Comprehension Test Fourth Edition (GMRT-4) is a standardized, 35-minute reading measure in which students answer multiple-choice questions related to the text passages.
Trained research team members evaluated teachers’ fidelity of instruction during 6 observations. Fifth-grade students in the typical practice intervention performed poorly compared with students in the SS intervention. The researchers said this may indicate a need for more explicit instruction (i.e. stating lesson objectives), preteaching information to be learned and reviewing previous instruction and lesson content at the conclusion of the lesson.
Improving reading with students below grade-level literacy
In the California study, university researchers formed a focus group with educators of an inner city school to close the achievement gap. As the group considered which interventions to use with the students who were below or far below their grade level for literacy, it concluded that the study should make use of materials that were already available in the district.
Based on that recommendation, the San Diego University researchers selected very structured materials in the following areas: (a) decoding, including phonemic awareness and phonics; (b) fluency development; and (c) reading comprehension with vocabulary development. The focus group also decided on a ratio of 3 students to 1 teacher for providing Tier 2 interventions.
The interventions were provided in 1-hour sessions 3 times each week for 10 weeks during the English language arts 2-hour instructional blocks. Instruction included 20 minutes of decoding, 20 minutes of fluency-building work and 20 minutes of reading comprehension with vocabulary instruction.
Researchers found that students who received the interventions increased their oral fluency by an average of 10 wpm. Little or no treatment effect was found with the cloze testing measure with the exception of the 3 students with disabilities in the intervention group who showed improvement.
Participating in the study were 3 6th-grade teachers (one English Language arts, one social studies and one special ed) and 60 6th-grade students. Some 30 students served as the intervention group and 30 as the control group. Participants received instruction in one of 2 decoding programs, depending on their reading levels: Corrective Reading (Engelmann et al., 1999) for those reading between grade level 0-2.4 and Reading Excellence: Word Attack and Rate Development Strategies (REWARDS) (Archer et al., 2001) for those students reading between grade levels 2.4-5.0.
Corrective Reading introduces letter sounds, starting first with most frequently appearing sounds and then introducing less frequently appearing sounds. Reading passages give students practice reading based on the sounds that have been introduced. The curriculum also includes progress monitoring, active involvement, writing, group readings and exercises to practice word-attack skills that merge phonemic awareness and phonics.
REWARDS is an intense, short-term reading program that gives students a strategy to decode multisyllabic words in order to increase fluency and accuracy and provides lots of opportunities for practice. Teachers model segmenting multisyllabic words into word parts. Each student’s progress is graphed at the end of each lesson.
While Corrective Reading has a long history of research-based success, the authors write, there is more limited evidence for REWARDS. However, the researchers said it was one of the instructional materials that was readily available in the district and already familiar to school personnel.
“The scientific research to support the effectiveness of REWARDS is limited; however, the evidence base on including word analysis instruction for struggling readers is sound; the authors of the program have validated its effectiveness compared to traditional instruction,” the authors write.
For fluency development, the researchers selected Read Naturally (Inhot et al., 2001) because there was no compelling evidence to choose other material, they write, and because it was readily available at the school. Read Naturally provides reading practice with easily accessible grade-level reading texts that have built-in progress monitoring and comprehension and vocabulary exercises for each passage. Specifically, it is designed to improve speed, accuracy and expression through teacher modeling, repeated reading and progress monitoring.
For reading comprehension and vocabulary development, the researchers selected the Daybook for Critical Reading and Writing (Spandel et al., 2001) because the lessons are built on evidence-based practices with targeted vocabulary and explicit reading comprehension skills instruction. The Daybook includes selections from Newbery Awards books and exposes students to new vocabulary every day.
The goal of the Daybook is to develop an appreciation for the many genres of literature and to improve reading comprehension. To assess students reading skills before and after the interventions, researchers used Oral Reading Fluency measures and Maze reading comprehension measures.
“Our most important and substantive finding was a significant statistical difference between treatment and control on oral reading fluency for students who received the Tier 2 Intervention,” the researchers write. “Students in this group gained an average of 10 wpm in 10 weeks. This is encouraging given the consistent findings in recent meta-analyses and throughout the years of success in oral reading fluency as a predictor of reading comprehension, and concerns that researchers have noted about the difficulty of increasing fluency as the student grows older.”
“RTI in a middle school: Findings and practical implications of a Tier 2 reading comprehension study,” by Michael Faggella-Luby and Michelle Wardwell, Learning Disability Quarterly, 2011, Volume 34, Number 1, pp. 35-49.