By Wills Citty
A new College of Education study shows teaching struggling students reading strategies through U.S. history class can improve both reading skills and understanding of the subject itself.
The study, published in the journal Exceptional Children, was conducted in partnership with researchers at the University of California, Riverside. It looked at the effects of targeted reading intervention for eighth grade history students who read well below grade level. Half of the students in the study were English language learners, and half received special education services.
Over the course of the 15-week study, participants in some cases made significant gains through comparatively low-impact support.
|A new study shows that reading intervention works.|
“Struggling readers who received just 5-15 minutes of daily direct, interactive vocabulary instruction were able to define more academic vocabulary words than their average performing peers who received incidental instruction from the classroom teacher,” said study co-author Dr. Kristen Beach, who spoke on behalf of the UNC Charlotte contingent.
Beach, an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education and Child Development, and departmental colleague Dr. Lindsay Flynn helped develop the program. The pair trained classroom teachers on reading techniques and documented the results of their deployment in the classroom.
Students were taught the meanings of academic terms, how to break down complicated words, and critically for history class, to understand cause-and-effect relationships.
“The cause-effect text structure is among the most important for readers to understand in history, since history is often defined by sequenced and causally-connected events. Unfortunately, the cause-effect text structure is also among the most difficult for struggling readers to grasp,” said Beach.
After learning strategies to identify and organize cause-effect relationships, struggling readers performed as well as average performing peers on a task that required picking out cause and effect in a new passage, the study found.
Integrating reading instruction into classes other than English may thus be a real answer for students without the foundational skills to succeed; on the other hand, doing so may also be a source of consternation for teachers dealing with limited resources.
Beach noted that while most instructors came to recognize the value of integrating reading instruction into their history class, at first some were skeptical about dedicating time to non-core material.
However, “the decision to teach reading skills or subject-area content isn’t necessarily a catch-22,” Beach said, “In fact, infusing instruction on word reading, vocabulary, and text structure into content area classrooms can be feasible and is often at harmony with content area teachers’ goals: to teach content knowledge and critical thinking skills.”
The numbers back up that argument.
Study participants improved by an average 20 points in teacher-created history finals. That’s a striking statistic, Beach said.
“These improvements are particularly impressive given [our study’s] instruction supplanted the teacher’s typical instruction and did focus more on strategies for reading rather than on instruction to improve content area knowledge.”
The study was a cooperative effort between university scholars and the middle school teachers who agreed to participate. Researchers and teachers met throughout to talk about which strategies worked and which didn’t. And tactics were modified and improved base on these review sessions.
“Our goal was to design instruction that was effective, manageable, and complimentary with teachers’ existing classroom goals and practices. By doing so, we maximized the likelihood that the resulting intervention would be sustained in the school building after our particular study ended,” Beach said.
The broad based reading strategies employed in the study are part of preservice special education teacher training at UNC Charlotte. In response to educator feedback, Beach and study co-author Flynn are working with a College of Education colleague to develop a program that teaches class-specific reading skills.
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Willis Citty is Director of Communication for the College of Education.