Building Reading Proficiency at the Secondary Level: A Guide to Resources
Teachers usually can distinguish students who struggle with reading from those who are proficient by observing and noting reading behaviors. These behaviors may be evident through the course of the reading and will be determined by the nature of the student's reading difficulty as well as the content and context of the reading task.
Formal group assessments (such as standardized achievement tests and state competency tests) can flag problems; individual assessments (such as the diagnostic tests used for determining qualification for special education services) can provide valuable information. Yet this formal assessment provides an incomplete view of student literacy abilities and should be accompanied by informal assessment, by which teachers observe student reading on a range of reading tasks and in multiple contexts. For example, a student's oral responses to peers about a reading can indicate level of engagement as well as partial understandings.
Common Reading Behaviors
Teachers should informally assess students who demonstrate poor pre-, peri-, and post-reading behaviors, even without a flag from formal assessment. Such assessment can be as simple as the teacher having the student read aloud in a private meeting or on tape. Students who decode the first few letters and then guess the rest of the word may have an implicit theory that reading is a search for sight words with gaps filled in by background knowledge (Johnston, 1985). Those who over-rely on context may do so because of poor decoding skills. Some may read aloud quite slowly and disjointedly, or rapidly but inaccurately. Others may read methodically, but accurately, without attempting to comprehend. To determine the reasons for these reading behaviors, teachers can ask students to "think aloud" and explain how they decoded a word or how they comprehended. Comprehension can be checked by asking students to retell what they have read. Students who see reading as an oral performance may be unconcerned about the lack of correspondence between what they say and what is on the page.
When presented with a reading task, struggling readers, having experienced repeated difficulties in reading, may be more concerned with avoiding embarrassment or "saving face." As a result, they may seek ways to avoid the assignment, including distracting attention away from reading. They may disengage from the reading task by feigning interest, bringing home the wrong book, reading the wrong pages, and procrastinating (Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991). Disengaged, they may rush to complete the assignment rather than taking even more time to connect with the text.
Struggling readers typically fail to evaluate their understanding or apply strategies for adjusting their comprehending to different texts and purposes (Paris et al., 1991). For them, reading is what occurs when the eyes meet print (Pressley & Wharton-McDonald, 1997). Poor decoders typically have little cognitive energy left for strategic comprehension. Those with limited background knowledge will be unable to make and update predictions and connect ideas. Struggling readers stall at this "during reading" stage, while engaged readers continue processing after reading by reskimming to cull important ideas and reflecting on the meaning. Engaged readers also demonstrate passion for certain ideas in the text. Struggling readers who spend much effort for little return are less likely to find value or to assume what Rosenblatt (1978) has called an aesthetic stance. Especially at the high school level, struggling readers may find little in remedial reading materials to engage their passions.
Assessment of Second Language Learners
Bilingual programs are rare for secondary students who are acquiring proficiency in English, despite the fact that many new arrivals are adolescents (Valdes, 1998). They may attend a class for English language instruction, but are expected to function most of the day in classrooms that expose them to native levels of English, with little, if any, modification for their level of English proficiency. Important differences among these students can explain their difficulty in reading English. Some may have a low level of oral comprehension of English, but comprehend in reading in their native language. Some may have difficulty decoding an alphabetic language. Those who are able to decode in their native language (L1) will be better able to decode English than those who have no decoding skill in any language. For example, the student who can decode fluently in an alphabetic language such as Spanish should not be given the same instruction as the student who does not understand the alphabetic principle.
For such students, three common practices limit their development of English reading proficiency: (a) a separate track for English language learners, which offers few opportunities for them to interact with native English speakers; (b) the classroom that only allows English, excluding and stigmatizing the participation of those who are not fluent (Valdes, 1998); and (c) the inappropriate labeling of second language learners as learning disabled or referrals to special education (Garcia & Ortiz, 1988) where they receive simplified content-area instruction.
Several informal reading inventories and interview protocols are available for classroom teachers to help teachers informally assess the reading of their students.
Informal Reading Inventories and Interviews Appropriate for Older Students
Inventories are administered one-on-one. Note that assessments of oral reading probably will not be valid for students who are still learning the pronunciation of English. Their mispronunciations should not be interpreted as evidence of decoding problems.
- Flynt-Cooter Reading Inventory for the Classroom, (1995), 2d ed., by E. S. Flynt and R. B. Cooter, Gorsuch Scarisbrick.
This inventory can be used with students through grade 12. It includes an interest/attitude interview.
- Bader Reading and Language Inventory, (1994), by L. A. Bader, Longman.
- Spelling Inventories, in D. R. Bear, M. Invernizzi, S. Templeton, and F. Johnston, Words Their Way, (2000), Merrill.
These upper-level and content-specific spelling inventories provide diagnostic information on the type orthographic knowledge that a reader is using to process a word.
- Content Area Reading Inventory (CARI), in R. Vacca & J. Vacca, Content Area Reading, (1999), Harper-Collins.
The CARI is a way for teachers to construct a quick comprehension assessment on a selection of the course textbook in order to determine who among their students will be struggling with the assigned reading.
- MPRI: The Major Point Interview for Readers. In E. Keene and S. Zimmermann, (1997). Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. Heinemann, pp. 228-235.