The Effects of Instruction in an Inference Strategy on the Reading Comprehension Skills of Adolescents with Disabilities

Article excerpt

Abstract. The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of teaching eight secondary students with disabilities, including seven with learning disabilities, a strategy for answering a variety of inferential questions. A multiple-baseline across-subjects design was employed. Outcome measures included scores on researcher-devised comprehension quizzes, a standardized test of reading comprehension, a strategy use test, a strategy knowledge test, and a reading satisfaction measure. Fidelity of implementation, instructional time, and maintenance of skills were also measured. Results suggest that students with disabilities can learn to use a strategy to answer a variety of inferential questions, and mastery of its use can result in improved scores on criterion-based and standardized measures of reading comprehension. In addition, students' satisfaction with their reading improved.

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The current educational climate and its calls for increased skill acquisition and rising performance demands are requiring students to learn higher-order reading skills, like inference skills (e.g., American Institute for Research, 2005; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2006). With few exceptions, all secondary students, including students with disabilities (SWD), are required to take rigorous state reading competency exams, most of which involve the use of inference skills. At present, 26 states administer exit exams, and 19 of them withhold diplomas based on poor performance on the exit exams (Center on Education Policy, 2005).

Increased local demands appear to be rising in tandem with the level of reading skills evaluated by national standardized assessment exams. For example, the proposed 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading framework reflects expansion from its current 1992-2007 framework, to include the assessment of broader reading content and deeper cognitive processes (American Institute for Research, 2005). This framework represents a shift from assessing skills at the literal/word level of reading comprehension to assessing higher-order skills within reading comprehension that emphasize "interpreting and integrating" reading matter, the very skills required to make inferences.

This climate of increased reading demands in schools and on tests poses significant challenges for struggling adolescent readers. For students who have a disability, increased demands are especially problematic (Bulgren, Marquis, Deshler, Schumaker, & Lenz, 2006; Schumaker, Deshler, Bui, & Vernon, 2006). Some research has shown that students with learning disabilities (LD) enter seventh grade reading, on average, at the fourth-grade level, and they do not make gains in reading achievement as they progress through the secondary grades (Deshler & Schumaker, 2006; Deshler et al., 2006; Warner, Schumaker, Alley & Deshler, 1980). Further, large proportions of these students are failing their state reading competency exams (Heubert, 2002), as well as tests in their required high school courses (Bulgren, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1988; Hughes, Deshler, Ruhl, & Schumaker, 1993; Wagner et al., 2003).

This is understandable, because, although some of them have acquired some basic decoding skills (Catts, Fey, Tomblin, & Zhang, 2002), they have not learned many of the skills associated with reading comprehension, including inference skills (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, & Baker, 2001). The combination of more demanding academic requirements and their inadequate reading skills contributes to poor academic outcomes for students with LD (Leach, Scarborough, & Rescorla, 2003; Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Graetz, 2003; Wagner et al., 2003).

Further complicating matters is the fact that higher-order skills, such as those involved in reading comprehension, in general, and making inferences, in particular, can be much more difficult to teach students with LD to a point of proficiency than lower-order processes (Fisher, Schumaker, & Deshler, 2002; Swanson, Hoskyns, & Lee, 1999). …