Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Reading Comprehensive Instruction for Secondary Students: Challenges for Struggling Students and Teachers

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Reading Comprehensive Instruction for Secondary Students: Challenges for Struggling Students and Teachers

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article describes research on reading comprehension instruction with secondary students with learning disabilities. Specific difficulties for the struggling reader at the secondary level are described, followed by a review of reviews of the reading comprehension instruction research. Specific details from the most promising practices that have scientific evidence are highlighted. These practices include peer tutoring that incorporates comprehension strategy instruction and elaborative strategies in history and science classes. Research using Inspiration software to generate spatially organized graphic organizers to facilitate comprehension of content-area instruction is presented. Finally, implications for practice and for future research are discussed.


Struggling readers at the secondary level must overcome many challenges in order to succeed in school. One obvious challenge is the disparity between their reading ability and the required reading materials in middle and high school. Many struggling readers with learning disabilities at the secondary level read on a fourth- and fifth-grade level, but the adopted textbooks at their respective high schools are at grade level. Frequently, secondary school content-area textbooks readability levels are even higher than the assigned grade levels. For example, Kinder, Bursuck and Epstein (1992) reported readability levels ranging from ninth grade to third year of college, with a mean of a tenth-grade level, for social studies textbooks adopted at the eighth-grade level. Moreover, many researchers have noted that textbooks are the major instructional resource in classes (Bean, Zigmond, & Hartman, 1994; Okolo & Ferretti, 1996). Such findings demonstrate the enormity of the difficulties encountered by secondary students who are struggling readers.

Another challenge for struggling readers is the unfriendly nature of most content-area textbooks. Armbruster and Anderson (1988) reported that textbooks frequently lack "considerateness," in that they are inconsistently organized from chapter to chapter, lack good structure, provide insufficient definitions of essential vocabulary, and require inappropriate skill demands of learners. Science and social studies textbooks pursue breadth over depth in content coverage; consequently, enormous amounts of content are introduced with little in-depth coverage or elaboration. Content textbooks typically do not present material in a reader-friendly fashion, but instead contain densely worded paragraphs that include an overwhelming number of concepts, facts and details with insufficient explanation (see also Beck, McKeown, & Gromoll, 1989). Further, content-area textbooks introduce significant numbers of new vocabulary words. Yager (1983) analyzed the amount of vocabulary introduced in science textbooks and concluded that more vocabulary words were introduced in a single year of science than in the first year of a foreign language class. Following is an example from a high school chemistry text:

   In most polymers, like polyethylene and cellulose,
   the monomers are all identical. In other cases, such
   as proteins, different monomers may be combined.
   Although the amino acid monomers that make up
   proteins appear to be very different, each one has
   an amino functional group and an organic acid
   functional group, so the monomers all link in the
   same way, forming a "backbone" of carbon, nitrogen,
   and oxygen atoms. A polymer with three
   amino acids is called a tripeptide. (Tocci & Viehland,
   1996, p. 257)

Compounding the issue of text density and complexity is the fact that this single paragraph occupies perhaps 15% of the space of one page of an 848-page book, resulting in a text that is also overwhelming in the volume of content presented.

Another challenge is the pace at which teachers proceed through the content. Thus, a pace of one class session per chapter is very common; recently, many teachers have increased the pace of instruction as a consequence of the pressures of end-of-school-year high-stakes testing (Frase-Blunt, 2000). …

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