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Promoting effective instruction for struggling secondary students: introduction to the special issue.

We know that students who do not possess basic early reading skills by the end of third grade will likely continue to struggle with reading throughout their school career and into adulthood. We also know that approximately 80% of students identified with learning disabilities (LD) have reading problems (National Research Council, 1998). Findings from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP, 1998) may lend support to this prediction of persistent reading problems. For instance, at the eighth-grade level, 32% of boys and 19% of girls could not read at the basic level while 30% of boys and 17% of girls in twelfth grade scored below the basic level. Additionally, at the eighth-grade level, 47% Black, 46% Hispanic, and 39% American Indian students scored below the basic level in reading. The NAEP data also indicated deficits in inferential comprehension skills and writing abilities. Thus, the long-term ramification of literacy problems is a significant issue for middle and high school students and their teachers. Moreover, contributing to the profile of struggling middle and high school (secondary level) students, data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study (Wagner, Blackorby, & Hebbeler, 1993) indicated that compared to the general population, a disproportionate percentage of students with LD drop out of school. In sum, these data present a disturbing profile of our secondary struggling students.

For those struggling, secondary-level students who remain in school, the performance gap may continue to widen as the expectations for proficient literacy skills in textbook-driven content-area curriculum become the norm for secondary instruction. As schools increasingly focus on standards- and outcome-based educational programming across grade levels and as students with LD attend mostly general education classes for instruction, students with reading disabilities will continue to need intervention that is responsive to the range of literacy difficulties they present at an intensity of instruction that will be necessary to promote their successful learning of the general education curriculum (Deshler et al., 2001). It is well known that phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, and writing are important components of reading instruction at the elementary level. For middle and high school struggling readers, some or all of these components may be necessary as well. Students may need not only basic reading skills but also instruction in strategies that will help them to better understand and think critically about the text they encounter in their daily classes. Based on students' abilities, the focus of the interventions, the intensity of instruction, and the individuals responsible for instruction must be considered in purposefully planning for effective instruction.

The purpose of this special issue is to provide information about ways to promote effective reading and writing instruction for students with learning disabilities who continue to struggle at the secondary level because of literacy problems. The articles are presented in a way that first reflects the basic reading instruction that some struggling students may require even at the secondary level. The remaining articles focus on those skills, including higher-order critical thinking skills, that are critical for secondary students to be able to tackle the demands of content-area reading. The articles were solicited from researchers who have spent a great deal of time working with students at the secondary level who have been "left behind." I thank them for their participation in this project and thank the LDQ editor, Dave Edyburn, who helped to make this issue a reality. The following is an overview of the papers.

In their article on phonological awareness (PA) training with middle school students with LD and deficits in PA, Bhat, Griffin, and Sindelar present findings from a study on the effects of PA training on students' PA and word identification skills as measured by the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP). The authors provide cautions related to preliminary results and possible implications of their findings for classroom practice. Archer, Gleason, and Vachon present research-based practices for teaching decoding and fluency to students who continue to struggle with basic reading skills. For preadolescent and adolescent struggling readers who manifest significant delays in acquiring and mastering automaticity in decoding multisyllabic words and reading connected text, intensive interventions geared towards remediating these deficits are critical. In their article on reading comprehension instruction, Mastropieri, Scruggs, and Graetz identify challenges faced by both teachers and students in content-area classes. The authors present an overview of reading comprehension research with an emphasis on findings from studies that examined the effects of peer-mediated instruction coupled with strategic and direct instruction on academic achievement in English, social studies, and science classes. Specifically, the authors describe comprehension strategies that focused on main idea and summarization skills, elaborative strategies, and spatial organizers as effective practices for learning content-area material.

In the area of vocabulary instruction, Bryant, Goodwin, Bryant, and Higgins present a review of research on interventions taught to students with learning disabilities. The studies were reviewed based on such intervention variables as maintenance and generalization effects. Four categories of interventions are discussed: computer-assisted instruction (CAI), fluency-building vocabulary practice activities, mnemonic strategy instruction, and concept enhancement instruction. Implications for practice are provided. Schumaker and Deshler introduce the focus of their paper, writing instruction, by describing legislation and reform efforts that have influenced school practices today, noting the increasing demands of writing requirements in secondary classes and the relative limited attention paid to promoting proficiency of these skills. The authors offer a summary of the programmatic line of research that has validated the learning strategy instructional approach and improved the writing performance of students with LD. In the final article of this issue, De La Paz and MacArthur argue persuasively, based on recent research findings, for more studies in domain-specific instructional approaches, specifically in social studies. They begin by reviewing reform efforts in social studies instruction with an emphasis on history, followed by a review of learning strategies for teaching literacy. Their focus then shifts to a review of approaches, both reading and writing, that have concentrated on the social studies domain to help students develop historical understanding and reasoning capabilities as measured by curriculum-based assessments. The authors call for more research in domain-specific instructional strategies to help struggling students develop deeper conceptual understandings and ways of thinking about of history.

In conclusion, secondary struggling students require effective, research-based interventions to help them acquire basic reading skills, vocabulary and comprehension skills, and writing abilities that are necessary to be successful in content-area classes. The intensity and delivery of interventions must be monitored and adjusted depending on students' needs and response to instruction.

Requests for reprints should be addressed to: Diane Pedrotty Bryant, Dept. of Special Education, D5300, University of Austin at Texas, Austin, TX 78712.


Allen, N. L., Donoghue, J. R., & Schoeps, T. L. (1998). National assessment of educational progress. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Deshler, D. D., Schumaker, J. B., Lenz, B. K., Bulgren, J. A., Hock, M. F., Knight, J., & Ehren, B. (2001). Ensuring content-area learning by secondary students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16(2), 96-108.

National Research Council. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Wagner, M., Blackorby, J., & Hebbeler, K. (1993). Beyond the report card: The multiple dimensions of secondary school performance of students with disabilities. A report from the national longitudinal study of special education students. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

DIANE PEDROTTY BRYANT, Ph.D., is associate dean/associate professor, University of Texas.
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Author:Bryant, Diane Pedrotty
Publication:Learning Disability Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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