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The effect of perceived improvement in reading on the social behavior of a second grader.

This paper is a report of a singe-subject reading intervention that was conducted as part of a larger study. The subject's pre-test scores were too low to meet the criterion for including his results in the larger study (Ashcroft, 2004), but he was allowed to participate in an individualized version of the treatment. Because S's social and reading skills gains were noteworthy they are reported here separately. The paper describes the process of change in S's behavior, from acting out avoidant to cooperative and highly engaged.


Early in the primary grades, children who are struggling with literacy begin to experience failure, and with it a potentially devastating cascade of related negative effects in their development of inter- and intra-personal skills. These effects can include task-avoidant and acting-out social behaviors, lowered levels of personal regard, and seeking of personal validation in venues less prosocial than school. All of these effects have been related consistently to delinquency (e.g., Hawkins & Lishner, 1987; Hirschi, 1969; McGee, Share, Moffitt, Williams, & Silva, 1988; Tracy, Wolfgang, & Figlio, 1985, Barr & Parrett, 1995, 2001). McGee, et al. (1988), cited above, found reading difficulties to have a clear causal relationship with serious behavior problems.

Low reading skill in elementary school is a strong predictor of later incarceration (Barr & Parrett, 2001). Maguin, Loeber & LeMahieu (1993) examined the relationship between reading and delinquent behavior for three large community samples of first-, fourth-, and seventh-grade African-American and White boys. Reading was correlated with delinquency independent of neighborhood, SES, ethnicity, and family involvement effects, was the same in both ethnic groups and was constant over the age range studied. The degree of seriousness of delinquent acts was directly correlated to the degree of severity of reading problem. In other words, the more serious the reading problem, the more serious the delinquent acts.

The school folklore about literacy is that up until 3rd grade, a student learns to read and thereafter reads to learn. This is more than mere myth because the curriculum from this point on does shift from a skills-acquisition mode to a skills-application mode. Beginning in third grade, children are presented with a curriculum that begins to focus upon information to be accessed through literacy, and less time and attention is directed towards acquiring basic skills. Third grade is a checkpoint for a number of literacy-related policies. For example, it has been targeted legislatively as a checkpoint for literacy acquisition in No Child Left Behind (P.L. 107-110, 2001). It is a point at which referrals to special education for suspected reading-related learning disabilities begin to increase exponentially. It is a pivotal point in its influence on literacy policy and also in the lives of children, especially considering that high-school graduation can be predicted by reading abilities at the end of the third grade (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).

The Main Study

The purpose of the Ashcroft (2002) study was to examine the effects of decodable text on reading achievement of second-grade children identified by their teachers as struggling readers. Text containing words that can be identified directly either through phonetic analysis or orthographic recognition have been termed decodable text (Mathes & Torgesen, 2000). Opportunity to read decodable words has been identified as an essential factor in children's early reading acquisition (Boylin, 1998; Brown, 2000; Bulazo, 1999; California State Department of Education, 1996; Catts & Kamhi, 1999; Chall, 1999; Denton, 2000; Felton, 1993; Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985; Klenk & Kibby, 2000; Mathes & Torgesen, 2000; Mesmer, 1999a, 1999b, 2001; Snow et al., 1998). Reading researchers who have examined reading materials for struggling readers have determined that books need to be sequenced by difficulty through the controlling of text features such as phonetic elements, sentence length, word repetition, and the amount of text on a page; all of which are elements that contribute to the relative difficulty of a given text sample (Brown, 2000; Hiebert, 1999). Hoffman, Roser, Salas, Patterson, and Pennington (2000) developed a 5-point scale to assess and rate text decodablity. In the Ashcroft study, decodable text was represented by text that was carefully sequenced (the Rigby PM Collection, 1996; Scholastic Phonics Readers & Scholastic Phonics Chapter Books, 1998), and that could be read at 90 to 95% accuracy. Practice consisted of 15-minute sessions held 3 times per week for 4 weeks for a total of 12 sessions during the month of May 2002. The subjects (n=20) were assigned randomly to either the experimental group who used decodable text or a comparison group who used text from their regular classroom reading programs. Pretesting was conducted April 30 and May 1, 2002 and posttesting was conducted June 4 and 5, 2002 using the Slosson Oral Reading Test-Revised (SORT-R; Nicholson, 1990) at both testings. The paired-samples t test of pre- and posttest scores for the experimental group showed statistically significant mean differences based on change scores (d=1.74).

The Case Study

It had been established prior to the start of the main study that students who scored below the fifth month of first grade on the SORT-R would be served for the 15-minute reading-practice sessions but would neither be assigned randomly to experimental or comparison groups nor would their scores be included in pre- and posttest comparisons. One of the nominated second graders scored at the third month of first grade on the SORT-R. This child's pretest SORT-R standard score was 71 and at posttesting was 76. The posttest score is equivalent to the eighth month of first grade. This child was an English-language learner. The reading materials used for this child were the Rigby PM Collection (1996), Scholastic Phonics Readers (1998), The Silver Burdett & Ginn World of Reading (1989), and the Bob Books (Maslen, 1987). The four series were used simultaneously. For practice sessions 1 to 4 the child had one 15- minute reading tutorial a day for 3 days per week. For sessions 5 to 25 the child had two 15- to 25-minute reading tutorials per day 4 to 5 days per week for a total of 25 sessions. Sessions included two to four other children.

Because this second grader's pretest SORT-R standard score was 71 (third month of first grade), it could have been predicted that 2nd grade would have been challenging. Examples of miscalled words on the SORT-R pretest include: went for want, dad for baby, happy for help, and jug for jump. It also could be predicted that working with this child in a reading tutorial setting might be challenging (Cegelka & Berdine, 1995; Mercer & Mercer, 1998) which was the case. The child demonstrated challenging classroom behaviors such as habitual tardies from recess, entering the classroom in a disruptive manner, and exhibiting aggressive behaviors in line. These behaviors were also observed during the initial reading-tutorial sessions including tardies, running down the halls, and disrupting fellow tutees. Specific observations included the researcher stating, "Please walk" (Noncompliance), "Please do not run" (Noncompliance), "Please do not climb under the table" (Noncompliance), and "Please do not jump over the chair" (Noncompliance).

Problematic academic behaviors included inattentiveness to task, inability to engage in sustained reading, and a frequent display of a varied repertoire of off-task behaviors. Specific observations included the child attempting to chase a fly, attempting to see who was walking in the hall, attempting to engage in conversation with the researcher, responding to stimuli such as a sound behind him (turning around), and pointing out a scratch on his skin. He also exhibited difficulty with basic reading behaviors such as not pointing to words being read, not using letter sounds to decode, and not keeping eyes on the text. Specific examples included the child looking up from the book at each word, looking at the researcher's face instead of the words on the page, and not engaging in reading-related behaviors for more than 5 minutes ("I'm done"). In short, the child had apparently become very skilled at reading avoidance.

The less-than-desirable behaviors ceased within 3 sessions, at which time other more desirable behaviors began to appeal. The child started coming in early from recess for the tutorial sessions, started walking with the researcher to the tutorial area, and started reading for the entire 15-minute tutorial session. In addition, the 15-minute sessions began to be extended to longer periods of sustained reading (up to 25 minutes for the longest sustained reading sessions). Improved reading behaviors included the child using his finger to point at words being read, and using letter sounds to decode words. He demonstrated a decreased use of contextual (picture) cues.

The child negotiated additional sessions. He started coming twice per day. The 3 sessions per week were increased to include the "make-up" days that the researcher provided for the other children in the study, so that the child came to read with the researcher 4 to 5 times per week. By the end of the treatment the child demonstrated greatly improved skills for attending to the reading task. He engaged in sustained "whisper" reading for 15 to 25 minutes, 2 times daily. Other students were coming and going and he did not stop reading. While some students colored or had a snack, the child continued to read. Observed improvements in social behaviors included the child asking the classroom teacher politely for more than one reading session a day (this is the first time the child was observed talking in a polite manner to his classroom teacher), coming in from recess early (to go to tutoring), and offering to help peers (getting napkins, saying "please" and "thank you"). There were also observed improvements for compliance with adult directions. Very few directions needed to be given as he followed the researcher's lead easily with little directing. When directions were given no observed resistance was noted (compliance for requests such as "please wait").

As the study progressed the child appeared to become increasingly motivated to read. In addition, an apparent rapport had become established with the researcher as demonstrated by the child greeting the researcher in a friendly demonstrative and manner, indicating an eagerness to attend reading sessions ("Can we go now?"), and not wanting to leave the reading sessions ("Can I stay and read?")

How can this dramatic change in social and academic behavior be explained? Based upon the student's behaviors and the review of research, it is proposed that the enhanced social behavior of this child is an effect of perceived improvement in reading. The model proposed to help explain these changes has five positive-programming components. These are functional assessment, reinforcing approximations of desired behaviors (shaping), enhancing intrinsic motivation for the act of reading, establishing rapport, and enhancing bonding. The contribution of the decodable text to the success of the treatment is discussed within the context of the sections outlining the components of the positive programming intervention.

Functional assessment. Pragmatics is the study of language within the social context (Prutting, 1982), and emphasizes the use of verbal and nonverbal language as a social tool (Schuler & Goetz, 1981). From a pragmatics standpoint, all behavior is communicative. Research on the functional analysis of problem behaviors indicates that the factors responsible for the maintenance of problem behaviors fall into two broad classes: escape behavior controlled by negative reinforcement processes, and attention-seeking behavior controlled by positive reinforcement processes (Carr & Durand, 1985).

For the case study child, it would have been logical to hypothesize that his behaviors were escape motivated (because he probably had not experienced enjoyment associated with reading). But there were other factors. First, the child tended to run, but would look back over his shoulder (to see if the researcher was watching). This behavior could be interpreted as seeking attention. Second, when the child demonstrated off-task behaviors he tended to do so by attempting to engage the researcher in conversation. Based upon these factors, the researcher selected the use of attention as reinforcement.

Reinforcing approximations of desired behaviors (shaping). Shaping involves reinforcing those variations or forms of a behavior that more or most closely approximate the target response. Shaping is also referred to as the method of successive approximations. In addition to teaching new behavior, shaping can be used as a procedure for gradually modifying undesired behaviors that are already present (Donnellan, LaVigna, Negri-Shoultz, Fassbender, 1988). The researcher used a strategy of reinforcing approximations of desired behaviors (shaping) to address the child's less-than-desirable reading behaviors. Specifically, reinforcement was provided for reading-related behaviors. First, attention was provided when the child was looking at the book and attention was diverted (to other children or some form of being busy with something else, i.e., sorting books) when he did anything other than looking at the book. Second, proximity was used when the child looked at his book (the researcher would lean in closer to the child) and removed when he did anything other than look at his book (the researcher would lean toward another child, or lean over to sort books that were away from the child). It was evident very early on in the treatment that attention was the appropriate reinforcement because the child's behaviors changed within 3 sessions. The reinforcement was then provided for reading words, and withdrawn when he stopped reading words. Eventually the reinforcement was faded to a very thin schedule and the child was moved to sit across the table from the researcher instead of by the researcher's side. This method would not have worked, however, if the books before the child were not decodable for him. Therefore the use of decodable text was an important aspect of programming.

Enhancing intrinsic motivation for the act of reading. It is proposed that the enhanced motivation for reading exhibited by the child may be related to the hypothesis of functional competence (Goetz, Schuler, & Sailor, 1979, 1981, 1983; Sailor, Goetz, Anderson, Hunt & Gee, 1988). Sailor et al. stated that various actions that result in positive changes in the relationships between a child and his or her environment will generate a motivational value that is in addition to the value of the act as measured by the power of the immediate reinforcer generated by the act, and that children learning new tasks in a series will be motivated highly by early successes and this motivation will accumulate and directly affect success on later tasks in the series. The use of decodable text is important in this respect. The reinforcement was attention, but in addition to this, the "pay off' for the child may have been his perception of his ability to "make the reading happen." This motivation may have been enhanced by the high levels of success that the decodable text allowed. Sailor et al. explained further that high rates of early success can produce activity on the part of a child that can appear to an observer that the student is "exhilarated" from a chain of early successes and is "building up steam" to try new challenges. The interconnection between motivation and competence discussed by Sailor et al. describes well what was observed with this child during the course of the research study. The intervention components consisted of placing an assortment of books (that he would be able to read) from which he could select. Then, strategies to draw the child's attention to his accomplishments were employed. Initially the researcher had the child count the words he had read. Overt praise was not provided but a questioning strategy was used. "How many words did you read today?" The child counted and reported and the researcher replied, "Are you sure? That seems like a lot." He then recounted and confirmed. The researcher marked these on a sheet of paper on a clipboard. At first, directing the child's attention to his accomplishments was almost a serendipitous effect of the researcher providing him with an activity because he "finished" before the children in the main study. But the activity of counting the words read appeared to signal a shift in his relationship to the reading task. The first time he was asked to count was at the first session. At the second session he independently counted and recounted words read and reported to the researcher so she could record. By the third session, the child started the reading session by stating that he wanted to break his record.

Later in the study (as the amount of reading increased) the pages he had read were counted. Finally, as his ability to engage in sustained reading increased, the number of books he had read was counted (by the child) and reported. As the study progressed, he appeared to become increasingly motivated to read. He would count the number of books read per session and announce with apparent relish the daily grand total.

Sailor et al. (1988) also discussed how the literature on "learned helplessness" is relevant in this context. "Just as the therapy for the experimental dogs (see Seligman, Maier & Read, 1968) that had displayed a kind of learned helplessness was to facilitate their opportunities to make an instrumental response to the aversive stimulus, efforts by teachers to create opportunities for students to initiate actions designed to acquire new skills should facilitate generalized learning" (p. 88). In the case of the child, the desire to initiate actions was observed as he hurried to the reading area and plunged into the researcher-selected texts. Sailor et al. reported that the implications for teachers was that organizing instructional trials so as to maximize early successes is important and that "errorless" instructional procedures are advisable to enhance student motivation so that skill generalization can be maximized. When interventions for struggling readers have been successful, these interventions have included time for easy (independent) reading that provides an opportunity for children to do what has been learned already, but more rapidly, with less attention, and with fewer errors (Klenk & Kibby, 2000). The reading for the child in this study improved as measured by a SORT-R standard score increase from 71 to 76, which is substantial for a five-week intervention.

Enhancing rapport. An important component of positive behavior interventions is building rapport (Carr, Levin, McConnachie, Carson, Kemp, & Smith, 1994). Rapport is an important part of a communication-based approach to intervention. Rapport was established by the researcher associating herself repeatedly with activities that the child valued (the perception of reading successfully), so that her presence became a signal that rewarding activities and events were available with her. The purpose of the researcher associating herself with positive experiences was to reverse any hostility or indifference that the child appeared to feel about reading. In a short amount of time, the child appeared to view the researcher as someone worth attending to and interacting with. This was demonstrated by his behaviors of remembering to stop his play at recess, to come in early to be with her, to stay by her side when walking to the reading area, and to state that he did not want to leave the reading area. It is proposed that rapport was helped by the perception of high rates of success that the child experienced while reading during the tutorial sessions.

Enhancing bonding. The final factor proposed as an explanation for the social and academic improvements is derived from the social development model (SDM; Catalano & Hawkins, 1996; Hawkins & Lishner, 1987). According to the SDM, opportunity for engagement and the ability to use existing skills are key features of establishing an environment in which bonding can take place. The use of decodable texts was an important feature of the intervention in this respect. Because the books were decodable for the child he had opportunity for engagement and was able to use his existing skills. Further, according to the SDM children must be reinforced for participation. For the child, the motivation appeared to be intrinsic; he found successful reading to be motivating. Using text that meets the definition as decodable allows those who plan the sequence, pace, and content of reading practice to do so ensuring that the level of text difficulty matches the student's ability to perform. Thus, the use of decodable text may have been a key component in the application of the SDM as part of the treatment.


The task of the educator is to provide appropriate learning opportunities for all of their students. Some children will enter second-grade with poor reading-fluency skills, imperiling their educational future especially if those skill deficits are not remediated by the end of second grade. Therefore, it is imperative that researchers continue to investigate the interrelationships among the time needed to achieve reading fluency, the specific activities that will enhance the use of the time spent, and the materials that may provide the most benefit to children. Chard and Kameenui (2000) found statistically significant reading outcomes for children who had more allocated reading time, who read more during that time, and who practiced reading using text with a very high percentage of decodable words. Maximizing perseverance is an important consideration when working with children, especially young children who have below-average skills. The enhanced ability of the child in this study to remain on task is an important observation because of the link between perseverance and achievement and the power of perceived achievement to mitigate risks associated with reading failure (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). Shanahan (1998) reported that individual instruction may be superior to group instruction for students who are struggling readers and that the enhanced effect may be due to factors such as increased time on task, greater match of curricular demands to student needs, explanations that more likely match the prior knowledge of the student, and more individualized pacing. The relationship between the appropriate use of decodable text for reading practice with struggling readers and increased reading achievement and enhanced social outcomes warrants further investigation. Its use may contribute to second graders' reading fluency thereby mitigating the risk of students' reading failure in the third grade. Strong correlations have been established between third-grade reading performance and later high-school graduation and dropout rates (Snow et al., 1998).

Hiebert and Taylor (2000) suggested future research in early interventions to serve as models of classroom instruction. The present study contributes to the body of knowledge on the effects of decodable text on the reading achievement of struggling readers, an area of inquiry with both educational and societal implications. Further research exploring the implications of the differential effects of decodable text on learners with varying attributes in relation to the development of a broad spectrum of reading and social outcomes is needed to increase understanding in these areas. As better understanding is gained, it may be possible to increase effectiveness in determining the situational appropriateness of the use of decodable text. The preponderance of evidence points to a critical need for remediating deficits in reading by third grade, given the serious individual and collective negative impact predicted by third-grade reading failure.


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Dr. Laura Ashcroft's credentials include California Multiple Subject Teaching Credential, SB 1969 EL Authorization, Learning Handicapped Credential, and Resource Specialist Credential. Public-school experience includes 13 years of service as Title I program manager, Title I reading resource teacher, special education teacher, and kindergarten teacher. For the last 6 years, she has served as a lecturer at California State University, San Bernardino, in the Elementary Education and Education Specialists Programs, and providing ongoing fieldwork supervision for education specialists and multiple subject credential candidates.

Dr. Richard Ashcroft is a Professor in the College of Education, California State University at San Bernardino. He has taught at CSUSB for the last 16 years. His credentials include California Multiple Subject Teaching & Life Single Subject Credentials, Learning Handicapped, Severely Handicapped & Resource Specialist Credentials. His public school experience includes: program specialist, career/vocational specialist, resource specialist teacher (adjudicated youth), moderate/severe special education teacher, education/rehabilitation coordinator adult services, and secondary English teacher. His private school experience includes 7 years providing diagnostic and remedial services in reading for students identified as having learning disabilities.



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Author:Ashcroft, Laura; Ashcroft, Richard
Publication:Reading Improvement
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Date:Dec 22, 2005
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