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Bringing Low Reading Achievement Into Focus

by Gay Ivey
 | Mar 05, 2015


What should be the focus of instruction for older students with low reading achievement?

Response from Gay Ivey:

For older students (grades 4–12), it might seem a logical first course of action to make sure that certain fundamental skills were not “missed” by returning to concerns associated with early reading (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonics, literal-level comprehension). However, this is not always necessary and, in any case, is rarely sufficient.

Readers vary in terms of what they have experienced and what they need (Dressman, Wilder & Conner, 2005; Ivey, 1999), and standardized tests alone provide insufficient information about these complexities. For instance, Marsha Riddle Buly and Sheila Valencia (2002) took a closer look at fourth-grade students who scored below proficiency levels on a state-mandated reading test. They demonstrated, by using other assessment tools, that high stakes test scores mask the complexity of individuals as readers, and thus, provide little guidance for the instruction they need. Some students, for example, were still learning to read words, and for others, word identification was not a problem at all, but they struggled to make sense of the texts they were asked to read. Some readers experienced multiple challenges with the assessments. Questions about motivation and engagement were not addressed in their assessments, but also might have been a factor. In any case, a singular focus on concerns associated with early reading would have failed to serve the needs of students.

It is also not the case that simply pinpointing a student’s “weakness” is the best, or only, approach to improving performance. Reading is a vastly more complex process than being able to read more fluently or use comprehension strategies, even though we have amassed a large body of research on improving those areas separately. If you offered instruction that aims to improve fluency, for instance, you might get a student who reads more fluently, but not one who is necessarily a better or more purposeful overall reader.

Complicating matters is that year-after-year of unpleasant school reading experiences leads to counter-productive narratives about who students are as readers (Hall, 2009), and many research-based interventions focused on reading skills and strategies don’t demonstrate a shift in this problem or in students’ sense of agency and purpose in their reading.

What should we consider when planning instruction for older inexperienced readers? Our first order of business is to realize we are dealing with individuals who have rich and complicated lives and to whom relationships and social worlds matter greatly.  They will read more, read more proficiently, and more purposefully when we center our efforts on the social and motivational reality of their lives. Peter Johnston and I (Ivey & Johnston, 2013) found that low-scoring, previously inexperienced eighth-grade readers, when given access to compelling young adult literature dealing with issues that mattered to them, not only read enthusiastically, but also demonstrated many of the strategic reading behaviors we try to teach students explicitly. They even created their own strategies for getting through really interesting, but really complicated texts. We concluded that although you can teach reading strategies, students are more likely to use strategic practices when they are engaged in what they read and, in the process, with each other.

We want older students to read and make sense of text beyond a literal level, to use reading as a way to consider multiple perspectives on big issues, to solve problems (including their own personal and social problems), and dig deeper into complex issues. Engagement, and thus more meaningful and productive reading, is most likely when readers feel a sense of autonomy (i.e., to choose what they read; to not be interrogated about their reading or monitored) and experience a sense of relevance in their reading (Guthrie, Wigfield & You, 2012). In contrast, we have yet to see research-based examples of how an exclusive focus on “the basics” gets all students to that point.

Gay Ivey holds a PhD and Masters in reading education. She is a professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin.
The ILA Literacy Research Panel uses this blog to connect ILA members around the world with research relevant to policy and practice. Reader response is welcomed via e-mail.



Dressman, M., Wilder, P., & Connor, J. J. (2005). Theories of failure and the failure of theories: A cognitive/sociocultural/macrostructural study of eight struggling students. Research in the Teaching of English 40, 8-61.

Guthrie, J. T., Wigfield, A., & You, W. (2012). Instructional Contexts for Engagement and Achievement in Reading. In S. Christenson, C. Wylie & A. Reschly (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Student Engagement (pp. 675-694). New York: Springer.

Hall, L. A. (2009). Struggling reader, struggling teacher: An examination of student-teacher transactions with reading instruction and text in social studies. Research in the Teaching of English, 43(3), 286-309.

Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. H. (2013). Engagement with young adult literature: Outcomes and processes. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3), 255-275.

Riddle Buly, M., & Valencia, S. W. (2002). Below the bar: Profiles of students who fail state reading assessments. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(3), 210-239.

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