While most high school freshmen read at or just slightly below grade level, there’s another aspect of the teen literacy challenge: students who reach high school but read several years below grade level. 

Twenty-six percent of CPS freshmen read more than two years below grade level on the EXPLORE test, according to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Overall, 17 high schools posted average scores below 12 on the EXPLORE—the cutoff score for students to be more than two years behind.

In a computer lab at Roberto Clemente Community Academy, literacy specialist Theresa Flanagan greets students who are about to start their three-times-a-week Reading Plus computer coursework. Reading Plus is one of the latest of a long line of strategies schools have used to try and raise the skills of low-level readers.

At Clemente, all incoming freshmen take the class for a semester, regardless of their reading level. (Flanagan says some students read as low as a 2nd- or 3rd-grade level.)

The school also emphasizes close reading of text in social studies and English, uses a literacy instructional coach to improve reading instruction, incorporates reading into all content areas, and is working with its feeder elementary schools to beef up instruction and prepare students for high school.

The online Reading Plus exercises are meant to build fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Some students read paragraphs and sentences, and fill in the blanks with the words that occur logically, such as in: “Tom likes to ride his bicycle on the path in the park. Camels are large animals that live in desert lands.” Others answer multiple-choice questions about reading selections, while still others read stories line by line as they pop up on the screen. One student is counting the number of times he sees the letter ‘A,’ as letters flash rapidly across the screen.

The program gauges students’ reading level by their speed and comprehension. Clemente’s goal is to get students to increase four grade levels over a semester. At the end of the semester, one-fifth of students moved up three levels or more and raised their EXPLORE reading scores an average of 2.2 points. 

“Of those that do the program faithfully and follow it as intended, they almost all improve one or two grade levels,” Flanagan says.

Experts say that for students who read at a very low level, the booster shot of basic literacy skills can be helpful. But one-time courses are not a silver bullet, and even students who improve by several grade levels will still lag behind their classmates.

“We are really talking years” to catch up says Mary Ann Pitcher, co-director of the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success. “It can’t be just one class out of eight for four years.”

Many students also face a psychological hurdle, becoming discouraged when they don’t understand what they read. Sorensen points out that social-emotional learning is important when working with struggling readers, who must “buy in” to a classroom environment and persevere in order to take the risk of learning to read.

A single reading program might increase teens’ confidence, “but there is still a barrier to cross to move on to more advanced reading,” says Julie Burnett, a leadership coach for the Network for College Success. “A lot of that does have to do with perseverance.”

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