Category Research
Author Andrew Myers

In a new review of four leading adolescent reading-accelerator programs, a team of reviewers from the Johns Hopkins School of Education say that motivating young people to read is increasingly possible and more important than ever.

When it comes to the connection between reading skills and high school academic performance, more is always better. Those who read more do better in school. For educators charged with catching up students who are struggling to read, the challenge is that motivating them once they’ve fallen behind is difficult work. 

There are several research-based instructional approaches designed to inspire struggling young readers to read more. In a new paper in the journal Phi Delta Kappan, a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Education, including Marcia Davis, Douglas Mac Iver, and Martha Mac Iver, have surveyed four of those approaches to tease out common themes to point up important insights about what strategies are most likely to succeed in motivating adolescents to read. 

The four programs reviewed in the Kappan piece include: 

  • Achieve 3000 is an online reading program that engages individual students in nonfiction texts and provides opportunities for responses.
  • READ 180 is a widely used year-long intervention, delivered in 90-minute blocks in whole-group and small-group instruction and individualized computer-assisted instruction with practice in grammar, writing, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.
  • Strategic Adolescent Reading Initiative, or STARI, is a full-year course that motivates by meeting students at their reading level, encourages their voices, and emphasizes collaboration.
  • The fourth, Accelerating Literacy for Adolescents (ALFA) Lab, has evolved over many years by curriculum writers, instructional coaches, and faculty at Johns Hopkins, including Davis and the Mac Ivers, and was recently evaluated for effectiveness by researchers at other academic institutions: ALFA is a one-semester nineth-grade elective that boosts reading achievement, motivation, and frequency through high-interest readings with activities delivered in whole-class instruction and small-group rotations. The evaluation is currently in press in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. 

High Stakes 
The authors note that reading among adolescents has plummeted in recent decades even while written communication via social media, texting, and other internet uses has soared. And yet, the stubborn fact remains that literacy is an essential skill for success in school and throughout life. 

The stakes couldn’t be higher, says Douglas Mac Iver, who is a research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools. “Literacy must be a top priority for educators, yet many don’t realize that it’s not too late if you have youth, even as late as ninth grade, struggling to read,” he adds. “In trying to reach adolescents who are behind in reading, it’s essential in that first year of high school that you engage and motivate them first to read, period, and then lift their level of reading achievement. If we can do that, these students can catch up and be successful in school.” 

Common Causes 
In analyzing the four programs for Kappan, Davis and the Mac Ivers noted several common themes shared by all programs. The root causes of lagging skills are many, the authors write, including reduced reading instruction in adolescence, poor text options, lack of personal connection with educators, and textual complexity. 

“Most encouragingly, however,” says Douglas Mac Iver, “motivating them in secondary school is not impossible, as these programs show, and doing so is more important than ever.” 

One of the common themes is that encouraging autonomy by giving students some say in their own education increases motivation, leading students to take ownership and work harder to catch up. 

Building a sense of belonging in the classroom is the second key theme the authors note. Active discussion with peers helps students grasp more complex texts by interacting with the language, searching for meaning to support their own ideas, and hearing how their peers interpret the texts. Research shows that students in collaborative-learning experiences such as these outperformed those who worked individually. What’s more, those whose literacy courses provide such opportunities to discuss what they’re reading with peers, help each other, and read about topics they find interesting and connect with their values have improved reading behaviors, frequency, and achievement, the authors say. 

Last but not least, the authors write, all four adolescent reading-acceleration programs encourage competence through independent reading strategies to increase proficiency and thereby student confidence in their own reading skills. Research again shows that students with higher confidence in reading will push through and complete difficult reading tasks that are the stepping stone to long-term academic success. 

In their conclusion, the authors pose a rhetorical question: “How do we translate this motivation research into practice in reading instruction?” On that score, they note that the most effective adolescent reading interventions are focused on individual student motivation and their relationships with peers and teachers. The programs with the largest positive effects all incorporate one-on-one tutoring, individualized instruction, or cooperative learning. 

In that regard, Douglas Mac Iver is excited to discuss the merits of ALFA Lab, specifically. He detailed how ALFA Lab incorporates all the themes identified in the Kappan overview. ALFA Lab’s rotations include: the Main Station, where teachers lead guided reading activities for the class; Collaboration Station, where students interact with one another to gather and share knowledge from written text; Wordology, where students master and use vocabulary in their own writing; and, finally, Media Madness, which uses current news articles to research and compile a capstone project. But, Douglas  Mac Iver points out, ALFA Lab is not only about the students. The program is most effective when it includes summer professional development for teachers and assistants as well as coaching and other support throughout the school year. 

“While ALFA shows evidence of positive effects on reading achievement and certain aspects of motivation, its biggest impact is on reading frequency, especially for male and Hispanic students—groups that often struggle more than others for reading motivation,” Douglas Mac Iver says. “With these key groups, the ALFA effect was large and statistically significant. We’re quite excited about these results.” 

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