Posted by Ariel Sacks on Thursday, 02/19/2015
Is anyone else noticing that students—especially in middle school—often receive reading intervention class at the expense of foreign language or arts? There are very real scheduling constraints that explain this common reality, but putting that aside, I’m wondering if this practice makes sense for kids.
I’ve heard the argument, and often found myself in agreement, that there it may be more urgent for a struggling reader to build skills and confidence in reading English than to learn a foreign language or pursue an art. The hope is, presumably, that a student would receive extra reading support for a finite amount of time and then move out of the program.
And then there is the obvious counter-argument that all students should receive a well-rounded education. We may do a disservice to already struggling students by barring them from the academic and culturally enriching opportunities offered by foreign language and arts education—potentially widening a different part of the achievement gap, while trying to close the “reading gap.”
The situation gets even more tricky, because students who are “behind” as readers struggle with many different things. An intervention program selected by a school for struggling readers in general may not suit the needs of each individual student in the class. On the other hand, a skilled teacher with the autonomy to respond to individual students could very well meet the diverse needs of a small group of readers.
Here are a few examples of students I’ve seen in reading classes over the years that have caused me to question their placement. I’m creating composite characters, using pseudonyms here. Though the details change, I've seen the recurrence of situations similar to these, rather than being limited to just one student.
Mayre is in the eighth grade. She moved to the United States from El Salvador when she was five years old. She is not classified as an ELL at this point, but Spanish is the language she speaks at home with her family. She does not know how to read in Spanish, because her formal schooling has been in English. She enjoys reading, but she does not score well on standardized tests. Mayre has been placed in reading intervention class, which focuses on strategies to develop reading comprehension. However, what holds her back on reading tests is her fairly limited vocabulary in English along with some grammatical constructions in English that confuse her, because they function differently in Spanish.
Though the activities in her reading class not harmful to her, the class is not designed to meet her specific needs. Also, she is missing out on the opportunity to take Spanish class. Because she does not read or even recognize words in Spanish, she has never been able to utilize her knowledge of Spanish to help her decipher the meaning of cognates, or similar words in English.
Quentin is also an eighth grader. He struggles with most of his school work throughout the day, including reading tasks. He has basic decoding skills, but struggles with comprehension, because he doesn’t sustain attention as he reads. Teachers see Quentin shine with hands-on, kinesthetic assignments and with more creative tasks. Quentin’s grades are consistently low, because he doesn’t complete homework and has difficulty following what’s going on in class. His life outside of school is unstable. He lives with his grandmother, who is ill; because of this, he often has to go stay with an uncle who lives far away in a neighborhood where he doesn’t feel safe walking. This creates a lot of stress and preoccupation for him. School is the most stable place for Quentin, but he always seems to fall into a pattern of failure, which causes more stress.
In reading class, Quentin has just as much trouble paying attention as he does in any other class. He’s already familiar with the strategies he’s practicing in the class, and they don’t seem to help him pay attention when he needs to in his other classes. Meanwhile, while Quentin attends reading intervention class, many of his classmates are in art or drama. Either class, but especially drama, would give him an opportunity to connect and express his emotions in a way that would create some relief for him as well as a greater sense of belonging and success.
I’m not suggesting that reading intervention courses don’t provide valuable, even life-changing opportunities for many students. I am trying to point out that the data points that often land a student in such an intervention class often paint an incomplete picture of the child’s needs. Just because a child demonstrates a need for improvement in reading, we shouldn't conclude that reading intervention class is always the best solution. Since middle school schedules tend to be constructed so that students in reading intervention miss elective courses, we have to carefully and seriously look at all the options, and weigh them against everything we know about the student.