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Helping Johnnie Read through Jr / Sr High School
(Johnnie CAN Read

By Dr. Kathie F. Nunley

A wealth of information on reading has been streaming our way over the last 2 decades from both the neurology and education research arenas. With all this research and money focused on the brain and problems related to reading, it’s hard to imagine how educators can still be asking the question, ‘Why can’t Johnnie Read?” It is with a bit of tongue- in- cheek that I report that the answer should be obvious.

After all, brain imaging studies have told us that some children with dyslexia may have a very low capacity to their short term memory from dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex. But the research has also told us that children with dyslexia may have small planum temporal area of the brain, or that their right hemisphere is over involved in speech or over-involved in reading. (Hugdahl, K. et al, 2003; Beeman, et.al, 2000)

We find research indicating that there are defects in the brain’s minicolumns. (Casanova, M.. et al, 2004)

Imaging studies have also shown that children with dyslexia have an inability to comprehend that words can be broken down into smaller units or that ambiguous verbs may cause them to lose the context of the material. (Shaywitz, S, 1999; Pickering, M. & Frisson, S., 2001)

The research has also suggested that they have a dysfunctional angular gyrus in the left hemisphere or that there is a left hemisphere processing limitation in the disembedding mechanism. (Pugh, et. al, 2000; Rumsey, et.al., 1999)

Imaging studies have shown that children with dyslexia have a significantly smaller cerebral volume and some cerebellum dysfunction. (Ramus, F. et al, 2003)

Research has also indicated that these children have lower blood flow in the temporal and inferior parietal regions and even that an area of the perisylvian region known as the caudal infrasylvian surface is significantly larger. (Rumsey, et.al., 1999) And, the right hemisphere apparently is over-involved in processing reading. (Breier et.al, 2003)

So, it’s all fairly clear then, isn’t it? (If this were an email, I would insert the “smiley face” here)

Actually the correct answer to what causes dyslexia and other reading problems may be along the lines of “all of the above,” or one of those other familiar choices like “both a and c,” or “a,b,d, but not c,” etc. Reading is an extremely complex activity for the brain so it should come as little surprise that reading problems are complex as well.

Because our society and educational system puts so much emphasis on the written word as the avenue for information, those of us in education feel tremendous pressure to ensure all of our students eventually master reading before leaving our system. In addition, we are frustrated and stifled when faced with poor readers in various academic courses as our traditional instructional methodology heavily relies on reading.

Much has been written on using other means of instruction to teach students with poor reading skills. In fact, I have authored many articles and books on this topic. Regardless of how important it is for teachers to be competent in a variety of reading strategies, the fact remains that reading is very important. And any student who struggles with reading will face many challenges and may have their options limited in the adult world.

Traditionally much pressure has been put on teachers in the primary grades to turn all students into competent readers before 3rd grade. In fact, in many districts it is even the kindergarten teacher who carries the great bulk of this responsibility. There is a belief that all school success pivots on reading successfully at an early age.

Many people believe that children who can be taught reading at an early age will remain “gifted” throughout school and that those who don’t master reading until late in the normal range, will remain a member of the group of underperformers in school.

While there is some research that shows that children’s 1st grade performance differences only get greater in the next 2 or 3 years (an achievement gap that widens - strugglers struggle more, accelerated learners move ahead further), there is a larger body of evidence that shows that “slow-readers” eventually tend to catch up with the “fast learners” and that the “fast learners” slow down a bit, so that the two groups do not show so much variation from each other by 4th and 5th grade. (Parrila, et al, 2005; Schatschneider, et al, 2004; Guthrie, J, 2004)

This leads us to what is known as the ceiling effect- the idea that two children may have similar learning potentials, but their rates of learning vary. To use a simple example of ceiling effect, one child may start to walk at 8 months of age and seemingly has mastered walking by his first birthday. Another child may not start to walk until 16 months of age. But by the age of 3, both children are fairly competent walkers. In other words, there’s a ceiling to the mastery.

We do see that some students perform well in reading early and continue to do so through most of their school years. We also see that some students perform poorly and continue to do so through most of their school years. But a sizable number of poor performing students improve to become above average or good performers later in school. What you rarely find is a child who is a good performer in 1st grade but becomes a poor performer by 4th grade. (Guthrie, J. 2004)

In fact, there is significant research which indicates that first graders who perform in the “above average” group ( defined as more than one standard deviation above the mean) have only about a 50/50 chance of being in that same “above average” group in 4th grade. And those first graders in the “below average”group (greater than one standard deviation below the mean) have only about a 50/50 chance of being in that same “below average” group in the 4th grade.

So the research seems to indicate several factors at play here in reading skill variability in the elementary grades. First, our schools seem to be doing a pretty good job in helping children learn to read within the first few years of school. The extra effort and focus on those children seen as “at risk” or “below average” is probably well founded and worth continuing as that extra focus seems to help reduce the gap by 4th and 5th grade.

Secondly, there probably is a bit of a ceiling effect at work here in that children may begin at age 5 with very similar learning potentials, but their rate of learning may vary widely. In other words, children reach the “ceiling” of competent reading at different times.

So while much research shows that reading delays between the age of 5 and 8 may very well simply be developmental differences, there’s certainly no reason to be lax in our work with children who seem to struggle to be proficient readers. This brings us to the second focus of this article and that is, what does the research tell us about what works and what doesn’t work with struggling readers?

A perusal of the educational psychology research seems to indicate that the practical matter of struggling readers really needs to be divided into two groups - those under the age of 12 and those over the age of about 9. (The 9 -12 year olds overlap into both groups) The reason for that is that struggling readers tend to be “struggling” with different issues in those two age groups. Most early struggling readers are working with phonological processing and phonemic issues. Most reading problems in the middle and upper grades are associated with fluency issues - the student cannot read with enough fluency to allow for comprehension of the material. To put it simply, elementary aged children are generally learning to read and secondary grade children are generally reading to learn, so the educational problems are different.

Working with struggling readers at the Elementary Level

Children in the younger group are learning to read. A young struggling reader may have problems with phonemes, short term memory, sight word recall, fluency or even a combination of these factors. Various banks of research tell us that problems in “learning to read” must be addressed systematically with specific, direct instruction in all of the following:
• phoneme analysis
• fluency building
• oral reading practice
• spelling

While not popular with school budgets, to be effective, this systematic instruction really needs to be one-on-one as opposed to small group, pull-out programs. (Blachman, et al 2004).

You can also increase elementary students’ feelings of self-efficacy by helping them learn specific reading strategies for reading improvement and mastery. (Schunk & Pajares, 2002). These specific reading strategies may include:
• activating background knowledge prior to reading
• offer questions that are generated from the reading
• offer the use of graphic organizers to help students comprehend key ideas
• provide students a way to monitor their comprehension during reading (Baker & Zimlin, 1989)

Working with struggling readers at the secondary level

We can find excellent research as well on secondary reading issues. Students at this level need to not only be fluent readers, they need to be engaged, motivated readers, if they are to glean information from their reading.

Don’t assume that because students are good readers, they can effectively learn from a textbook. The key to effective reading at the secondary level is having students that WANT to understand the material. Motivation and engagement are required if they are to process the reading at a deeper level for better reading comprehension.

Instruction that merges motivation and cognitive strategies will increase comprehension. Again, we find that the research suggest we use multiple strategies to improve reading and learning with secondary students.

Our goals should be to have “engaged readers” as opposed to “disaffected readers”.

Engaged Readers:
• are active and involved
• interact socially to learn from the text
• are persistent
• are goal directed
• think during learning

Disaffected Readers:
• are alienated from the learning process
• may be apathetic or rebellious

So, how does a teacher create or encourage reading engagement? Regardless of what age you are teaching, you can help students become engaged in their reading by first giving students "content learning goals." Help them see or set goals for what they should learn through the text. Students gain more knowledge from reading with content goals than simply suggesting or hoping they will score better on a test. (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987).

Another way to make engaged learners is to provide students with a choice of texts. If you are unable to offer text choice, at least offer them a choice in their discussion group partners or the way in which they will present the information they glean from their reading. Try also, to find texts that the students themselves find interesting.

Finally, one of the keys to engaged readers is allowing social collaboration during the reading process. In other words, allow a sort of “book club” event by designing discussion activities for the students throughout the reading process. You may also want to include hands-on activities that can be done in groups to help students process the information. (Guthrie, et al 2004).

For Further Reading, I recommend:


Blachman, B.et al. (2004). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 96(3), 444-461.
Breier et.al (2003). Neuropsychology, Vol17 (4), 610-621.
Casanova, M. et al. (2004). Journal of Child Neurology, Vol 19(4), 275-281.
Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self determination in human behavior, New York: Plenum Press.
Dolezal, S. et al. (2003). Elementary School Journal. 103: 239-267.
Elbro, C. & Petersen, D. (2004). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol96(4), 660-670.
Furrer, C. & Skinner, E. (2003). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 95, 148-162.
Grolnick, W. & Ryan, R. (1987). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52, 890- 898.
Guthrie, J. et. al.(2004). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 96(3), 403-423.
Hugdahl, K. et al. (2003). Neuropsychologia, Vol 41(6), 666-675.
Mather, D. (2003). Journal of Learning Disabilities. Vol 36(4), 307-317.
Parrila, R. et al. (2005). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol.97(3), 299-319.
Pickering, M. & Frisson, S. 2001. J. of Exp. Psy.: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Vol 27(2), 556-573.
Pugh, et. al. (2000). Psychological Science, vol. 11(1), 51-56.
Ramus, F. et al. (2003). Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, Vol 44(5), 712-722.
Reynolds, P. & Symons, S. (2001). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 93, 14-23.
Schatschneider, C. et al. (2004) Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 96(2), 265-282.
Schneider, Roth, Ennemaser. J. of Ed Psych 2000 vol 92,(2) 284-295.
Schunk, D. & Pajares, F. (2002). The development of academic self-efficacy. In A. Wigfield & J Eccles (Eds), Development of achievement motivation. (16-32). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Shaywitz, S. (2003). Biological Psychiatry. Vol 54(1), 25-33.
Shaywitz. (1999). Developmental Neuropsychology. Vol 16(3), 383-384.


About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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