Adolescent readers' perceptions of remedial reading classes: a case study.
Teenagers (Education)
Youth (Education)
Reading (Remedial teaching)
Reading (Case studies)
Donalson, Kathleen
Halsey, Pamela
Pub Date:
Name: Reading Improvement Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0034-0510
Date: Winter, 2007 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 4
Product Code: E121930 Youth
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Ms. Donalson walked around the eighth grade classroom encouraging students to stay on task. The remedial reading class had six students. All six of the students had minimal reading skills as measured on the Gates MacGinite reading test. In addition to struggling academically, most of them also struggled with behavior issues both inside and outside of school.

"This is stupid", exclaimed Albert, "I'm not going to read this stuff." Jose sat in the back of the room hunched over with his cap coveting his eyes. He had not come to class with a pencil, a book, or notebook paper. Jose did not look up when the teacher placed a book and writing supplies on his desk. Brad used his pencil to launch spit wads across the room. When the teacher did convince these students to use the pencil and paper, Jose and Albert drew elaborate pictures instead of working on the assignment.

These students did not believe they could be readers or writers. They refused to attempt academic tasks. Whether they had failed or the system had failed them, they sat through school waiting until they were sixteen so they could drop out of school. These students lived in a culture not supported in the classroom. They failed to see relevance between the activities required at school and the world they lived in outside of school.

Eight years later, a class across the state had eight Title I students gathered for remedial reading instruction. The teacher, Ms. Engelbreit, walked around the classroom trying to keep students on task. Students were talking and throwing pillows across the room. Ms. Engelbreit was frustrated, "These kids are really difficult. They don't even try." These eighth grade students displayed learned helplessness, lack of motivation, and low self-efficacy. As Ms. Engelbreit tried to begin class, the students continued talking and ignored her. They were beginning a new unit, reading The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993). Ms. Engelbreit talked to the students to build interest about the book. Class ended and the students had not opened The Giver.

Title I programs in middle schools across the United States experience similar scenarios. Many adolescents who are struggling readers are unmotivated in remedial reading classes. The pattern continues to be repeated year after year. For many schools, administrators make decisions about whether to place students in Title I programs based on the students' standardized test score in reading. Those students who score below the 40th percentile in reading on standardized exams are frequently placed in intervention programs. Although intervention is crucial, schools often place these students in programs without student and/or parental consent.

Middle school students in Mrs. Englelbreit's district chose their electives for the school year in the prior April. Unfortunately, standardized test scores were available during the summer, and in most cases, the students learned their test score from the spring assessment at the start of the new school year. Standardized tests' scores were sent to the district the last week of August after students had already been in school for three weeks. Students who scored below the 40th percentile were pulled from their elective classes at that time and placed in a remedial reading class. The logistics of the decision making process only added to the feeling of failure and loss of control among these struggling readers.

Struggling Readers

Research has indicated that particular contexts and relationships help to construct students' literacy identities (Gee, 2001, Heath, 1983). These literacies may or may not be supported by the school environment. In their book Reading Don't Fix No Chevys, Smith & Wilhelm (2002) examined literacy of young boys. They found that the types of literacy these young boys engaged with in their lives were not supported in the classroom environment. In a study of African American students, Heath (1990) found that students had difficulty within the school culture. Progress was made, however, when the teachers adjusted the school culture to align more closely with the students' home culture. Cavozos-Kettle (2005) explored types of reading by young men. They stated that young men claimed they wanted "real reading," a type of reading not embraced in the typical classroom. Real reading referred to expository non-fiction text that supported the interest of adolescent boys. Lenters (2006) claimed that in order to engage resistant readers, teachers should allow students more choice and opportunities to bring their out-of-school literacies into the classroom.

Struggling adolescent readers have an array of negative emotions about literacy. Triplett (2004) described the emotions of Mitchell (pseudonym), a middle school reader in a tutorial situation. Experiences in class made Mitchell feel inadequate and dumb. Not being on the same reading level as his peers influenced Mitchell's identity of himself. Mitchell displayed negative emotions. Triplett, however, suggested that struggling readers can experience success and begin to redefine themselves as a reader if the right supportive contexts are created.

Engagement in reading is directly related to reader motivation (Schraw & Bruning, 1999). According to Beers (1998), unmotivated readers have negative feelings about readers and they do not identify themselves as readers; they see reading typically as functional and approach reading as a set of skills at the word level. Struggling readers often lack strategies necessary to learn effectively with text. A proficient reader may encounter a difficult passage as a challenge and thus applies a repertoire of reading strategies to construct meaning with text. However, a struggling reader does not know what good readers do when reading text (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000; Tovani, 2000). The consequences for a struggling reader are low achievement and learned helplessness (Vacca & Vacca, 2005).

Struggling readers give up easily on reading tasks (Spear-Swerling, 2004). Unlike children who believe they are good readers and engage in reading, thus strengthening their reading and continuing to have positive experiences with text, struggling readers do not choose to engage in text. Stanovich (1986) described "the Matthew Effect," in which good readers get better while poor readers become more limited in their ability. The Matthew Effect occurs due to continued exposure and interaction with text or lack of these experiences. Struggling readers do not have as many successful reading experiences. The relationship between self-efficacy and engagement is a reciprocal one since the perception children have about themselves as a reader influences whether they pursue or avoid literacy experiences. Ruddell and Unrau (1997) stated that the self-efficacy of a student will predict his or her future success in engagement with reading tasks. A student with high self-efficacy will demonstrate higher motivation, work longer, and work harder than a student with low self-efficacy. Struggling students will give up on tasks if they believe they can not succeed (Margoilis & McCabe, 2006).

The purpose of this research was to explore struggling adolescent readers' perceptions about reading. The eight students featured in this study were enrolled in a mandatory Title I remedial reading class with Ms. Engelbreit. The purpose of the Title I intervention class was to prepare these middle school eighth graders to successfully pass the state's criterion referenced test. The researchers in this study did not evaluate the intervention strategies used in the class. Rather, the purpose was to conduct case studies to further investigate these adolescent readers. The case studies were used to provide a deeper understanding (Berg, 2007) of the affects of remedial reading programs on adolescent readers. The study was guided by the following questions: How do adolescents in a remedial reading program perceive their reading abilities? How do adolescents perceive remedial reading programs?


All names (students, town, and school) are pseudonyms to protect the confidentiality of the participants. Eight eighth grade students from Plains Junior High School (4 females and 4 males) participated. Two of the students were Hispanic, and six of the students were Caucasian. The participants were chosen through purposeful sampling (Patton, 1990) and were all in Ms. Engelbreit's first hour class.

All participants were determined to be below average in reading ability based on the State Mandated Criterion Reference Exam (CRT). These students were placed in a supplemental, targeted assisted Title I program. A targeted assisted program is one in which targeted students, those with low scores or who qualify on additional criteria, are identified to receive intervention. The students qualified for the Title I class on a single measure of assessment (CRT) and were placed into the program without consultation with the student. The administration made adjustments to the students' schedules removing one of the elective choices in their schedule and replacing it with the Title I reading class.

The participants live in a small rural community. The school district serves 2,800 students from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. The district identified 68% of the students as economically disadvantaged based on their qualification for free or reduce meals due to the annual income in the home. At Plains Junior High, 56.73% of the students were identified as proficient according to the CRT in the area of reading.


All students completed a survey developed by Shelton, L., Heavenridge, P. & Beckerman, C. (1991) to identify learning styles. Learning styles were identified based on Howard Gardner's learning styles (Gardner, 1993). The intelligences consisted of: Body movement/kinesthetic, self (intrapersonal/reflective thought), social (interpersonal), spatial (art, three dimensional), language (reading, writing, verbal, aural), nature (outdoors activities, cooking, plants), musical (choral, instrumental, appreciation for music), and logic (mathematical). All statements were read orally to each student, and clarification was provided if a student asked for further elaboration. Using a Likert scale, the students chose the number that indicated how well each statement described them (i.e. from "1=statement does not describe you at all" to "5=statement describes you exactly"). The survey consisted of 56 statements such as, "I consider myself an athlete. I enjoy learning new words and do so easily. Knowing directions are easy for me." A report is provided ranking the eight learning styles of the student (See Table A).

Then, students completed The Reader Self-Perception Scale (RSPS) devised by Henk, W. & Melnick, S. (1995). The RSPS is an instrument designed to address readers' attitude. Students indicated their feelings towards each statement by marking on a Likert scale (i.e. from "5=strongly agree" to "1=strongly disagree"). Example questions were: "I think I am a good reader. I am getting better at reading. I read better than other kids in my class." The RSPS groups statements to obtain scores in five areas: general perception about reading, perception about progress in reading, perception about reading ability as compared to peers (observational comparison), social feedback from others about reading ability, and physiological states (feelings present during literary activities)(See Table B). The researcher read each of the 33 statements aloud allowing time for students to mark their responses.

In addition, the researcher spent six weeks in participant observation (Merriam, 1998) reading and interacting with the students and listening to pairs of students read orally with one another. The class read The Giver by Lowry, L. (1993). Anecdotal notes were taken about the students' comments and interactions. Observational field notes were recorded (Spradley, 1980). During the final week, students were individually interviewed.

The semi-structured interview sessions were audio taped and transcribed (Seid man, 1998). The purpose of the interview was to gain insight on the students' feelings about the Title I intervention program. All anecdotal notes, field notes, and transcripts were analyzed using inductive data analysis (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).


Results are presented as a brief description for each participant. Quotes from the students are included because the students' voices help clarify their perceptions and attitudes about reading and attending a remedial reading class.

Samon: Samon was a tall, thin girl who enjoyed sports, especially running track. She was very social with other students in class. Samon's strongest learning style was self, followed by body movement and then social. Samon did not remember which class she gave up in order to take the reading class and stated that she did not mind having to take the reading class. She was told about her placement when the school year started. Samon felt that her reading skills were similar to her peers.

Teacher: Who do you know that is a good reader?

Samon: Teachers, not kids at school.

Teacher: Why are they good readers?

Samon: Because they have already been to school.

Samon felt that the way to improve her reading was to go to school. She was optimistic about her progress and felt like her reading skills were improving. Samon was the only participant who scored high on the RSPS in the area of progress.

Dajay: Dajay preferred language as a modality for learning. Dajay commented that she enjoyed writing in a diary every night. Although she read horse magazines at home, she did not enjoy reading at school. She disliked reading aloud. Dajay did not remember which elective she gave up to enroll in the reading class. Dajay noted that she was surprised about qualifying for Title I; she came the first day of school to find her schedule had been changed. She had received Title I services in first grade but not since then. She felt that her reading skills were not improving and that she would be in Title I again next year.

Teacher: Who do you know that is a good reader?

Dajay: Nobody likes to read unless they read to themselves. I guess my mom.

Teacher: Why is she a good reader? What does she do?

Dajay: She has nothing else to do, so she reads a lot.

Teacher: Do you feel like your reading is improving?

Dajay: No. I'll be Title I again next year.

Teacher: Why?

Dajay: The reading results from my testing are too low. I also failed all four reports in history this year.

Although Dajay wrote in a journal daily and read at home, she considered herself a poor reader.

Jimmy: Jimmy especially enjoyed football and art. In fact, he often doodled during class. Jimmy was strongest in spatial and body movement on the learning style survey. In his interview, he voiced that his reading was not improving; however, on the RSPS, Jimmy scored average on his perception of his progress in reading.

Teacher: How did you find out that you were going to Title I?

Jimmy: I just came the first day of school.

Teacher: How did you feel about having Title I for a class?

Jimmy: It made me feel dumb. (His eyes filled with tears).

Teacher: Which elective did you have to give up to take Title I?

Jimmy: Art. I really like drawing. I'm really into art.

Teacher: Whom do you know that is a good reader?

Jimmy: My morn

Teacher: Why is she a good reader? What does she do?

Jimmy: She understands all the words and went to college.

Jimmy had to give up his art class to take Title I reading.

Shanequa: Shanequa enjoyed sports. His strongest learning style was body movement. He was very social with his peers.

Teacher: Who do you know that is a good reader?

Shanequa: My brother.

Teacher: Why is he a good reader?

Shanequa: He reads a lot.

Teacher: How did you find out that you were going to Title I?

Shanequa: I just found out the first day of school.

Teacher: How did you feel about having Title I for a class?

Shanequa: I was kinda [sic] mad; then I got over it.

Shanequa scored an 8.1 on his STAR reading exam. However, his CRT score was low and qualified him for services. Shanequa felt that he was a poor reader even though his STAR exam placed him on grade level. On the Reader Self Perception Scale, Shanequa scored high in his general perception about reading; however, his score was low in all four of the subscales. He felt that his peers read better than him. He felt that he was not making progress in his reading. His perceptions about himself as a reader appeared to be based on the fact that he was placed in Title I even though another reading measure indicated reading proficiency.

Mercedes: Mercedes enjoyed hiking, the outdoors, hunting, and reading outdoors magazines. Her strongest learning styles were body movement and nature. Mercedes' art class elective was replaced with Title I reading. Mercedes commented that she did not enjoy "school" reading. She felt that improving in reading was beyond her control.

Teacher: How did you feel about having Title I for a class?

Mercedes: It was ok I guess, but I wish for extra electives.

Teacher: What do you do if you encounter a word and you don't know what it means?

Mercedes: Ask for help.

Teacher: What do you do if you don't know what a sentence means?

Mercedes: Ask the teacher.

Teacher: Whom do you know that is a good reader?

Mercedes: My morn.

Teacher: Why is she a good reader?

Mercedes: I don't know; she just reads good.

Mercedes scored low on the RSPS in the area of progress. Her RSPS score was consistent with the comments she made during her interview.

Ringo: Ringo enjoyed listening to different kinds of music. His strongest learning styles were body movement/kinesthetic and music. Ringo did not recall which elective he lost to receive Title I services. He was the most willing out of the group to read aloud, cooperate with the teacher, and stay on task. Ringo socialized very little with the other students. Ringo felt that being a good reader was connected to studying a lot.

Teacher: Who do you know that is a good reader?

Ringo: A friend of mine, Timmy.

Teacher: Why is he a good reader? What does he do?

Ringo: He studies a lot and he reads a lot.

Although Ringo was cooperative, he scored the lowest of the group on the RSPS scale item for general perception of reading. He felt his peers read better than him. He also had the lowest score on the physiological state subscale on his RSPS. Ringo did not feel comfortable when reading or when engaged in literacy activities.

Felix: Felix was very social with his peers. He enjoyed body movement especially in sports and hunting. Felix had to give up his Physical Education elective to take Title I reading. Felix did not see literacy, in terms of reading, in his home. Felix indicated that he doesn't know any one that reads except for teachers.

Teacher: How did you find out you were going to Title I?

Felix: Just the first day of school.

Teacher: How did you feel about having Title I for a class?

Felix: I didn't like it; no one even talked to me. It would have been nice to tell me. Teacher: Who do you know that is a good reader? Felix: No one, not really.

Felix was upset that he had no voice in the decision making process.

Valentina: Valentina enjoyed volleyball and track. She was physically active and scored high in the body movement/ kinesthetic learning style. Valentina also scored high in music and spatial intelligences.

Teacher: Which elective did you give up?

Valentina: Choir. I loved choir. I used to be really good. I like music. But this year, I had to drop because I had to take reading.

Valentina had an overall good perception of reading. However, she scored extremely low on the RSPS observational comparison subscale. Valentina felt that she was much lower than her peers in her reading ability.


Data from the Learning Style Survey indicated that students being placed in this Title I program have dominate strengths other than language/linguistics. Unfortunately, due to mandatory placement in a reading class, these students were losing elective classes that seemed to be supported by their learning style preferences and that they may excel in academically. Often they were left with academic content with which they struggled and, consequently, they experienced little success in school. Although most would not argue that these students need reading intervention, the system in place is detrimental to their self-efficacy and their future success.

Students commented on being surprised or upset at their elective classes being taken away. They were never consulted about the changes, and at no time did anyone sit down and explain the decisions that were made in regards to their courses. Although the results of the standardized test scores were mailed to their homes, no one translated the data for them or explained the consequences of poor results. Felix's comments in the interview were substantial in that it would have been better if he had been informed that he lost his elective and the results from the test were explained to him. These students had no choice in regards to their placement in reading services. It is interesting to note that a student who qualifies for special education requires parental consent for placement; however, the same protocol does not apply for Title I programs.

The results of this study provide an example of how single assessment measures, especially standardized tests, are being used to determine program decisions for adolescent students who struggle in reading. In this middle school, the results were certainly high-stakes in that students were required to take a remedial reading course based on one measure of their reading ability. Perhaps an even more detrimental consequence was the way in which students and their families were not informed in advance that the students' schedules would be changed in order to accommodate a remedial reading course.

Based on RSPS results, all eight of the students had received negative social feedback about their reading abilities. Dajay was the only student in the study that indicated she enjoyed reading. Jimmy's comment about qualifying for Title I services is monumental in the insight it provides about the self-efficacy of these students, "It made me feel dumb".

Students were expected to deal with several issues at once. For the first time, they were allowed some choice in their classes by selecting elective courses. All of the students indicated a sense of loss to some degree when they learned their elective course choice had been replaced with a remedial reading class. Students had opportunity to build positive expectations about elective courses for several months after making their choices in the spring. It took only a brief moment in August, however, for their excitement to fade when they were given their new schedules.

Second, students expressed resentment that they were not informed earlier about their placement in a remedial reading course. Most adolescents, like Shanequa and Felix, for example, want to feel some degree of independence. A degree of ownership and responsibility are felt when given choice. Although the district did not allow them any alternative choice, the matter in which the decision was made without them made them feel manipulated and as if they had no ownership.

Last, many of the students reported a sense of feeling "dumb" because of their placement in a remedial reading course. In addition, these students did not feel that their reading ability was improving, despite being in a remedial reading course. As a matter of fact, some of them believed improvement was beyond their control and that they would be expected to take a remedial reading course again the next school year.


The high stakes consequences resulting from an emphasis on standardized test scores can be detrimental to adolescent readers' perceptions of themselves as readers. A single measure of reading ability provides only a small picture of what students can accomplish and what their learning needs are. Qualifications for Title I programs should not rest on a single unit of measurement. Although districts cannot control the timeline for when they will receive the standardized test results required by the state, which are often not reported until a new school year has begun, using multiple measures of students' reading ability will decrease dependence on standardized test scores.

In addition, students and their families should be provided with more information about their reading assessments, especially test scores, and how they will be used to determine their educational program. As children mature, they may desire to play a more active role in their own education. Epstein and Sanders (1990) stated, "Most often, students feel 'acted on' rather than actors, or 'done to' rather than doers in their education" (p. 10). Adolescents need choice and ownership about their schedules/classes. While districts may continue to require a Title I reading course for students who qualify, students and their families can be a part of the decision making process once they understand the meaning of their test scores and the purpose of the Title I reading course.

Furthermore, struggling readers often have strengths in areas other than linguistic/language. These students should have the opportunity to experiment with learning in these other modalities. These students expressed positive feelings about being allowed to choose their own elective courses. Many of them chose courses in which their dominant learning style would be exercised. Districts may consider ways in which students would be allowed to keep their elective courses, utilize their dominant learning styles in all of their courses, and improve their reading abilities simultaneously. Administering learning styles inventories provides students an opportunity to assess their strengths and preferences; it allows them a chance to see that they have potential to approach their learning in ways that can help them be successful. The results of such inventories also provide teachers with valuable information about their students as learners.

Last, struggling readers receive negative social feedback. They are aware that they are not as proficient or as successful in reading as their peers. A majority of struggling readers do not believe their reading is improving. Using multiple means of assessment and including formative assessment at predetermined intervals will allow students to see improvements in their own reading abilities as the school year progresses. Students can also be taught to assess their improvements in comparison with themselves rather than their peers. Success in reading tasks provides the experiential-based evidence students need to build higher levels of self-efficacy. It also gives teachers an excellent opportunity to celebrate students' successes as they see students grow toward becoming more independent, proficient readers.


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Table A
Learning Style Assessment

Name        1st             2nd             3rd        4th

Samon       self            Body movement   social     language
Dajay       nature          language        self       spatial
Jimmy       spatial         Body movement   self       social
Mercedes    Body movement   nature          self       social
Shanequa    Body movement   social          self       nature
Ringo       Body movement   musical         self       social
Felix       Body movement   nature          social     self
Valentina   Body movement   musical         spatial    logic

Name        5th             6th             7th        8th

Samon       musical         spatial         nature     logic
Dajay       social          Body            Logic      musical
Jimmy       musical         nature          logic      language
Mercedes    spatial         language        musical    logic
Shanequa    spatial         language        musical    logic
Ringo       spatial         nature          Language   logic
Felix       spatial         logic           language   musical
Valentina   self            social          nature     language

Table B
Reader Self-Perception Scale Results

            General                   Observational
Name        Perception   Progress     comparison

Jimmy       2            38 average   15 low
Ringo       1            27 low       12 low
Dajay       4            35 low       18 low
Mercedes    4            36 low       19 low
Samon       3            45 high      18 low
Valentina   4            31 low       14 low
Felix       3            35 low       17 low
Shanequa    4            35 1ow       19 low

            Social     Physiological
Name        Feedback   States

Jimmy       24 low     17 low
Ringo       23 low     11 low
Dajay       22 low     27 low
Mercedes    29 low     28 low
Samon       23 low     23 low
Valentina   29 low     13 low
Felix       22 low     18 low
Shanequa    24 low     18 low

Table C
State Criterion Reference Test in Reading

Name        CRT Reading G.E. score   CRT Reading Lexile

Felix       5.7                      875
Shanequa    6.6                      945
Dajay       6.6                      945
Mercedes    4.9                      810
Samon       6.6                      945
Valentina   6.1                      905
Ringo       6.2                      915
Jimmy       6.4                      930

Table D
Standardized test data: STAR Reading and Math Scores

Name        STAR reader G.E. score   STAR Math G.E. score

Felix       4.4                      5.8
Shanequa    8.1                      6.0
Dajay       8.9                      6.9
Mercedes    3.5                      3.4
Samon       7.2                      6.8
Valentina   3.8                      8.6
Ringo       5.1                      7.0
Jimmy       4.8                      7.7
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