Heterogeneous or Homogeneous for Middle School Disabled Readers?

  • academic vocabulary
  • 20 May, 2008

Dr. Shanahan,

I am a mother of a child with a reading disability (as well as processing and short term memory) who will be entering middle school in the fall. Our middle school is planning on heterogeneously grouping the students in reading/language arts classes. As I'm sure you know this would be the lowest level readers blended with college level readers. Also, reading interventions will be cut from every day to every other day. I am a little concerned about the implications this may have on the students. Do you happen to know what research says about this concept? What are your feelings?Any assistance will be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your help! :)

 Dear Concerned Parent,

  Thanks for your letter. Generally, research has not been positive about homogeneous group or tracking by class when it comes to reading instruction (though most of this research has been done with younger kids or older kids in subjects other than reading). Overall the findings are that homogeneous grouping provides a slight academic benefit to the highest kids and no measurable benefit to the others, but of course those are averages and kid’s experiences are individual.

  One concern about trying to group all kids by level is that it segregates them which can be socially disruptive and cuts kids off from models of proficiency. Your child benefits from interacting regularly and meaningfully with kids who might not be challenged in the same ways and who might find it easier to see themselves as upwardly mobile when it comes to academics.

  One reason there is so little benefit to grouping kids by ability is that most kids are at or near the middle where not much benefit would be expected (think of it this way: if a 7th grade teacher teaches from a 7th grade book in an average school, nearly 70% of the kids are likely to be reading between a 6th and 8th grade level; there would be very little benefit from such a small adjustment for these kids). That leaves 30% of kids who are far enough off the mark who might benefit from an alteration of level, but even a two-year reading difference at this grade level is not that big, especially on the high end, so that means about 85-90% of the kids will likely do fine when they are taught “on grade level” rather than reading level (some teachers might even make some within classroom adjustments reducing the homogeneous advantage even more).

  My claim isn’t that there could be no benefit to the vast majority of kids under any conditions, but just changing the book level and placing kids only with those who perform like themselves will not, by itself, change things enough to matter to most kids. For example, one of the big gains that could come from homogeneous grouping would be that the teachers could move along more quickly and cover more instructional ground… Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a school put in place a more ambitious curriculum as a result of such grouping (yeah, the kids often get exactly the same instruction they would have with or without the grouping).

  Okay, so homogeneous grouping for reading/language arts could be beneficial 10-20% of kids in the middle and high school grades. About half of those kids are reading above grade level. Perhaps they'd make faster progress in a homogenous setting, but schools are notorious for not actually raising the level with such gifted kids anyway, and school districts tend not to worry about the gifted much in these days of AYP and moribund reading scores.

  That means that homogeneous grouping for reading in middle school will probably be of greatest value to the 5-10% of kids at the bottom; the ones reading more than two years below grade level. The ones the teacher really can’t “pull along” to adequate progress with the other kids. The ones who either suck up way too much teacher time in a heterogeneous classroom or who simply fade into the wallpaper and don’t make much progress at all. Schools definitely could (and often do) create an alternative reading class for such kids (or in some cases, it is an additional class—the strugglers take both the regular language arts class AND the special reading class).

  Sadly, even when schools create such possibilities they often fail to provide the resources needed to make them work. Remember how far these kids are behind? Just adjusting the instructional level of the materials will probably not alone be sufficient to meet their needs. Struggling readers have to make gains that will help close the learning gap with their peers (that means they need more than a year learning for a year of teaching).

  One thing I found when I was doing the research to create my adolescent literacy program (for kids reading 2nd to 5th-grade levels) was the great need for intensive instruction with these kids. It isn’t enough to alter the reading level of the materials, but skills and strategies need to be taught with a heightened thoroughness and consistency. Programs for average kids tend to flit from one strategy to another rarely spending even a couple of days on the same thing (I guess in fear of boring this generation); but the effective approaches demonstrated in research studies had a very different design: they stayed with something for days and even weeks, trying the new strategy out in lots of different texts and under varied circumstances and with lots of review. That kind of teaching is especially necessary for kids like yours.

  If your child is more than two years below grade level in reading performance, I would push for the school to do some special programming for such kids. The ideal would be to provide them with a special reading class (don’t segregate them, keep them together with everyone else for the rest of their day), and that class should be daily--time matters. I would assign fewer kids to such classes so the instruction could be as individualized as possible. I would push for the use of a reading or special education teacher who knows a lot about this kind of teaching. I would push for the use of the kinds of materials reviewed above. I would even consider pushing for an afterschool program to get my child even more of this kind of teaching than can be afforded in a school day. (Of course, if that isn’t possible or the school isn’t responsive then you need to try to create such a situation for your child away from school. Unfortunately, I don’t know what resources of this type might be available in your community).

  I don’t know where you are located, but if you want to see the kind of teaching that really can make a difference with learning-disabled children, I would suggest that you try to visit the Benchmark School in the Philadelphia area. Their teaching is remarkably good and would provide you with a vision for your schools to work towards. http://www.benchmarkschool.org/

  Good luck.



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Heterogeneous or Homogeneous for Middle School Disabled Readers?


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