Accelerating the Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary of Inner City High School At-Risk Students – A Special Education Success Story

Here is an interesting question: what do the following five words have in common: lucid, superficial, obscure, scrutinized, acute? The answer is that they are five SAT words successfully taught to 10th grade, inner-city, at-risk students. Even better, close to half of the students have IEPs.

This article documents the significant growth data coming from Proviso East High School in Chicago. Proviso East serves inner-city African American and Hispanic students. Even better, it is involved in a turn-around project led by noted language researcher, Dr. Robert Marzano.

Dr. Marzano reviewed Failure Free Reading (FFR) and decided to place FFR in his school improvement project at Proviso East as its language/literacy intervention run by Proviso’s ELA Department Chair, Dr. Patrice Reiger.

Dr. Reiger chose to use FFR’s Verbal Master Program with a select group of her lowest performing 10th graders.

The 2018-19 growth results are quite exciting.

FFR is a language/literacy acceleration program, based on addressing the core issue pertaining to reading success and future academic achievement – poor language. FFR’s premise is simple: raise language competency and everything else will follow.

One of the unique features of FFR is its ability to have students achieve at significantly higher levels than other interventions. FFR starts students at least one grade level higher than any other national intervention, making it perfect for Proviso’s population – overaged, underachieving, street-wise students reading up to five or more years below grade level.

Performance data was collected on 42 students.

As expected, student knowledge of critical academic vocabulary as measured by their Verbal Master Synonym and Definition pretest scores was quite low. The Verbal Master vocabulary came from the EDL vocabulary list. EDL is the most recognized research-based list comprised of graded vocabulary most generic to science, social studies and basal readers.

The average student Synonym Pretest Score of Graded Academic Vocabulary was 26.13 %. The average student Word Definition Pretest Score of Grade Academic Vocabulary was 28.65%. Combined, the scores indicate that the students suffered from pronounced vocabulary deprivation. The research pertaining to this clear. No student can read for meaning above their vocabulary level. Raise the level and you will raise their reading comprehension, as documented by the following passage now being successfully read by these tenth graders:

“The doctors were amazed at how lucid the patient was during the operation. They knew that this was not a superficial wound caused by an obscure little cut. They scrutinized that it would take at least one hundred stitches to stop the acute bleeding.”

It is important to note that traditional interventions would never attempt to teach these students at such a high instructional level under the guise that the material is far too hard for at-risk and special education high school students. Fortunately, this is not FFR’s practice. Such low vocabulary scores only serve to illustrate that these students can attain success working with much higher than expected content when the curriculum is changed to meet their unique instructional needs. Change the approach and you will change the performance outcomes. That said. All students were placed in one of the four Verbal Master levels based on their reading frustration scores.

Verbal Master teaches 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th grade academic vocabulary.

14 students with an initial frustration level below 6th grade were placed in Verbal Master I.

4 students with an initial frustration level below 8th grade were placed in Verbal Master II.

11 students with an initial frustration level below10th grade were placed in Verbal Master III.

13 students with an initial frustration level below 12th grade were placed in Verbal Master IV.

40 out of 42 students showed significant post-test growth in all four Verbal Master Levels – a 95% success rate. The average student daily performance score (regardless of level) was above 85%. indicating these students can succeed at significantly higher levels that expected. Perhaps, the following statement from Dr. Reiger helps puts everything achieved in its proper perspective.

“I love Failure Free Reading because it built my students self-confidence to where they were willing to try again. It actually produced self-confidence and grit.” Dr. Patrice Reiger, English Department Chair, Proviso East.

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