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Reversing Reading Failure in Young Adults

by Mary E. Curtis and Ann Marie Longo
When most people think of Boys Town, they think of Mickey Rooney or Spencer Tracy, or maybe even the phrase, "He ain't heavy, Father, he's m' brother." They might wonder if it still exists. It does, and today Boys Town is the home of a reading center that is part of the National Resource and Training Center. A laboratory for older adolescents with reading problems, the goals of the Reading Center are to develop research-based programs that prove effective in Boys Town's schools and to disseminate them to other schools around the country. Toward these goals, the Reading Center has developed the Boys Town Reading Curriculum. Our purpose in this article is to describe that curriculum, along with the research and experiences that led us to design it the way we did.

Although boys and girls typically come to Boys Town two to three years behind in reading, some are as far as five to six years below grade level. We needed a curriculum that would help students at several different points along a continuum of reading development. We also needed a curriculum that would give us huge results in a relatively short period of time; the average length of stay for Boys Town youth, placed mostly through courts and social service agencies, is 18 to 22 months.

Prior to coming to Boys Town, we both had worked in the Harvard Reading Laboratory with students who ranged in age from seven to 50 years old. Based on our experiences, we knew our curriculum needed to incorporate the principles that we had found successful in our one-on-one work in the Lab (Chall & Curtis, 1987). We knew that instruction had to have a developmental framework, that students' strengths had to be used to build on their needs, and that learning had to take place in stages. Unlike the lab, we wanted group instruction rather than one-on-one. We also knew that our teaching materials and techniques would need to appeal to our audience of young adults. We will discuss each of these elements in detail.

A Developmental Framework

We knew that our students' skills in reading were not going to be acquired overnight; they would develop gradually. Jeanne Chall's stages of reading development (1996, 1983) was the theory that helped us the most in recognizing how we as teachers could best accelerate this growth (see box below).

Chall's Stages of Reading

Stage Characteristics
Stage 0:
Story can be retold while looking at book previously read; letters of alphabet can be named;  names can be written;  some signs can be recongnized
Stage 1:
Relationships between letters and sounds, and between printed and spoken words are being learned;  simple texts with predictable words can be "sounded out"
Stage 2:
Stories and short selections are read with increasing fluency; "ungluing from print is taking place
Stage 3: Reading to Learn Reading is used to learn new information, new ideas, new words and concepts
Stage 4: Multiple View Points Wide reading from a broad range of complex materials is occuring; a wide variety of perspectives and attitudes are being expressed
Stage 5: Construction Reading occurs rapidly and efficiently;  reading is used for personal and professional needs

According to Chall, reading is a process that changes as the reader becomes more able and proficient. She suggests that, in the beginning stages of learning to read, students learn how to recognize and sound out words -- the basics of the alphabetic principle. With practice, their reading becomes more fluent and automatic, increasing their ease in dealing with texts that use concepts and themes already within their experiences. At this point, students have learned how to read. The challenge they face next is acquiring the ability to use reading as a tool for learning. This involves working with texts that go beyond what they already know, thereby increasing their vocabulary as well as their ability to think critically about what they read.

Build on Strengths

The content of each of the four courses in our curriculum is designed specifically to reflect students' current level of reading development, along with the level to which they need to go next. In each course, we try to make sure that we are building on strengths. Take Mark, for example. He was 16 years old when he began the program. Although he had difficulty reading text above the third grade level, his vocabulary knowledge and listening comprehension skills were at about the seventh to eighth grade levels. Mark was placed in the first course in our curriculum, where students' strength in understanding is used to address their need in decoding. Although he struggled when he was asked to read, we interested Mark enough in the content of what he was reading to make that struggle worth-while. Later, when we asked him what he would say to other students entering the program, Mark said, "No matter how hard the work is, just stick with it ... People making me read made me read better because I got used to reading."

Proceed in Stages

In each of our courses, we strive to use a three-step process when introducing new concepts and skills. First, we demonstrate or model the new material. Next, we give students an opportunity to practice, with the teacher as a guide. The third step involves independent practice with feedback.

For example, to promote understanding of the alphabetic principle, we teach the concept of a syllable and then model how words can be broken into these parts. Following that, students use computer software to practice the reading and spelling of words divided into syllables. Finally, students are provided with independent practice via a cloze task with syllables. (In cloze tasks, portions of words or sentences are omitted, and learners must try to fill in the "blanks.")

We use this same strategy when working on increasing students' knowledge of word meanings. We use direct instruction to introduce definitions and examples of different contexts in which words can be used. We then give students activities like games and puzzles to engage them in discussions that provide supported practice. Finally, students practice independently when they incorporate the vocabulary words in written responses to short readings.

Since our goal was to develop a reading curriculum that could be disseminated nationwide, we needed to keep costs in mind. One-to-one tutoring is way too expensive for high schools. So, we knew from the outset that we had to get results with groups. We had another reason for wanting to work with groups. For the young adult with reading difficulties, inappropriate classroom behaviors often contributed to academic failure. By working in groups, our kids would also have opportunities to practice the social skills that are so critical to their future success (Connolly, Dowd, Criste, Nelson, & Tobias, 1995).

We designed our curriculum specifically for the older adolescent. Although the characteristics of effective reading instruction are the same, regardless of the learner's age, the specific techniques and materials used must be age appropriate. For instance, when working with young children, it's fine to teach the "oa" sound with words like boat and coat. But when working with older adolescents, who can often read words like this on sight, such an approach can turn them off. In selecting our materials and techniques, we paid particular attention to ensuring that they would be appealing to young adults. When we teach the "oa" sound, we use words like cockroach and scapegoat.

Four Courses

Each of the four courses in our curriculum lasts about 16 weeks. In each course, students meet for about 45 minutes a day, five days a week. This amounts to almost four hours of direct reading instruction a week as compared to Adult Basic Education students, who average between 5.5 and 13.0 hours of instruction per week, according to the Department of Education. Our courses are usually taken as electives, allowing students to complete their regular high school program while they are receiving help in reading.

Decisions about where to place students in the curriculum are based on whatever diagnostic data are available. On Boys Town's home campus, we give the Diagnostic Assessments of Reading test (Roswell & Chall, 1992), an individually administered, criterion referenced test (see page 16 for more on the DAR). Other sites we work with use other kinds of information for placement, including both standardized test data and curriculum-based measures.

Our experiences, both in the Harvard Reading Lab and in working with the Boys Town Reading Curriculum, convinced us that an accurate diagnostic picture of the students is one of the key ingredients for accelerating their growth in reading. Another key ingredient is ensuring that instruction is focused clearly on the components most critical for growth at each level of reading development. In the sections that follow, we talk about how each of our courses has been designed to accomplish this.

Foundations of Reading

Foundations, the course for young adults reading below the fourth grade level, maps onto Chall's Stage 1 of reading development. Our goals in this class are to teach the most common letter-sound correspondences, and to provide opportunities to apply this knowledge while reading books aloud. About ten students make up a Foundations class, along with a teacher and, when available, a paraprofessional. For about ten minutes each day, students work in pairs on spelling software (Spell It 3, by Davidson), which we have customized to teach up to 17 different phonics rules. Groups of students also spend about ten minutes each day playing a game with words that fit the rule they are working on, like Concentration or Wheel of Fortune (see also Curtis & McCart, 1992). Students learn very quickly that time is limited, and they know the more they are on-task, the more fun they will have.

The remainder of class each day is spent in a small group, four or five students with a teacher, reading aloud from a novel. Novels are at a high enough level to provide practice in applying the phonics rules being learned, and interesting enough to make the effort it takes to do so worthwhile. Novels we've used include Whispers From the Dead by Joan Lowery Nixon and Toning the Sweep by Angela Johnson. The reading is done collaboratively, with students and teacher taking turns reading and passing back and forth at unexpected times. This technique requires everyone to follow along and to stay engaged. The teacher supplies unknown words when necessary, while at the same time encouraging students to identify un-familiar words. Informal discussions about the novels help to maintain com-prehension and interest. Homework includes finding words that do and do not fit rules, and sentence writing.

Adventures in Reading

Adventures, the course that corresponds to Chall's Stage 2 of reading development, is intended for those reading between the fourth and sixth grade levels. The goals in this course are to improve students' ability to recognize words and their meanings, and to increase oral reading fluency. As in Foundations, students work in pairs for about ten minutes each day, on computer software customized to improve their reading vocabulary (Word Attack 3, by Davidson). They spend about ten minutes each day in small groups playing games that provide practice with the words, like Password and Jeopardy.

Oral reading is part of Adventures for the same reason we use it in Foundations: students need informed practice as they learn to read. We use the same procedure for oral reading in this class as in Foundations, and the emphasis continues to be on application and enjoyment during reading. In Adventures, however, fluency rather than accuracy is the focus. Novels we've used to promote these goals include Something Upstairs by Avi and Flight #116 is Down by Caroline B. Cooney. Homework includes crossword puzzles, cloze sentences, and analogies -- all providing additional practice on the same words used in the computer software and the games.

Mastery of Meaning

Mastery, which relates to Chall's Stage 3 of reading development, is designed for those between the sixth and eighth grade levels. The goal in Mastery is to build up knowledge of word meanings to improve compre-hension. The classes run anywhere from ten to 15 students per teacher.

The design of the activities and materials in Mastery are based on five principles of effective vocabulary instruction drawn from the research literature (McKeown & Curtis, 1987):

  1. students get numerous opportunities to learn a word's meaning;
  2. words are presented in a variety of contexts;
  3. students are asked to process words in active, generative ways;
  4. distinctions as well as similarities among words' meanings are stressed;
  5. improvement in students' ability to use words in speaking and writing, as well as to recognize their meanings, is emphasized.

Students read mostly informational text, including articles from materials like Disasters and Heroes, Jamestown Publishers, and The Kim Marshall Series, Reading, Educators Publishing Service. Because students are now making the transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," much of the reading is done silently. Homework includes writing assignments using target vocab-ulary words, along with cloze passages and sentence completions.


The final course in the curriculum is designed to correspond to Chall's fourth stage of reading development. Intended for those reading at the eighth grade level and beyond, the goal in Explorations is to promote the ability to integrate information, via both reading and writing. Students learn study skills like note taking and summarizing in the context of materials taken from a variety of content areas. Strategies for Reading Nonfiction by Sandra Simons, published by Spring Street Press, is a resource that we use frequently. Students practice using study skills when they work on problem-solving software (Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego, Broderbund). Use of study skills is also required on an activity we call the Explorations Board, where they respond in writing to short-answer and essay questions. Homework provides additional practice in using reading and writing as tools for learning.

Assessing Effectiveness

We use curriculum-based information, data from norm-referenced tests, and consumer data to assess the effectiveness of the program. In the first three courses, students take weekly pre- and post-tests on the content being taught, and feedback on weekly writing assignments is provided via rubrics. Explorations' students get weekly updates on their progress.

Results from curriculum-based measures have been quite encouraging. For instance, by the end of Mastery, students can use nearly 75% of their words correctly in writing, as compared to 35% before the course begins. The curriculum-based measures have also helped us to see which students may need some additional help or additional challenge. Students appreciate data like these as well. Even when they get less than 100% on their post-tests, they can see improvements from their pre-tests, and this keeps them motivated.

We use norm-referenced tests for evaluation because results from national samples, as well as results from the various sites we work with, provide baselines for gauging how much reading growth students are making. We picked the tests to correspond to the components addressed in each course. For example, in Foundations and Adventures, we have given students the basic reading and vocabulary sub-tests of the Woodcock-Johnson, Revised (Woodcock & Johnson, 1989). Average gains after 36 weeks of instruction have been more than two grade levels. In Mastery and Explorations, students take the vocabulary and comprehension sub-tests of the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test (Karlsen & Gardner, 1995). Gains on these measures average one year for every semester of instruction.

At the end of every course, we ask our students (our "consumers") ques-tions about the class activities, materials, assignments, and so on. Responses are always positive. Particularly revealing is the question that asks kids what advice they would give others who are just starting the program: "It helped improve my learning and spelling abilities. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn to do your work. I liked the classes and the computers are fun. Most of all I liked the games we played and I didn't even mind reading so much."

Creating an Effective Reading Program

Although the content of this curriculum was designed specifically to appeal to older adolescents (15-20 years old), we believe that the following factors make the program successful and can do the same for any ABE program.

Instruction is based on theory and research:

A curriculum must have a strong foundation in theory and research. When students are continuously engaged in tasks that are at the appropriate level of reading development, accelerated growth will be the result.

Instruction is structured and planned:

For anyone who has failed in school, an environment that is clear, consistent, and encourages risk-taking is crucial. When learners know ahead of time what they will be asked to do, and that help will be available when they need it, they feel safe and in control.

Teachers are trained:

Teacher training and consultation are essential ingredients for a successful program. Teachers need to understand the rationales behind curricula, the goals and principles of what they are teaching, and the reading profiles of their students. They must also be able to ask questions, seek advice, and receive feedback once instruction has begun.

Classroom atmosphere is positive:

A program needs to make sense to students and provide them with hope. They need to know why they have been placed in a particular class, and more importantly, what they will be able to do when they get out.

Students are challenged:

Teachers and students alike need to define success both by how much is learned as well as by how well tasks get performed. When success is measured by how much is learned, students are willing to be continually challenged. As challenge results in growth, motivation will increase.

Concluding Remarks

Concern about illiteracy abounds, yet solutions are difficult to find. Indeed, in many circles, reading failure in older adolescents and adults is viewed as failure too late to overcome. The Boys Town Reading Curriculum has success-fully reversed reading failure in young adults. This success would not have been possible without the cooperation and help of the teachers and students for whom the curriculum is designed. This is what really makes the curriculum work. It was developed in vivo rather than in vitro, keeping us continually aware of the needs of the teachers and the students we were seeking to help. To them we owe a special thanks.


Chall, J.S.(1996, 1983). Stages of reading development. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Chall, J.S., & Curtis, M.E. (1987). "What clinical diagnosis tells us about children's reading." The Reading Teacher, 40, 784-788.

Connolly, T., Dowd, T., Criste, A., Nelson, C., & Tobias, L. (1995). The well-managed classroom. Boys Town, NE: Boys Town Press.

Curtis, M.E., & McCart, L. (1992). "Fun ways to promote poor readers' word recognition." Journal of Reading, 35, 398-399.

Karlsen, B., & Gardner, E.F. (1995). Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test (fourth ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace.

McKeown, M.G., & Curtis, M.E. (eds.) (1987), The nature of vocabulary acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Roswell, F.G., & Chall, J.S. (1992). Diagnostic Assessments of Reading. Chicago: Riverside.

Tucker, J. (I 985). "Curriculum-based assessment: An introduction." Exceptional Children, 52, 199-204.

Woodcock, R.W., & Johnson, M.B. (1989). Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement. Chicago: Illinois.