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Understanding and Supporting Vulnerable Readers: A Ecological Systems Perspective


This dissertation is a case- and cross-case analysis of three fourth-grade children -- Bella, Sam, and Ethan -- whose paths to literacy have not been easy. It is also a formative experiment of the support provided for these children over the course of a school year. This research is shaped by Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological systems theory. Bronfenbrenner argues that we can fully understand a child's development only if we consider all the many proximal and distal elements -- from home and school environments to parental workplaces to potentially oppressive race, class, and gender factors -- that influence that development. Similarly, we can fully understand a child's literacy development only if we consider all the many elements -- from texts to teachers to test publishers to language and culture -- that influence literacy development. Vulnerable reader (Bomer, 1999) is an appropriate term for children who struggle with literacy because it emphasizes the fact that their experience is characterized by a particular sensitivity to disruptions within the literacy ecology. This study is supported by research literature that notes the great variety of challenges faced by vulnerable readers (Buly & Valencia, 2002) and which suggests that beneficial instruction is responsive to each child's specific strengths and challenges (Stevens, van Werkhoven, & Castelijns, 2001).

The protocol of support included approximately 30 one-on-one tutorial sessions focused on each child's individual needs and 30 small group sessions during which time the children researched, wrote, and illustrated their own books, as well as reading and discussing a variety of literature selections. All sessions were audio- or video-taped and later transcribed. Additional data sources included a variety of assessments (an Informal Reading Inventory, miscue analysis, think aloud protocols, and the Metacomprehension Strategies Index among them); semi-formal interviews with teachers and parents, as well as the children; and classroom observations.

Case study findings demonstrated that, while each child became a more effective and engaged reader over the course of the intervention, each did so in ways that were quite unique and reflected his/her particular personality; Bella and Ethan, for example, were obviously active in their approach while Sam was much more reserved. The cross-case analysis determined that a variety of ecosystem factors influenced their development. Bella was most affected by the type of tasks employed in the study design, by an apparent lack of access to the health care needed to overcome low-grade but chronic illness, and by her English learner status. For Sam, instruction that presented reading in the same algorithmic way that characterized math (a curriculum area with which he was successful) was very effective, and an increasing level of comfort with peers supported him as well. Ethan was most influenced by reading texts on topics of great interest, and yet his progress was undermined by frequent moves caused by his family's low socioeconomic status. Formative experiment findings emphasized the importance of building a community of learners in which risk-taking was supported, where help was available when needed, and where success was generously acknowledged. This dissertation provdes a model for Tier 3 Response to Intervention -- an intense level of support producing levels of achievement and engagement worthy of the time and energy expended.

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