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Classroom Contexts and the Construction of Struggling High School Readers

by Julie E. Learned - 2018

Background/Context: In high schools, student readers navigate different classrooms, disciplinary domains, teachers, peer groups, and texts. Research suggests that through these ever-shifting contexts, youths demonstrate varying literacy skills and identities. Yet, schools assign static labels to students (e.g., struggling reader), and little research has examined how youths’ reading changes across classroom spaces.

Purpose/Objective: During this school year-long study, I shadowed youths identified as struggling readers across their classes to examine (a) how their reading-related skills, practices, and identities varied and (b) what classroom contexts appeared to mediate their reading.

Participants: Focal participants were 8 ninth graders identified as struggling readers, 14 comparative peers, 8 teachers, and the school literacy coach.

Research Design: I conducted a two-phase qualitative study in a culturally and linguistically diverse high school. During an initial ethnographic phase from September to November, I conducted open-ended ethnographic interviews and made observations to identify contexts that appeared important in mediating youths’ reading. Then, during a structured phase from December to June, I used protocols to conduct semistructured interviews and weeklong shadow observations of eight students identified as struggling readers, and I compared their experiences to those of youths not labeled as such.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data sources were 425 hours of observation, 66 interviews with youths and teachers, reading assessments, and school artifacts and records. I used constant comparative analysis to systematically and iteratively code across all data sources.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Analysis showed that students’ and teachers’ interactions with particular classroom contexts not only identified reading difficulty but also constructed “struggling readers” regardless, sometimes, of students' skilled, engaged reading. Overall, youths tended to participate in limiting contexts that positioned them as deficient readers. However, when classroom contexts focused on disciplinary literacy and building trusting relationships, youths positioned themselves as readers and learners. I discuss these promising, albeit rare, classroom contexts with attention to the pivotal role that student-teacher interactions played in constructing the contexts over time. Findings have implications for the reconceptualization of adolescent reading difficulty, the organization of secondary literacy programs, and future directions for adolescent literacy research.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 8, 2018, p. 1-47
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22280, Date Accessed: 9/23/2021 11:09:46 PM

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About the Author
  • Julie E. Learned
    University at Albany, State University of New York
    E-mail Author
    JULIE E. LEARNED is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She studies the role of social, institutional, and instructional contexts of youths’ literacy learning. By examining how secondary schools position readers and writers and how young people experience, resist, and help construct school contexts, she investigates issues of equity in literacy education. Recent work includes “’The Behavior Kids’: Examining the Conflation of Youth Reading Difficulty and Behavior Problem Positioning Among School Institutional Contexts” in the American Educational Research Journal and “Becoming ‘Eligible to Matter’: How Teachers’ Interpretations of Struggling Readers’ Stress Can Disrupt Deficit Positioning” in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.
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