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Classroom Contexts and the Construction of Struggling High School Readers


by Julie E. Learned

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.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 8, 2018, p. 1-47
http://www.tcrecord.org/library ID Number: 22280, Date Accessed: 8/20/2018 5:01:29 AM


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