Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Improving the Reading Skills of Middle School Students with and at Risk for Disabilities

Two girls work together to write in notebooks.

NCSER celebrates Middle Level Education Month this year by highlighting some of our current research projects aimed at supporting the literacy skills of middle school students with and at risk for disabilities. Data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) indicate that in 2019, 68% of eight graders with disabilities scored “Below NAEP Basic” in reading compared to 22% of students without disabilities, a gap that had grown larger over the previous decade. The urgent need to improve the reading skills of middle school students with disabilities has led to some important NCSER-funded research projects.  

Sharon Vaughn and Leticia Martinez at the University of Texas, Austin and Jeanne Wanzek at Vanderbilt University, along with their colleagues, are testing the efficacy of Promoting Adolescents' Comprehension of Text (PACT), a fully developed reading comprehension intervention for middle school students with evidence of efficacy for students without disabilities. The current study will be the first efficacy trial of PACT that focuses specifically on students with disabilities. PACT is a text- and inquiry-based reading comprehension intervention with instructional supports for teachers and material for students in general education classrooms. In this large-scale, multi-site study, the team is using a randomized controlled trial in approximately 80 eighth-grade social studies classrooms, each with at least two students with disabilities. The team will examine the intervention’s impact on student reading and social studies outcomes, whether the impact differs depending on level of teacher fidelity or by student characteristic, and the intervention’s cost-effectiveness over the typical expenditures.

PACT is also being used as the evidence-based literacy intervention in a project designed to support middle school teachers’ knowledge and practices and improve reading and content area knowledge among students with disabilities. Jade Wexler at University of Maryland, College Park and Elizabeth Swanson at the University of Texas, Austin, along with their colleagues, are developing and testing a model for instructional leaders to provide ongoing support to content-area middle school teachers as they implement PACT. More specifically, the team will be developing an intervention package that includes a multi-stage, adaptive intervention coaching model to systematically tailor support to teachers as they implement Tier 1 literacy practices (in this case, the PACT intervention) in their content areas (English language arts, social studies, and science) to improve reading outcomes for students with disabilities. The package will also include a professional development program to train instructional leaders on how to implement the coaching model with teachers effectively.

Deborah Reed at the University of Iowa and her colleagues are also focusing on integrating literacy instruction with content-area instruction, but this team is focused on the Tier 2 level. They are developing and testing an intervention for middle school students with or at risk for reading disabilities who need support in literacy and text-based content in science and social studies. Pairs of students will alternate reading science and social studies texts, with specific academic vocabulary language, on a digital platform. This platform will provide scaffolded support and allow opportunities for individual work in building related reading and writing skills. Passages on each science or social studies topic repeat 85% or more of the unique words but in different contexts to support students’ ability to recognize and read the academic vocabulary. The overall aim of the intervention is to improve student literacy as well as science and social studies performance.

Marcia Barnes and her team at Vanderbilt University are testing the efficacy of a reading comprehension intervention, Connecting Text by Inference and Technology (Connect-IT), with middle school students with or at risk for reading disabilities. Connect-IT, developed with a prior IES grant, was designed to improve inference-making and reading comprehension in this population. In the current study, the research team will examine the impact of the intervention on students in grades 6-8 who did not pass their state English Language Arts test and who have demonstrated difficulties in reading comprehension. They will compare the efficacy of the intervention as implemented in small groups by a teacher, individual implementation of the intervention through computer software with project interventionist supervision, and the school’s business-as-usual classes. The study aims to determine the effect of each version of the intervention on student inference-making abilities and reading comprehension, as well as whether various student skills (such as vocabulary, word reading, attention, and anxiety) may moderate the impact of the interventions. The interventions’ cost-effectiveness will also be evaluated.

Focused on more intensive intervention for middle school students with or at risk for reading  disabilities, Mary Beth Calhoon at the University of Miami is testing the efficacy of a 2-year implementation of the Adolescent Multi-Component Intensive Training Program (AMP-IT-UP), which was previously tested after 1 year of implementation through an IES-funded grant. The intervention uses direct, systematic, explicit instruction (in phonological decoding with comprehension, spelling, and fluency) and cognitive strategy instruction (including use of cues and anchors), combined with reciprocal peer-mediated instruction. Dr. Calhoon’s research team is conducting a randomized controlled trial with middle school students with or at risk for reading disabilities who are still reading at the third-grade level or below. They will examine the impact after 2 years of intervention as well as 1 year after intervention has ended to determine its effect on student word recognition, spelling, fluency, and comprehension skills.

We look forward to reporting on the results of these studies as these teams complete their work in the years to come.

The blog was authored by Amy Sussman (, Sarah Brasiel (, and Katie Taylor (, program officers for NCSER.

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