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TEACHERS' AND LOW-SOCIOECONOMIC-STATUS STUDENTS' BELIEFS ABOUT
HIGH SCHOOL READING INSTRUCTION
CRAIG A. DAVIS
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Craig A. Davis
For Michelle, Autumn, and Anderson
I would not have been in a position to begin graduate studies without the moral and
financial support of my grandmother, Annie Mae Davis, and the unfailing encouragement of my
uncle, Bradley Davis. I would not have been able to complete my studies without the support of
my loving wife Michelle, who always believed in me, and the support of her parents, Raymond
and Charlotte Burke. I could not have completed my doctoral program without the incredible
support of my committee chair, mentor, and dear friend, Dr. Linda Behar-Horenstein. I also owe
a great deal of gratitude to my qualitative research professor, Dr. Mirka Koro-Ljungberg, who,
along with Dr. Behar-Horenstein, caringly shaped my development as a scholar. I wish to thank
my other committee members, Dr. Sevan Terzian, who instilled in me a lasting appreciation for
the history of American education and helped improve my writing, and Dr. Fran Vandiver, who
selflessly committed to guiding me to the end of this journey. This work is a tribute to all who
have investment in me, including my master's advisor and professor, Dr. Betty Bennett of the
University of North Florida, and all of the K-12, college, and university educators who
contributed to my development.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ........................................................................................ .............. 4
LIST OF TABLES.............................................................8
LIST OF FIGURES .............................................................9
A B ST R A C T .............................................................. ................................ .. .................. 10
1 IN TRODU CTION ............... .............................................. ...............13
Statement of the Problem.............................................. .............. 13
Purposes of the Study ............................... .. .................... ................... ...............15
Research Questions............... ........ ....... ... .............. ...............15
D definition of Term s ........................ ............... ..................................... ...............15
Significance of the Study................ ..................................................... .... ...............16
2 REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE ......................................................................................19
L ite ra cy ............... ............ ................................................ .......................................... . 19
D definitions .............................................................................. ......... .. ............... 19
W working w ith Struggling Readers.................................................................................20
T e a c h e r B e lie fs ....................... ...... ............................................................................... 2 4
Teacher Beliefs and M ulticulturalism ...........................................................................24
Teacher Beliefs and LSES/At-Risk Students ................................................................26
Teacher B eliefs and Instruction.....................................................................................27
Teacher Belief-Practice D iscrepancies..........................................................................29
Self-Efficacy ........... ...... ..................... ............ ... ...............30
Student and Parent View s about Literacy.............................................................................32
S u m m ary ............... .......... ................................................ .......................................... . 3 4
3 M E TH O D S .......................................................................................... .........................35
O overview ......................................... .. . .. .. .. .................................................................35
Theoretical Perspective: Social Constructionism ................... ...................................36
The Researcher's View......................................... ...............36
D efinitions and K ey Concepts.......................................................................................37
Social Constructionism A pplied....................................................................................40
Subjectivity Statem ent........................................................................... ........ .......41
M methods ................................................. ............................................................. 42
Participant Selection................ ................................................... .... .. ...............42
Setting and D em ographics.............................................................................................43
P participants ................................................................................... .........................43
Qualitative Interviews ................ ........ ................. .....................44
U se of the Focus G roup M ethod ...................................................................................46
Interview ing Teens ........................ ..... .... .................................. ...............47
D ata Collection ............................................................. ................... ...............49
A adjusting to Field C conditions .......................................................................................52
D ata A nalysis................................................................ ................... ...............54
M acro- and m icro lines ............ .................................................... ...............56
M acrostructure ..................................................... .................... ...............56
Situated m earnings .......................... .................................. ...............57
D iscourse m odels ......................... ...................................... .. ...............57
Social languages ..................................................... ................... ...............57
D iscourses ....................... .................................................. ....................................57
Conversations ........................................................ .................... ...............57
V alidity in Q ualitative Studies..............................................................................................59
R liability in Q ualitative Studies..........................................................................................61
E establishing V alidity in this Study .......................................................................................61
Transferability ............................................................... ................... ...............61
Respondent Validation ......................... ................... ...............61
Peer D ebriefing............... .................................................. ...............62
Instrum entation ............................................................. ................... ...............62
Establishing Rapport ................... ........... ... .. ............... .................. ...............62
Trustw orthiness .................................... ... ... ................ ...............62
Fallibilism ............................................. ............. ............................................................ 63
R researcher Q ualifications..............................................................................................63
L im stations ........................................................................................... ......................... 64
4 R E SU L T S .............. ......... ................................................ .......................................... . 6 9
The Experience of Reading Instruction: Students ................................................................71
Textual O pacity ............................................................ ............... ...............71
Coping through retreat .................................................. ...............78
C oping through distraction.....................................................................................79
C oping through rejection........................................................................................80
N eed for Individualized Instruction...............................................................................80
Success through personal coaching........................................................................86
Success through addressing deficits.......................................................................86
Success through breaking it dow n..........................................................................87
Success through m meeting us at our level ................................................................87
O oppression ............................................................................... .... ........................... 88
Responding to pressure with nervousness..............................................................93
Responding to pressure through avoidance............................................................94
Building Tasks....................................... .. .. .. ... ... ............ ..........................94
The Experience of Reading Instruction: Teachers................................................................96
N onconducive E lem ents ................................................................................................96
Blam ing the system ..................................................... ...............102
Blam ing the student.......... .. ................. .. ................... ...............103
Claiming to be inadequately prepared................................103
Student M otivation................................ ..... ... ....... ..................104
Advocating for students by conveying their feelings...........................................108
Advocating for students by defending their interests...........................................109
Instruction Outside the Content Areas ................ ........ .................110
Defining effective secondary reading instruction and assessment.........................114
B building Tasks ............................................................. ................... ...............114
5 DISCU SSION .............................................................. ........ ..................................................... 119
Sum m ary of the Findings.................................................................................................119
Theoretical Implications of the Findings............ .............................121
Practical Implications of the Findings ...............................................................125
Recommendations for Future Research............ .............................129
Students ...................................................................................... ......................... 129
P parents ............................................... . ..................................... ........................ 129
T teachers ...................................................................................... ......................... 130
P o stscrip t............... ........ ................................................ .......................................... . 13 1
A FOCUS GROUP DISCUSSION GUIDES.....................................132
Negotiation of Reading Conditions (Round 1, Monday, March 13)..................................132
Negotiation of Teacher Assistance (Round 2, Tuesday, March 14)...................................132
Negotiation of Assessment (Round 3, Thursday, M arch 16) .............................................133
B THEORETICAL FRAM EW ORK ...................................................................................134
L IS T O F R E F E R E N C E S .............................................................................................................13 5
B IO G R A P H IC A L SK E T C H .......................................................................................................144
LIST OF TABLES
1-1 FCAT reading results by the percentage of students who scored at level three and
above: 2005 RH S dem graphic results...........................................................................18
3-1 Focus group participants by teachers..............................................................................67
3-2 Student demographics by gender, race, and grade level.................................................67
3-3 Student demographic statistics by gender, race, and grade level....................................67
LIST OF FIGURES
3-1 D ata collection process ................................................................................................ 68
4-1 Them atic netw ork ............................... .... ........................................ .. ...............116
4-2 Student themes ..................................................117
4-3 Teacher themes ..................................... .............118
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
TEACHERS' AND LOW-SOCIOECONOMIC-STATUS STUDENTS' BELIEFS ABOUT
HIGH SCHOOL READING INSTRUCTION
Craig A. Davis
Chair: Linda S. Behar-Horenstein
Major: Educational Leadership
The purposes of this study were to describe the beliefs of students of low socioeconomic
status (LSES) and high school English/reading teachers concerning high school reading
instruction and to promote understanding among each group regarding reading assignments,
teacher assistance, and assessment of reading skills. Participant views were expressed through a
series of focus group discussions conducted at a high school in a poor rural community in the
southeastern United States. Each of the three groups involved four LSES students and one
reading intervention teacher, for a total of 12 students and 3 teachers. Thematic analysis was
used to reduce the data, and discourse analysis was employed to examine how the views
expressed may be socially situated.
The global theme was identified as barriers to remediation. The students generally feel
excluded from these efforts because they are required to face texts that seem inaccessible to
them, either because of the vocabulary or the subject matter, and because they do not receive the
degree of individual instruction that they desire. They also feel oppressed by a system that
requires them to experience remediation in such a manner and that applies ongoing and intense
pressure to attain a minimum standardized test score that seems unattainable to many of them,
given their deficiencies and how those deficiencies are addressed.
The teachers feel impeded in their efforts to help the students by a variety of issues. They
must cope with poor attendance, student transience, having too many students in class, classroom
management problems, a lack of autonomy, and working with students who are reading far
below their grade level. They are especially concerned about having little opportunity to
individualize their instruction through one-on-one and small group instruction, and they struggle
with motivating students who generally resist the remediation program, often by avoiding
reading activities and assessments, including the FCAT, through disengagement and
underperformance. One teacher, in particular, believes that teaching reading in isolation is
The students seem to be using the following discourses: (1) being a student, (2) coping
through retreat, (3) coping through distraction, (4) coping through rejection, (5) success through
personal coaching, (6) success through addressing deficits, (7) success through breaking it down,
(8) success through meeting us at our level, (9) responding to pressure with nervousness, and
(10) responding to pressure through avoidance. The teachers seem to be using several other
discourses: (1) being a teacher, (2) blaming the system, (3) blaming the student, (4) claiming to
be inadequately prepared, (5) advocating for students by conveying their feelings, (6) advocating
for students by defending their interests, and (7) defining effective secondary reading instruction
and assessment. Finally, I used the discourse of being an academic researcher. All of the
discourses, aside from being a student, being a teacher, and being an academic researcher, relate
in one way or another to coping with the realities of reading instruction.
The students and teachers construct their realities of high school reading remediation
through both politics (social goods) and sign systems and knowledge. The participants see the
social good demanded by the FCAT program as information processing skills which are deemed
by the state as necessary for graduation and for economic self-sufficiency in American society.
They also share that students are not receiving a fair opportunity to obtain this good because of
the characteristics of the system within which the state and Rural High School (and its district
leadership) require it be delivered.
The participants state indirectly that American English text passages deemed by the state to
be associated with high school reading levels are privileged over other forms of text, especially
those in common use by the students themselves in their homes and subcultures, including the
narrative texts they prefer to read. They also express indirectly an understanding that there are
specific interpretations of the assigned texts regarded as appropriate by the state, and that these
interpretations must be the focus of the students' comprehension efforts. They know that the
students' decoding must arrive at these interpretations if it is to be considered valid by teachers,
computer assessment preparation programs, and test booklet reviewers. Yet, they struggle with
the irony of a system designed to offer remediation that is likely to ensure failure.
Statement of the Problem
The nation's high school students are struggling with reading literacy. In 2005, according
to test results, over one third of eighth-graders (soon-to-be freshmen) scored below the "basic"
level, and over 70% scored below the "proficient" level according to results from the National
Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006, p.
5). These statistics indicate that many high school students may not be self-sufficient readers
and, as a result, the quality of their emergent adult life may be in jeopardy. If their reading
comprehension is really so poorly developed, it is likely that they will struggle to support
themselves and to contribute meaningfully to society.
Life in developed countries demands text processing skills and a capacity for lifelong
learning to stay current with the rapidity of social change. High school graduates must
demonstrate that they can function in such a context. An effective measure of such preparedness
includes indicators of their ability to read analytically, synthesize, and apply what they absorb.
With these skills, young people become more likely to avoid lives of diminished economic
capacity, self-sufficiency, and adaptability. Indeed, these are the conditions of the average
member of a poverty community, and with them come dependency on government-sponsored
welfare programs and a temptation towards crime as a solution. Researchers have illustrated the
relationship between literacy and poverty (Denti & Guerin, 2004; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003).
The reading comprehension skills of Florida high school students are comparable to
national indicators of achievement. In 2005, 68% of tenth-graders scored below grade level on
the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) (Florida Department
of Education: FCAT, 2006a). At Rural High School (RHS) in Northeast Florida, the site of this
study, the faculty and administration have been struggling to help their students read at grade
level since the FCAT was first administered in the spring of 1999.
To address this ongoing problem, school officials have: (1) eliminated elective courses in
order to provide additional sections of remedial reading (and math) courses, (2) provided
extensive training in literacy instruction to the faculty, (3) employed two full-time reading
coaches to work with the faculty to improve reading instruction, (4) offered book talks to
students, (5) created a faculty literacy council, (6) incorporated the Read 180 literacy program in
some of the intensive reading classes (an intervention program for struggling readers involving
daily lessons that include whole-group and rotating small-group sessions-see Florida Center for
Reading Research, 2004, p. 1), (7) incorporated the Reading Counts literacy program in all of
the intensive reading and English classes (a computer-based intervention program through which
students select and read a book, take a quiz on the book, and receive immediate feedback on their
performance-see Scholastic, 2007), (8) strove to improve student attendance, (9) maintained a
reading campaign aimed at students and parents, and (10) developed a comprehensive action
plan involving continued efforts for the next school year (RHS reading coach, personal
communication, February 17, 2006; Snhmlbw n Association of Colleges and Schools, 2004, pp. 5,
The need for these efforts is more explicitly illustrated by the RHS FCAT score table (see
Table 1-1 at the end of this chapter). This table displays the percentage of students who scored
at level three or above (an indication that a student is reading at grade level or higher) by student
subgroups. The figures indicate that for 2005, most Black and Hispanic students, students with
special needs (enrolled in special education), and those on the federal free/reduced lunch
program demonstrated that they were reading below grade level.
Specifically, only 9 of 153 Black students, 2 of 15 Hispanic students, 1 of 43 students with
special needs, and 19 of 192 students on the free/reduced lunch program passed the test.
Considering that the state's objective is that only 31% of each subgroup attain a grade level
reading score (Florida Department of Education, 2004, p. 31), the performance gaps are
alarming. Of note is that the percentage of those students classified as not on the federal
free/reduced lunch program-those more economically advantaged-who attained at least a
level three is equal to the state's objective (67 of 216 passed), as is the percentage of White
students who passed the exam (73 of 236). Understanding the instructional experiences of LSES
students in the remedial classes and those of the teachers who provide instruction may offer
insight into why FCAT scores for minority and LSES students remain so low.
Purposes of the Study
The purposes of this study were to describe the beliefs of LSES students and high school
English/reading teachers concerning high school reading instruction and to promote
understanding among each group regarding reading assignments, teacher assistance, and
assessment of reading skills.
1. How do the participants describe the reading instruction they experience, including their
desires and struggles, and their responses to those struggles?
2. How do the students, the teachers, and the researcher-as-participant co-construct the
meaning they derive from their experiences?
3. What societal discourses drive the students' and teachers' views of reading instruction
and what are the implications?
Definition of Terms
* Low socioeconomic status (LSES): Refers to students who qualify for the federal
government's program for free and reduced-price school lunch (see Levine & Levine,
1996, p. 12).
* Reading comprehension: Refers to students' ability to interpret, analyze, synthesize, and
apply printed text (see Guthrie, 2005).
* Student: Refers to an LSES adolescent who is enrolled in a course largely devoted to the
teaching of reading comprehension. This student may also be described as low achieving
and/or at risk.
* Teacher: Refers to a high school educator who teaches reading comprehension as a major
component of her curriculum.
Significance of the Study
Much of the research about teacher beliefs has been directed toward areas other than high
school literacy instruction. Moreover, research on teacher beliefs within the context of literacy
instruction has primarily been conducted at the early childhood and elementary school levels.
When teacher beliefs at the high school level have been studied, there has been little attention
been paid to instruction within the English classroom, where current reading improvement
efforts are usually focused, and to literacy instruction in particular. Thus there has been a void in
research that considers the reading crisis among LSES high school students, and both teachers'
and students' voices in this context remain largely unknown. The findings of this study will
provide insight into LSES high school students' reading realities and their teachers' experiences
as they grapple with helping remedial readers attain adequate levels of achievement as measured
by the FCAT.
Despite comprehensive efforts by school personnel to address reading literacy
development statewide, LSES students continue to struggle with reading comprehension. As
another indicator of the breadth of the problem, the number of students (including non-LSES)
who have attained at least a level three has fallen by 11 percentage points from 2003 to 2005
(Florida Department of Education, 2006a). An examination of student and teacher beliefs about
reading instruction may help to provide insight into the continuing problem. For example, it is
possible that teachers may either hold beliefs about literacy instruction that do not facilitate
student success (e.g., Albright, 2001; Asselin, 2000; Hinchman, Alvermann, Boyd, Brozo, &
Vacca, 2004; Lewis & Wray, 1999; Meltzer, Katzer-Cohen, Miller, & Roditi, 2001; Tatto, 1999;
Thames & York, 2003), or they may teach in ways that are inconsistent with their convictions
(e.g., Hofer, 2002; Larrivee, 2000; McCombs, 2002; Minstrell & Anderson, 2002; Schraw &
Olafson, 2002; Yung, 2001). Students, on the other hand, may also hold views about literacy
instruction that serve to impede their success (Ericson, 2001; Guthrie, 2005; Luttrell & Parker,
2001; McGill-Franzen & Allington, 2005; Nagle, 1999; "Transforming High Schools," 2004).
Moreover, both teachers and students may gain a deeper understanding of how best to approach
reading instruction by becoming aware of each other's perspectives and their own.
While changes in teacher practice and student engagement are not likely to occur within
the relatively short timeframe of this study, the work will bring this issue to the consciousness of
the participants (and to a wider educator audience through dissemination of study results) by
creating an occasion for self-reflection and providing them with an opportunity to improve
reading instruction and performance.
Table 1-1. FCAT reading results by the percentage of students who scored at level three and
above: 2005 RHS demographic results
Total number taking Number who % > 3
the exam passed**
All students 411 86 21
White 236 73 31
Black 153 9 6
Hispanic 15 2 13
Asian/Pacific 5 *
Multiracial/ethnic 2 *
Special needs (not 43 1 2
Free/reduced lunch 192 19 10
Not free/reduced 216 67 31
Limited English 5 *
Female 197 32 16
Male 214 56 26
*No data reported when fewer than 10 students tested. **Approximations based on multiplying
the percentage provided by the total number provided. (Florida Department of Education,
2006b, School Demographic Report)
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Studies about teacher and LSES student beliefs related to high school literacy instruction
are presented in this chapter. These studies along with related literature that are presented
include the following topics: (1) literacy, (2) teacher beliefs, (3) self-efficacy, and (4) student and
"Literacy" can be defined in a number of ways. Nagle (1999) describes literacy as the
"community's ways of using written language to serve social purposes" and "school literacy" as
the "written and social language that is sanctioned in school" ("Theoretical background"
section). Similar to Nagle's view of school literacy is Luttrell and Parker's (2001) statement that
the English classroom is the "focal center of formal school literacy, and is where students are
exposed to literacy practices that are supposed to orient them to their place in society" (p. 240).
Moje (2000), however, states that school literacy also includes dress, "bearing," age, and social
positioning, which are "powerful discursive forms," and that literacy practices include the
values, beliefs, and actions that "people bring to reading and writing" ("A Note about Literacy
and Literacy Practices" section). Donahue (2000) explains that secondary teachers should view
reading as "a social activity of constructing meaning from prior knowledge, current experience,
and information from a variety of texts" ("Experimenting with Texts" section).
One can see how each definition could significantly influence classroom literacy
instruction. The teacher who holds Donahue's view would apply a constructivist approach to
teaching. On the other hand, the instructor who follows Moje's perspective would allow for a
variety of student engagements with text, accommodating culture-based preferences.
Unfortunately, what many teachers convey to students, although often indirectly, is Nagle's
notion of "school literacy," involving "written and social language that is sanctioned in school."
This perspective of course excludes other forms of language that children may bring to the class,
such as Ebonics, often rejected by educators as a form of nonstandard English, but which E. B.
Moje (personal communication, July 17, 2004) describes as:
a regular language practice tied to a particular cultural group. a language system,
complete with rules, norms, etc. although Ebonics may be used deliberately to resist
dominant language conventions, it is more often engaged in as part of regular language
practice rather than as an overt act of resistance.
School-sanctioned literacy practices have also led students to define literacy as "text-based" and
to believe that they "were not good readers if they did not like or do well in school reading and
writing" and that their private literacies have no value (Luttrell & Parker, 2001, pp. 237, 242-
245). As a teacher defines "literacy," she engages in a process of boundary-making. She may
encourage student construction of meaning or simple reception of information, and she may
allow for a variety of engagements with text or insist on mainstream interaction. She may
incorporate multiculturalism, or she may gravitate toward dominant cultural values. She will, in
effect, determine the degree of inclusion and exclusion that applies to what she deems
appropriate literacy instruction.
Working with Struggling Readers
The role of the high school teacher in working with struggling readers is controversial.
Rubenstein-Avila (2003) states that "one's stance toward literacy affects how one defines a
struggling reader" (p. 291) and argues that "beliefs about what counts as literacy shape
definitions, philosophical assumptions, and ultimately pedagogy" (p. 292). Skolnick (2000)
explains that the teacher's "inner life" is an "unacknowledged curriculum" and that her values
and beliefs emerge through her "every action in subtle and unexpected ways" (p. 89). What
teachers believe about literacy instruction can indeed be seen as a hidden curriculum that
influences how their students learn and what they experience in the classroom. This hidden
curriculum may be the key to improving high school reading instruction in particular.
Policy-maker beliefs about literacy and struggling readers have certainly played a role in
the pursuit of standardized testing. In his discussion of high-stakes testing, Guthrie (2005)
outlines five common teacher reactions to the current focus on tests: (1) feeling responsible,
embarrassed, and angry about test score publicity, (2) questioning the test's validity, (3)
believing that children are adversely affected by testing on an emotional level, (4) feeling
frustrated with the impact of testing on instruction, and/or (5) adapting to the tests (p. 286). He
also explains that teachers may be either "learning-oriented" (emphasizing "understanding of
major content themes" and teaching "reading skills that can be used widely") or "performance-
oriented" ("concerned with test scores, student achievement, and external evaluations") (p. 292).
This latter view is commonly held by teachers who struggle to cope with the pressures of testing.
In her own negative judgment about standardized tests, Skolnick (2000) contends, "Passing a test
doesn't tell us whether a child chooses to read, has the ability to select appropriate books, or has
an awareness of the metacognitive aspects of being a reader" (p. 122).
Ericson (2001) describes traditional views of the role of high school English teachers in
reading instruction, secondary reading in general, and current views on the importance of reading
elicited from preservice and inservice teachers in her Content Area Literacy, Methods of
Teaching English, and Literature Issues courses. She states that they see themselves as literature,
composition, and grammar teachers, not reading teachers. Ericson also says that they have
assumed that their students come to them already knowing how to read (p. 1). In the past,
secondary reading has been viewed as "a collection of reading comprehension skills" (p. 14).
According to her students, though, reading:
1. "lets us experience lives in other times and in other places."
2. "allows us to stretch and exercise our imaginations."
3. "lets us learn, giving us power."
4. "develops empathy and understanding of others."
5. "lets us escape."
6. "shows us how others have handled situations similar to our own, or see how others
have coped with difficult circumstances."
7. "lets us know how the world was, how it is, and how it might be.
8. "inspires us to be better human beings and citizens."
9. "lets us have fun and can make us laugh." (pp. 19-20)
She says that these statements reflect why high school English teachers should consider
themselves teachers of reading (p. 20). Christenbury (2001) contends that high school reading
efforts are undermined by teachers when they (1) do not provide time for actual reading during
the school day, (2) do not talk with students about their own reading, (3) restrict what is
acceptable reading material to specific genres, and (4) focus too much on simple recall of
information (pp. 156-157). Maybe, the views of Ericson's students are being compromised by
attempts to cope with classroom realities, as perhaps evidenced by Christenbury's observations.
Additionally, Hinchman, Alvermann, Boyd, Brozo, and Vacca (2004) assert that effective
adolescent literacy teachers "focus on strengths, especially of marginalized students, using
alternative pedagogical practices that offer adolescents opportunities to draw from multiple
forms of text to develop understandings and points of view" (p. 308). According to literacy
research, "Effective instruction will attend to older students' perceptions of competence, their
ability to make personal connections, their participation, and their development of search and
comprehension strategies that are embedded in context" (p. 308). Yet, Nagle (1999) states that
her study of working-class students' literacy backgrounds revealed that the competitive
atmosphere of the participants' high school and the privileging of middle-class literacy histories
served as literacy barriers to these students. She questions why cooperative learning is not
continued beyond middle school ("Summary of the findings" section).
Efforts to improve high school reading instruction have been resisted by some teachers
because they believe that the responsibility for such teaching lies elsewhere, as in the lower
grades. For example, McGill-Franzen and Allington (2005) have found that (1) classroom
teachers shifted primary responsibility for reading instruction to specialist teachers, (2) specialist
teachers "rarely acknowledged accepting primary responsibility" for this instruction, (3) school
principals did not accept responsibility for remedial and special education students, and (4) the
categorical programs administrator assigned this responsibility to the principal (p. 178). The
researchers argue that diffusion of responsibility leads to a lack of accountability for student
progress (p. 179).
As stated earlier, a number of researchers have learned or otherwise maintain that
teachers hold educational beliefs that are not conducive to effective teaching practices (e.g.,
Albright, 2001; Asselin, 2000; Comber & Cormack, 2005; Gunderson & Anderson, 2003;
Hinchman, Alvermann, Boyd, Brozo, & Vacca, 2004; Lewis & Wray, 1999; McGill-Franzen &
Allington, 2005; Tatto, 1999; Thames & York, 2003). In particular, McGill-Franzen and
Allington (2005) have identified three "incorrect" assumptions concerning low reading
achievement that sum up much of what has been learned about how teachers view this issue: (1)
"children and their families are the problem," (2) "specialists and separate programs are the
solution," and (3) "children who find learning to read difficult are best served by a 'slow it down
and make it more concrete' version of instruction" (p. 173). They also state:
Each of these wrong assumptions is at least implicit in the educational policies and
regulatory statues [sic] that govern school programs for low achieving, poor, and minority
children. These incorrect assumptions are the underpinnings of conventional wisdom
about how best to teach these children to read and write. we have relatively little
evidence that our current efforts substantially alter the educational futures of at-risk
children. (p. 173)
They conclude that in order to improve literacy instruction for low achieving children, educators
will have to change the way they teach and what they believe about the capabilities of these
students (p. 181).
There have been a plethora of studies about teacher beliefs. However, few of these studies
have focused on the beliefs of teachers who provide high school literacy instruction. Most of the
research on teacher beliefs within the context of literacy instruction has been directed at the early
childhood and elementary school levels. The middle school has also received more coverage
than the high school. When teacher beliefs at the high school level have been studied, relatively
little attention has been paid to beliefs about literacy instruction. Little attention has also been
paid to literacy instruction provided in English classes, where current reading improvement
efforts are often focused.
Teacher Beliefs and Multiculturalism
According to Moje (2000), the literacy practices of "marginalized adolescents are often
referred to in terms of deviance or resistance," (Introduction). Gunderson and Anderson (2003)
have explained that many North American educators share a "'mainstream,' middle-class
perspective that reflects a Eurocentric bias, which holds that authentic literature, process writing,
reader response, authentic assessment, and emergent literacy are central to literacy learning and
teaching" (p. 123). They add that teachers "seem to be convinced that students should become
independent critical learners" (pp. 123-124). However, these ideas are not shared by many
Americans, especially those from countries where education is not based on a "literacy-centered"
theory of learning (p. 124). Gunderson and Anderson argue that "any effort to search out literacy
universals or universal processes of literacy may itself be a thoroughly Western-oriented
undertaking" (pp. 140-141). The North American literacy-based perspective often clashes with
the viewpoints on learning of many immigrant families. The U.S. perspective calls upon
children to question texts, yet this idea is a contradiction to students who have been taught to
take texts at face value (pp. 140-141).
Baugh (2005) states that "extensive evidence confirms that many African Americans ...
speak nonstandard vernacular dialects of English that are stigmatized by the larger society, and
often by the educational system" (p. 237). He contends that "any educational policy that builds
on the notion that a dominant dialect is synonymous with the proper or correct dialect is
misguided at its outset" (p. 237). Teachers, however, often employ the "socio-centric" view of
schooling described by Street (2005) as tending to "privilege home and social background as the
major factor in explaining children's achievement at school" (p. 244). Therefore, they often
relieve themselves of having a responsibility for teaching within the context of Black English, or
Ebonics. They commonly see it as a dialect that must be rejected as an inappropriate
nonstandard form of English and corrected (refer to earlier description of Ebonics by E. B.
In her study of 384 general education teachers at the elementary and middle school levels,
working and living in a middle-class community, Tournaki (2003) discovered that the
participants' predictions of student academic and social success were influenced by the student
characteristics of gender, reading achievement, social behavior, and attentiveness. Their
predictions were influenced by both relevant and irrelevant information, the latter of which "may
unduly place students at greater risk for failure in the general education setting" ("Discussion"
section). Luttrell and Parker (2001) found that high school teachers' perceptions of student
potentials were often influenced by the teachers' identification of the students' culture and social
status (pp. 240-242). They state that "what seems most crucial for educators to understand is that
students' positions within their figured worlds [cultural/social places of existence] need not be
equated with their dispositions" (p. 245).
Teacher Beliefs and LSES/At-Risk Students
In his study of the literacy histories of 20 vocational high school students, Nagle (1999)
found that working-class students were disempowered by school literacy practices, which
effectively perpetuated the peer social hierarchy. He claims that his study implies that middle
class teachers assume that "literacy is a birthright of all who attend school in the United States. ..
that all students who come to school will have had some experience with school literacy
practices at home" ("Summary of the findings" section). The author explains that many of the
students in his study had not been exposed by their families to the "middle class value that
everyone reads to their children" and that they "felt like outsiders at school from their earliest
experiences" ("Summary of the findings" section). Moje (2000) and Luttrell and Parker (2001)
similarly found LSES and at-risk children effectively excluded from the mainstream educational
experience via their lack of acceptable literacy development. Within this context, Troutman,
Unger, Ramirez, and Saddler (2001) state that individual agency is socially determined-not the
property of the individual, as is commonly communicated in mainstream American culture (pp.
211-212, 216). They explain that socioeconomic status largely determines the literacy
experiences available to children (p. 214).
Teacher Beliefs and Instruction
Teachers have certain beliefs concerning classroom instruction and related issues, and
these views often impact their classroom practices. Skolnick (2000), for example, differentiates
between teaching by will and teaching through imagination:
When the teacher relates to the curriculum as a body of knowledge that she will teach
through her own determination and domination, that relationship is rigid and fragile.
Teaching by imagination [however] envisions possibilities. The mind is open and
creatively alert. Opportunities for connectedness abound and the relationship between the
teacher and the curriculum blossoms. (p. 91)
Teaching by will, as described above, has been the traditional approach to American education
and is still commonly employed in K-12 settings, while the constructivist approach to teaching
by imagination is becoming more widely accepted as more appropriate (also see Eisner, 2001).
According to Duffy (2005), the best teachers use "both transmission and constructivist models
simultaneously" within a single lesson (p. 321). Similarly, in her discussion of her success in her
12th-grade English classroom, Schauwecker (2001) credits her flexibility and her willingness to
"change directions frequently," depending on how her students respond to her instruction (p. 67).
Schraw (2001) explains that teachers model their beliefs for their students and that as their
beliefs become more sophisticated, so do their thinking and problem-solving skills. Moreover,
their instructional decisions are influenced by their beliefs, which is echoed by Anderson (2000,
p. 189) and Yung (2002, p. 98). Alsup and Bush (2003) maintain that a teacher should work
from a "philosophical base" and that her philosophy and pedagogy operate reciprocally, with
philosophy guiding pedagogy and pedagogy modifying belief (p. 3). Schraw indicates, however,
that the sophistication of a teacher's "philosophical base" may depend on her field, with those
working in the "hard sciences" reporting more sophisticated beliefs than those who work in
education and the humanities (p. 458).
With regard to gender views in particular, Hubbard and Datnow (2000) found that when
the nature of an educational reform seemed to reflect a gendered identity, it likely faced
resistance by men ("Gender Identity and Support for Reform" section). Specifically, their study
revealed that gender socialization led men to be "less willing to embrace reform efforts that
asked them to extend their teaching role from subject specialist to a nurturing caretaker of
students" ("Conclusion" section). Gender indeed may continue to play a prominent role in
education, not only in student-student interactions and teacher-student interactions, but among
the faculty as well, influencing school reform in the process.
As educators and policy-makers pursue efforts to improve teaching and learning, they must
address the impact of teacher beliefs on reform. In her proposal of the use of her Cognitive-
Affective Model of Conceptual Change, Gregoire (2003) states that how teachers perceive a
reform-as either a challenge or a threat-largely dictates whether they will work to implement
the reform (meet the challenge) or avoid it (the threat) (p. 167). And, through his study of
teacher implementation of a school-based assessment program, Yung (2002) concluded that
teachers who view policy change critically are able to control their instruction (p. 115). Again,
teachers' perceptions can hold great sway over how teachers perform, often leading them to feel
either challenged or threatened, either autonomous or bound, when facing reform. Ornstein and
Hunkins (1998) have suggested that curriculum workers need to consider their attitudes and
beliefs as formative, "subject to reexamination" and change as new evidence warrants (p. 33).
An instructor's study of her own teaching philosophy is critical to improving her instruction
since it "influences, and to a large extent determines, our educational decisions, choices, and
alternatives" (pp. 31-32). How can teachers determine if they are operating with integrity if they
have not identified and explored their own philosophies of education? How can they otherwise
discover belief-practice inconsistencies that are adversely impacting their instruction? How can
they learn whether their perspectives are appropriate for addressing the needs of their students,
especially those who come from different backgrounds?
Teacher Belief-Practice Discrepancies
Several authors have determined or otherwise argue that teachers have held beliefs that
were inconsistent with their classroom practice (e.g., Behar-Horenstein, Mitchell, & Dolan,
2005; Christenbury, 2001; Fung & Chow, 2002; Gregoire, 2003; Hofer, 2002; Larrivee, 2000;
McCombs, 2002; Minstrell & Anderson, 2002; Schraw & Olafson, 2002; Yung, 2001). The
process for leading teachers to become aware of this dissonance begins with study of the self.
A number of researchers assert that teacher self-reflection is critical to the transformation
of instructional practice (e.g., Bean & Stevens, 2002; Brown, 1999; Duffy, 2005; Dutro, Fisk,
Koch, Roop, & Wixon, 2002; Howard, McGee, Schwartz, & Purcell, 2000; Larrivee, 2000;
Middleton, 2002; Moje, Dillon, & O'Brien, 2000; Pape & Hoy, 2002; Sharp, 2003; Yung, 2001).
Some teachers may resist reflecting on their beliefs and assumptions about teaching, learning,
their students, and their actual classroom practices, and may resist seeking to improve their
performance. However, teachers' awareness of discrepancies between their beliefs and their
actions may lead to their seeking congruence by changing either or both. They may feel
compelled to eliminate the internal dissonance they encounter when they learn that they are not
teaching with integrity, that they are either not actually doing what they believe is best for their
students or holding inappropriate educational views.
For some, self-reflection may help to identify internal or external barriers to belief-practice
congruency, such as a lack of knowledge, skills, experience, and support; a lack of time; personal
framing/interpretation tendencies; assumptions; agendas; past experiences; feelings;
expectations; mandated curricula and standardized testing programs; a system that does not
honor teachers or what they believe to be best for their students; a "lack of professional culture";
the school culture; and administrative impediments (Cheung & Wong, 2002; Gregoire, 2003;
Hofer, 2002; McCombs, 2002; Minstrell & Anderson, 2002; Pape & Hoy, 2002; Schraw and
Olafson, 2002; Skandera & Sousa, 2003; Yung, 2001). Once teachers identify these barriers to
belief implementation, they are in a position to devise a strategy for either removing them or
accommodating them in a more productive manner. As this process unfolds and benefits
manifest in improved student outcomes, a new field of study-teacher belief-practice
dissonance-may emerge as a key area of interest in the national movement toward elevating
adolescent literacy. Larrivee (2000) states that teachers' value-driven expectations and their
beliefs and assumptions about students can lead them to respond to students inappropriately (p.
299). Cheung and Wong make a case for studying teachers' beliefs and practices, stating "since
teacher beliefs are thought to drive classroom actions, pre-service or in-service activities that
focus solely on teaching practices will not be effective unless the teachers' curriculum
orientations are also taken into account" (p. 227).
What educators believe about their teaching capabilities (self-efficacy) influences their
decisions about curriculum and instruction. According to Bandura (1995), a person's perceived
self-efficacy refers to someone's belief in his ability to take appropriate action when faced with a
specific situation (p. 2). Ashton and Webb (1986) differentiate between sense of "teaching
efficacy" and sense of "personal teaching efficacy" (p. 4). They define the former as "teachers'
expectations that teaching can influence student learning" and the latter as "individuals'
assessment of their own teaching competence" (p. 4). Through their study of education majors
and inservice teachers, Long and Biggs (1999) learned that both groups attributed nearly half of
the influence for a "successfully managed classroom" to the teacher (Introduction). They also
explain that teachers with a low sense of self-efficacy assign greater responsibility for learning
on the students and "other nonschool factors" (Introduction). Enderlin-Lampe (2002) states that
teachers must believe in their ability to effect change if their sense of efficacy is to be
strengthened and change is to occur (pp. 142, 144). Moreover, Duffy (2005) contends that the
most effective teachers confront their jobs by adjusting, modifying, adapting, and inventing (p.
322). The teachers Duffy describes have confidence in their abilities and rely on their own
professional judgment to guide their work. They have a "vision"-they "assume control over
instructional decision-making in order to achieve the mission" (p. 322), a mission that they
establish, based on what they believe to be in the best interest of their students.
Yet, Gregoire (2003) states that teachers with a high sense of self-efficacy have enjoyed
"mastery experiences in helping students learn" (p. 167). She explains that a teacher's sense of
self-efficacy may also be strengthened through "verbal persuasion, vicarious experiences, and
physiological and affective states" (p. 167). Milner's (2002) case study of a high school English
teacher supports Gregoire's ideas concerning "verbal persuasion" and "affective states."
Specifically, Milner provides an account of a teacher, Mrs. Albright, who overcame a
significant professional crisis-when several students and their parents questioned her ability to
teach an advanced English course-by choosing to see the situation as a challenge rather than a
defeat. And, she was able to do this through a strong sense of self-efficacy developed through
positive feedback from students and parents and a sense of feeling respected by her colleagues,
both within and outside her department. She had earlier received criticism from "bright"
students and their parents for not providing enough academic challenge, for not being "hard
enough." She began questioning her ability to teach because she believed she had been doing her
best. Although she initially felt "hurt" and "angry," she began to feel encouraged after receiving
positive feedback from colleagues and other students and parents, boosting her confidence. She
then decided to "step up to the plate" by increasing the rigor of her assignments and by becoming
more "rigid" in her grading, challenges which her students rose to meet ("A Crisis Situation for
Mrs. Albright" and "Sources of Persistence through a Crisis" sections). Milner states that
"theory may consider an in-the-meantime source of efficacy as most significant to efficacy until
a mastery experience occurs, [with] more attention.. .paid to sources of teacher self-efficacy that
guide teachers' thinking about their abilities until mastery experiences occur" ("Conclusions"
section). Mrs. Albright gained mastery through her effectively overcoming the criticism of her
Student and Parent Views about Literacy
Students also have their own views about literacy, instruction, and how their teachers
perform. Their views are likely to affect the learning process. In his interviews of working class
students, Nagle (1999) found that their literacy backgrounds led them to be excluded from
mainstream literacy practices in school and that they felt disempowered ("Summary of the
findings" section). Ericson (2001) has learned that students think they are "either good readers
or poor readers, and that there's little in between" (p. 2). Lesesne and Buckman (2001) state that
the "chief complaint" of the students they surveyed was that "teachers did not seem to know any
good books for them to read" and that students "want teachers who care about what students
want to read, who ask for book suggestions, and who read books recommended by students" (pp.
103, 105). Luttrell and Parker (2001), however, learned that boys at the high school they studied
often described reading and writing as "'girl' activities" and stated that girls "are better readers."
They found that both genders reported that "athletes are not readers" (pp. 237-238).
Meltzer, Katzer-Cohen, Miller, and Roditi (2001) found that teachers viewed students with
learning disabilities more negatively in their "strategy use, academic performance, and
organization" than the students viewed themselves in these areas (p. 85). They speculated that
the students may be working harder than these teachers realize, regardless of their apparent use
of strategies and their performance (p. 96). Moreover, in one study often Boston high schools,
56 % of the students reported that they "did not believe that their teachers really cared about
them" ("Transforming High Schools," 2004, p. 4).
According to Guthrie (2005), middle and high school students often react negatively to
standardized assessment programs. Some students believe that the tests serve the school's
interests rather than their own, and some protect their self-esteem by deliberately withholding
effort on such tests. The latter can then argue that they could have tried harder if they had
wanted to do so. And, low achieving students are "likely to feel resentment, anxiety, lack of
appropriate test-taking strategies, and decreasing motivation" (pp. 286-287). These obstacles to
test performance may hinder student engagement with texts in general if they negatively
associate reading with testing.
Parents also bring their own beliefs to bear on the literacy experiences of their children.
McGill-Franzen and Allington (2005) cited a 1989 study that revealed poor and middle-class
families' perceptions of schooling that still seem to apply today. According to the study:
Poorer families believed that the curriculum was the purview of the school, that it was
the teacher's job to teach, not the parents'. The parents' job was to "ready" the child
for school, to make sure that the child was well fed, clothed, and on time for school. These
parents did not think that they were qualified to teach the curriculum to their children, even
when the school requested that they do so to bolster the achievement of a child who was
falling behind. (p. 175)
These views of schooling are consistent with the current common lack of literacy support at
home. Many lower-class parents may believe that the teacher alone is responsible for teaching
their children to read. Middle-class parents interviewed in the same study, however, shared
[They] believed themselves to be the teacher's professional equal: parents were
knowledgeable about grade-level curriculum and about the strengths and weaknesses of
their child's teacher. In the case of low achieving children, middle class parents were able
to supplement an inadequate instructional program and compensate for a weak or
incompetent teacher by obtaining tutoring (or teaching the children themselves) outside the
school. (p. 174)
These latter views also still apply and help to explain the continued gap in achievement between
lower-class and middle-class children and the types of parent involvement that emerge from
these social classes.
LSES students are struggling to read. For the most part, teachers have not facilitated an
improvement in their performance-a crisis especially evident in the English classroom. What
teachers believe about how best to teach reading may be a significant underlying cause. While
researchers have studied teacher beliefs and a variety of other related issues extensively, they
have not focused on teacher perspectives and their influence on instruction within this particular
context. To understand what is driving the continued reading struggles of LSES students, their
voices and their teachers' will be the foci of this study.
The purposes of this study were to describe the beliefs of students of low socioeconomic
status (LSES) and high school English/reading teachers concerning high school reading
instruction and to promote understanding among each group regarding reading assignments,
teacher assistance, and assessment of reading skills. The participants were recruited from a
single site, a rural Florida high school. The school's reading coach selected the participating
teachers, who in turn, selected the students based on the criteria described below. The students
and teachers then engaged in a series of focus group discussions, which were recorded and
analyzed thematically and with a focus on discourse. These processes are discussed in detail
below according to the following topics: (1) overview, (2) theoretical perspective, (3)
subjectivity statement, (4) methods, (5) validity in qualitative studies, (6) reliability in qualitative
studies, (7) establishing validity in this study, and (8) limitations.
Through this study, the beliefs of high school students of low socioeconomic status and
their reading intervention teachers concerning reading instruction have been described. Their
beliefs were shared through focus group discussions of the following topics:
Discussion 1: Reading activities and assignments
Discussion 2: Teacher help
Discussion 3: Reading assessment
Three groups were created. The groups consisted of a reading intervention teacher, four of her
LSES students, and me (3 teachers and 12 students total). Each group met three times, and each
meeting was devoted to one of the topics, in the order indicated above. I served as both the
moderator and a participant. After all of the meetings were concluded, I conducted a member-
check discussion with each group. The objectives of this study were to have both students and
teachers share their perspectives on these issues and to promote understanding of reading
instruction among both groups. The study was designed to answer the following research
1. How do the participants describe the reading instruction they experience, including
their desires and struggles, and their responses to those struggles?
2. How do the students, the teachers, and the researcher-as-participant co-construct the
meaning they derive from their experiences?
3. What societal discourses drive the teachers' and students' views of reading
instruction and what are the implications?
Theoretical Perspective: Social Constructionism
The Researcher's View
I believe that through our interaction with other people, we create our own realities upon
which we base assumptions that drive our judgments and decision making. Indeed, aspects of
our truth are formed socially, as we test ideas on one another and assimilate or accommodate the
notions of others, sometimes negotiating to form entirely new schemas through which we come
to know our environments and ourselves. We invent conceptual systems which we use to
interpret our experiences, and these systems and the realities that we create are inextricably
situated temporally and historically. Regardless of whether we are conscious of it, what we
believe to be true today may be later unfounded by those who construct new realities. In other
words, the knowledge that we produce is tentative-always subject to redefinition as human
beings continue to build realities through their exchange of ideas and reinterpret what has
previously been taken for granted.
If we are the creators of knowledge, our perspectives cannot be viewed as neutral-
objectivity is in the eye of its designer. To be sure, the reader could contend that the view
described by this entire discussion is yet another human-made reality. The point is that there is
no way for human beings to step outside of this knowledge generation loop and critique it from a
neutral vantage point (see Crotty, 1998; Fosnot & Perry, 2005; Kincheloe, 2005; Patton, 2002;
I also believe that culture and power have contributed significantly to my reality. Social
mores, views of the other, Christianity, capitalism-much of what constitutes Western society
has seemed natural to me because these ideas, systems, and worldviews were presented to me
that way throughout my life by powerful propagators of such knowledge, including family,
church, school, government, and the mass media. One could argue that I am a product of my
society-created by systems of thought, reflecting them. But, I have participated in my
construction through my own sense making, through my own interpretations of my experiences.
If I form meanings that deviate from those presented to me from the aforementioned sources, I
may arrive at those meanings only through great effort since Western society is a homogenizing
force that loathes resistance (Kincheloe, 2005).
Definitions and Key Concepts
Because of how I view reality and its construction, I have based this study on the
epistemology of constructionism and on the theoretical perspective of social constructionism.
Crotty (1998) describes constructionism as follows:
There is no objective truth waiting for us to discover it. Truth, or meaning, comes into
existence in and out of our engagement with the realities in our world. There is no
meaning without a mind. Meaning is not discovered, but constructed. In this
understanding of knowledge, it is clear that different people may construct meaning in
different ways, even in relation to the same phenomenon... In this view of things, subject
and object emerge as partners in the generation of meaning. (pp. 8-9)
Consistent with this epistemology is the view that meaning is constructed socially. Berger and
Luckmann (1967) define social constructionism as follows.
The sociology of knowledge must concern itself with whatever passes for "knowledge" in
a society, regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity (by whatever criteria) of such
"knowledge." And insofar as all human "knowledge" is developed, transmitted and
maintained in social situations, the sociology of knowledge must seek to understand the
processes by which this is done in such a way that a taken-for-granted "reality" congeals
for the man in the street. In other words, we contend that the sociology of knowledge is
concerned with the analysis of the social construction of reality. (p. 3)
The authors also explain that society strives to maintain its institutions through legitimization
efforts (via education) applied to new generations. If members of a new generation possess an
internalized reality that differs from the artificial reality the society seeks to create for them, the
society will endeavor to transform their subjective realities through further socialization efforts
(pp. 62, 69-70, 92-94, 143, 156-157; see also Bruner, 2003, p. 169; Gergen and Wortham, 2001,
p. 119). Such efforts include the imposition of a culture-specific "moral order," a set of
standards for acceptable thought and behavior that we commonly accept as our own, perhaps
until we begin to examine how it is transmitted to us through our social systems and institutions,
through the mechanics of how our civilization is perpetuated (Gergen, 2003a, pp. 15-16).
In the construction of meaning, the relational self must also be considered. Gergen (2003a)
states that we are "made up of each other," that we are "mutually constituting" (p. 138). This
idea is based on the following arguments. The meaning of human utterances is created through a
"dialogic relationship." The individual "carries past dialogues into the present, thinks in
dialogue," and is recreated through dialogue (p. 131). When someone perceives meaning, she at
once takes a position on that meaning. When she wishes to generate meaning, she performs her
utterances through intonation, facial expression, gestures, and other forms of body language.
She delivers her ideas against a specific cultural backdrop, "carrying a history of relationships,
manifesting them, expressing them." She considers the other in the very formulation of her
expression, varying her delivery according to the receiver (pp. 132-133). Gergen also contends
that even memory itself is "socially distributed," with "correct" memories posited by a carrier
(e.g., a teacher) into the mind of a targeted receiver (e.g., a student), via conversation and a
variety of media, including textbooks, radio, television, film, and the Internet. Through the
social distribution of memory, history can be shaped and reconstructed (p. 135; see also Bruner,
2003, pp. 169-170, for a discussion of the interactional nature of making meaning; Gergen,
2003b, and Gergen & Gergen, 2003, for further discussion of the relational self; and Gergen and
Wortham, 2001, pp. 118-121). Meaning and the self are derived from relationship-they are
Realities held by the participants may also be shaped by transformative dialogue. While
the Western concept of individual responsibility drives the members of this society to assign
blame when they identify problems, they may instead employ a perspective of "relational
responsibility" to facilitate mutual understanding, the formation of new meanings, and the
appreciation of common ground. This can be pursued through a variety of methods, including
constructing the other as one who carries many voices, blaming a "particular pattern of relating,"
couching individual fault in the context of group differences, and seeking systemic causes rather
than attempting to locate individual guilt. Moreover, a person's views may be more openly
received if delivered through storytelling rather than statements of abstract ideas and if she
affirms the other in the process, through "co-constituting coordination." She may use
"coordinating rhythm," which is "to respond to a smile with a smile.. .to carry the other's tone of
voice," to express in one's clothing something of the formality or informality of the other's
style," etc. She may also employ "coordinating discourse," which involves "moving toward
mutuality in language" through "linguistic shading... [or] the substitution of a word (or phrase)
with a near equivalent," which allows for "an array of different associations, new ranges of
meaning, and fresh conversational openings" (Gergen, 2003a, pp. 154-161).
Ultimately, these efforts could lead to self-reflexivity, in which someone questions his own
views. People are able to do this because they are "polyvocal," participating in many
relationships and adapting their voices to a variety of contexts. They can learn to challenge their
own positions, seeking out voices of doubt that they otherwise suppress in the course of
argument. This approach lays the foundation for dialogic "imaginary moments," in which
participants jointly envision new realities, helping each to "redefine the other as 'us'" (Gergen,
2003a, pp. 162-163).
Social Constructionism Applied
With regard to this study, social constructionism applies to the problem being examined,
the research method, and the data analysis. Although the students' reading literacy abilities are
judged according to their performance on the FCAT, the cultural context of meaning-making
varies among the students, their teachers and school administrators, Florida's education policy-
makers, and those involved in designing the test itself The variation of socio-economic status
alone potentially plays a significant role in how a student, a teacher, and a test author process the
same reading passage. Moreover, when taking the test, the students are restricted to sense-
making in isolation from their peers and their teacher, which compromises their ability to
construct meaning socially.
The focus group interview was employed as the primary method of data collection. The
students, teachers, and I co-constructed the realities of high school reading instruction, as
experienced by those involved. As we discussed the various issues at play, and I conducted
member checks with the groups after we completed the scheduled discussions, we shaped what
emerged as transcript data. Throughout my interactions with the participants, I endeavored to
coordinate the rhythm and discourse through my speech (tone, inflection, "linguistic shading"),
facial expressions, gestures, other forms of body language (striving to appear open, welcoming,
warm, neutral), my dress (casual), and through my efforts to moderate the discussion (striving to
give voice to all the participants). In other words, I attempted to facilitate an inviting, open,
comfortable, and honest series of discussions so that the data might more closely reflect the
The use of thematic and discourse analysis methods are also consistent with social
constructionism. The themes emerged from a plurality of voices (see Attride-Stirling, 2001).
My identification of these themes was itself a co-constructive process. Discourse analysis is
driven by interactivity, intersubjectivity (defined by Bruner, 2003, p. 169), and communal
meaning. Through this method, the data are examined with an eye toward how those engaged in
discussion participate in the construction of reality (Gee, 2005, pp. 10-11). Throughout the
analysis, I considered my role in the generation of data.
I am a former teacher of high school English who served in a relatively poor rural
community in the South. During my graduate studies, I have been trained in qualitative research
methods and have co-authored qualitative studies currently in press. Because of the difficulties
LSES students have encountered in learning to read and improving their comprehension skills,
and the difficulties their teachers have had in helping them, I wanted to understand their realities.
I wanted to understand how they viewed their struggles and what they believed would help to
resolve them. I believed that if I could expose myself to new forms of knowledge, especially
those that are usually marginalized, I would enrich my own reality and the realities of my
audience-those who could share in my discoveries.
State and federal realities are being imposed on teachers, and those same realities along
with those of teachers are being imposed on students. There is little tolerance from the power
blocs driving the current standards movement for resistance from either teachers or students.
Their voices are marginalized, even often silenced. Indeed, they may not even hear each other.
Through my work, I hoped to describe and communicate their realities to others, especially
those who may be in a position to respond with solutions to the problems they are enduring. The
participants may in fact be in the best position to resolve these issues. If there are assumptions
that hinder reading development embedded in the teaching and learning situation under study,
perhaps held by them, I wanted to bring tacit knowledge to a conscious level so that a new path
to progress based on mutual understanding might be forged. Thus I hoped to become a student
of the participants' realities so that I could become their advocate (Kincheloe, 2005; Fosnot,
2005; Fosnot & Perry, 2005; von Glasersfeld, 2005).
Three faculty members who teach reading to LSES students as reading intervention
instructors were recruited with the help of the school's reading coach. I asked these teachers to
recommend four of their LSES students (n=12) for participation, using the following criteria:
* Diversity: African American, Latino/Latina, Caucasian (to reduce racial bias in the data)
* Representation of both genders (to reduce gender bias in the data)
* Engagement in class (students who participate in class and are capable of speaking
cordially about the issues)
o Awake and alert often enough to know what is happening in class
Verbally interacts with other students, even if she does not read aloud or
answer lesson-related questions
* Enrolled in the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program (a measure of whether a
student may be considered LSES)
* Attends class/school regularly, is not frequently assigned to in-school suspension
* Verbally competent, socially adept, and willing to engage in discussion (the data would be
driven by the participants' voices)
The teachers were also asked not to select students who were turning 18 during the data
collection stage (a student turning 18 during this period would impact the informed consent
process per the Institutional Review Board).
Setting and Demographics
RHS is a public comprehensive high school, grades 9 through 12, situated in a poor rural
community in the North Florida region. The school has an enrollment of approximately 1,700
students, 42% of whom receive free and reduced-price lunch, and has a 39% minority population
(Florida Department of Education, 2006c, 2006d). In the surrounding community, the median
household income in 2003 was $28,613, the percentage of persons living below the poverty level
in 2003 was 18.7%, and the median value of owner-occupied housing units in 2000 was $68,500
(U.S. Census Bureau, 2006).
The participants included 3 White female faculty members, Mrs. Hoskins, Mrs. Otero, and
Mrs. Thompson (pseudonyms) who teach their high school's reading intervention course, titled
Intensive Reading. Mrs. Hoskins has taught at the high school level for several years, however,
this is her second year of teaching Intensive Reading. Mrs. Otero taught at the elementary school
level for several years before joining the faculty of Rural High School. She is in her first year of
teaching Intensive Reading. Mrs. Thompson has been teaching for two years, both at RHS as a
teacher of Intensive Reading. The students, all of whom were participating in the federal free
and reduced-price lunch program at the time of this study and enrolled in Intensive Reading, are
listed below, grouped according to their teacher, and identified by pseudonyms (4 students per
teacher, n = 12; see Table 3-1). Their genders, races, and grade levels are also provided (see
Table 3-2). For summary demographic statistics, see Table 3-3 (these tables are provided at the
end of this chapter). Each of these students had previously failed the reading portion of FCAT,
thereby failing to demonstrate grade-level reading comprehension as measured by passing this
Researchers interview people to gather information from them about things that cannot be
directly observed. For example, thoughts, feelings, and intentions cannot be observed, nor can
past behaviors, situations that preclude the researcher's presence, or how people have
constructed their worldviews. Through interviewing, the researcher can access another person's
perspective, operating under the assumption that the other's perspective can be known and is
meaningful (Patton, 2002, pp. 340-341; see also Gubrium & Holstein, 2002a, p. 3; Kvale, 1996,
pp. 1-2). Interviews are used to collect data for a variety of purposes, including, but not limited
to, employee selection, journalism, mental health therapy, social casework, criminal
investigation, market research, political polling, and academic research (see Platt, 2002, for a
history of the interview).
Forms of interviewing include (1) the survey (a face-to-face exchange, with the interviewer
gathering specific information); (2) qualitative and in-depth interviewing (a less structured, more
exploratory exchange that is theoretically based and aimed at gaining access to the interviewee's
perspective and experiences and at understanding her; while the qualitative interview is "focused
on the 'qualities' of the respondent's experiences," the in-depth interview is targeted at "'deep
disclosure'" that allows for exploration of emotion) (Gubrium & Holstein, 2002b, p. 57); (3) the
life story interview (which may be either naturalistic, involving a "search for meaning and
pattern within respondents' lives," or constructivist, involving the "mechanisms of co-
construction that take place as the interview encounter unfolds) (p. 58); and (4) focus group
interviewing, in which the aim is to "explore the range and depth of shared meanings in an area"
(p. 58). Yet another view of interviewing-the postmodern-blurs the distinction between
interviewer and respondent and reverses or combines these roles in a treatment of conversations
as reflexive, with the premise being that "answers raise new questions and, in turn, become the
basis for eliciting new answers" (p. 58).
Types of interviews include (1) the informal conversational interview, in which the
questions "emerge from the immediate context and are asked in the natural course of things"
(Patton, 2002, p. 349); (2) the interview guide approach, in which "topics and issues to be
covered are specified in advance, in outline form... [and] the interviewer decides sequence and
wording of questions in the course of the interview" (p. 349); (3) the standardized open-ended
interview-"the exact wording and sequence of questions are determined in advance," the same
questions are posed to all interviewees and in the same order, and the questions are open-ended
(p. 349); and (4) the closed, fixed-response interview, involving "questions and response
categories [that] are determined in advance" and fixed responses, with the respondent having to
choose from among the responses (p. 349). There are also several types of questions that may be
posed during an interview: (1) experience and behavior, designed to ask about a person's actions
that the interviewer would have been able to observe had she been present (pp. 348, 350); (2)
opinion and values, which are "aimed at understanding the cognitive and interpretive processes
of people" (p. 350); (3) feeling (elicit emotions); (4) knowledge (obtain factual information) (p.
350); (5), sensory, which ask "about what is seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled" (p. 350);
and (6) background/demographic, which identify respondent characteristics, like gender, race,
education level, occupation, etc. (p. 351).
Use of the Focus Group Method
The focus group method was utilized because this study considered the interaction of the
participants, including the researcher, and how we co-constructed meaning. The purposes of this
approach are to "generate large quantities of material from relatively large numbers of people in
a relatively short time" and to obtain data that are "seldom produced through individual
interviewing and observation.... [as they involve] synergy and dynamism generated within
homogeneous collectives [that] often reveal unarticulated norms and normative assumptions [and
which provide access to] collective memories and desires" (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2005, p.
903; see also Morgan, 1997, p. 8). As Krueger (1998a) explains:
Focus group interviews produce data...in a focused manner. As a result, participants
influence each other, and things learned can shape attitudes and opinions. The discussion
is evolutionary, building on previous comments and points of view. (p. 20)
Focus groups can be used to "inhibit the authority of the researchers and to allow participants to
'take over' and 'own' the interview space" and can lead to the "unearthing of information that is
seldom easy to reach in individual memory" (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, p. 903). This method
first emerged in 1941 when researchers employed the focus group method to study "media
effects on attitudes toward America's involvement in World War II," largely disappeared during
the mid-20th century, and reemerged in the early 1980s as a form of audience analysis research in
which the "primary goal was to understand the complexities of how people understood and
interpreted media texts" (pp. 898-899). Later, focus groups were most commonly associated
with market research, although during the 1990s, they were increasingly employed in academic
studies (Morgan, 1997, p. 2). There are three basic applications for focus groups: as a self-
contained method, as a supplementary approach used in studies employing another method as the
primary means of data collection, and as one of two or more methods used in a multimethod
project in which no single method employed "determines the use of the others" (Morgan, 1997,
For this study, focus groups were used as a self-contained method, the primary means of
data collection (Morgan, 1997, pp. 2-3). While serving as both the moderator of the discussions
and a co-creator of meaning, I both provided the focus of each meeting by asking questions from
a topic guide and participated in generating data by keeping the discussions bounded, probing
responses, seeking clarification of responses, checking for understanding, and clarifying my
prompts when they seemed unclear to the group. In other words, whenever I communicated
something to the group either verbally or nonverbally, I participated in the generation of data.
When conducting thematic analysis, I identified themes that emerged from the many voices of
the groups. And, as I conducted discourse analysis, I based my conclusions on data that were
driven by interactivity, by group dynamics, by the ways in which the members positioned
themselves in relation to each other as they engaged in the discussions of how they have
experienced and view high school reading instruction, and by my participation (Kamberelis &
Dimitriadis, 2005, p. 904).
I incorporated particular approaches to working with adolescents into the focus group
process. To begin with, I was mindful of the imbalance of power between the students and
myself, as it is cultivated in Western society, whereby children are assigned a lower status than
adults. I considered the student participants as their own minority group, as defined by their age,
both disadvantaged and disempowered. The fact that they were being researched may have
further impacted their status. Unfortunately, no matter how I tried to compensate for this
imbalance of power, I recognized that I would be unable to bring all of us to the same level
because overcoming the role differences associated with age, cognitive development, physical
maturity, and acquired social responsibility was not conceivable. I also could not change the
likelihood that they may have been taught to respect me simply because I am an adult (Eder &
Fingerson, 2002; see also Brinkman & Kvale, 2005).
Still, I took steps to facilitate a more comfortable and inviting situation for open
communication. I tried to create a natural context for interviewing to lessen the effects of the
power imbalance. The use of the focus group approach and ensuring that several students were
involved in each group was probably more natural to the students since they were more
accustomed to talking among their peers and likely more comfortable doing so than they would
have been individually (this is especially the case for African American students). Because there
were four students and only two adults (three if the observer is considered) in each group, the
power dynamics were more balanced than they would have been in a one-on-one situation. The
students may have revealed their cultures) and their realities more completely as they were in a
position to assist each other in sharing this information in a manner that would be more
representative linguistically than it may have been if each was on her own. This may have
lessened the possibility of imposing my interpretations and language on them during the
exchange. Additionally, their accounts were likely more accurate since teens often compel each
other to justify their statements (Eder & Fingerson, 2002).
Within the context of the discussions, I endeavored to provide the students (and teachers)
with a greater sense of empowerment by listening carefully to what they had to say, emphasizing
the centrality and importance of their voices. Through my interactions with the students (and
teachers), I may have indirectly led them to a greater understanding of their own experiences by
encouraging them to share aspects of their learning (and teaching) experiences that they perhaps
have not discussed before, possibly because they assumed or learned that the adults in their lives
(and the teachers' students) would not listen to their concerns. In short, I attempted to convey to
the participants that they had an opportunity to express themselves honestly and that they would
be heard in a nonjudgmental and accepting manner (Eder & Fingerson, 2002; see also Kvale,
1996; Kyngas, 2003). Throughout my interactions with the participants, I was conscious of the
ethical implications of faking friendship for the purpose of gaining information. I endeavored to
treat the participants with sincerity and make my agenda plain to them (Brinkman & Kvale,
(Refer to Figure 3-1 at the end of this chapter for a summary of the data collection
process.) One week before I began conducting the focus groups, I held an introduction meeting
for the participants in the school's media center. During this meeting, I introduced myself and
my observer (a fellow doctoral student), described the study, distributed information sheets that
included a basic description of the study, collected signed consent forms, and provided ground
rules for the discussions. The participants introduced themselves, and I provided refreshments
during the meeting.
There was a total of eight data collection points (nine were scheduled; one was lost due to
a fire drill). I conducted three discussions for two of the three groups, and two discussions for
the third group (covering two topics during one of the meetings). The interviews lasted
approximately one hour each, resulting in approximately eight hours of data. Each discussion
was devoted to one topic. The topics, in the order of coverage, included (1) negotiation of
reading conditions (reading activities and assignments), (2) negotiation of teacher assistance, and
(3) negotiation of assessment. Within each topic, specific questions served to guide the
discussion (see Appendix A for the discussion guides). Participants also provided an opening
statement of belief or opinion about the reading instruction they had received (or delivered) at
the beginning of the first discussion and a similar closing statement upon the completion of the
final discussion. My prompt in both cases was: "What is your opinion about how reading is
taught in high school?" Before the first two discussions, I provided ground rules for participation
to the respondents, including a request that they would not interrupt or talk over one another. As
a warm-up activity for each meeting, I posed an ice-breaker question, such as "Please tell us who
you are, the grade you're in, and what you like most about high school." Upon conclusion of
each meeting, I provided refreshments to the respondents as a form of compensation.
I also conducted a member-check discussion/debriefing with each group after the
individual group sessions were completed. These last sessions (4 in all, approximately 1 hour
each) could be considered additional data collection points, for a total of 12 data collection points
(one debriefing was conducted with the teachers as a separate group-see below for a discussion
about separating the teachers from the students).
To obtain feedback about both how the discussions unfolded and my participation, I
enlisted a fellow graduate student as an observer. She took field notes to describe the
interactions and capture relevant data that would otherwise not have been evident in the audio
recordings (i.e., watching for nonverbal communication from the participants and observing how
I facilitated the group interaction). During each session, she kept a running log of notes. After
each round of discussions, we debriefed, and I asked her the following questions, as
recommended by Krueger (1998b):
1. What are the most important themes or ideas discussed?
2. How did these differ from what we expected?
3. How did these differ from what occurred in earlier focus groups?
4. What points need to be included in the report?
5. What quotes should be remembered and possibly included in the report?
6. Were there any unexpected or anticipated findings?
7. Should we do anything differently for the next focus group?
8. Did I:
a. Give clear ground rules?
b. Establish and maintain rapport, and create a safe environment for respondents
to share their views and experiences?
c. Keep the discussion on topic?
d. Probe for clarity?
e. Avoid leading the respondents?
f. Include everyone in the discussion?
g. Attend to nonverbal communications?
h. Vary voice tone during the process?
i. Give clear instructions/directions to the respondents?
j. Ask questions that seemed understandable to the participants? (pp. 34, 97)
I also shared my reactions to what I observed and asked for her feedback concerning those
reactions. In other words, I would say, "I saw/felt/got the impression that/heard X. Did you
see/feel/get the impression of/hear the same thing? If not, what did you experience?" These
debriefings were recorded and transcribed, and the transcripts were reviewed as part of the data
The focus groups were conducted in a conference room located in the school's media
center. The participants sat on either side of an oblong table, while I sat at the head of the table
so that I could more directly maintain face-to-face contact with the respondents. The observer
sat at the other end of the table. The respondents were seated toward my end of the table, which
allowed for some distance between the observer and the participants. The discussions were
recorded (audio only). The recorder and table microphone were positioned on the table, toward
the center, where the participants were seated.
Adjusting to Field Conditions
During the first two rounds of focus groups, the students seemed hesitant to talk about their
views of and experiences with reading instruction. Two of the participating teachers, Mrs. Otero
and Mrs. Thompson, stated that they believed the students were reluctant to express themselves
honestly in their presence and that they were holding back. The other teacher, Mrs. Hoskins,
stated that she believed the students were having trouble articulating their thoughts, that perhaps
the questions should be submitted to them in advance so that they could have time to think of
how to answer them. The school's reading coach, Mrs. Madsen, who initially helped coordinate
the logistics of the study, also expressed concern that the students had trouble articulating
answers to the questions, that perhaps they were not aware, on a metacognitive level, of how
they were experiencing reading instruction and could therefore not describe their experiences nor
offer opinions about them.
Another possible issue identified via consultation with the supervisory committee was that
perhaps the students had little, if any, experience expressing their opinions to adults in a
nonadversarial context, that perhaps the novelty of having an adult seeking to listen to them, to
seek their honest input, was awkward for them.
To facilitate student input, I decided to conduct the third round of focus groups without the
teachers present. When this change did not seem to have an impact on the degree of student
commentary, we decided to reevaluate the data collection methodology. After further
consultation with my committee, I also decided that I would do the following. I would listen to
the recordings and transcribe key comments (relating to essential concepts/issues) made by the
students. I would base my selection of key quotes on whether I wanted to seek to (1) verify the
most salient comments, (2) check the less salient comments, or (3) fill in the gaps on responses
(to particular questions) that differed among the students (taking a middle approach to the first
two strategies). I then used my final meeting with the students to (1) seek their input to the
selected quotes, (2) ask them to think of me as a messenger and to state what I should tell the
high school reading teachers about what students need from them in order to improve their
reading, (3) perform a member check with the students regarding the transcript data, and (4) seek
their feedback about the overall focus group experience, asking questions like:
A. During our earlier meetings, you seemed to be having trouble answering some of
the questions. Can you tell me why?
B. Were you uncomfortable/nervous talking in front of your teachers?
C. Were you uncomfortable/nervous talking in front of me?
D. Were any of the questions confusing or too difficult to answer?
E. When you were answering the questions, did you say everything that came to
your mind (regarding how you feel about reading activities/assignments, teacher
help, reading assessment)?
Regarding the teachers, I debriefed with them after school to (1) readdress any of the initial
questions that were missed, including those concerning reading assessment and whether they
would make any changes in a given area (reading assignments/activities, teacher help, reading
assessment); (2) perform a member check with them regarding the transcript data; and (3) seek
their feedback about the focus group process itself, asking questions similar to those posed to the
A. Were you uncomfortable/nervous talking in front of your students?
B. Were any of the questions confusing or too difficult to answer?
C. When you were answering the questions, did you say everything that came to
your mind (regarding reading assignments/activities, teacher help, reading
Rather than attempting to facilitate a dialogue between the students and their teachers, I focused
on understanding the perspectives of each side within the context of Gee's (2005) discourse
The interview transcriptions were first studied inductively, and the responses were coded
(open coding) according to emerging themes. Through the application of Attride-Stirling's
(2001) Thematic Network Analysis, participant comments that pertained to the research
questions were first organized according to basic themes. Next, these themes were grouped into
two organizing themes, one for the students, and one for the teachers. Then, a global theme
which seemed to capture all of the themes was identified, and all of the themes were arranged in
a web-like structure that expresses their relationships (see Figures 4-1 through 4-3). The purpose
for this process was to reduce the 12 hours of discussion data (approximately 300 pages of
transcription) so that they would be more manageable for discourse analysis. As Richards
(2005) explains, "All data require reduction if a story is to be told, an account given of what
those data records show... .Like the shrunk plastic cladding around an item in a hardware store,
your data record should be as large as it needs to be and as small as it can be" (pp. 52, 54).
In order then to explore the realities of reading instruction which the participants had
created through the group discussions, Gee's (2005) method of discourse analysis was employed.
According to Kamberelis and Dimitriadis (2005):
As "staged conversations," focus groups are especially useful to researchers who want to
conduct various kinds of discourse analyses... .Focus groups allow researchers to see the
complex ways in which people position themselves in relation to each other as they
process questions, issues, and topics in focused ways. These dynamics themselves become
relevant "units of analysis" for study. (p. 904)
Discourse analysis was applied to those transcript passages that pertained to the research
questions and which supported the themes that were initially identified. A general description of
discourse analysis and how I applied it to this study follows.
Gee (2005) is concerned with the use of language to construct reality: "We continually and
actively build and rebuild our worlds not just through language but through language used in
tandem with actions, interactions, non-linguistic symbol systems, objects, tools, technologies,
and distinctive ways of thinking, valuing, feeling, and believing" (p. 10). He describes
"language-in-use" as a "tool" used to "design or build things" and explains that "whenever we
speak or write, we always and simultaneously construct or build seven things or seven areas of
reality," which he refers to as "building tasks" (p. 11). These tasks are listed below along with
the question a discourse analyst can ask about teach one:
1. Significance: How is this piece of language being used to make certain things
significant or not and in what ways or not?
2. Activities: What activity or activities is this piece of language being used to enact
(i.e., get others to recognize as going on)?
3. Identities: What identity or identities is this piece of language being used to enact
(i.e., get others to recognize as operative)?
4. Relationships: What sort of relationship or relationships is this piece of language
seeking to enact with others (present or not)?
5. Politics: What perspective on social goods is this piece of language
communicating (i.e., what is being communicated as to what is taken to be
"normal," "'right," "good," "'correct," "proper," "appropriate," "valuable," "the
ways things are," "the way things ought to be," "high status or low status," "like
me or not like me," and so forth)?
6. Connections: How does this piece of language connect or disconnect things; how
does it make one thing relevant or irrelevant to another?
7. Sign systems and knowledge: How does this piece of language privilege or
disprivilege specific sign systems (e.g., Spanish vs. English, technical language
vs. everyday language, words vs. images, words vs. equations) or different ways
of knowing and believing or claims to knowledge and belief (taken directly from
In order to understand how these building tasks are performed and "with what social and
political consequences," however, several "tools of inquiry" are used to examine how the
participants are employing language (p. 19), including: macro- and micro-lines, macrostructure,
situated meanings, discourse models, social languages, discourses, and conversations (in
ascending order of focus, from micro to macro level).
Macro- and micro lines
A macro-line is a speech sentence, which is "much more loosely constructed, much less
tightly packaged or integrated, than in writing" (p. 132). A micro-line, on the other hand, is an
"idea unit," described as:
Each small spurt out of which speech is composed usually has one salient piece of new
information in it that serves as the focus of the intonation contour on the spurt. There is
often a slight hesitation, or slight break in tempo after each spurt... .The "mind's eye" also
focuses on one fairly small piece of information at a time, encodes it into language, and
puts it out of the mouth as a small spurt of speech. Each small chunk in speech represents
one such focus of the mind's eye, and usually contains only one main piece of salient
information. (pp. 124-125, 132)
While each unit of text on a numbered line of a transcript passage (e.g., la, lb, and Ic) is a
micro-line, the lines (la, lb, and Ic) taken together comprise a macro-line. And, the focus of
each micro-line is underlined (p. 133).
A transcript passage may also be organized into major sections, referred to as stanzas, that
pertain to subtopics or parts of narrative structure, as in setting, catalyst, crisis, evaluation,
resolution, and coda (pp. 129-131).
Gee explains that "words have different specific meanings in different contexts of
use.... [their meanings are] 'grounded in actual practices and experiences"' (p. 53).
Discourse models are "the largely unconscious theories we hold that help us make sense of
texts and the world.... [they] are simplified, often unconscious and taken-for-granted, theories
about how the world works that we use to get on efficiently in our lives." We develop them
through experience, and they are influenced by our social and cultural groups (p. 72).
When people use language specifically to express "who they are and what they are doing,"
they are employing a social language. Nonlinguistic forms of communication are not considered
when a social language is examined (p. 36).
Discourses (with a capital "D") are "ways with words, deeds and interactions, thoughts and
feelings, objects and tools, times and places that allow us to enact and recognize different
socially situated identities" (i.e., being a student, being a teacher, being an academic researcher)
Conversations (with a capital "C") are:
Debates in society or within specific social groups (over focused issues such as smoking,
abortion, or school reform) that large numbers of people recognize, in terms of both what
"sides" there are to take in such debates and what sorts of people tend to be on each side.
Again, these "tools of inquiry" are used in the study of how people construct their realities, with
each tool laying a foundation for the use of the next, from a micro-focus on the data to a macro-
focus, with Conversations serving as a grand backdrop against which the respondents build their
worlds. These tools allow the researcher to arrive eventually at how respondents are using the
seven building tasks described above.
For the purposes of my study, I chose to examine the building tasks of politics and sign
systems and knowledge. The issue of reading remediation involves the social good of reading
literacy, as defined by Florida's standardized assessment program (the FCAT), and the forms of
text the students are expected to process proficiently tend to be informational and expository and
relate to issues/topics that often seem uninteresting or irrelevant to them. These texts, and
standard American English, are being privileged over other texts and forms of English, namely
those with which the students may be most comfortable. In arriving at how the respondents were
using these building tasks, I used the following tools: macro-and micro-lines, macrostructure,
and discourse. These tools seemed adequate for examining how the participants were
constructing their realities of reading instruction-how they were using the building tasks.
For each theme, I selected representative passages and presented them according to my
interpretation of their macro- and micro-lines and macrostructure. In other words, I reorganized
the transcript lines into macro-lines (sentences of speech) and micro-lines (intonation units), and
I underlined a word if it was the focus of the micro-line. In most cases, I treated all of the lines
of a given passage as a single stanza since they are related to a single "state of affairs" (Gee,
2005, pp. 128-133). I indicated the macrostructure only when the text seemed to suggest
subtopics or elements of narrative structure that could be organized into stanzas, and I used
ellipses to indicate either inaudible speech or an omission of text from a quote. I then identified
and described all of the discourses that seemed to be related to the construction of the text that
supported the theme. Lastly, I examined how the participants were using the building tasks of
politics and sign systems and knowledge to construct the realities of reading instruction related to
Validity in Qualitative Studies
Scheurich (1997) defines validity as "an historically embedded social construction
appropriated by a 'community of scientists' who decide that certain outstanding examples of
research...will guide further work by the community in considering what is and is not
trustworthy" (p. 82). He argues, however, that the concept of validity is plagued by a binary
view of research as either acceptable or unacceptable and a view of the world in terms of either
"same" or "other" (pp. 84-85). He instead calls for a treatment of validity as "the wild
uncontrollable play of difference" by adopting an investigative state of "silence...a space of
emptiness... [a] clarity of unknowing that appropriates no one or no thing to its sameness" (p.
Lather (2003), on the other hand, presents validity through four frames: (1) ironic, which
involves foregrounding "the difficulties involved in representing the social rather than repressing
them in pursuit of an unrealized ideal" (p. 677); (2) neo-pragmatic, the focus of which is "to
foster differences and let contradictions remain in tension" (p. 679); (3) rhizomatic, which
"undermines stability, subverts and unsettles from within...a response to the call of the otherness
of any system" (p. 680); and (4) situated, which "posits the fruitfulness of situating scientific
epistemology as shaped by a male imaginary," asking "what the inclusion of a female imaginary
would effect where female is other to the male's Other" (pp. 680-682). She describes her
categorization of validity as an overall presentation of transgressivee validity," the aim of which
is to overcome the inadequacy of "traditions of research legitimacy and discourses of validity"
(p. 683). In the end, Lather (2001) argues, the legitimacy of a research project lies within a
"reflexivity about research practices that takes into account both the crisis of representation and
the limits of reflexivity" (p. 243). She situates validity as a "discursive site that registers a
passage to the never arrived place where we are sure of our knowledge and our selves" (p. 247).
Validity for qualitative research can also be pursued more conventionally through
transferability, respondent validation, peer debriefing, and trustworthiness, what Lather (2001)
would describe as "regulatory discourses of validity" (as opposed to the "constitutive" described
above) (p. 244). While generalizability cannot be realized, the findings may be transferable from
the specific case being examined to another with similar circumstances. The responsibility of
such transfer, however, is left to the reader and facilitated by the researcher providing sufficient
detail through thick description of the circumstances of the study (Patton, 2002, pp. 437-440,
581-584; Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 279; Schwandt, 2001, p. 107).
Respondent validation can be established by the researcher performing member checks
with study participants so that they may verify the accuracy of observation and interview data
(Creswell, 2003, p. 196; Patton, pp. 560-561; Schwandt, pp. 155-156). For peer debriefing, the
researcher can continually consult expert colleagues during the study in order to evaluate the
accuracy of observations and conclusions and strive to resolve any discrepancies that may
emerge. Such an approach can minimize the effects of researcher bias (Creswell, p. 196; Miles
and Huberman, p. 278; Schwandt, p. 188).
Finally, to develop trustworthiness, the researcher can establish her credibility by
describing her qualifications to perform the study and provide a subjectivity statement. She
should also have an audit trail that documents the activities of the study throughout its duration;
clearly link her interpretations and findings to all of the data, reporting methods and results in
context; and if applicable, present discrepant information that initially ran counter to emerging
themes (Miles & Huberman, pp. 278-279; also see Creswell, p. 196). To strengthen her claims,
she should actively seek anomalous data throughout the study; if she discovers a deviant case,
she must explain how she adjusted her claims to accommodate it (Patton, pp. 554-555;
Silverman, 2005, pp. 215-219).
Reliability in Qualitative Studies
Some qualitative researchers argue that the work of an investigator cannot really be
replicated by another and that therefore the concept of reliability is irrelevant. Many others,
however, insist that some degree of reliability can and should be pursued. Some explain that
using conventionalized methods in fieldwork, via field note approaches and interview
transcription and analysis, and using inter-rater checks on data coding and categorization
processes can establish reliability. Others recommend carefully documenting the procedures for
generating and interpreting data in order to establish that the evidence to support a claim is
dependable (Patton, 2005, pp. 544-546; Schwandt, 2001, pp. 226-227; Silverman, 2005, pp. 220-
Establishing Validity in this Study
Operating from the perspective that socially constructed knowledge is situated, I have
endeavored to provide sufficient detail through thick description of the circumstances of the
study in order to allow readers to decide if the findings are applicable to other cases with similar
I conducted a member check/debriefing with the participants so that they could verify the
accuracy of my understanding. Checking for accuracy, however, was also embedded in the
focus group approach itself, through the interaction. I emphasized the participants' voices
throughout the discussions, and I continually checked for the accuracy of my understanding of
their statements by frequently repeating what they said back to them, often by making statements
like, "So, I understand you to be saying that ... ." As St. Pierre (1997) states, "I deliberately
sought the Other, many different others, at every stage of the research process, knowing that my
very limited, partial, and situated position in the world was both productive and dangerous" (p.
184). This view also applies to my use of peer debriefing.
Throughout the study, a doctoral student peer reviewer, my supervisory committee chair,
and I independently assessed the data to improve the reliability of any conclusions reached. We
continually evaluated the accuracy of our observations and strove to eliminate any
misperceptions, as revealed through this check system. This practice likely helped reduce any
potential impact of researcher bias.
The discussion guides were designed with the assistance of qualitative research expert Dr.
Mirka Koro-Ljungberg, also of the University of Florida's College of Education, and my
supervisory committee chair, Dr. Linda Behar-Horenstein.
I hosted a social gathering of the participants prior to the first discussion in order to
introduce myself and the study and to meet the participants. I provided refreshments for this
meeting and for each of the focus group sessions. Whenever I met with the participants, I
endeavored to maintain a friendly rapport through pre- and post-discussion conversation.
In addition to providing circumstantial detail sufficient to allow transferability of the
study's findings and performing a member check, I have established my credibility by describing
my qualifications to perform such a study (see below) and by providing a subjectivity statement.
I also recorded an audit trail by documenting the activities of the study throughout its duration.
Finally, I have linked my interpretations and findings to the data and reported methods and
results in context, a "cardinal principle of qualitative analysis" (Patton, 2002, p. 563).
Throughout the study, I actively sought out anomalous data in order to strengthen my claims.
Although I took the above steps to ensure the integrity of my study, I hold that the view of
fallibilism applies to my attempts at establishing validity. I concur with Thayer-Bacon (2003),
I do not think any of us, as knowers, can escape our own social embeddedness completely,
and therefore I do not think any one standpoint has the chance of offering us a privileged,
clearer, sounder view... .1 do not think that any of us has a spectator's view on Reality; we
are always embedded within it. We do not have views from nowhere, and we are also
never able to see the world from everywhere. We are always situated and limited, our
views are from somewhere. We are able to gain more critical leverage the more we
experience and expose ourselves to others' standpoints, but we are never able to gain
complete understanding. (p. 32)
With this view in mind, I cannot claim that my descriptions, interpretations, and findings
accurately represent the experiences of the participants and how they construct their realities.
My account of what occurred during the study is subject to error and revision. What I have
established through the steps described above, though, is the plausibility of my findings. Once
the reader weighs the situation studied, how I executed my research, my credibility, and the
credibility of my evidence, the reader will likely conclude that my findings are indeed plausible
(Schwandt, 2001, p. 91). In short, I have sought to establish "validity as quality of
craftsmanship" (Kvale, 1996, p. 241).
Although a novice qualitative researcher, I have completed coursework in qualitative data
collection and analysis and program evaluation. I have conducted three qualitative studies, one
of which I presented at the 2005 meeting of the American Educational Research Association and
submitted for publication. I have served as a peer reviewer for a qualitative dissertation study,
and I have been trained in the use of qualitative data collection and analysis software. I have
also co-authored two studies, one of which is in press and another which is under review, and co-
authored a published encyclopedia entry. The topics of my previous studies include patient
perceptions of hospital safety, teacher nonuse of instructional time, the behavior of elevator
occupants, and assistant principal role definition. I also collected interview and observation data
for a longitudinal study designed to assess the sustainability and impact of the Florida Reading
Initiative on classroom practices at an elementary school in the Northeast Florida region.
This study has some limitations. It involved only 12 students and 4 teachers, who were
recruited from a single high school, which is situated in a relatively poor, rural community. The
students who were included were recruited in part because of their consistent attendance at
school, their cooperation and dependability in the classroom, and their social skills. The
inclusion of more participants, both students and teachers, including some from an urban high
school, and students who had demonstrated resistance to schooling through poor attendance and
defiant behavior may have led to somewhat different and/or additional findings. The voices of
the students' parents were also not heard, yet their contributions might have also influenced the
data. The transferability of the findings may be further compromised by the following issues.
Some participants may not have been forthcoming, and this may have been due in part to
limitations of interviewing, including the use of focus groups. According to Patton (2002):
Interview data limitations include possibly distorted responses due to personal bias, anger,
anxiety, politics, and simple lack of awareness since interviews can be greatly affected by
the emotional state of the interviewee at the time of the interview. Interview data are also
subject to recall error, reactivity of the interviewee to the interviewer, and self-serving
responses. (p. 306)
As discussed earlier in this chapter, after the second discussion, I decided to separate the teachers
from the students in an effort to facilitate student input. Some students had seemed hesitant to
respond to discussion questions, and two of the teachers questioned whether the mixed-group
arrangement made the students feel uncomfortable. While my initial intention was to facilitate
mutual understanding between the students and teachers, the power differential may have made
some students feel uncomfortable (although during the debriefing sessions, all but one denied
this was the case).
Some participants may have misrepresented their beliefs and attitudes. Two of the
students and one of the teachers admitted to masking their emotions during certain responses in
order to ensure that their comments were acceptable for me to hear (and for the recording).
Student attendance also became an issue. At times, a student was absent from the group or
either arrived late or left early to avoid missing a test or classroom presentation. The students
often arrived several minutes after the discussions were to begin, and one session had to be
cancelled altogether because of a fire drill. For that group, two session topics were covered
during one meeting.
Because I had to moderate the discussions so that the topics of study were addressed, I
cannot be sure how natural the interactions were (Morgan, 1997, pp. 8-9). Moreover, I was
implicated in the construction of meaning as both the moderator and member of the groups.
Therefore, the data cannot be separated from my involvement, nor can my analysis of the data be
free of my subjectivity.
As a social constructionist, I would argue that all knowledge, including that which is
generated by this study, is situated and therefore tentative. My theoretical perspective, however,
also serves as a limitation, as confirmed by Patton (2002):
[Social constructionists and] constructivists embrace subjectivity as a pathway deeper into
understanding the human dimensions of the world in general as well as whatever specific
phenomena they are examining... .They're more interested in deeply understanding specific
cases within particular context than in hypothesizing about generalizations and causes
across time and space. Indeed they are suspicious of causal explanations and empirical
generalizations applied to complex human interactions and cultural systems. (p. 546)
A positivist audience would likely question the legitimacy of research driven by such a view.
They would argue that if the findings cannot be generalized, if they have not been generated by
the use of "well-defined variables and causal models.... [and through the] subjects' random
assignment to experimental groups," their value-their usefulness-would be in question
(Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, pp. 8-9).
Table 3-1. Focus group participants by teachers
Hoskins Otero Thompson
Chelsea George Masey
Robert Sabrina Shawna*
William Lanna Mark
Patrice Nicolette Holley
*Although Shawna was enrolled in Mrs. Hoskins' class, she was assigned to Mrs. Thompson's
group because her group needed a fourth student participant.
Table 3-2. Student demographics by gender, race, and grade level
Student Gender Race Grade level
Chelsea Female White 11
Robert Male African American 11
William Male African American 9
Patrice Female African American 9
George Male White 9
Sabrina Female African American 9
Lanna Female Latina 10
Nicolette Female White 9
Masey Female Latina 11
Shawna* Female African American 10
Mark Male African American 10
Holley Female White 10
Table 3-3. Student demographic statistics by gender, race, and grade level
Female Male African American Latino/a White 9th grade 10th grade 1 1th grade
8 4 6 2 4 5 4 3
Figure 3-1. Data collection process
Using Attride-Stirling's (2001) Thematic Network Analysis and components of Gee's
(2005) approach to discourse analysis, the focus group data were analyzed. The overarching
theme that students and teachers described was barriers to remediation. Students described how
they felt excluded from reading instruction due to (1) textual opacity, (2) need for individualized
instruction, and (3) oppression. Teachers described impediments to their instruction as (1)
nonconducive elements, (2) student motivation, and (3) instruction outside the content areas (see
Figure 4-1 at the end of this chapter).
Most of what the teachers and students discussed related to issues that, to them, rendered
remediation efforts largely ineffective (see Figures 4-2 and 4-3 at the end of this chapter for the
student and teacher themes). Teachers and students agreed that frequent challenges for students
included reading text that was difficult to understand in order to determine its meaning and
answering comprehension questions that required more than a recall of information. Teachers
stressed that students needed individual instruction if they were to overcome the need for
Within a general discussion of barriers to remediation, students expressed feeling excluded
from text that was comprised of unfamiliar vocabulary and uninteresting subject matter. They
felt separated from the program because it did not provide enough individualized instruction to
permit them to advance their skills. They also expressed feeling oppressed because they were
forced to experience remediation through intense and ongoing pressure from the state's
assessment program. The state requires that they pass the FCAT in order to be eligible for high
Teachers' comments indicated a sense of impediment. They described how they
endeavored to attend to individuals' learning needs in an instructional context that was not
conducive to these efforts. They described how often they struggled to motivate students to
engage with text that initially seemed too difficult or otherwise uninteresting. Also, one of the
three teachers repeatedly argued against teaching reading outside the regular content areas and
asserted that reading skills could not be developed well in isolation.
In an effort to contextualize socially what the teachers and students have communicated, I
applied components of Gee's (2005) method of discourse analysis. What follows are
illustrations of this analysis organized according to participant category (teachers/students) and
theme. I also considered my involvement in the construction of meaning. First, however, I will
describe the discourses that were at play throughout the study.
Students employed their social language within the general discourse of being a student.
Gee (2005) defines "discourse" as the language people use to build identities and activities,
together with other "stuff' that is not language, like dress, behavior, and other nonverbal forms
of communication (pp. 20-21). The particular behavior that the students demonstrated
throughout the focus group discussions was waiting to be called upon by me to answer a
question. Only rarely, and then for only a few minutes at best, did they actually discuss an issue
among themselves. For the most part, they treated me as an authority figure, waiting on me to
pose questions and call on them individually to respond, even though I explained that our
meetings were intended to be group discussions.
Discussing reading remediation from their perspective, the teachers used the general
discourse of being a teacher. Through their presentation of self and commentary, they conveyed
their image of professional educators who understand the problems underlying their students'
reading skills. They projected their voices clearly; were dressed professionally; were polite; and
demonstrated respect for each other, the students, and the researcher by striving to be on time for
the meetings and by trying to avoid interrupting other speakers.
As the researcher, I employed my social language within the general discourse of being an
academic researcher. Although I attempted to downplay my discourse by dressing casually in
order to make the students feel more comfortable, I was required to wear an identification tag as
a school security measure. This tag effectively served as a conspicuous marker of an adult
authority figure. I also sat at the head of the oblong table used during the group meetings so that
I could be in a better position to see everyone's face and moderate the discussions. Finally, my
participation in the discussions involved asking a lot of questions, which also served to place me
in the role of an investigator, as someone seeking rather than sharing information.
The Experience of Reading Instruction: Students
In all three focus groups, students continually expressed frustration about being required to
read text that seemed inaccessible to them because it was loaded with vocabulary that they did
not comprehend or because the content was so boring that that they could not maintain their
focus. They talked about being so turned off by the assigned texts that they daydreamed during
reading and testing. They reported that they were often unaware of what they had read and were
unable to demonstrate comprehension by responding to post-reading questions. Some students
shared that they had this same experience while taking the FCAT, and as a result, simply filled in
the response bubbles to complete the answer sheet. Much of what students discussed revolved
around the FCAT. All of the participating students were required to take the remedial reading
class (titled Intensive Reading) because they did not pass the reading section of the FCAT.
Therefore, their focus on test-related issues is not surprising.
The discussion excerpts in this chapter tend to involve the same students. All of the
student-generated issues that will be discussed were common across all of the focus groups.
However, only a few of the students tended to talk at length about their experiences, thereby
providing rich illustrations of what happened during their reading instruction, from their
In the following discussion excerpt, Robert, Chelsea, Patrice, and William responded to the
question "If you were in charge of how students are tested on their reading ability in high school,
what changes would you make?" A word is underlined if it is the focus of the micro-line. All of
the lines of this passage comprise a single stanza since they are related to a single "state of
affairs" (Gee, 2005, pp. 128-133).
1. Robert: I would get rid of the FCAT.
2. Question: And, your main reason for that again is?
3. Robert: Basically, the reading.
4. Question: The reading?
5. Robert: Yeah, I failed it twice.
6. Chelsea: Me, too (she and Robert laugh).
7a. Question: If you were to try to come up with a reason why you think you
failed the test,
7b. what would it be?
8. Robert: Probably the questions.
9a. Question: OK.
9b. What about the reading passages?
lOa. Robert: Yeah, those too.
lOb. Kind of like, when they're real boring, I kind of look
away, look around and stuff, and get off topic (laughs).
11. Chelsea: Yeah, you're always thinking about what you're going to do later
(Robert: Yeah), and what you're going to do tonight, and how, it's
just (trails off).
12. Robert: Yeah, "I can't wait till I get out of here."
13a. Chelsea: I know.
13b. [I'm thinking] "How much longer we got left, again?"
14. Patrice: And, we spend so much time on it, too.
15. Robert: Yeah, sitting in a room, filled with complete silence.
16a. Chelsea: I liked it because when you got done, you could put your head
down and go to sleep
16b. ... .and you really didn't even pay attention to the passages.
17a. Robert: And, when you get to the questions, you're, like, guessing and
don't want to look back [to the text] for the answer
17b. [it's] too far to go back, and you've got to read all over again [to
determine the answers].
18. Question: So, in the end, it really doesn't matter what the questions are
because the passage is what really turns you off in the first place?
19. Robert: Yeah.
20. Chelsea: Right.
21. William: I'm the same with them. (H316T23-C, 324-374)
Despite having failed the reading section of the FCAT at least two times, Robert and Chelsea
both laughed about their past performance and discussed how they consciously avoided the test
by disengaging from the reading activities. They talked about how their minds wandered and
how they passed the testing time idly by waiting for it to end. On the surface, it seems like they
were resigned to failing the test, despite how doing so jeopardizes their graduation.
Although the discussion began with specifics about who failed the test and how many
times, the students then described their rejection of text that seems inaccessible to them-how it
is boring; how they do not attend to it; how long they have to endure it; and how they think about
what they are going to do after the test, the silence of the room, going to sleep, and getting out.
Their escape from the test-taking situation has been achieved by daydreaming and sleeping.
They seemed to be describing an oppressive situation, one that compels them to search for a way
As the discussion moderator, I contributed to the shaping of this exchange by asking them
what changes they would make to how they are tested. Perhaps I implied to them that change
was necessary, that something was wrong and needed to be addressed. When I asked them about
whether the test questions "matter," I invited them to question the legitimacy of the test by
perhaps inferring that if the passages are inaccessible, the questions are irrelevant, and therefore
the test itself is irrelevant.
In the following exchange, Sabrina discussed her experience with a reading practice
computer program called FCATExplorer. Through this program, she practiced reading test-like
passages and responding to the questions that follow. Students may work at grade level or
choose to work at a lower level. The students were asked to describe the reading activities or
assignments that they enjoyed the most. Sabrina stated that she liked working on the in-class
computer, especially playing the available word games. Mrs. Otero, her teacher, then asked her
to talk about what she thought of FCATExplorer.
la. Sabrina: The 10th grade was a little too hard
lb. so I went to the 4th grade (laughs).
2a. Question: So, the FCAT Explorer program that helps you prepare for the
FCAT for the 10t grade you found too hard
2b. so you went to the 4th grade.
3a. Sabrina: It was complicated
3b. because some of the words were too big
3c. and some of them I hadn't learned yet.
3d. And, so, I just take it back up to the 4th grade, to the level they had
and try those
3e. see could I learn more words
3f. and that'd probably help by doing that.
4. Question: So, you were using the 4th grade level to learn vocabulary?
5a. Sabrina: I started on the 10t and kind of got half-way through,
5b. but I didn't kind of get the rest of it
5c. so, I was getting most of them wrong
5d. so just went up to the 4th
6. Question: When you were moving down from 10th, was your next choice the
7. Otero: Actually, there's 8th grade.
8. Sabrina: I went to the smallest one.
9. Question: And, you did that because you were more comfortable with it?
10. Sabrina: Yes.
11. Question: Did you look at the 8th grade before you went to the 4th grade?
12. Sabrina: Mmm hmm [yes], and it looked like the 10th. (0313T1-C, 226-
Sabrina explained that she was unable to comprehend text for her grade level presented through
FCATExplorer. She did not feel capable of understanding until she moved to a lower grade
level in the program. She shared that her struggle was that the vocabulary was "too hard,"
"complicated," "hadn't learned yet," and "wrong." She reduced her challenge to the "smallest
one" available in the program, explaining that the program's next level below 10th-8th-"looked
just like the 10th."
I contributed to this exchange by focusing Sabrina's attention on her decision to move
from the 10th grade level of FCATExplorer to the 4th grade, perhaps implying that this was an
important issue. I tried to understand what led her to make what seemed to be a dramatic
reduction in reading level and asked her if she had looked at the 8th grade material before going
to the 4th. Although she introduced the issue of vocabulary as her reason for the change, I was
trying to reassure myself that there was a learning purpose behind her decision, that she was
using the 4th grade material to "learn vocabulary," because she was preparing to move up in
Sabrina also talked about what has happened when she is required to read text that she
finds difficult, an experience similar to what Robert and Chelsea described in Excerpt 1.
Responding to the question of what points made during the discussion do the participants believe
have been the most important, Mrs. Otero talked about the students understanding what they
have read, and Sabrina responded.
la. Otero: And, I want my students to have more understanding
lb. and she [Sabrina] brought that up.
2a. Just because they're reading a book, they may not necessarily
2b. and, I know vocabulary is one way to increase that knowledge....
3. Sabrina: Like the book we're reading right now, I don't know nothing about
4a. I read it, and then the next time, like when we read it we have to
take questions on it, I don't comprehend on it
4b. because I done forgot it all
4c. so it's gone.
5a. When I'm reading, I comprehend what I'm reading at the time
5b. and then my mind goes to something else
5c. and it's gone.
6. Question: When your mind goes to something else, are you talking about
maybe daydreaming, thinking of something that has nothing to do
with the story?
7. Sabrina: Exactly (laughs).
8. Question: So, when you're then asked questions that call on you to show how
you understand the story, you have trouble with those because you
were thinking about other things?
9. Sabrina: Yes.
10. Otero: And, you need to know that we're not reading but like 7 pages.
1 la. Question: Sabrina, let's say that you've just finished your seventh page.
1 lb. You're reading seven pages, you've finished your seventh page.
1 ic. How long does it take you to forget what you've just read?
12a. Sabrina: I'd probably be daydreaming before it's time to get through...
12b. My nerves be tense
12c. and I start looking around.
13a. Then, I go back to the book
13b. and I've lost my place
13c. so I start all over and try again. (0313T1-C, 369-404)
When Sabrina reads text that she does not understand, her "nerves" become "tense," her "mind
goes blank," she starts daydreaming and "looking around," she forgets what she has read so far,
loses her place in the text, and has to reread it. And, all this happens before she can finish seven
pages of a grade-level novel in class. Her words of focus related to this experience, although I
used the word "daydreaming" to restate her phrase "goes to something else." Her comments
were similar to Robert's and Chelsea's. They described their own tendency to look around and
daydream when reading challenging text and then having to reread the passagess.
During a discussion of reading assessment, Sabrina talked about shutting down completely
during her testing, believing that any effort to succeed with 10th-grade level reading is useless.
1. Question: So if you're doing the 10th grade level in FCAT Explorer and you
read the passage a little bit and you see that you don't like it ...
2. Sabrina: I ain't read it.
3. Question: You don't even start to read it?
4. Sabrina: No, I ain't read it!
5. Question: Not even the first few sentences?
6. Sabrina: Uhuh!...
7. You know when you have to write "Think and Explain" [the Read,
Think and Explain section of the FCAT, where students write
extended responses to reading comprehension questions]?
8. I don't never do that...
9. My process writing [is] a [at a level] 1
10. I don't do it! ...
11. Question: And, why is that?
12a. Sabrina: I don't like to write
12b. and I better stay focused on what I be reading.
13a. Question. So reading is already such a challenge for you
13b. you're already having enough trouble with 10th grade reading that
the writing is just too much to deal with?
14a. Sabrina: Right.
14b. The reading and writing
14c. because I don't comprehend on what I was reading
14d. and so [when] it's time to "Think and Explain," I don't do it.
Sabrina clearly rejects both the reading and writing activities that she is expected to do
during testing practice and on the actual FCAT. Many of her words of focus conveyed negation,
like "don't like," "a in't read it," "never do," "don't do," and "don't comprehend" as she talked
about how she refuses to engage in such activities. And, I contributed to maintaining this theme
of rejection by attempting to confirm my understanding of her statements by using the same
First, we established that Sabrina skips the 10th grade reading passages in FCATExplorer
when she is required to work at that level. She then relies on the laws of probability to answer
the questions correctly by taking advantage of the repeated opportunities that the program offers
to guess at them. Next, we found that she also refuses to answer the "Read, Think, and Explain"
sections that follow reading passages in the FCAT because they require that she write out
extended responses rather than select a response in a multiple choice format. Although she said
that she has outright refused to read 10th-grade level test material, she also stated that she has
avoided the extended response questions on the test because she felt compelled to concentrate on
reading the passages. Still, she concluded by saying that since she does not comprehend what
she reads, she does not complete the written response sections on the test. I seem to validate her
feeling overwhelmed when in lines 13a and 13b I used phrases "enough trouble," "such a
challenge," and "too much to deal with" to explain her refusal. Sabrina's rejection of these
activities implies that she has felt excluded from an assessment context that involves reading
material that she does not understand. She has made up her mind that 10th grade material is
beyond her grasp and will not engage with it.
Sabrina's perspective has been emphasized because she elaborated on issues that other
participants said substantially less about. Her comments about having difficulty attending to
10 th-grade level text, though, were consistent with the experiences described by the other
students, including Robert and Chelsea.
To investigate what may be driving the students' views, the discourses and building tasks
were examined. These elements of Gee's (2005) approach to this method of analysis derive from
the macro-/micro-line structure examined above. The discourses at play in the theme textual
opacity are discussed below. The building tasks are discussed at the end of the section on
student themes and discourses.
Coping through retreat
Rather than confront l0th-grade-level text when using the FCAT practice software, Sabrina
has retreated to a lower level text, falling all the way back to 4th-grade-level activities-the
"smallest one" (see Excerpt 2). She complained that the 10th grade vocabulary is "too hard,"
"complicated," that the words are "too big," and that she "hadn't learned [some of the words]
yet." Although she initially attempted the 10th grade level of the program, she found that she was
answering many of the questions that follow the passages incorrectly and now continues to avoid
this level. While an 8th grade level is available, she stated that it "looked like the 10th." When
Sabrina first admitted to doing 4th grade work in the program, she laughed, perhaps because she
was aware that she has retreated a long way from the text that she is expected to master at her
grade level. Regardless of what is expected of her, Sabrina chooses to cling to the comfort of
Coping through distraction
Most of the students talked about escaping from the difficulties of grade-level reading and
processing informational text by allowing their minds to wander, even while testing. Robert
admitted that when bored with passages, he would "kind of look away, look around and stuff,
and get off topic" (see Excerpt 1). Similarly, Chelsea talked about how she would think of what
she was going to be doing later. Both Robert and Chelsea discussed thinking about the time,
being distracted by the silence in the room, wanting to put their heads down, not paying attention
to the test passages, and then guessing at the answers to the questions because they did not know
what they had read. Although they have both failed the FCAT twice, they seemed resigned to
avoiding the test through mental escapism.
Sabrina also discussed how when faced with questions on a passage she does not
comprehend, she cannot respond correctly because the text is "gone" from her mind-she has
"done forgot it all" (see Excerpt 3). She stated that her mind "goes to something else" as she
tries to read and that her "nerves be tense." Then, she starts "looking around," eventually losing
her place in the text and having to "start all over and try again." Like Robert and Chelsea, when
asked to process grade-level text, Sabrina cannot maintain her focus on the passages and does not
recall what she has read. She chooses to daydream instead of wading through the unfamiliar.
Coping through rejection
The students also expressed outright rejection of 10th grade text, especially informational
text, and the FCAT itself. Robert wanted to "get rid of the FCAT" (see Excerpt 1). Robert's
group agreed that the specific test questions did not matter to them because they were "turned
off' by the passages themselves-their rejection of the text left the questions that followed
unanswerable. By retreating to 4th-grade-level text, Sabrina has rejected 10th grade text as well
(see Excerpt 2). Now, she will not even look at the 10th grade sections of FCAT Explorer and
refuses to attempt the extended response questions that follow the test passages (see Excerpt 4).
She explained that she has so much trouble with the passages that she will not try to write out
responses to the "Read, Think and Explain" questions. She knew her writing was at a "level 1"
(it must be at a level 3 in order for her to qualify for graduation from high school) and therefore
did not feel capable of tackling the questions that require her to write. Her lack of confidence
with processing 10th grade text through reading and writing has led her to cope with the FCAT
by rejecting its requirements.
Need for Individualized Instruction
When discussing their experiences with how their teachers have helped them in class,
students repeatedly mentioned how one-on-one assistance or small group activities with the
teacher were the most beneficial. They frequently stated that they wanted much more
individualized instruction. The following passages illustrate comments made by most of the
students, although only a few speakers are represented in this discussion.
When her group was asked to describe a situation in which one of their high school
teachers helped them with their reading, Chelsea responded as follows:
la. I think for me the one that helps me best is Mrs. Hoskins
lb. because I just took the FCAT for the third time
Ic. and it was reading.
2. Mrs. Hoskins...., like their blue FCAT books, we were doing those in class
earlier, in the beginning of the year.
3a. And, she encourages
3b. and, like, "Oh, you can pass-just do this and this."
4. Well, after class, I asked, I said, "Mrs. Hoskins, what can help me to focus
5a. Well, then we did this little sheet of paper that tells us our weaknesses and
5b. and, like, we had it highlighted.
6a. Well, my weaknesses were... compare and contrast
6b. so I went back
6c. and she asked me if there was any way.
7. And, she'd give me bonus points on that if I'd go back and do the whole chapter
on the compare and contrast.
8a. Well, I did it
8b. and when I did it for her, I passed it.
9. And, I'm like, "Well, why can't I get this on the FCAT?"
10. And, I think she's the one that helps me the most.
1 la. And, I think she's-out of my whole, my three years that I've been here
1 lb. I think she's really the one that's helped me the most.
12a. [She] encourages
12b. and sticks to your side
12c. and just, that kind of teacher that's friendly
12d. and also a teacher
12e. and wants to be there
12f. and just helps. (H316T23-C, 62-80)
Chelsea, now a junior, has taken the reading section of the FCAT for the third time. She
explained, though, that this is the first time she received individual help from a teacher in
identifying her specific reading weakness-"compare and contrast." The teacher provided her
with an opportunity to practice the skill and offered her "bonus points" for following through
with the practice. And, when she was assessed on this skill again, apparently through a non-
FCAT measure, she demonstrated competency. Although she still must succeed with this skill
on the FCAT, she wondered why she has not been able to do so previously. Her words of focus
were related to teacher intervention, teacher encouragement, the use of incentive, and teacher
characteristics that have made a difference to Chelsea: "encourages," "sticks to your side,"
"friendly," "also a teacher," "wants to be there," and "just helps." Chelsea explained that by
demonstrating care and providing individual attention, Mrs. Hoskins has "helped me the most," a
statement she made in various forms repeatedly.
My only prompt for Chelsea was asking her to describe how one of her high school
teachers has helped her with her reading. This prompt assumed, however, that she had indeed
been helped in some way. She freely described the experience, without any intermittent
prompting from me, and praised Mrs. Hoskins and her efforts, although Hoskins was not present
during this meeting.
Shawna also described Mrs. Hoskins as a teacher who has provided the individual help she
believes is essential to her reading development.
1 a. You just have to find the right teacher
lb. that's going to teach it right
Ic. because some teachers, they don't
Id. you don't learn it like this.
le. but some, they teach you how you know it
2a. ... you have to find the right teacher...like, my teacher this year, Mrs. Hoskins
2b. like, if you have a problem, she breaks it down to the basics
2c. where it needs to be at.
3. And, if you're having a problem with something, she's always there.
4. You can always talk to her and stuff. (T313T1-C, 69-78)
For Shawna, the "right teacher," one who will "teach it right," is someone who will "teach you
how you know it," according to how a student best learns (see line Id). By tailoring instruction
to the individual student's needs, this teacher makes the instruction/content manageable for the
student and is always approachable. While Shawna contended that some teachers do not
individualize their instruction, she believed that Mrs. Hoskins had done so.
Shawna was responding to the discussion questions, "What is your opinion about how
reading is taught in high school? How do you feel about it?" I intended these questions to be
neutral, inviting the students to respond however they wished. Shawna answered them without
any intermittent prompting from me. She, however, spoke after Masey had talked about how she
had asked her guidance counselor to move her to Mrs. Thompson's class because she believed
her reading remediation needs were not being met.
Within the same discussion, Mark mentioned how he also had a reading teacher who did
not meet his needs and how Mrs. Thompson now provides the individual attention he wants,
including after-school tutoring.
la. Mrs. Thompson, she teaches everything in steps and stuff
lb. like I would like it.
2. Because, like, last year, the teacher I had would just work out of a workbook
3. She wouldn't even explain something.
4a. Mrs. Thompson, she would take time out for her students
4b. and sometimes... like when FCAT was getting ready to come out, and I'd stay
4c. and she'd let me read articles and find out information and work on my
4d. what I needed to work on for the FCAT. (T313T1-C, 189-196)
Like Shawna, what is important to Mark is the individual access he has to his teacher, even if the
bulk of that access is available after school. Like Mrs. Hoskins, Mrs. Thomas makes the
instruction/content manageable, teaching "everything in steps," and does not leave Mark to
acquire skills solely through a workbook approach to remediation. She tailors her instruction to
Mark's specific needs, working on his "weaknesses."
Mark was responding to the discussion question, "If you were in charge of reading
activities and assignments in the high school, what changes would you make?" While he did not
recommend any specific changes, he implied that reading remediation should be driven by the
students' individual needs. His words of focus related to the theme of need for individualized
When asked to state their opinion about how reading is taught in the high school, Holley,
Mark, and Shawna also emphasized the importance of individual instruction and how it seems to
1. Holley: Some teachers need to learn to teach a little bit better.
2. Question: And, what do you mean by that?
3a. Holley: Like, some teachers, they'll write on the board and tell you what to
3b. and, like, if a student don't comprehend it
3c and you go to ask
3d. sometimes, they won't tell you what to do.
4. They'll be like, "It's on the board-read it."
5a. Mark: I think the ones [teachers] that don't know how to really teach
5b. should go to, like, a teaching convention or something, a reading
5c. so they can know how to teach the students on their level.
6a. Shawna: You got some teachers that can teach
6b. and you have some teachers that don't.
7a. They expect for you to learn it on your own
7b. and you can't
7c. you can't do that like that. (T316T3-C, 321-338)
Here, the students described an experience that was mentioned repeatedly during the discussions:
students believing that they have been left to struggle with their remediation largely on their
own. They talked about teachers who seem either unable or unwilling to help them individually,
referring them to "the board" instead. Mark even mentioned the need for teacher training, and
Shawna argued that, at least for her, remediation will not work if it is left to the student: "you
can't do that like that."
Several of the participants viewed having students of markedly different reading
achievement levels in the same class as a barrier to individual instruction, that the needs of those
who are struggling are not being met in such situations. When Masey stated that the students
should be grouped according to their reading level, Lanna, raising her voice, spoke emphatically
as Shawna agreed with Masey.
la. Lanna: And I agree
2. Shawna: I agree.
lb. Lanna: because if there's a person like she was saying that's less advanced
than one person
Ic. as the teacher's working to bring up the low person's ability and
what they don't know
Id. you're bringing down the other
le. because meanwhile we know we're sitting in this class where the
people that don't know
If. and we just got to sit there listening to what we already know as
2a. Even though I think it's good to help your peers and help them
2b. I think we should be with our level in a class where the teacher's
teaching me something that she knows as well.
3. We're learning something together.
4a. It's not like I'm just learning it
4b. and she doesn't know it.
5. I think we should be in a class where everybody has the same
6. Masey: Same level.
7. Lanna: Yes. (T419SD-E, 951-1000)
Lanna shifted the focus from the students who are struggling to those who are more advanced,
arguing that their needs are also not being met-they are having "to sit there" and listen to what
they "already know." For these students, the classroom teacher is largely unable to provide the
need-based instruction they seek because she cannot focus on one ability level without ignoring
another. Although Patrice's suggestion of using peer support might improve the situation, Lanna
still believed the students should be taught according to their reading level. The discourses at
play in the theme need for individualized instruction are discussed below.
Success through personal coaching
Chelsea described her experience with finding success through the personal coaching she
received from Hoskins (see Excerpt 5). She explained that Hoskins investigated the weakness
Chelsea needed to address, encouraged her, and provided the incentive of bonus points. Hoskins
provided a measurement for the use of "compare and contrast" and assessed her performance in
this area, confirming that Chelsea had indeed progressed. Chelsea implied that in nearly three
years of attending Rural High School, this is the first teacher-student relationship that has helped
her to improve a skill she needs to pass the FCAT, and the difference for her has been Hoskins'
coaching approach. Shawna has also benefited from Hoskins' personal attention, explaining that
"she's always there... you can always talk to her and stuff' and that the "right teacher" will
"teach you how you know it" through individualization (see Excerpt 6). Mark stated how he has
learned more effectively when Thompson "would take time out" for him, working with him after
school (see Excerpt 7). Holley, Mark, and Shawna, on the other hand, discussed the problems
associated with a lack of coaching (see Excerpt 8). They complained about having teachers who
"don't know how to really teach reading," who leave the students to struggle through the lessons
on their own and simply refer them to the instructions when they ask for help. Here is the
antithesis of a coach, one who demands the attainment of a goal without providing necessary
Success through addressing deficits
The students often discussed how they needed help with their individual reading
weaknesses, arguing that such help is what leads them to success. As mentioned above, Chelsea
improved her text processing abilities when Hoskins addressed her need for help with comparing
and contrasting (see Excerpt 5). Mark talked about how Thompson's after-school tutoring made
a difference for him because she would "work on my weaknesses-what I needed to work on for
the FCAT" (see Excerpt 7). The participants described specific struggles with reading, and they
wanted help that would target the particular deficits that lead to those struggles.
Success through breaking it down
Students also described how they needed to have concepts and processes broken down for
them so that their learning could be more manageable. Shawna (see Excerpt 6) stated that "if
you have a problem," Hoskins "breaks it down to the basics, where it needs to be at," while Mark
(Excerpt 7) talked about how Thompson "teaches everything in steps... like I would like it." To
learn how to identify the main idea of a passage, for example, the students asked that this skill be
treated as a step-by-step process. They wanted to learn an approach that will guide them to the
main idea, one that they can transfer from one text to another. For many students, "breaking it
down" involves learning unfamiliar words they encounter in a passage before they can apply
Success through meeting us at our level
Addressing another common concern, Lanna argued that students should be taught
according to their ability levels (see Excerpt 9), complaining that the needs of more advanced
students are ignored in the process of focusing on those who need more remedial instruction.
She stated that the students should be "in a class where everybody has the same level," and
Masey echoed this point. Mark contended that teachers should receive training in individualized
instruction (see Excerpt 8), so that they "can know how to teach the students on their level."
Obviously, not all students are at the same place developmentally, especially with regard to
reading skills. Attempting to address the needs of an ability-varied group with a whole-class
lesson without providing follow-up, personal support seems futile, at least for those who are left
behind by the lesson. The students were keenly aware of this. They knew when their needs were
being ignored, and they resisted instruction that allowed this to occur. More importantly, they
were not gaining from such instruction.
In sum, another theme emerging from the student data is need for individualized
instruction. Individual students' reading deficits are unique, yet they often receive instruction
intended to apply to general reading deficiencies. At times, the students are left to manage their
own remediation through the completion of seatwork, apparently with little, if any, teacher
guidance. They talked of being referred to the board or to a workbook when seeking help.
When they have received individual help, they have benefited from it, and they wanted more.
They did not see value in remediation without intervention that is aimed at their specific needs.
Merriam-Webster Online (www.webster.com) defines "oppress" as "to burden spiritually
or mentally: weigh heavily upon." When the students discussed the stress they felt with regard to
their remediation, in effect, they were describing a state of oppression. In addition to talking
about how the texts they were required to read seemed inaccessible, and how they wanted more
individual instruction, students often discussed feeling significant pressure to succeed with their
reading development. This pressure has been generated by the graduation requirement to pass
the FCAT, a test all of the participants have already failed at least once. Several students talked
about feeling so nervous that they were unable to perform on the test. Others complained about
the school's emphasis on FCAT preparation.
Some felt so much anxiety that they deliberately sabotaged their performance by not
reading the text passages and then arbitrarily filling in test answer sheet bubbles and skipping the
extended response sections. Sabrina, George, and Nicolette discussed how they have responded
to the stress of taking the test.
Sabrina has felt nervous during the test
The pressure is what is making you like you want to
do it right....
don't mess up
make sure you get this right
make sure you read right
make sure you know the words and understand it right
and makes you write enough for the paragraph... "Think and
make sure you circle, bubble in, the right question
because most kids get off focus because they work too hard
studying a lot in class
and then they come down to do it
and then they're nervous....
I get nervous
I know that much.
Because you're reading something
and you forget a word
or say it wrong
and you're not comprehending what you're reading.
George has responded to the pressure through avoidance
George, you were nodding your head?
Yeah, man, you can walk into a room and you can just feel the
nervousness when you walk in there.
And I get real nervous...
and I'll sit there and read the story
and I'll read it again
and I'll forget the whole thing
and then I'll just start bubbling answers.
Just bubbling, just to get them filled in?
Because it makes me nervous
and I forget all the answers, so.
Sabrina has responded to the pressure through avoidance
9. Question: Sabrina, you had your hand go up.
10. Sabrina: (raising her voice) I did [just bubble in answers without reading the
passages]-sure enough did (emphatic), in the middle part and at
11. Question: On the reading?
12. Sabrina: (still in a raised voice) Mmm hmm (emphatic).
13. I sure enough did (emphatic).
14. Question: So, you got nervous like George was saying and just started
bubbling in answers (Sabrina: I got) just to get them bubbled in?
15a. Sabrina: I was nervous when I first started
15b. but I tried to stay focused off the nerves
15c. and it just came back.
15d. And, I got bad focus
15e. and I lost again.
16. Question: Every time you got nervous...did you just start filling in bubbles?
17. Sabrina: I would read it....
18a. But if I don't understand
18b. I forget about it
18c. and just starting bubbling in answers (emphatic)....
19. I had fun (emphatic).
20. I made a tree (emphatic).
21. Question: So you actually turned filling in the bubbles into something fun to
22. Sabrina: Yeah!
23. I make the little lines go from side to side to side, side to side to
side, side to side to side (she mimed the process on the surface of
24a. Question: So, when you lose your focus
24b. that's when you find yourself doing stuff like that?
25. Sabrina: Yeah.
26. It be fun, too. (emphatic)
27. But, you probably get some of them wrong.
Nicolette has been unable to focus on the test
28a. Nicolette: I think if you're really nervous
28b. you can't concentrate on what you're reading
28c. because all you're thinking about in your head
28d. is like "Oh my gosh am I going to do this right?"
28e. or "Am I reading this wrong?"
28f. and you can't focus.
Students believed the FCAT is overemphasized in school
29. Question: Well, Masey says this about the FCAT:
Every day, they're talking about the FCAT, so maybe they need to
forget about it. Just focus on how we need to improve our reading
and that's it. (T314T2-C, 259-261)
30a. Sabrina: They're right
30 Ob. because at the beginning of the year that's what all your focus is
about is the FCAT
30c. and FCAT ain't till close to the end of the school year
30d. and you're just thinking about FCAT-FCAT, FCAT.
30e. And how come after we're through with FCAT why we still got to
do work like FCAT? ....
31a. We would have been still doing it if the computer, if it hadn't been
messed up on the computer, FCAT Explorer.
3 lb. I'm happy it messed up. (0419SD-E, 662-800)
This discussion began with Sabrina describing how the testing performance pressure she felt and
her concomitant nervousness caused her to focus on getting everything "right" as she faced the
exam. She did not want to "mess up" and was concerned with reading the text "right" and
understanding it "right," aware that a particular interpretation would lead to the "right" answer.
When she shifted to talking about getting "off focus" and feeling nervous from the pressure to
perform correctly, she discussed forgetting, making mistakes, and "not comprehending." She
then confirmed that her feelings of nervousness escalated.
At this point, George mentioned actually experiencing nervousness as if it were a physical
characteristic of the testing environment. He then admitted to "bubbling answers" arbitrarily
after rereading a given passage and forgetting "the whole thing." When asked if he did this
during the most recent administration of the FCAT, however, he stated that he did not, claiming
that he "knew most of the questions." George's denial, though, seemed to compel Sabrina to
declare her avoidance of the test. In an elevated voice and defiant tone, she stated that she "sure
enough did" arbitrarily answer the test questions in response to feeling nervous, not
understanding the reading passages, and losing "focus." She described deliberately making
patterns with the answer sheet bubbles "from side to side" and said more than once that doing so
was "fun" (lines 19 and 26). She laughed when mentioning how one might "probably get some
of them wrong." Her laughter led the rest of the students and I to laugh, although I was
astonished at how comfortable she seemed to be and how she seemed to have accepted her
strategy as necessary to endure the experience.
Nicolette then also described feeling "really nervous" and being unable to concentrate.
She mentioned thinking only about "doing this right" and, like Sabrina, worrying about reading
the text correctly and trying to interpret it appropriately. These concerns prevented her from
being able to "focus."
Finally, perhaps providing a basis for the degree of pressure the students have felt, Sabrina
complained of the school's emphasis on FCAT performance throughout the school year. She
claimed that even after the test has been administered, the remediation students are still doing
FCAT practice work, and she told of feeling "happy" that the FCATExplorer program is
"messed up" in her classroom and cannot be used. She responded to Masey's quoted statement
that she believed that the school should focus on reading improvement without talking so much
about the FCAT specifically. From the students' perspective, the school's emphasis on FCAT
performance interferes with their ability to focus on the test itself because they become
consumed with "right" and "wrong" reading and responding. This, combined with the texts that
seem inaccessible to them and their belief that they have not received adequate instruction,
creates an intimidating testing situation, one that seems so daunting that they would rather avoid
the test altogether.
The students understood how high the stakes are for passing the FCAT. Their graduation
is in jeopardy, they may have to retake the Intensive Reading class the following year, and in
doing so they may forego taking an elective that interests them. They also may need to continue
focusing much of their attention on reading material that seems inaccessible to them while not
receiving the degree of individual instruction that they need. They believed their hard work in
school has gone to waste if in the end they still cannot pass the test. Their comments were rich
with a language of stress. There was much focus on passing, failing, and feeling strained by the
process. The discourses at work in the theme oppression are discussed as follows.
Responding to pressure with nervousness
As Masey and Sabrina explained, from the very beginning of the academic year, the
remediation students encounter emphasis on the FCAT in school. Knowing that their school will
be graded on how the students perform and feeling pressure from the administration to lead their
students to success, teachers focus the majority of instructional time on preparing students for the
test. Teachers push the remediation students hard by reminding them of what is at stake if they
fail-further remediation and not qualifying for graduation. The students hear "FCAT"
continually while on campus for several months prior to the administration of the test. When
they do finally sit down to take the exam, many feel nervous. Sabrina described how the
"pressure" makes her want to do everything "right," how it leads her to lose "focus," and how
she has felt even greater stress when having trouble with comprehension. The trouble she has
with maintaining her focus and with comprehension, the more nervous she becomes, and the
cycle continues. George mentioned how he can "just feel the nervousness when you walk in" the
testing room. The nervousness causes him to forget what he has read. Although he may reread a
passage, he continues to have trouble retaining the information. Nicolette talked about how she
"can't concentrate," "can't focus" when she feels "really nervous" about the test. She stated that
she becomes distracted with concern over making mistakes. As a teacher administering the
FCAT myself, I have witnessed students rushing out of the testing room to vomit in a nearby
Responding to pressure through avoidance
When the pressure has felt too great, the nervousness too uncomfortable, some students
have chosen to avoid the stress by arbitrarily filling in the bubbles on their test answer sheets.
George shared that when he feels nervous and has trouble retaining information from the
passages, he will "just start bubbling answers." Sabrina not only admitted to doing the same
thing, she was emphatic about doing so. She seemed to feel entitled to sabotaging her
performance in this way as she complained of continued problems with losing focus during the
test ("I got bad focus") and feeling nervous ("I tried to stay focused off the nerves, and it just
came back"). When she has trouble comprehending what she has read and recalling information,
she "just starts] bubbling in answers." She emphasized how she "had fun" making a "tree"
pattern of filled-in answer bubbles and, with joy in her voice, described how she would do it.
The testing experience has been too difficult for students like George and Sabrina. They felt ill-
equipped to take the FCAT and resorted to avoiding it, which has led to failing scores, further
remediation, and a jeopardized graduation.
Gee (2005) also introduces the concept of building tasks, which he states are seven areas
of reality that we construct through our use of language and nonlinguistic forms of
communication. These areas include significance, activities, identities, relationships, politics
(the distribution of social goods), connections, and sign systems and knowledge (pp. 11-13). As
mentioned in chapter 3, for the purposes of this study, the building tasks of politics and sign
systems and knowledge are considered. The task of significance is addressed through the
thematic analysis that is presented, along with the study of the macro- and microstructure of the
transcript excerpts. For politics, the question the researcher must answer is, "What perspective
on social goods is this piece of language communicating?" And, for sign systems and
knowledge, she responds to, "How does this piece of language privilege or disprivilege specific
sign systems... or different ways of knowing and believing or claims to knowledge and belief?"
For the student theme of textual opacity, their perspective on politics seemed to be that
they do not possess the social good demanded by the FCAT program: information processing
skills deemed by the state as necessary for high school graduation. They also said indirectly that
they are not receiving a fair opportunity to obtain this good because the text they must negotiate
to do so is inaccessible to them. While taking the FCAT, they have been consumed with doubt
about whether they would be able to demonstrate proficiency. Some were convinced that despite
remediation, they would be unable to perform as required and would therefore disengage from
With regard to sign systems and knowledge, the students stated indirectly that American
English text passages deemed by the state to be associated with high school reading levels are
privileged over other forms of text, especially those commonly used by the students in their
homes and subcultures, including the narrative texts they prefer to read. A mastery of state-
sanctioned text is required, regardless of their skills in processing other forms of text. They also
indirectly expressed an understanding that there are specific interpretations of the assigned texts
regarded as appropriate by the state, and that these interpretations must be the focus of the
students' comprehension efforts. They understood that their decoding must arrive at these
interpretations if it is to be considered valid by teachers, computer assessment preparation
programs, and test booklet reviewers. Their lack of fluency in 10th grade textual complexity,
especially in expository form, continues to separate them from full access to the high school
The theme oppression, together with the themes textual opacity and need for individualized
instruction, is encompassed by the general student theme exclusion. The thematic analysis
conducted for the student data has provided a basis for the discourse analysis performed. Next,
the same analytical approaches as applied to the teachers' contributions are discussed.
The Experience of Reading Instruction: Teachers
The teachers often talked about how they attempted to meet their students' needs despite
working within a context that was not conducive to their remediation. They discussed, among
other issues, not having enough time, having too many students in their class, student transience
and poor attendance, a lack of autonomy, and the degree of reading deficits the students bring to
the classroom. When Mrs. Otero was asked if any particular teaching method seemed more
effective than others, she focused on classroom management issues.
Working with a small group of students
la. I think the most effective thing that happens in my classroom is small groups
lb. because they [the teacher-led groups] are right there with me
Ic. and when we expect other students to work at centers
Id. it just doesn't go very well.
2. So, I worry that the work that they're doing is not helping them.
3. Now, they're required to do certain things...
4a. but if I don't monitor it...
4b. stay on them
4c. it doesn't get accomplished.
5. So, I think a lot of learning is not taking place when we're at those centers.
6a. Now, in small group, they're all right at a table with me
6b. and a lot gets done there.
7a. I can keep them more focused
7b. but it's hard to do that
7c. and watch the computers....
Vocabulary development in the small group
8. I think that when we read and discuss, we take care of our vocabulary....
9a. And, I think that's what a lot of these students have
9b. their vocabulary's weak
9c. so they don't understand when they read.
Managing the other centers from the small group
lOa. (in an elevated voice and tone of frustration) When they're at FCAT Explorer
(deep sigh), I constantly have to say, "Get off the Internet..
lOb. You can only do FCAT Explorer."
11. That's a waste of my time! (emphatically)
12. And, I just, I don't know how we're going to correct that problem....
In the Intensive Reading classes, the teachers are required to manage a system of small
reading activity centers. With this system, small groups of students are assigned to each of
several centers, at least one of which involves working with the computer-based FCAT Explorer
program and another in which the students work directly with the teacher, who leads the group in
a variety of reading activities. After a specific period of time has elapsed, the students rotate to
Mrs. Otero believed that her most effective work is done with the teacher-led group, using
discussion-based activities in which she can directly monitor the students' comprehension. She
suspected that the students at the other centers have not been benefiting much instructionally
from those activities, especially those stationed at the computers whom she must repeatedly tell
to "get off the Internet" and to get back to the FCAT Explorer program. She explained that
having to keep the students at the other centers on task has distracted her from her center work.
She described the specific things she did with her group and how they have worked together to
address deficiencies, especially comprehension and vocabulary. However, she eventually began
to express exasperation at how she has struggled to keep the other students engaged in their work
and described that effort as a "waste of my time," almost yelling this statement in an angry voice.
She communicated a feeling of hopelessness when she said that she "doesn't know how we're
going to correct that problem." As she made this last statement, her voice fell significantly. She
seemed frustrated about having been unable to focus primarily on the work she is able to do in
her center. While she was convinced of its effectiveness, she was regularly drawn away from it
to manage the other groups. Her words of focus related to what can be accomplished in her
group, how this work is being undermined, and the questionable benefit of maintaining the other
centers. Regardless of the rationale, she believed the situation was "not helping" and did not see
the FCAT scores rising as a result of the effort.
When asked what changes she would make to how teachers help students with their
reading at her school, Mrs. Thompson discussed teacher experience and how working with the
teacher-led group is effective but that doing so is difficult because of classroom management
The teacher's suitability
l a. A reading teacher has to be somebody with a lot of experience
lb. with a lot of background.
2. And, putting a brand new teacher with no experience in a reading class is the most
insane thing I've ever heard of in my life.
3. And, I'm a prime example of that.
4. But, fortunately, that's where my career is headed.
5a. I wanted to teach reading
5b. but I know there's been lots of situations where there's reading teachers who have
no desire to be a reading teacher.
5c. And, that needs to be stopped....
Class size and management of learning
6. I think class size needs to be really looked at... to find out the optimum
7. Discipline is a huge issue in all intensive classes....
8. because you are dealing with frustrated students who can't read....
9. it's almost impossible to get learning accomplished
lOa. So, I would really make it... "You're in here to learn.
lOb. If you don't want to do it, you're out of here."
11. And, so we can get those who really do want to improve their reading skills to
Maintaining the teacher-led group
12a. The best way to work that I have found is in small groups
12b. that one-one-one contact that the student gets
12c. where you can see if they're getting it or not
13a. But to try to maintain that small group while you have two other groups going,
13b. and that whole behavior thing going on
13c. it's like running a three-ring circus sometimes. (T314T2-C, 263-290)
While Mrs. Thompson apparently wanted to teach reading, she suggested that she was not
prepared for the job when she said that she was a "prime example" of the "insane" nature of
assigning an inexperienced teacher to a reading remediation class. She believed that there were
reading teachers who did not want that assignment and that the misalignment of teacher to course
"needs to be stopped."
After she discussed the suitability of a teacher for reading remediation, she talked about
her experience with classroom management problems that were exacerbated by the system of
reading centers she had to maintain in her class. She echoed Mrs. Otero's comments when she
mentioned how she believed the small, teacher-led group was the most effective for reading
remediation since she could work directly with students and closely monitor their
comprehension. She also struggled, though, with attempting to maintain that group activity
while managing the other groups. She described class size as a "huge issue" and contended that
the majority of remediation students were "frustrated" and "can't read." She stated that it was
"almost impossible to get learning accomplished" in such a class and likened it to a "three-ring
circus." If she could, she would eject those students who disrupt her efforts so that she may focus
on those students who "really do want to improve their reading skills." Most of her words of
focus related to the issue of her being diverted from her preferred focus on instruction.
Mrs. Hoskins introduced the problem of student transience and attire, and Mrs. Otero, in
response, discussed her problem with student attendance and then commented about the
1. Hoskins: Don't change them [the classes] so much.
2. There's always transition and change [new students, student
schedule changes] at the beginning of the year [or semester].
3a. I understand that
3b. but it really just throws you for a loop
3c. when someone new comes in
3d. or someone leaves and goes to even a different time slot
4. That's hard....
5. It really makes sense [to teach a gender-based class]
6a. because at the high school age, it's such a distraction
6b. when a girl walks in and is scantily clad.
7a. I mean you've lost your class for the day almost
7b. and that happens all the time.
8. Otero: My big thing is we need to do something about them being
responsible for their attendance.
9. Attendance is awful.
1 Oa. You cannot miss three weeks of school
1 Ob. and come back and pick up where you were
lOc. because we're.. .in the middle of a new novel
lOd. or we're in the middle of something else
1 Oe. and it's just impossible.
1 la. The school needs to do something
1 lb. and I don't know how they're going to fix that problem.
Mrs. Hoskins and Mrs. Otero have been impeded in their efforts to work with their students
because of the fluid nature of their classroom population, caused by poor attendance and frequent
reassignment of students from one class to another. While Hoskins also mentioned the frequent