Personalized Learning

Unlocking Literacy Potential: Bridging the Gap for High School Readers

Students working together at a desk inside a classroom
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

In 2020, the Education Lab partnered with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to rigorously design, test, and scale the impact of its Structured Literacy program on students’ reading proficiency levels.

Project overview

The Challenge

Literacy skills, essential for unlocking a child’s full potential, have a well-established link to long-term life outcomes. Children who read at grade level are more likely to graduate high school, have more career prospects, and earn higher incomes in the future (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010, 2013; Kamil et al., 2008; Snow et al., 1998). Despite some progress, as of 2022, 39% of CPS students still lack basic reading proficiency upon entering 9th grade according to 2022 NAEP dataThis unacceptable reality calls for effective intervention, starting with an understanding of why students progress so far in their education without mastering this fundamental skill.

One primary reason students may struggle with literacy proficiency in adolescence is because they are never taught evidence-based strategies to master English comprehension – what is now commonly known as the science of reading. Early literacy curricula often fail to provide explicit and systematic instruction in “decoding and encoding text,” or the process of understanding letters, sounds, and word creation to write. Students in these environments may rely on memorizing whole words to learn to read, a strategy that initially works but becomes ineffective around fourth grade when the number and complexity of words increase.

Year Started

2020 – present

Project Leads

Monica Bhatt

Monica Bhatt

Senior Research Director

Fatemeh Momeni

Fatemeh Momeni

Research Director

William Morgan

William Morgan

Research Manager

Related Resources
Overcoming Pandemic-Induced Learning Loss
Academic Paper

Overcoming Pandemic-Induced Learning Loss

Oct 2023

The Education Lab’s faculty co-directors, Dr. Jens Ludwig, professor at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Jon Guryan, professor at Northwestern University, published a paper commissioned by the Aspen Economic Strategy Group for its 2023 policy volume.

Personalized Learning Initiative Research Brief
Research Brief

Personalized Learning Initiative Research Brief

Aug 2023

Overview of the Personalized Learning Initiative, a nationwide R&D initiative to scale the benefits of tutoring.

Not Too Late: Improving Academic Outcomes Among Adolescents
Academic Paper

Not Too Late: Improving Academic Outcomes Among Adolescents

Mar 2023

Read our academic paper on the early Saga studies published in the American Economic Review.

Coaching with Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL)
Research Brief

Coaching with Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL)

Jan 2022

An overview of the Coaching with Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL) program that aims to support math teachers of grades 3 to 9.

39%

As of 2022, 39% of CPS students still lack basic reading proficiency upon entering 9th grade, according to 2022 NAEP data.

Without early instruction in phonemic skills like word sounding in K-3, students frequently miss out on it in their later education. Assuming kids already have this fundamental skill, middle and high school English Language Arts (ELA) classes focus on reading comprehension rather than reading accuracy and fluency. This leads students to get to high school with a mistaken belief that they are unable to read. Consequently, they miss out on content across subjects like ELA, science, and social studies that require solid reading comprehension.

Unlocking this skill could significantly broaden students’ horizons.

However, there is a lack of suitable curricula for teaching phonemic awareness to high schoolers. The few interventions available often make them feel stigmatized by having to use materials designed for much younger children. There are also very few known effective interventions to support high schoolers’ basic literacy development. Fortunately, our prior research shows that high school is not too late to effectively intervene and boost student learning (Guryan, et al., 2022). The CPS Structured Literacy course emerges as a promising approach for equipping high school students with the literacy strategies and skills they missed in their early education.

The Plan

The CPS Structured Literacy course engages youth who fall below the 25th percentile in reading proficiency in a robust reading intervention that focuses on decoding and encoding text coupled with reading age-appropriate and culturally relevant texts. Developed by the CPS Department of Literacy, the Structured Literacy course combines different evidence-based practices using the Wilson Reading System (WRS). The program’s structured lesson plan allows any trained adult, even those who are not trained literacy specialists, to facilitate reading skill development in a high school setting.

The Structured Literacy program is personalized to students’ needs and diverse strengths, considering their lived experiences. It provides daily opportunities for students to read culturally relevant texts at their level, augmenting skill-based reading curriculum with age-appropriate general texts to enhance youth engagement. Students with similar literacy needs are grouped together and receive instruction in tandem throughout the year, earning course credit as part of their high school schedule. This model aligns with the successful high-dosage tutoring in CPS, featuring small-group, individualized instruction in a separate class period, using a structured curriculum that any trained adult can deliver.

In 2020, the Education Lab partnered with CPS to rigorously evaluate the program’s impact on students’ educational outcomes through a multi-year randomized controlled trial (RCT). While CPS is keen on expanding the Structured Literacy course to schools throughout the district, the decision to scale the intervention hinges on credible evidence of its efficacy provided by the research evaluation. Should the program prove effective, it could be adopted by school districts and educators nationwide.

1,700

The University of Chicago Education Lab has enrolled over 1,700 students across schools from 2020-2023.

To complete the evaluation, the research team plans to continue working with CPS, enrolling study participants for an additional year in school year 2023-24, followed by a year of analysis. Support for this effort will allow the research team to complete their evaluation of the Structured Literacy program, providing CPS with robust evidence to decide on scaling this promising intervention. Support will also aid schools in expanding their current capacity for Structured Literacy services, offering more literacy support to students in need and helping them strengthen their reading skills.

Learn More

To learn more about supporting this work, please reach out to Sadie Stockdale Jefferson, Executive Director, at ssjefferson@uchicago.edu.

Project Partners

Chicago Public Schools

Chicago Public Schools