December 2015: Improving Reading Comprehension for High School Students with LDs

Vaughn, S., Roberts, G., Schnakenberg, J. B., Fall, A. M., Vaughn, M. G., & Wexler, J. (2015). Improving reading comprehension for high school students with disabilities: Effects for comprehension and school retention. Exceptional Children82(1), 117–131.

Summary by Dr. Sharon Vaughn

Overview of Students With Disabilities in High School

The focus on rigorous academic standards in today’s high schools has increased the demand for literacy skills. Students are expected to build deep conceptual and technical knowledge through wide reading of increasingly complex texts. “Disciplinary literacy” is a term used to describe the process of acquiring information from text and demonstrating knowledge within a particular subject area, such as biology. Especially in the core content areas of social studies, mathematics, and science, this process places increased demand on students’ vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. Textbooks and source materials in these content areas are typically conceptually dense and require understanding of a vast array of technical vocabulary terms. For students with disabilities who have significant reading difficulties, the challenge of learning in core classes is daunting.

This study addresses the substantial and pervasive challenges faced by high school students with disabilities who have significant difficulties in reading comprehension. Though considerable research has focused on early reading intervention for younger students, few high-quality research studies have focused on interventions to improve content area literacy for high school students with reading-related disabilities. Reading intervention that incorporates disciplinary literacy skills is especially important, given the increased inclusion of students with disabilities in general education content area classes. Nationwide, more than 60% of students with disabilities receive 80% or more of their education in general education settings (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014).

A related issue is students with significant academic difficulties and, in particular, students with disabilities dropping out of high school. Numerous studies have documented the link between academic challenges and dropping out (e.g., Rumberger & Lim, 2008). Reading difficulty is one of the strongest predictors of school dropout (e.g., Hernandez, 2011). Students with academic challenges often disengage from learning experiences and have attendance issues, leading to dropping out of school.

Study Overview

Vaughn, Roberts, Schnakenberg, Fall, Vaughn, and Wexler (2015) conducted a 2-year randomized controlled trial with students identified as having disabilities and significant reading difficulties from the beginning of 9th grade through 10th grade. The study was designed to examine both reading difficulty and dropout prevention. Students were randomly assigned to one of three treatment conditions or a business-as-usual (BAU) condition. The study compared the outcomes of students who received reading intervention alone (R-only), dropout prevention alone (DO-only), a combination of reading intervention and dropout prevention (R+DO), and BAU.

The study addressed two research questions:

  1. To what extent did the reading intervention improve the reading comprehension of 9th- and 10th-grade students with disabilities?
  2. Did students with disabilities who received intervention remain in school at higher rates than students in the comparison condition?

The study used a 2-year longitudinal randomized control trial design and took place in three high schools in a large urban district in the southwestern United States. The 77 students with disabilities were part of a larger study of students generally at risk due to low achievement, with 74 classified as having specific learning disabilities and the remaining 3 with behavior disorders. Students were randomly assigned to one of four groups: R-only, R+DO, DO-only, and BAU.

Because there were no differences in dropout rates between the groups that did and did not receive dropout prevention, the groups were collapsed to form two groups: reading intervention (R-only and R+DO) and comparison (DO-only and BAU). Reported findings focused on reading outcomes for the two groups.

The reading intervention consisted of small-group classes, 10 or fewer students, during elective periods. The first semester focused on explicit word study instruction, using the REWARDS Plus program (Archer, Gleason, & Vachon, 2005), with additional intensive vocabulary instruction taken from students’ social studies and science textbooks and comprehension instruction via the multistep strategy process of collaborative strategic reading (Vaughn et al., 2011). During the second semester, the intervention provided additional word work for students who needed it, plus 6- to 8-day instructional units focusing disciplinary reading of content covered in science and social studies classes. Instructors provided explicit instruction in multisyllabic word reading and fostered deep learning of vocabulary and comprehension. To foster engagement, instructors worked with students to establish content learning goals. Each session ended with 10 minutes of free-choice reading with counseling from the interventionist on text sources and peer sharing.

Key Findings

  • Students with disabilities who received reading intervention scored significantly higher than the comparison group on a standardized measure of reading comprehension.
  • Though not statistically significant, a higher percentage of students who received reading intervention (88%) were enrolled at the end of 11th grade than those in comparison (79%).

Implications and Recommendations for Practice

The key finding in this study is that intensive and long-term intervention provided to students with disabilities and with severe reading difficulties significantly improved reading outcomes. This effect resulted from a highly intensive reading intervention provided over an extended 2-year period. To affect the persistent and extreme reading difficulties of students with disabilities in high school settings, investing considerable time and resources may be necessary.

The significance of this study also lies in its contribution to the very sparse research base on improving reading outcomes for students with the most significant reading challenges in high school. The promise of reading intervention that is contextualized within the content covered in core subject areas is notable. Future studies should incorporate similar features of explicit and extended instruction of key vocabulary, close reading and deep processing of text, and extensive reading of subject matter passages.


Archer, A. L., Gleason, M. M., & Vachon, V. (2005). REWARDS plus: Reading strategies applied to social studies passages. Longman, CO: Sopris West.

Hernandez, D. J. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Digest of education statistics: 2013. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved from

Rumberger, R. W., & Lim, S. A. (2008). Why students drop out of school: A review of 25 years of research (Report No. 15). Santa Barbara, CA: California Dropout Research Project. Retrieved from

Vaughn, S., Klingner, J. K., Swanson, E. A., Boardman, A. G., Roberts, G., Mohammed, S. S., & Stillman-Spisak, S. J. (2011). Efficacy of collaborative strategic reading with middle school students. American Educational Research Journal, 48, 241–253.