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KU-developed Fusion Reading program takes new approach to help struggling readers

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


LAWRENCE — For decades, educators have struggled with how to help students who are struggling with reading or who have reading disabilities to improve their abilities. University of Kansas researchers have been developing a program for the last six years that has proven successful in helping adolescent struggling readers not only improve their reading, but improve their scores on standardized reading assessments by statistically significant margins compared with their peers who did not take part.

The Fusion Reading Program was designed by KU’s Center for Research on Learning to address the needs of adolescent struggling readers. Research showed the majority of programs and interventions designed to help this group of struggling readers addressed only reading comprehension.

“What we sought to do was develop an extensive battery of assessments for ninth-graders. What we found is this group needed help in all areas of reading, not just comprehension. Fusion Reading has instruction in phonics, decoding, word recognition, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension,” said Irma Brasseur-Hock, assistant research professor in the Center for Research on Learning.

The program has been implemented in school districts in Kansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Minnesota, California, Texas and Virginia. The researchers team with state level administrators, school-based administrators, teachers and special educators to implement Fusion Reading in their schools. What began as a program for struggling ninth-grade readers has been adapted to work with students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Researchers recently published an article in the Journal of Learning Disabilities outlining the program’s success. In one Midwestern school district, students who took part in Fusion Reading made significant gains in both the Group Reading and Diagnostic Evaluation assessment and the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress, two common reading assessments.

Those who participated in Fusion Reading gained from 1.04 to 1.66 standard deviations, a significant improvement “when one considers that an average effect size gain in reading for students in sixth and seventh grade is 0.23,” the researchers wrote.

The article was authored by Michael Hock, director of the Center for Research on Learning; Brasseur-Hock; Alyson Hock of the University of Kentucky and Brenda Duvel of Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School in Dubuque, Iowa.

A separate study showed that students who took part in Fusion Reading for longer periods of time scored significantly higher than students in the program for a shorter time. Students who only had one year in the program instead of two still scored an average of eight points higher on the MAP assessment. That finding holds consistent with schools that have seen the progress Fusion students make and have switched all students to the program after one year.

Fusion Reading works by empowering teachers to work more extensively with adolescent struggling readers on all aspects of reading. Instead of simply trying to catch up struggling readers with their classmates or improve only comprehension, the program provides strategies to improve phonics, word recognition and other skills to mastery, then combine all steps together. The process directly addresses working memory limitations of many students with reading disabilities.

The program also avoids “talking down to” or causing struggling readers to check out by building confidence first. Research has shown proficient readers tend to be hopeful, and Fusion Reading helps students reach that through a section called Possible Selves for Readers. The approach helps students set goals for their reading, discuss their personal ambitions and dreams, and build confidence. Teachers and researchers have found struggling readers understand that they are struggling but knew the benefits of reading, wanted to improve and had hoped they could do so.

“We were faced with the challenge of ‘how do we re-engage these struggling readers,'” Brasseur-Hock said. “It comes from a point of what you will gain as an improving reader. Many of these students are very intelligent, capable and wanted to improve.”

Through each strategy and reading skills area, students and teachers work together in cooperative activities. Peers will practice reading together, taking turns as both reader and coach, while the teacher gives detailed feedback, supplementing peer-supported learning with direct instruction.

Center for Research on Learning personnel are working to expand the program to additional districts as well as fine-tune it by incorporating elements of other successful reading improvement programs. They also hope to make Fusion Reading a blended program in which students work with teachers, peers and individually by supplementing their learning through online materials and other resources. Such an approach would help make the program flexible to the point it could be individualized for each student taking part, Brasseur-Hock said. Researchers at the center have been developing online blended learning for schools across the country.

The online professional development arm of Fusion Reading provides educators with detailed strategies on how the approach works, printed and online resources to support the approach and lesson plans on how to use it in the classroom while providing the flexibility for teachers to make the program work in their own unique climates. While researchers are improving and expanding the program, it has already proven successful in addressing a decades-old problem of how to help struggling adolescents improve their reading ability.

“The bottom line is, on standardized measures, Fusion students did significantly better, with strong effects size, in reading than their peers who did not take part,” Michael Hock said.

Image: The map above shows the states that have adopted KU's Fusion Reading Program. Credit: Mike Krings.


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