Reading Psychology, 25:225–260, 2004
Copyright ⃝C 2004 Taylor & Francis Inc.
0270-2711/04 $12.00 + .00
RESOLVING STRUGGLING READERS’ HOMEWORK
DIFFICULTIES: A SOCIAL COGNITIVE PERSPECTIVE
Queens College of the City University of New York, Flushing, New York, USA
PATRICK P. McCABE
St. John’s University, Jamaica, New York, USA
Struggling readers often fail to complete homework or complete it in a slipshod,
haphazard fashion. Often, this adversely affects grades, erodes motivation for
academics, and causes conflict between readers, parents, and school personnel.
To help teachers and educational consultants (e.g., reading specialists, school
psychologists) help struggling readers improve their homework submission rates
and improve the quality of their homework, this article discusses reasons for
homework problems and suggests how teachers and educational consultants can
apply social cognitive theory to resolve homework problems.
Unless people believe that they can produce desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to act. (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, &
Pastorelli, 1996, p. 1206)
Ryan is a struggling reader in a fifth grade inclusion class at
Hypothetical Elementary School. His general education teacher,
Mrs. Piccolo, says that he is cooperative and intelligent, but is often “lost” in class, confused by the work. When she and his inclass support teacher, Mrs. McCormick, provide him with “easy” or
“moderately challenging” work, he correctly completes it; without
such work and without in-class support, he dawdles and fidgets.
Recently, Ryan complained to his teachers: “I hate homework. . . .
It’s too hard. . . . I can’t read it. I’m dumb.”
Ryan’s teachers complain that he rarely submits homework.
When he does, it is disorganized and incorrect. To complicate
matters, his teachers tell his parents that his homework habits are
Address correspondence to Howard Margolis, 1067 Pendleton Court, Voorhees, NJ
08043. E-mail: email@example.com
226 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
hurting his grades and progress. Frequently, Ryan argues with his
parents about homework. This upsets them. They want to help
him, but lack the time; their two younger children and extra jobs
devour it. Thus, for Ryan, homework assignments are solitary tasks,
tasks on which success depends upon his motivation and ability to
independently complete them.
Ryan’s story, a composite of many, represents the difficulties
faced by countless struggling readers for whom homework is laborious, frustrating, and demoralizing (Bryan, Nelson, & Mathur,
1995). Consequently, many actively resist homework or carelessly
rush through it, despite teacher and parent exhortations to try
harder. This raises the critical question of how to help struggling readers like Ryan to routinely and successfully complete
To answer this question, we first discuss possible causes of
struggling readers’ homework difficulties, as school personnel
must address causes to resolve difficulties. Second, we discuss struggling readers’ beliefs, as beliefs strongly influence behavior and
prospects for reversing homework difficulties. Third, because it
can help to resolve homework difficulties, we discuss and illustrate
principles derived from the instructional literature and from social
Possible Causes of Homework Difficulties
Understanding the current causes of each reader’s difficulties can
help to identify potential solutions. Common causes include the
Homework is often too difficult for students with disabilities
(Bryan, Burstein, & Bryan, 2001; Bryan & Nelson, 1994; Epstein
et al., 1997; Salend & Gajria, 1995). Polloway, Foley, and Epstein
(1992), for example, found that students with learning disabilities
experienced more “substantial problems” with homework than
their nondisabled peers (p. 206). Kay, Fitzgerald, Paradee, and
Mellencamp (1994) found that homework problems often exasperated parents of children with disabilities.
Struggling Readers 227
Because of repeated failure, many struggling readers develop negative attitudes toward reading (Chapman & Tunmer, 2003; Ganske,
Monroe, & Strickland, 2003; Lipson & Wixson, 2003; Rasinski &
Padak, 2000). Because homework usually involves reading, this attitude may generalize to homework (Bryan & Nelson, 1994; Bryan
et al., 1995; Good & Brophy, 2003; Nicholls, McKenzie, & Shufro,
1994; Warton, 2001).
Gloomy Expectations and Learned Helplessness
Many struggling readers expect that any reading task—including
homework—condemns them to failure and frustration (Blanton
& Blanton, 1994; Chapman & Tunmer, 2003; Pearl, Bryan, &
Donahue, 1980, as cited in Bryan et al., 2001). Because they have
low self-efficacy for reading—they believe they cannot successfully read—they disengage (Butkowsky & Willows, 1980; Guthrie
& Davis, 2003; Henk & Melnick, 1995; Walker, 2003). Many adopt
a “learned helplessness” approach to challenge (Butkowsky &
Willows, 1980; Gaffney, Methven, Bagdasarian, 2002; Gunning,
1998; Lipson & Wixson, 2003; McCormick, 2003; Prater, 2003;
Rasinski & Padak, 2000), avoiding tasks like homework, tasks
that require them to work independently (Gajria & Salend, 1995;
Gunning, 1998). Given their gloomy expectations and learned
helplessness, it is not surprising that such students often quit when
homework becomes difficult (Gajria & Salend, 1995).
Many students with learning disabilities—including struggling
readers—have difficulties with the self-regulatory processes essential to completing homework (Bryan et al., 2001; Klassen,
2002; Patton, 1994; Tabassam & Grainger, 2002). They may, for
example, have difficulty recording homework assignments, understanding task requirements, establishing task-related goals,
assessing personal abilities, identifying appropriate task-relevant
strategies, planning how to achieve task-related goals, enacting
relevant strategies, monitoring and evaluating progress, adapting
strategies, persevering to overcome difficulties, preventing and
228 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
overcoming distractions (Bryan et al., 2001; Gajria & Salend, 1995;
Ley & Young, 2001; Spafford & Grosser, 1996; Vacca & Vacca, 2001;
Winne, 2001; Zimmerman, 2001).
Situational and Environmental Difficulties
Many struggling readers lack a quiet place to do homework and
do not have the after-school help they need to complete homework successfully (Allington & Cunningham, 2002; Cooper, 2001a;
Dawson & Guare, 2004). Many especially those from low-income
homes, have after school obligations that interfere with homework:
jobs, chores, child care.
Our discussion of causes is only a starting point. There may
be other causes (e.g., peer pressure, emotional difficulties). Moreover, causes often interact with one another. Whatever the causes,
they need to be identified and addressed to solve the problem.
Influencing Behavior: Struggling Readers’ Personal Beliefs
A growing body of evidence suggests that people’s beliefs about
themselves strongly influence their behavior and achievement
(Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002, 2003; Ormrod, 2003; Pintrich &
Schunk, 2002; Schunk, 2001; Walker, 2003; Zimmerman, 1995,
2001): “People’s level of motivation, affective states, and actions
are based more on what they believe than in what is objectively
the case” (Bandura, 1995, p. 2). Therefore, to achieve sustained
success, Ryan’s belief that he cannot succeed on homework must
But often, for beliefs to change, struggling readers’ negative
experiences with both classwork and homework need to change—
work that produces frustration needs to be replaced with work
that breeds both success (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002, 2003)
and expectations of continued success (Alderman, 1999; Pintrich
& Schunk, 2002; Stipek, 1998).
In many cases, however, success alone will not convince struggling readers that they can succeed; often, they need to learn to
attribute their successes to effort and the correct use of specific
learning strategies (Alderman, 1999; Bandura, 1997; Kozminsky
& Kozminsky, 2003; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002; Ormrod, 2003;
Struggling Readers 229
Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Robertson, 2000; Stipek, 1998; Tabassam
& Grainger, 2002; Walker, 2003). If they attribute success to luck,
they will not view success as controllable or repeatable; if they attribute it to ability alone, when encountering setbacks they will feel
“dumb” and vulnerable and act accordingly (Dweck, 1999).
Social Cognitive Theory: A Framework for Understanding
Unfortunately, little research examines how to improve the homework performance of students with learning disabilities (for a summary, see Bryan et al., 2001, and Patton, 1994); virtually none
examines struggling readers’ specific difficulties. Waiting for a
compelling, persuasive body of research may take decades. In the
meantime, struggling readers, their parents, and their teachers will
continue to suffer. They cannot wait—the problem must be dealt
with now, using the best information available (Patton, 1994).
Fortunately, social cognitive theory examines many potential causes of homework difficulty. By understanding several of
the theory’s critical propositions—self-regulation, personal goals,
task value, self-efficacy—as well as strategies that influence their
development—enactive mastery, social modeling, attribution retraining, strategy instruction, goal setting, verbal persuasion, physiological reactivity (Alderman, 1999; Ormrod, 2003; Pajares, 2003;
Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Zimmerman, 2000, 2001; Zimmerman &
Schunk, 2001a)—school personnel might better understand the
causes of and generate potential solutions to a struggling reader’s
homework difficulties. As Zimmerman (2001) posited, the theory’s
emphasis on learning and motivation should make it “particularly
appealing to educators who must deal with many poorly motivated
students” (p. 6).
SELF-REGULATION: PLANNING, DOING, MONITORING,
Because homework is usually a solitary, independent activity,
struggling readers’ self-regulatory abilities—including their abilities to set task goals, plan work, control attention, manage time,
select and apply appropriate strategies, guide efforts with selfverbalizations, concentrate, self-monitor progress, adapt strategies
to progress and current conditions, compare achievement to task
230 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
goals (Ormrod, 2003; Schunk, 2001; Winne, 2001; Zimmerman,
1995, 2001; Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovach, 1996; Zimmerman
& Schunk, 2001b)—must match or surpass homework’s selfregulatory demands. When they fall short, difficulties ensue.
Thus, school personnel should help readers to develop the selfregulatory abilities needed to successfully complete assignments
(Zimmerman et al., 1996), and make sure that assignments do not
exceed these abilities (Good & Brophy, 2003).
PERSONAL BELIEFS: TASK VALUE AND PERSONAL GOALS
According to social cognitive theorists, learning and task completion also require that students have the will to engage and persist. This emanates, in part, from students’ personal goals and their
personal beliefs about a task’s value: their belief that the task is important or interesting (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002; Pintrich &
De Groot, 1990; Zimmerman, 2001), that they will succeed, and
that success will produce valued outcomes (Bandura, 1971, 1997;
Good & Brophy, 2003; Walker, 2003; Zimmerman, 1995, 2001;
Pintrich & Schunk, 2002).
Students assess value by asking, “Why should I do this task?”
(Pintrich & Schunk, 2002, p. 60). They will more likely engage
in tasks they believe are “worth the effort” than those “not worth
it” (Alderman, 1999; Good & Brophy, 2003; Horner & Shwery,
2002; Ormrod, 2003; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Schunk, 2001;
Stipek, 1998; Zimmerman, 2001). Believing tasks are “worth the
effort” relates the importance of the tasks and interests students
assigned to them to the degree that the students believe the tasks
relate to their goals (Horner & Shwery, 2002; Linnenbrink &
Pintrich, 2002; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990; Stipek, 1998). Consequently, they will likely assign greater value to tasks they believe
will help them achieve personally important goals than to unrelated tasks (Alderman, 1999; Ormrod, 2003; Schunk, 2001; Stipek,
1998; Zimmerman, 2001). Similarly, many students are more likely
to engage in tasks they believe will produce immediate, highly desired rewards than those that will not (Good & Brophy, 2003; Maag,
1999; Ormrod, 2003; Schunk, 2001).
In part, self-regulatory processes are driven by struggling readers’ personal beliefs about a task’s value and the benefits they will
derive from success (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003; Ormrod, 2003;
Zimmerman, 2001). Thus, teachers should assign homework that
Struggling Readers 231
readers’ value and believe beneficial; if readers do not see this,
teachers should help them make the connection.
PERSONAL BELIEFS: SELF-EFFICACY
Social cognitive theorists also assert that students’ willingness
to invest the effort needed to accomplish specific tasks and to persist on tasks emanates from their belief that they have the capability to succeed (Ormrod, 2003; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Schunk,
2001; Zimmerman, 2001). They assess this belief or expectation
by asking, “Am I able to do this task?” (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002,
p. 62). Students derive answers from their interpretations of past
experiences with similar tasks and from their attributions—the explanations given for their past successes and failures (Ormrod,
2003; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002, Walker, 2003; Zimmerman,
1995). Thus, if struggling readers are usually frustrated by homework, get poor homework grades, interpret their “failure” as a lack
of ability, and expect to continue failing, they are unlikely to invest
much effort and are likely to give up quickly (Chapman & Tunmer,
2003; Ormrod, 2003; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Schunk, 2001).
Student beliefs about their ability to accomplish specific
tasks in specific situations—called self-efficacy—influence both
their willingness to engage in specific tasks (Horner & Shwery,
2002; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003; Ormrod, 2003; Walker, 2003;
Zimmerman, 1995), such as writing answers to chapter questions,
and their cognitive engagement (Pintrich & De Groot, 1990). As
Schunk (1999) noted:
A key personal variable is self-efficacy, or perceived capabilities for learning
or performing tasks at designated levels…. Compared with learners who
doubt their capabilities, efficacious students are more likely to engage in
tasks, expend effort, persist to overcome difficulties, and perform at higher
levels. (p. 220)
Thus, if struggling readers believe they can successfully complete a specific task, like reading three pages from their science
text and answering short essay questions about them, they are more
likely to engage in it than if they believe they cannot (Linnenbrink
& Pintrich, 2003; Ormrod, 2003; Walker, 2003; Zimmerman, 1995).
Believing they cannot, they may resist (Gentile & McMillan, 1987;
Henk & Melnick, 1995; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Rupley & Blair,
1989; Walker, 2003; Vacca & Vacca, 2001).
232 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
Like personal beliefs about a task’s value and the likely benefits of success, self-efficacy influences motivation and helps drive
self-regulatory behavior (Butler, 1995; Linnenbrink & Pintrich,
2002, 2003; Pinrich & De Groot, 1990; Ormrod, 2003; Schunk &
Zimmerman, 1997a; Zimmerman, 2001). This indicates that teachers should give struggling readers homework readers believe they
will succeed on if they make a moderate effort. It also indicates
that school personnel should help struggling readers transform
unrealistic “I can’t do” self-efficacy beliefs to realistic “I can do”
ones (Guthrie & Humenick, 2004; Pressley et al., 2003). Failure
to change such beliefs can derail attempts to increase homework
completion and quality.
Changing Beliefs: The Need for a Sustained, Informed Effort
Changing “I can’t do” beliefs is often difficult and requires a systematic, sustained effort in which teachers continually use appropriate instructional strategies and assign work of moderate challenge
likely to produce success (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002; Ormrod,
2003; Stipek, 1998). The idea is to get readers to believe that with
moderate effort they can successfully complete classwork and its
extension—homework—and that they will benefit. This alone can
spur motivation: “As the research has shown, students are motivated to engage in tasks and achieve when they believe they can
accomplish the task” (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003, p. 134).
Fortunately, the professional literature sheds considerable
light on how to improve students’ motivation and self-efficacy
(Bandura, 1997; Guthrie & Humenick, 2004; Linnenbrink &
Pintrich, 2002, 2003; Ormrod, 2003; Schunk, 2003; Pintrich &
Schunk, 2002; Zimmerman, 2000, 2001; Zimmerman & Schunk,
2001a). By applying this knowledge to struggling readers’
homework difficulties—an area lacking a large, impressive body
of well-researched solutions—monitoring the effectiveness of interventions, and quickly adjusting them to remedy unforeseen difficulties, school personnel can increase the likelihood that readers
will successfully complete homework.
Like all educational recommendations, ours are probabilistic,
not deterministic (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003). Social cognitive
theory suggests they will work for many struggling readers but not
all. On-average, however, school personnel who knowledgeably,
Struggling Readers 233
expertly, and systematically apply social cognitive theory and who
systematically monitor and adjust homework to reflect its effects, increase the likelihood of improving readers’ beliefs and
Suggestions from the Literature: Critical Principles
Although little research validates strategies for helping struggling
readers improve their homework (Bryan et al., 2001; Miller &
Kelly, 1991; Patton, 1994), the literature on instructing struggling
readers and the literature on social cognitive theory strongly suggest that employing the principles below offers promise for improving readers’ functioning (Balajthy & Lipa-Wade, 2003; Lipson
& Wixson, 2003; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002, 2003; Manzo &
Manzo, 1993; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Walker, 2003; Zimmerman,
1995). Instructional suggestions follow each principle.
Principle 1: Stress Challenging Work That Struggling Readers Can
Complete Successfully Without Excessive, Laborious Effort
Social cognitive theorists assert that successes, or enactive experiences, “are the most influential source of efficacy belief because
they are predicated on the outcomes of personal experiences”
(Zimmerman, 2000, p. 88). As Ormrod (2003) noted, “Students
feel more confident that they can succeeded at a task when they
have succeeded at that task or at similar ones in the past” (p. 347).
Thus, teachers should do everything possible to ensure that struggling readers, readers weary of failure, develop a foundation of
ongoing successes. Without this, efforts to resolve homework difficulties will likely fail.
“STACK THE DECK” FOR SUCCESS
Because previous successes positively influence students’ selfefficacy (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Zimmerman, 2000), teachers
should “stack the deck” for success—they should assign homework
that struggling readers can readily and independently succeed on,
without feeling highly anxious. Thus, teachers should not assign
incomplete classwork—work that readers had difficulty finishing
in school—as homework (Bryan et al., 2001; Patton, 1994).
234 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
To “stack the deck” for success, teachers should ensure that
homework materials are at struggling readers’ independent reading level—readers can quickly recognize 96% or more of the words
in context and understand 90% or more of the text (McCormick,
2003). For practice, drill, or review tasks with little reading, a similar rate of accuracy—90% or better—may be optimal (Good &
Brophy, 1987; Paul & Epanchin, 1991; Rosenshine, 1983; Schloss
& Smith, 1994). If readers are excessively anxious about homework
or typically make more mistakes in response to original mistakes,
materials of lesser difficulty may be needed. Using materials likely
to minimize anxiety and produce high success rates helps to create,
but does not guarantee, expectations of success.
To ensure that struggling readers can successfully complete
new types of homework, teachers should assign such homework
only after readers’ have succeed on similar work in class (Ormrod,
2003; Pajares, 2003; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). When necessary, teachers should help readers and observe the type and
amount of assistance needed to successfully complete assignments.
As readers demonstrate frequent success, teachers should gradually reduce assistance while observing readers’ success rates and
the effort required. Homework should reflect this information.
MAKE ASSIGNMENTS SHORT AND SIMPLE
To improve attitudes toward homework, teachers might initially assign homework that is short and simple and then gradually,
over weeks or months, increase its length and complexity, so struggling readers are challenged but not overwhelmed or frustrated.
Teachers should keep in mind that (a) struggling readers are more
likely to successfully complete short, simple assignments than long,
complex ones (Patton, 1994); (b) struggling readers often require
far more time than average achieving students to complete homework (Bryan et al., 2001; Good & Brophy, 2003); (c) many experts
recommend that elementary school assignments be short and that
high school assignments not be excessively lengthy (Cooper, 2001a,
2001b). Cooper (1989), for instance, recommends that in grades
one, two, and three, students get three or fewer assignments weekly,
each lasting 15 or fewer minutes; in grades four, five, and six, they
get four or fewer assignments weekly, each lasting 15 to 45 minutes.
Teachers should adjust these guidelines downward for struggling
Struggling Readers 235
readers with little tolerance for homework, little ability to work independently, and little in-home support (Cooper, 2001a, 2001b).
Every few weeks, teachers might ask parents how much time
their child spends on homework and whether or not it is fatiguing
or frustrating. If parents report difficulty or excessive time, teachers might ask about causes. To eliminate frustration and make
homework productive, teachers should adjust homework to reflect
LIMIT THE NUMBER OF ASSIGNMENTS
This helps make homework manageable rather than impossible. It also helps readers to focus on quality rather than quantity.
This is especially important for readers who need excessive time
to complete assignments and who have immature self-regulatory
abilities (e.g., organization, strategy use, persistence).
With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act,
many struggling readers will participate in after- or before-school
reading programs. If so, participation should replace homework
(Allington, 2001). Not doing so will overload readers with work
and minimize time for resting, playing, and making friends. The
likely result: increased stress and decreased motivation.
ASSIGN HOMEWORK THAT MINIMIZES READING
When struggling readers detest or feel extremely discouraged or anxious about reading, temporarily assigning homework
that minimizes or eliminates reading and writing may reduce resistance to homework. Substitute assignments might include collecting materials (e.g., automobile advertisements), categorizing
information (e.g., pictures of rural, urban, and suburban life),
making videotapes (e.g., newscasts), watching assigned television
shows (e.g., “Biography”), taking photographs (e.g., storefronts,
friends), conducting interviews (e.g., grandparents), or listening
to audiotapes (e.g., Lincoln’s biography).
Such homework can also help struggling readers prepare for
classroom discussions. Simple preparation assignments, such as interviewing parents about the news or watching a DVD on manatees,
can help struggling readers develop the background needed for
class discussions and future reading.
The suggestion—a vacation from homework requiring more
than minimal reading—is temporary. Certainly, a well-balanced
236 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
reading program designed to help struggling readers become
“knowledgeable, strategic, and motivated” readers (Lipson &
Wixson, 2003, p. 130) must stress reading. Sometimes, however,
readers need a break from reading, especially if they detest reading and homework. By temporarily emphasizing other aspects of
learning and structuring assignments to generate success, teachers might increase the odds that readers who resist homework will
eventually complete it in a quality way.
Principle 2: Design Assignments to Match Students’
Personalizing assignments by “stacking the deck” for success, making assignments short and simple, and limiting the number of assignments should help match homework to readers’ self-regulatory
abilities. Additional factors, however, often need attention.
MAKE SURE STRUGGLING READERS KNOW WHAT HOMEWORK IS DUE
Students with learning disabilities often have great difficulty
recording assignments accurately (Bryan et al., 2001). To address
this problem, teachers might consider homework planners (calendars for recording assignments, completion data, and parentteacher communications; Bryan et al., 2001; Dawson & Guare,
2004). When, however, struggling readers have difficulty accurately
recording assignments, teachers might consider printing them on
large mailing labels (e.g., 4′′ × 1.5′′), e-mailing or faxing (using the
broadcast option) them home, listing them on web sites (Salend,
Duhaney, Anderson, & Gottschalk, 2004), or recording them on
telephone answering machines.
MAKE SURE STRUGGLING READERS UNDERSTAND THE ASSIGNMENT
Because many struggling readers have difficulty understanding what is said, they often misunderstand homework requirements (Patton, 1994). To assure understanding, teachers should
ask students to explain how to do the homework and have them begin it in class (Patton, 1994; Salend & Schliff, 1989). This is advantageous to teachers: it allows them to observe misunderstandings
and other difficulties and modify assignments and decide what to
re-teach. It is also advantageous to readers: it allows them to ask
questions and seek additional help.
Struggling Readers 237
MAKE SURE STRUGGLING READERS HAVE NEEDED HOMEWORK MATERIALS
If struggling readers often fail to bring home books and other
materials needed for homework, school personnel might (a) check
that the readers have the needed materials before they go home,
(b) fax (e.g., broadcast) or e-mail (e.g., attachments) required
papers, and (c) arrange for parents to have an extra set of books.
Salend and Schliff (1989) recommend that teachers help students
identify the resources needed to complete homework. Dawson and
Guare (2004) offer a daily homework planner that has children
answer “Do I have all the materials? Do I need help? Who will help
me?” (p. 123).
KEEP ORGANIZATIONAL AND WRITTEN REQUIREMENTS DOABLE
Teachers should keep in mind that many struggling readers, including those with well-developed listening abilities, have
extreme difficulty organizing work and cannot compose wellorganized essay-like responses that match their instructional reading level (quickly recognize 90% to 95% of words in context and
understand 70% to 89% of the text; McCormick, 2003). Some,
even with good organizational abilities, find 10-minutes of essaylike writing frustrating. In these cases, teachers should not assign
homework requiring lengthy written responses. Results will probably improve if they assign homework that limits writing to a few
sentences, asks readers to check items, match items, fill in blanks,
circle answers, and make categorical lists.
TEACH NEEDED SELF-REGULATORY SKILLS
Teachers should teach struggling readers whatever selfregulatory skills they need to succeed on homework (Dawson
& Guare, 2004; Patton, 1994; Zimmerman et al., 1996). Skills
include setting task goals, planning work, following directions,
managing time, selecting and applying strategies, self-verbalizing
strategy steps, and monitoring and self-evaluating progress (Ormrod, 2003; Schunk, 2001; Winne, 2001; Zimmerman, 1995, 2001;
Zimmerman et al., 1996; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001b). Some
skills are far more difficult to master and require far more time
to teach than others. By matching assignments to struggling readers’ abilities to function independently, emphasizing practice assignments, and using shaping and behavioral contracts, teachers
238 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
may minimize the potentially deleterious effects of self-regulatory
EMPHASIZE PRACTICE ASSIGNMENTS
Especially during early attempts to get struggling readers to
routinely and successfully complete homework, teachers should
assign practice rather than novel homework or homework that requires learning or applying new concepts (Cooper & Nye, 1994;
Hallahan & Kauffman, 1997; Patton, 1994; Polloway, Epstein,
Bursuck, Jayanthi, & Cumblad, 1994). As the name implies, practice assignments give readers opportunities to practice or apply
what they have just about but have not quite mastered. If, for example, when decoding, they have almost mastered applying the
initial consonants f, s, and m, teachers can give them homework
that has them use these sounds to identify words in a crossword
puzzle. To avoid practicing mistakes, their in-class accuracy rate
for independently completing similar assignments should exceed
USE SHAPING TO ENCOURAGE PRACTICE
By making things doable, explicit, and rewarding for struggling readers, shaping can minimize resistance to homework. The
underlying ideas are to (a) get readers to routinely submit homework that teachers can reinforce, with reinforcers readers’ value;
(b) use reinforcers as feedback of progress (Pintrich & Schunk,
With shaping, teachers reinforce struggling readers for behavioral changes that increasingly approximate but do not fully match
a targeted behavior (Alberto & Troutman, 2003; Maag, 1999). If,
for example, the targeted behavior is “Ryan will earn a ‘B’ on 5
consecutive homework assignments at his independent level,” and
the grading standards are explicit, teachers might initially reinforce Ryan for each “C” he earns. Once he earns a “C” on five
consecutive assignments, the reinforcement criteria is raised to
the next level, “C+,” and “C” work is no longer reinforced. This
shaping strategy—gradually increasing criteria for reinforcement
commensurate with Ryan’s successes—is followed with “B−’s” and
then “B’s” until Ryan achieves the target of 5 consecutive “B’s.”
Struggling Readers 239
USE BEHAVIORAL CONTRACTS
Like shaping, behavioral contracts that use powerful extrinsic
reinforcers can motivate struggling readers to complete independent level homework. A contract might state: “For each correct
homework answer, Ryan will earn 2 minutes of computer time during free period. For example, if he correctly answers 3 questions,
he can use the computer for 6 minutes; if he correctly answers 8
questions, he can use it for 16 minutes. As with all programs of extrinsic rewards, rewards should be paired with task-specific verbal
praise and gradually, almost imperceptibly phased out (Alberto
& Troutman, 2003; Good & Brophy, 2003). Greenwood (2003),
Maag (1999), and Heron and Harris (2001) offer excellent, practical guidance for developing behavioral contracts.
Principle 3: Use Peer Models to Create Vicarious Experiences
to Which Students Relate
Social cognitive theory asserts that modeling is one of the most
powerful ways to teach students new behaviors and new information and to raise self-efficacy:
Modeling fulfills information and motivation functions. Modeled behavior
provides information about what sequence of actions will lead to success
and about which actions have undesirable consequences. Models can raise
efficacy among observers who are apt to believe that they will be successful
if they follow the same behavioral sequence. (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997,
In contrast to adult models, peer models, similar to the student
observer, may be particularly effective in strengthening students’
self-efficacy (Alderman, 1999; Schunk, 1999, 2001; Zimmerman,
LINK MODELING TO HOMEWORK
In most instances, homework is solitary—struggling readers
are on their own. In class, however, peer models who struggling
readers see as similar (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Schunk, 2003)
can play an important role in preparing readers for homework by
demonstrating how to use a skill or strategy and what to say to oneself in the process. If homework closely resembles what readers observed and successfully practiced in class, they will likely anticipate
240 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
success, increasing prospects of completion (Pintrich & Schunk,
2002; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997b; Zimmerman, 2000).
USE COPING MODELS, IF POSSIBLE
Peer models can be mastery or coping models. Unlike mastery
models who flawlessly use target skills and learning strategies, coping models need to learn the skill or strategy and learn to apply it
(Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 2002). They have trouble and make mistakes. Paradoxically, this can benefit struggling readers. By seeing
how coping models, similar to them, make and overcome mistakes
in acquiring and applying a new skill or strategy, struggling readers
often realize they too can achieve this: “He’s like me. If he can do
it, I can.” This can raise self-efficiency (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002;
To realize the potential of coping models, modeling must be
planned. This involves:
! choosing a skill or learning strategy that the model and the struggling readers should have little difficulty learning—moderately
challenging but not overly difficult. ! selecting models similar to the struggling readers (e.g., same sex
and achievement level). ! having models explain what they are doing, step-by-step, while
they work to learn and apply the targeted skill. ! having models correct their mistakes and explicitly attribute failures to controllable factors (e.g., poor effort) and successes to
controllable factors (e.g., correctly using the strategy) and ability (e.g., “By practicing and monitoring what I did, I learned
Multipass. Not bad”). ! having readers observe models get reinforced for correctly applying the targeted skill or strategy in a variety of appropriate
situations. ! reinforcing readers for correctly applying the targeted skill or
strategy in a variety of appropriate situations.
Principle 4: Teach Students the Learning Strategies Needed
to Succeed on Assigned Tasks
When struggling readers do not know how to succeed on tasks or
how to reach their goals, they are apt to resist or quit. But as Ames
Struggling Readers 241
Children’s self-efficacy does respond positively when they learn to set shortterm, realistic goals and are shown how to make progress toward these
goals. It is not a matter of convincing them that they can do well or even
guaranteeing it; it is giving them the strategies to do so. (p. 412)
In line with this, Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein (1997) and Patton
(1994) recommend teaching students the study skills they need to
succeed on homework assignments.
TEACH STRATEGIES TO THE POINT OF MASTERY
Learning strategies “are techniques, principles, or rules that
enable students to learn, to solve problems and compete tasks independently” (Swanson & Desher, 2003, p. 131). They often involve a
series of steps or procedures associated with acronyms (e.g., RAP—
R: Read the paragraph; A: Ask yourself what the paragraph was
about; P: Put into your own words the main idea and two important details; Ellis, 1996). If struggling readers need to use a specific
learning strategy to succeed on homework, they must overlearn it
so that they can apply it without difficulty when working alone;
otherwise, they are unlikely to use it (Swanson & Desher, 2003).
Thus, it is important not to select and teach strategies willy-nilly or
to teach too many at a time.
FOLLOW A SEQUENCE OF INSTRUCTIONAL STEPS
Because strategy instruction can be complicated, instruction
should be orderly, as illustrated by this adaptation of Rosenberg,
Wilson, Maheady, and Sindelar’s (1997) instructional sequence:
! Determine the struggling readers’ current level of competence
with the targeted strategy; have them make a verbal or written
commitment to master it. ! Describe the strategy in ways that will help readers remember it. ! Model the strategy while using an explicit think aloud; prompt
readers to verbally self-instruct themselves while using the strategy; provide corrective feedback. ! Have readers verbally elaborate and rehearse each step of the
strategy and explain its purpose. ! Provide ample amounts of guided and independent practice
with familiar materials and content. ! Provide ample amounts of guided and independent practice
with other coursework materials.
242 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
! Tell readers when they have mastered the strategy. ! Discuss how the strategy can be used in a variety of situations,
including homework. ! Teach readers to monitor their use of the strategy. To guide their
monitoring, teach them to use a checklist of the strategy’s steps. ! Teach readers to reinforce themselves for correctly using the
Throughout the process, teachers should provide task-specific encouragement and merited praise.
Principle 5: Review Homework and Teach Students to Monitor
Their Progress and Strategy Use
Unless teachers frequently review homework for completeness and
accuracy (Salend & Schliff, 1989), they can undermine its importance (Cooper, 1989; Patton, 1994; Sullivan & Sequeira, 1996).
Moreover, failure to provide regular feedback on what readers did
correctly and how they can correct mistakes promotes erroneous
knowledge and incorrect practices.
FREQUENTLY REVIEW HOMEWORK
By frequently reviewing homework that matches struggling
readers’ ability to function independently (Good & Brophy, 2003),
teachers create opportunities to strengthen readers’ self-efficacy
by showing them how and why they succeeded. Despite the importance of reviewing homework (Patton, 1994), teachers cannot
spend countless hours doing this. Several solutions are available:
assign homework that can be reviewed quickly, have paraprofessionals grade homework for accuracy and completeness, grade
homework as “acceptable,” “needs improvement,” or “missing,”
give students answer keys to informally grade their homework. If
used, grading should be minimized and not used to punish readers
for poor or missing work (Cooper, 1989).
Because old habits die slowly and emerging ones need nurturing, comments about homework should stress improvement rather
than absolute performance (Alderman, 1999; Stipek, 1998). This
minimizes the weight given to poor starts and prevents them from
becoming black holes of pessimism that impede progress. Stressing improvement can prevent struggling readers from thinking,
Struggling Readers 243
“No use trying. With all my zeros for missing homework I’ll never
get a good grade.” It can also kick-start them into believing, “If
I start doing homework tonight my old zeros won’t count much.
The teacher will grade me on what I start doing, now.”
GRAPH SUCCESS AND TEACH SELF-MONITORING STRATEGIES
Frequent feedback about improving performance can
boost students’ self-efficacy and improve behavior (Guthrie &
Humenick, 2004; Salend & Schliff, 1989; Sapolsky, 1998; Schunk,
1999, 2002; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997a). One way to provide
feedback is to graph improvements (Bryan et al., 2001); such visible, historical evidence of improvement can persuade students that
they can successfully complete particular tasks (McCabe, 2003).
Thus, by charting struggling readers’ homework successes (e.g.,
grades, submission rates) and teaching them to observe and record
their progress, teachers can increase readers’ homework completion rates (Bryan & Sullivan-Burstein, 1998; Trammel, Schloss, &
Alper, 1994). As Ormrod (2003) observed, “Self-focused observation and recording can bring about changes (sometimes dramatic
ones) in student behavior” (p. 351).
Self-monitoring should reflect the struggling reader’s maturity level. For instance, younger readers might enjoy using Countoons (see Daly & Ranalli, 2003), in which they mark cartoons
that indicate if they used the proper academic strategy or selfregulatory behavior or completed their homework. To self-monitor
and record progress, older readers need graphs that look more
businesslike (see Alberto & Troutman, 2003; Maag, 1999).
Principle 6: Teach Struggling Readers to Attribute Success
to Controllable Behaviors
Students who believe that they can succeed on specific tasks and
who attribute their successes to controllable factors (e.g., effort
and the correct use of learning strategies) are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty than students who believe they lack
the ability to succeed (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003; Ormrod,
2003). The bad news is that many struggling readers attribute failure to a lack of ability (“I’m dumb”) and success to external uncontrollable factors (“It was dumb luck”)—this breeds pessimism
and low self-efficacy. The good news is that positive, facilitative
244 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
attributions—attributions that improve motivation—can be taught
(Kozminsky & Kozminsky, 2003).
ATTRIBUTE RESULTS TO EFFORT, PERSISTENCE, AND THE CORRECT
USE OF STRATEGIES
In private and small group meetings with struggling readers, and in written comments, teachers should stress to readers
how their effort, persistence, and correct use of strategies engendered success (Fulk & Mastropieri, 1990; Linnenbrink & Pintrich,
2002; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Ring & Reetz, 2000; Shelton,
Anastopoulos, & Linden, 1985): “Ryan, your Mom told me you
worked on this for 20 minutes. That’s how long I thought it should
take the class to do this. Rereading to make sure your answers
made sense was smart. Your effort and rereading earned you an
‘A.’ Great job!” This feedback attributes success to Ryan’s effort and
persistence and to his correct use of a monitoring and rereading
strategy—factors he can control (Dweck, 1999). It also implies that
he has important, controllable abilities—to persist and to use correct strategies. By naming these factors and helping Ryan attribute
his success to them, the teacher helps Ryan make the connections
needed to strengthen his self-efficacy for homework.
Attributing success to effort, however, can backfire if struggling readers’ think the task is easy and the effort needed to
succeed great (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). To prevent this problem, teachers’ attributions of effort should be modest and specific.
When accurate, and when the readers’ effort is similar to that of
other students, teachers might note the similarity.
When making attributions, teachers should place the evaluation statement (e.g., Great job”) after the rationale (“Rereading . . . was smart”). This prevents the possibility that once readers’
hear the evaluation they will ignore the rationale (Lyden, Chaney,
Danehower, & Houston, 2002).
If struggling readers do poorly on presumably independent
level homework, teachers should identify the sources of difficulty.
To identify them, teachers might supportively ask readers where
and when they did the homework, what was happening around
them, and how much time and energy they invested.
Struggling Readers 245
If struggling readers are moderately proficient with thinkalouds—the “talking through of an endeavor …saying aloud new
steps [of a strategy] until they become part of our ‘inner voice’ of
knowledge” (Wilhelm, 2001, p. 19)—teachers might give them a
copy of the homework and ask them to describe what they were
thinking when they first saw it, started working on it, were midway
through it, and encountered difficulties (asking readers to point
these out is often revealing). Teachers can use this information
to create instructional think-alouds (Tierney & Readance, 2000)
appropriate for individual or small groups of readers with similar needs. To model what readers would have to think and do to
successfully complete the homework, teachers can, in the thinkaloud, combine “I” statements (Walker, 2003) with attribution
statements. Thus, a teacher might think aloud before struggling
readers: “Next time I’ll preview the material first and I’ll reread
it until I know it cold. I won’t give up. This should help me do
DEVELOP PERSONALIZED LISTS OF ATTRIBUTION STATEMENTS
Another way to help struggling readers attribute success to effort, persistence, and the application of specific reading strategies,
is for teachers to help them create a personalized list of attribution
statements, along with a list of explicit strategy steps, in checklist
form. By combining previously developed attribution statements
(e.g., “I never gave up”) with explicit strategy steps (e.g., “I succeeded because I used the rereading strategy we used in class”),
struggling readers have an emotional and cognitive roadmap for
success (Fulk & Mastropieri, 1990). To maximize the success of attribution training, however, requires regular discussions of specific
attributions, frequent practice with self-attribution, and a steady,
manageable flow of independent level homework activities that
produce success. Without frequent success, attributions will ring
hollow (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002) and self-efficacy for homework
ASSOCIATE EXTRINSIC REINFORCEMENT
WITH FACILITATIVE ATTRIBUTIONS
If, with parental support, struggling readers seem resistant to
completing well-designed, independent level homework, teachers
might consider combining extrinsic reinforcement with facilitative
246 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
attributions that emphasize effort and the correct use of strategies.
Extrinsic reinforcement uses reinforcers or rewards that teachers
or parents give to readers—reinforcers that readers want, lack, and
will work to get (e.g., toys, snacks, stickers, game time, free time).
These reinforcers provide them with feedback and temporary incentives to do what they typically avoid. If sufficiently powerful, extrinsic reinforcers can kick-start homework. By pairing attributions
with highly valued, extrinsic reinforcers, the value and importance
that readers give to teachers’ attributions may increase.
However, if used incorrectly, extrinsic reinforcement can
backfire. It can reinforce a struggling reader’s belief that tasks
should be done for extrinsic reinforcement only, resulting in a
return to old habits when reinforcement ends. Strategies for eliminating this potentially debilitating effect include:
! using the smallest, least conspicuous reinforcers that readers will
work to get. ! stressing aspects of work that readers find attractive. ! using task-specific praise that stresses increasing competence. ! linking reinforcement to realistic performance standards. ! systematically and gradually reducing the frequency of reinforcement.
Principle 7: Link Homework to Struggling Readers’ Short-Term Goals
Personally relevant goals energize and motivate people (Ormrod,
2003; Schunk, 2003; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997a); goals are what
people want to do, get, or achieve. Often, struggling readers fail to
understand the importance of homework and its relationship to
their goals. This happens when homework is busy work or teachers
have not helped readers connect homework to readers’ goals.
LINK HOMEWORK TO PERSONAL GOALS
By frequently explaining to struggling readers why a series
of homework assignments is important and linking it to readers’
short-term personal goals—learning to read television schedules,
making money, getting a driver’s license—teachers can help to direct and fuel readers’ willingness to do homework. This also helps
teachers avoid the pitfall of assigning busy work, whose irrelevance
can erode readers’ motivation for schoolwork (Allington, 2001).
Struggling Readers 247
Teachers, without preaching, might discuss with struggling
readers how a specific set of homework assignments relates to
their lives (Patton, 1994), how it can help them achieve their goals
(Rock, 2004), and why, with modest effort, they can succeed. As
with most tasks, struggling readers are more prone to complete
work they view as valuable—work that will help them achieve their
goals—than work unrelated to their goals (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003; Rock, 2004).
HELP STRUGGLING READERS DEVELOP PERSONALLY IMPORTANT
Because it is easier and quicker to observe progress on realistic
short-term goals than on long-term goals and because short-term
goals are more quickly achieved, they are usually more motivating
and produce higher levels of self-efficacy (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002;
Schunk, 2003; Zimmerman, 2000, 2001). Unfortunately, many
struggling readers lack realistic or personally important short-term
goals. By helping readers develop such goals, teachers can fuel
their willingness to engage in schoolwork (Rock, 2004).
To help readers develop short-term goals, teachers might discuss with them what they enjoy, what interests them, and what
concerns them. Then, using Rock’s (2004) ACT-REACT strategy
(Articulate short and long-term goals, Create a work plan, Take
pictures, Reflect on goal attainment, Evaluate progress daily, ACT
again), teachers might help readers figure out how to use shortterm goals to achieve long-term ones. Once readers are satisfied
with their goals, teachers might increase readers’ motivation for
homework by explicitly linking it to their goals.
Principle 7: Make Homework Interesting, Relevant,
Socially Acceptable, and Worthwhile
Interest enhances motivation, learning, and response rates (Clarke
et al., 1995; Ganske et al., 2003; Guthrie & Humenick, 2004; Mayer,
2003). It affects the use of learning strategies and other learningrelated behaviors (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002): “When students are
interested in texts and tasks they attend to them longer and remain
with them even if somewhat difficult” (Turner, 1995, p. 417). To
capitalize on or spur interest, teachers should create situations that
bolster struggling readers’ successes and confidence, as confidence
248 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
can create interest (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003). To further galvanize interest, teachers might assign homework that is relevant to
readers (Patton, 1994), encourages them to apply schoolwork to
real-life situations (Bryan et al., 2001), emphasizes links to people,
and is tied to discussions of students’ everyday lives (Guthrie &
Humenick, 2004). They might also let struggling readers choose
between assignments, use collaborative social structures, assign
look-alike homework, elicit struggling readers’ suggestions, and
use reinforcement schedules to deliver powerful reinforcers.
EMPHASIZE LINKS TO PEOPLE
People are interested in people and stories (Schallert & Reed,
1997): “We all live by narrative, every day and every minute of our
lives. Narrative is the human way of working through a chaotic and
unforgiving world” (Wilson, 2002, p. 10).
To make homework interesting, teachers might focus it on
stories about people involved in difficult, challenging situations
(Schallert & Reed, 1997). They might select coherent, clearly structured materials that are vivid, intense, and emotionally captivating (Good & Brophy, 2003), materials that learners can identify
with and that build upon their knowledge (Alverman & Phelps,
1998). In some cases, assignments that emphasize links to people
might eliminate the need for extrinsic reinforcement and increase
the probability that struggling readers will successfully complete
Consider, for example, a common type of high school assignment given near the end of a period: “Answer questions 1–10, on
the Constitution, on page 235.” Often, struggling readers find such
assignments sterile (Sullivan & Sequeira, 1996) and overwhelming.
To make the Constitution and related homework more authentic and interesting, teachers might show and discuss brief, dramatic portions of the video, “Freedom Never Dies” (PBS Video,
1999), the life and murder of Harry T. Moore, a great but forgotten civil rights leader. If the discussion goes well, for homework,
teachers might ask struggling readers to check “yes” or “no” to
several questions about what they expect the full video to show
(e.g., Yes/No: Harry T. Moore’s goal was to become rich. Yes/No:
Harry T. Moore’s work placed his family in danger. Yes/No: The
FBI and the Florida police did everything they could to protect
Harry T. Moore.). If the video and the discussions capture the
Struggling Readers 249
readers’ interests, they are more likely to complete such doable,
well-designed, relevant homework. The principle is simple: Interest reduces resistance (Guthrie & Humenick, 2004).
TIE HOMEWORK TO DISCUSSIONS OF STUDENTS’ EVERYDAY LIVES
Discussing topics that are part of struggling readers’ lives—
topics familiar and relevant and important to them—creates interest that can reduce resistance to related homework (Bryan et al.,
2001). By safely discussing such topics in small, mixed-achievement
groups, teachers can reduce the isolation and stigma that struggling readers often feel in school, and increase the opportunity
for them to competently participate in class.
Engaging struggling readers in discussions can be difficult.
The following guidelines, adapted from Vacca and Vacca (1996),
can enhance participation:
! Arrange the room so students can see one another and can meet
to share ideas. ! Explicitly state the topic and the goal of the discussion (e.g.,
True or false?: Fear about school safety is exaggerated and unjustified). ! Encourage and reinforce good listening. ! Begin discussions with mixed-achievement groups of two or
three students. ! Monitor discussions; keep them focused on the central topic,
core question, or problem. ! Use simple language; frequently check for understanding; clarify misunderstandings.
LET STRUGGLING READERS CHOOSE HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENTS
Pintrich and Schunk (2002) noted that “almost all motivation
theories suggest . . . choice increases motivation” (p. 298). Guthrie
and Humenick (2004) found that choice produced an effect size of
0.95 on motivation for reading and 1.20 on reading achievement
and comprehension. Thus, several times a week, teachers might let
struggling readers choose one of several homework assignments.
USE COLLABORATIVE SOCIAL STRUCTURES
Teachers should take advantage of collaborative social structures that increase engagement (Guthrie & Humenick, 2004;
250 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
Turner, 1995) and make homework more enjoyable (Leone &
Richards, 1989). Even simple collaborative structures, like small
voluntary groups, in which students help one another do homework, can encourage homework completion as long as students
know they are there to help, not to give one another answers.
If work is at everyone’s independent level, such problems are
ASSIGN LOOK-ALIKE HOMEWORK
To minimizes stigma and motivate some struggling readers,
teachers should, when possible, assign struggling readers homework that looks like that given to the rest of the class (Bryan et al.,
2001; Nelson, Epstein, Bursuck, Jayanthi, & Sawyer, 1998).
If the class’s homework is at the struggling readers’ independent reading or comfort level, but it is too lengthy or complex,
teachers should shorten or simplify it. For a twenty-question assignment, they might assign the first five or every fourth question.
If the homework’s reading level is too difficult, shortening it
will not help. Instead, teachers might assign struggling readers the
same type homework, on the same topic, using easier materials.
If this isn’t feasible, teachers should make sure that readers are
taught to read the homework in advance of the assignment, as part
of in-class or pull-out (e.g., resource center) lessons. If the reading
remains too difficult, teachers should eliminate the homework or
make it voluntary (e.g., extra credit; Cooper, 1989).
ELICIT STRUGGLING READERS’ SUGGESTIONS
To elicit ideas about the kinds of homework assignments struggling readers prefer and can succeed on, teachers might discuss
these topics with them. Teachers might also show them different
type assignments and formats and ask for their preferences. It may
be, for example, that they prefer underlining to matching and
matching to writing (see Alber, Nelson, & Brennan, 2002). By seeking such information, teachers communicate respect for readers’
views and insights.
USE REINFORCEMENT SCHEDULES TO SYSTEMATICALLY DELIVER
Despite assigning struggling readers interesting, relevant, independent level homework linked to their goals, some will refuse
Struggling Readers 251
to do homework. Consequently, they might fail subjects or find
themselves in frequent conflict with school personnel (Hallahan
& Kauffman, 2003). Preventing this often requires a systematic, intensive, carefully monitored program of applied behavior analysis
that uses schedules of reinforcement to deliver powerful, extrinsic
reinforcers—what struggling readers will work to get.
In general, teachers should start with a continuous schedule, reinforcing every homework assignment satisfactorily completed. Once struggling readers consistently submit such homework, teachers should gradually, almost imperceptibly, reduce the
frequency of reinforcement by moving to thinner schedules, such
as variable ratio (VR) schedules, in which reinforcers are dispensed
an average of once every “nth” satisfactorily completed assignment
(see Alberto & Troutman, 2003, and Maag, 1999). If external reinforcers do not improve rates and quality, school personnel should
! Do the struggling readers adequately value what we consider
powerful reinforcers? ! Is reinforcement too infrequent? ! Are the reading materials too difficult or the assignments too
complex or abstract? ! What else is interfering with homework completion?
Principle 8: Link Positive Physiological States to School Work
and Homework in Particular
Social cognitive theorists (Bandura, 1997; Zimmerman, 2000) assert that a prime source of self-efficacy is one’s physiological state or
physiological reaction to events. They note that negative affective
reactions—extreme stress and anxiety—can impair self-efficacy,
which can impair learning. Teachers can often prevent, reduce, or
eliminate negative affective reactions by providing struggling readers with continual success, especially on moderately challenging
tasks that readers’ value. Teachers can also improve readers’ physiological responses by creating a pleasant, supportive atmosphere
(McCabe, 2003) and arranging for relaxation training (Margolis,
1987, 1990) or counseling to address homework problems
(Margolis, McCabe, & Alber, 2004).
252 H. Margolis & P. P. McCabe
Principle 9: Secure Parental Support
Parents are often the key to improving struggling readers’ success
with homework (Bryan et al., 2001; Patton, 1994). They provide
models of behavior and instill values. Often, only they can provide
a quiet place and the structure needed to do homework.
To help parents support their child’s homework efforts, school
personnel might help parents develop a support plan (e.g., set
aside specific time for homework; sign their child’s homework
planner ), suggest specific support activities (e.g., read assigned
materials or books to their child; name unknown words, when
asked), ask parents if they want information about homework
(e.g., a list of upcoming topics and assignments), invite parents
to participate in a school–home reinforcement system (e.g., reinforce their child for reasonable efforts), and ask parents to monitor and limit homework (e.g., have their child stop working if
Principle 10: Provide Needed Support
In essence, everything we have recommended is support aimed at
making struggling readers (and teachers) successful. Some readers, however, need more (Dawson & Guare, 2004). They may
need daily, after-school help from an in-school homework support center; access to a homework hotline (Patton, 1994); ongoing reading instruction, by a reading specialist, that is carefully
coordinated with in-class instruction (Allington & Cunningham,
2002); ongoing, frequent, skilled counseling to help them deal
with their academic problems and any emotional difficulties arising from these problems (Margolis et al., 2004); and fun and enjoyment, lots of it, to give them a cushion, a psychological shield
to minimize and balance the hurt their reading problems cause.
Some, who come from chaotic, neglectful, or dangerous homes,
may need social service supports. Fortunately, the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; 1997; P. L. 105-17) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (P. L. 93-112) often
provide school personnel with the legal support needed to request extra homework help, reading help, counseling, and social
Struggling Readers 253
Increasing the Odds of Success
Although the principles discussed and our suggestions for homework practices do not guarantee success, they improve the likelihood that struggling readers with low self-efficacy for homework will increase their compliance rate and improve the quality
of homework, especially if the principles and emanating activities are (a) stressed throughout the day; (b) part of an overall
program designed to foster readers’ beliefs in their abilities; (c)
adapted to the needs and characteristics of the struggling readers, their teachers, and the instructional situation; (d) carefully
monitored to assess their effectiveness; and (e) modified to reflect
Not addressing homework problems and not addressing low
or sagging motivation for school work is a mistake. Continued
homework problems—often a proxy for many school and learning problems—will likely create ongoing conflict between parents and children, parents and school personnel, and struggling
readers and school personnel, decreasing readers’ chances of succeeding in school. Low motivation for homework, reading, and
other school work will adversely affect learning and achievement
(Lipson & Wixson, 2003), which can adversely affect a struggling
reader’s entire future. Similarly, low self-efficacy in critical areas—
even homework—can adversely affect children’s’ entire future. As
Bandura (1997) has warned:
People who doubt their capabilities in particular domains of activity [low
self-efficacy] shy away from difficult tasks in those domains. They find it
hard to motivate themselves, and they… give up quickly in the face of
obstacles. They have low aspirations. . . . In taxing situations, they dwell
on their personal deficiencies…. They are slow to recover their sense of
efficacy following failure or setbacks. . . . It does not require all that much
failure for them to lose faith in their capabilities. They fall easy victim to
stress and depression. (p. 39)
Thus, we contend that if homework and related problems adversely
affect struggling readers, resolving these problems, in ways that
enhance self-efficacy and motivation, must become a primary instructional goal. To do less is to perpetuate a downward cycle of
failure, frustration, and conflict.
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