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10 ways to combat middle-school reading failure

Middle-school reading failure needs more attention. Here's what you can do about it.

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

10 ways to combat middle-school reading failure


Despite generations of well-intentioned interventions, two-thirds of middle school students in the United States are not proficient in reading, and approximately half of those students do not have the basic skills they were expected to learn in elementary school. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Those who don’t learn to become proficient readers are less likely to graduate high school, more likely to live in poverty and less prepared to compete in the 21st century workplace.

Although educators are typically more focused on third grade reading proficiency, reading failure in middle school is arguably even more urgent. When struggling students enter middle school, they often bring with them a history of failed reading interventions, a negative view of themselves as learners, and poor reading and study habits. Moreover, they must shoulder the burden of their reading failure just as they are confronted with the challenges associated with adolescence.

As reading researchers, we have spent countless hours working with students, teachers and administrators and have seen firsthand the obstacles students face when entering middle school. Indeed, what happens, or doesn’t happen, for struggling readers when they reach middle school can make all the difference. Educators must be equipped to triage these students so they can accurately and efficiently identify their specific skill deficits and implement effective and differentiated intervention without delay. Unfortunately, multiple factors prevent both the accurate diagnosis and the effective implementation of effective reading intervention in middle schools. Common barriers include the following:

  • When district-level testing reveals that students cannot read for comprehension on grade-level text, middle school teachers often do not have the tools, the knowledge or the experience to administer assessments that diagnose specific reading skill deficiencies. As a result, these struggling students frequently receive no targeted intervention to close these foundational gaps that impede development of fluency and grade level reading comprehension in Tier 1 instructional settings.
  • Current assessments typically identify whether basic word-level problems are present, but do not differentiate between decoding knowledge and automatic use of that knowledge. Without detailed and specific information about studentsdeficits, it is difficult to identify the most appropriate interventions.
  • The daily schedule of middle school is not amenable to systematic, daily intervention. Students move between multiple teachers across the day and often there is less awareness and communication about the needs of the whole student, which means they can often slip through the cracks.
  • Lacking the tools and the structure to target specific needs, intervention can become a catch-all category that supplants rather than enhances regular ELA instruction.Misapplied interventions can even impede the progress of students lacking basic skills by limiting their acquisition of knowledge and intellectual growth.
  • While ELA teachers are prepared to help students develop content knowledge, higher-level learning, and written expression, they are typically not trained to deliver foundational reading instruction. Moreover, professional development that focuses on the efficient development of basic reading skills is not routinely available at the middle school level.
  • Adolescents often opt out of engaging in interventions because they don’t want their peers to know they struggle with reading. They are frequently absent or choose not to fully participate in the practice that is vitally important to improvement.

Set the stage for meaningful growth

Importantly, a lack of adequate information about why students are behind several grade levels in reading can lead school leaders, literacy coaches and teachers to have misperceptions about students’ attitudes, interest in learning and their capacity for growth. And how students are perceived could well determine next steps. The following 10 strategies can help teachers become better informed about their students’ challenges and more effective in helping them make meaningful growth during this critical developmental period.

  1. Provide appropriate, relevant professional development and resources to educators to ensure they are well-versed in current reading and learning science.
  2. Carefully choose research- and evidence-based assessments that provide detailed information on studentsspecific reading deficits.
  3. Ensure school specialists understand how to use assessment data to develop individual student profiles, identify needs, and provide efficient and targeted interventions within a framework that integrates basic skill development into grade-level instruction.
  4. Hire professional coaches to help teachers implement interventions with fidelity and within a structure that is comfortable for these students and allocate the budget to support these initiatives.
  5. Coach the teachers and staff to explain to the students in straightforward language what their underlying issues are and present a way to solve them. For example, explain to students that they have gapsin their basic skill sets that they need to fill in, and while the intervention will require focus and hard work, it will pay off when reading makes sense, school becomes easier and learning improves.
  6. Establish a trusting relationship between the student and a coachwho believes in the student and helps her embrace the work as important and relevant. This trust is foundational to engaging and supporting student motivation, confidence, and the hard work required to become a skilled reader. Help the student understand that the problem is not hers alone to solve and she may need a different approach to learn to read, like many students.
  7. Explain that cognitive science has discovered that there are new approaches of teaching students to become experts in skill development and that these discoveries apply to reading development as well as other domains. Analogize the development of skilled reading to the development of expertise in sports, music or language. Discuss the importance and the process of building basic skills and practicing them in a variety of situations until a “player” is successful.
  8. Always position the development of basic word skills and automatic word recognition in the broader context of reading connected text with ease and for meaning. Integrate the work into contexts that are relevant to the student by targeting high-interest, student-selected topics.
  9. Engage the student in oral discussions that expand the students background knowledge and expose her to higher-level vocabulary words. Within this meaning-based and personal interaction, review the structure of these targeted vocabulary words to reinforce word recognition skills.
  10. Jointly develop specific goals with each student and then identify steps along the way to measure progress and encourage the student to periodically evaluate and revisit those goals.

Without more differentiated diagnostics followed by efficient and effective interventions for students who lack basic skills, struggling middle school readers are unlikely to attain grade level fluency and comprehension. Reading — the foundational gateway skill to successful education — must be accessible to all students. Schools need tools and approaches that break through the barriers preventing so many students from achieving academic and economic success, particularly those from historically underserved groups who make up a disproportionate share of failing students. Most importantly, there must be the organizational will to prioritize these students by owning the urgency of the problem. School administrators should execute an explicit plan to allocate resources for tools and professional development, and collaborate with teachers, parents and students to attack this problem, head-on.

Research scientists Dr. Carolyn Brown and Dr. Jerry Zimmerman have spent more than 30 years studying the needs of struggling readers and have received support from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Education and the state of Iowa to develop and test strategies that work. They are the co-founders of Foundations in Learning, a provider of research-based tools designed to assess struggling readers, address their foundational skill deficits and empower them to achieve significant gains in reading fluency and comprehension.


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