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Supporting Secondary Struggling Readers

In Language Magazine's April 2021 issue, Laura Axtell clears up misconceptions about how educators can help middle and high school struggling readers during a pandemic

Secondary teachers are at a disadvantage when it comes to reading instruction. So much of the focus beyond fourth grade is on meeting English language arts (ELA) standards, particularly comprehension, that preservice middle and high school teachers often receive very little information about identifying and remediating reading difficulties. Even after decades of low reading scores in fourth and eighth grades, teachers often assume that students will come to their classrooms with the reading skills to independently access grade-level content in textbooks, novels, and online articles.

Misconception One
To support older readers and their teachers, it is helpful to address several common misconceptions. A big one, often based on reading assessment measures, is that comprehension is the problem. The majority of reading assessments and standardized tests for older students focus on reading comprehension measures without determining gaps in the essential components that lead to comprehension: decoding, fluency, and vocabulary. A low comprehension score doesn’t tell teachers what they need to know to intervene, yet the proposed solution is often more reading “strategies.” This is generally unsuccessful, because—as stated by Dr. Anita Archer— “there is no reading strategy powerful enough to compensate for the fact that you can’t read the words.”

Decades of research have identified that effective readers must have a solid and automatic knowledge of how to translate the sounds of our language to the print that represents those sounds. This begins with accurately knowing consonant and vowel sounds, regardless of age, and understanding how speech and print work together for reading and spelling.

Secondary teachers are often unsure of how to assess foundational reading skills or address deficits, yet studies show that aggressively correcting phonological awareness difficulties and providing phonic decoding instruction are two of the most successful elements for intervention.

Misconception Two
Another misconception is that struggling readers aren’t trying hard enough or must be less intelligent than their peers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most students with dyslexia, for instance, have average or above-average intelligence. Teachers may assume that students are lazy or not working very hard because secondary teachers often don’t know the characteristics of dyslexia or how to identify a struggling reader who has spent years hiding this. When a student with learning or language difficulties is identified, has the school established an appropriate process for ensuring that the time, materials, and trained professionals are available to provide effective intervention? Here are steps educators can take to support struggling readers in middle or high school.

Identifying a Struggling Reader in Middle or High School
Students with dyslexia and weak decoding skills build coping mechanisms in their early years to avoid shame, which gets stronger as they get older. It benefits educators to become aware of what students are doing when they’re performing reading or writing tasks and to look for these compensation strategies.

For example, do students participate in discussions but avoid anything connected with reading out loud? Are the same students conveniently requesting to use the bathroom or go to the nurse’s office during independent reading? Do they appear fidgety and distracted during reading? Are there consistent behavior issues when students are asked to share reading or writing assignments in front of their peers? These are common strategies to avoid embarrassment.

Educators can also watch for repeated spelling errors, letter reversals, and the use of simple words and limited responses in their students’ writing—or not turning in work at all.

Supporting These Readers in a Virtual or Hybrid Setting
There are two primary ways to support these students. The first is providing access to the curriculum content that will help them keep pace with their peers. During this unusual school year, teachers have the opportunity to do things differently to better support struggling readers. For example, a number of teachers are reading a book out loud with their students online, who are following along, and then having virtual discussions to support understanding. Students working from home can also access resources like text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and spellchecking apps to support decoding, writing, and spelling. Adults use these resources all the time, and they can be incredibly helpful accommodations for students to use without the knowledge of their peers. Also, there is often more time now because students aren’t in class all day five days a week. At home or during breaks in instruction, students can:

• Keep pace with the English class by listening to an audio book;

• Connect to science and history topics by watching an educational video that increases background knowledge;

• Have access to resources that provide reading content at their instructional level; and

• Work on projects where their strengths can be highlighted.

Most importantly, these students require targeted reading instruction with a research-based program for secondary students that can be delivered virtually or in person. During the pandemic, older students may be working remotely more often and missing valuable intervention. Instructional software ensures that students continue to receive structured literacy delivered at their own pace and that they can join small-group interventions online without being pulled from other classes. Research supports the need for adequate time for secondary students to apply the skills they need to become more proficient readers. Without these skills, students are destined to fall further behind and join the 19% of graduating seniors who leave school with only marginal reading ability. Thirty-two million adults fall into this category. The current school situation may allow for an increase in the amount of time available to prevent that.

Taking the Time to Prepare Students for Life beyond the Classroom
Reading is the only skill that students need for six hours a day, every single day, for twelve years. Limited reading skills impact every academic area: the ability to do word problems in math, to read articles in social studies, and to participate in discussions and assignments about novels in English class. As students get older, a driver’s license is often a necessity—but a major challenge if they can’t read the manual or pass the test.

Getting a summer or part-time job may be very difficult if reading or writing is involved. The emotional impact of shame and students’ beliefs that they are less intelligent cannot be underestimated, and it takes a toll on self-esteem that extends into adulthood. This year provides an opportunity for educators to become more aware of the students who are struggling readers and how to better support them, and for school administrators to ensure that reading intervention is available in any setting. Although COVID restrictions won’t always be necessary, the need for appropriate instruction for older struggling readers will continue.

Laura Axtell, a former special education teacher and high school administrator, is now an education specialist for Reading Horizons ( Reading Horizons Elevate is a research-based program for secondary students that can be delivered virtually or in person.

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