Adolescent Struggling Readers

Older Students Struggling with Reading

Here is the way it is supposed to work: Children are supposed to learn to read by 2nd or 3rd grade, and then they are supposed to “read to learn” for the rest of their lives. In a perfect world, nobody would still be learning to read in middle- or high-school. Unfortunately, we are reminded every day that this is not a perfect world. Millions of students struggle with reading in high-school and beyond. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), approximately one in four students in the 12th grade (who have not already dropped out of school) are still reading at “below basic” levels, while only one student in twenty reads at “advanced” levels. Clearly, teaching reading is not just an elementary school problem. Middle- and high-schools need to provide interventions and support for older struggling readers.
However, at the middle- and high-school level, there are several obstacles that make reading instruction more challenging. First of all, most teachers at the high school level do not consider themselves to be reading teachers. They have never received training in reading instruction, and even when trained, their first priority is to teach a content area (like biology or history). Secondly, it is hard for any teacher to teach a student to read when she only sees that student for 50 minutes a day (or less). And third, students who are still struggling with reading in middle- and high-school are not usually very motivated to learn to read. In fact, they will often do almost anything to avoid reading instruction.


Michael Pressley described some of the research he and his colleagues have been doing on reading motivation in his wonderful book, “Reading Instruction that Works.” He reminds us that children are very black-and-white thinkers (we all knew that), and when children start to realize they are having difficulty with reading (which actually starts about the 2nd grade), they start to think they are stupid. But they don’t want other people to think they are stupid, so they begin to do anything they can to hide their reading difficulty and to avoid reading. When cornered, often these children act-out or misbehave — they would much rather people think they are “stubborn” or ” obstinate” or “difficult” — anything but “stupid” (which in their black-and-white world is the only alternative). They would rather be punished, sent to the principal, put in the corner, put in the hall, whatever… anything is preferable to letting people know they can’t read very well.

And those behaviors become much more entrenched as the years pass.

If you have a child in the 7th grade who is having trouble with reading, you are dealing with a child who has about 5 years experience at avoiding reading. The things that child in the 7th grade needs to learn in order to become a proficient reader are not all that different from what a 1st grader needs to learn, but it is much harder to teach those things to a stubborn, obstinate 7th grader than an eager, curious 1st grader.


That said, the first step for reading instruction for older struggling readers is diagnostic assessment. As with young children, older struggling readers have difficulty reading for a variety of reasons — two students may both be reading at the 2nd grade level, but for entirely different reasons. Ideally, high schools would regularly assess reading comprehension levels for all students (at least twice a year), and would further diagnostically assess students who are reading well below their grade level.

The first step is relatively easy. There are quite a few valid, reliable assessments for measuring reading comprehension “levels.” However they are not very diagnostic — they only tell you whether a student is reading at grade level or not. That type of test is somewhat useful for determining which of your students are reading “on level,” but it does not begin to tell you anything informative about those students who are struggling — you’re still left wondering why they are struggling.

There are a variety of reasons why an older student may be struggling to learn to read — the student may still have difficulties decoding words; the student may have language comprehension problems; or some combination of the two. Once all students have been screened with a general reading comprehension test, those students who are struggling should be tested for decoding fluency (which can be done with a short list of grade-appropriate words) and listening comprehension skills (to determine if there is a problem with language comprehension). Based on those assessments, further diagnostic measures may be necessary (e.g. if the student has decoding fluency problems, he or she should be tested for phoneme awareness, word attack skills, and basic letter-sound knowledge.)

As a diagnostic for older struggling readers, I am favorably impressed with the Diagnostic Assessment of Reading by Roswell and Chall. It is not optimal, but it is about the best that I’ve seen. It is easy to administer, and the test is organized the way a diagnostic assessment should be. The DAR is published by Riverside Publishing Company — contact them for more information about the assessment.


Once struggling readers have been identified and diagnostic assessments have revealed areas where the student could use some focused instruction, the school must provide the structures and resources to help each student to make as much gain as possible as fast as possible. For students who are only a few years behind their peers, it is likely that some focused instruction from talented teachers in their regular classrooms will be enough to get them caught up (focusing on enhancing vocabulary, comprehension skills, and most importantly, increasing the amount of time those students spend every day reading and writing; see V is for Volume). A team of strong teachers, working collaboratively, can help students who are only a few years behind to get on grade level within a school year.

Sadly however, often students make it into middle- and high-school without acquiring even basic reading skills. While their peers are reading at 7th grade levels and beyond, these students are still struggling to read 2nd grade material. Likely, these students will need intense, explicit instruction to develop both decoding skills and comprehension skills. Certainly they would also benefit from strong, individualized classroom instruction (the classroom teacher definitely does not get off the hook with these students — they are not somebody else’s problem), but supplementary services will need to be provided in order for these students to catch up.

Students who are reading at a level 3 years or more behind will need at least two hours per day of intensive, explicit reading instruction with a talented diagnostic reading specialist. (Caveat Emptor — I have seen many certified “reading specialists” who are neither talented nor diagnostic. Make no assumptions.) To structure the time, schools will probably need to combine several initiatives — for example, a student may be required to substitute an elective for a reading class, and that student may also be required to participate in an after-school tutoring program.

Other resources

Students slip through the cracks. That’s a fact of life. However, if middle- and high-schools do not react decisively with diagnostic assessments and intensive, explicit instruction when they discover a student who is still reading well below grade level, then there is little hope for that student. If the school does little or nothing, that student will eventually graduate or drop out, and join the ranks of 40 million other adult Americans who are functionally illiterate.

If you are looking for a way to structure your middle- or high-school to help struggling readers to be successful, you should start with this short resource guide from Kevin Feldman — Feldman’s Biased Bibliography of Resources for Older Struggling Readers.

When you finish that, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Curtis and Longo’s book, When Adolescents Can’t Read, Methods and Materials that Work. This is a very short and readable (about 50 pages) little book that provides a wealth of information about older struggling readers. This is an outstanding resource.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory has examined and summarized many of the most common reading programs that are designed to help older struggling readers catch up with their peers. You can review the resource titled, “Building Reading Proficiency at the Secondary School Level: A Guide to Resources” on SEDL’s website.

Judith Langer at CELA has been conducting research on effective reading instruction at middle and high school levels. She has published a short guide that can be downloaded from the CELA website. It is also worth exploring some of her other reports and publications available through the CELA webiste.

Sebastian’s School-Improvement Plan for Older Struggling Readers

When students begin to fall behind their peers in reading skill, rapid, effective intervention is imperative. Because of the Matthew Effect (see M is for Matthew Effect), if a small disparity in reading skill is not addressed early, it tends to grow over time. Young children who enter school with poorer reading skills than their peers can usually be helped with two successive years of very high-quality reading instruction. Typically, no extra intervention is necessary beyond high-quality instruction delivered by very talented and knowledgeable teachers.

However, some students inevitably slip through the cracks and do not benefit from high-quality reading instruction in the early grades. Over time, they suffer from Matthew Effects, and fall further and further behind their peers. Frustration sets in, and the gap widens ever further until drastic steps must be taken.

Previous studies paint a very grim picture of reading intervention for older struggling readers who have fallen significantly behind their peers. By 4th or 5th grade, odds of struggling readers catching up with their peers without significant intervention are diminishingly small. By middle school, no one teacher can effectively accelerate the literacy development of struggling readers. Instead, the structure of the school itself must change.

Below, I describe some of the structures in a school that must be brought to bear on systemic intervention for older struggling readers in middle- and high-school. With a highly effective reading-intervention system, it is reasonable to expect that struggling readers will make about 18 months of growth in literacy skills over a school year when compared to a normative sample. This means that a student in 6th grade who is reading at a 3rd grade level can be reading on grade level by the end of 9th grade.


Effective reading intervention begins with a structured reading and language arts assessment system. Naturally, at the end of every school year, students should be assessed through a standards-based assessment or state accountability assessment. And naturally, that data should be used to inform general instructional and programmatic decisions at the school. However, that data is woefully insufficient for understanding the needs of struggling readers.

In addition to the summative (end of year) standards-based assessment, all students should be given a formative (beginning of the year), standards-based reading and language arts assessment to assess overall competence in reading, writing, and language skills. A comparable assessment should be given at mid-year to assess progress in development and to inform revised instructional decisions.

For students who are found to be substantially deficient in reading and language arts skills, additional assessment information will be needed to make informed, ongoing instructional decisions. Those students should be given a diagnostic reading assessment battery (e.g. the Diagnostic Assessment of Reading by Roswell and Chall). This subset of students should have an intensive reading intervention plan that includes specific short-term learning goals. Those short-term learning goals should be tracked through bimonthly progress-monitoring assessments.

All data collected should be synthesized and reviewed in bimonthly staff meetings. Staff should monitor the progress of all students, and collaborate to develop instructional and programmatic modifications for students who are not making sufficient progress in reading and language arts.

Time Structures

Struggling readers benefit from additional instructional time to practice and polish their literacy skills. Time on task is one of the most influential variables in an effective reading intervention plan. Time must be created and protected for explicit instruction and for practicing literacy skills. Every struggling reader at the middle- and high-school level should have two class periods dedicated to enhancing reading, writing, and language skills — one class in language arts and a second class in literacy skill development.

This increased time allocation for focused literacy instruction has been shown to be beneficial for struggling readers (Knapp, 1991). There is an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence linking reading volume (time-on-task) with reading proficiency (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 1989; Collins, 1986; Krashen, 1993), but unfortunately, struggling readers in typical schools actually tend to spend less time engaged in effective reading instruction activities (Allington, 1977; Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988; Taylor, Frye, and Maruyama, 1990). In an effective school literacy intervention plan, struggling readers should have substantially more reading instruction and opportunity to practice and refine their literacy skills than they would likely have in a traditional school setting.

Every struggling reader should participate in a normal, grade-appropriate language arts class. The language arts class should focus on the standards-based curriculum that is appropriate for all middle- and high-school students using an integrated curriculum that supports other content-area learning. Struggling readers do benefit from the content and instruction provided their peers in the normal reading and language arts class, and they should not be “pulled” from this class to be given remedial reading instruction.

The second class in addition to the grade-appropriate language arts class — the literacy skill development class — should be more individualized (with a small student-teacher ratio) and should focus on the literacy skill and knowledge development that will most benefit each individual struggling reader. For example, a student who has not yet developed fluent word-identification skills would be given intensive instruction in word-identification strategies and would participate daily in activities that research has shown to improve fluency, such as repeated oral reading or echo reading (Pany & McCoy, 1988; Rashotte & Torgesen, 1985; Tan & Nicholson, 1997). Progress monitoring assessments should be used regularly in the literacy skills development class to ensure rapid development of necessary literacy skills.

In addition to a second literacy course in every student’s course schedule, literacy instruction should be infused within the content-area courses. Reading and language arts teachers should collaborate with teachers of science, history, social studies and arts to ensure that effective reading comprehension strategies are being reinforced throughout the day. All teachers in the school should participate in professional development in reading instructional strategies designed to support adolescent struggling readers. This coherent school-wide approach to improving reading instruction would support content and domain knowledge and vocabulary development for all students (Bean, Valerio, and Stevens, 1999).

Two classes of systematic, data-driven reading instruction plus coordinated literacy instruction in the content-area courses should be sufficient instructional support to rapidly accelerate the literacy growth of nearly all of the struggling readers in a middle- or high-school. However, for the few students who have more enduring reading difficulties, additional tutoring services should be provided before and after school by highly-trained reading specialists. The tutoring program should involve explicit and systematic one-on-one instruction either before or after school for up to 3 hours per week. The tutoring should be designed to complement the reading instruction provided in the core classes, but should be much more assessment and needs driven.


A curriculum team composed of the principal and a representative sample of teachers should be tasked with meeting monthly to review the core language arts curriculum for the school to monitor it’s appropriateness for the student population. That curriculum team should also be tasked with ensuring that all teachers understand the curriculum and actually adhere to the curriculum in daily classroom instruction.

Where appropriate, modifications should be made to the core reading curriculum to improve it and tailor it to the needs of the students in the school. However, the curriculum team should be cautioned that a constantly changing curriculum is rarely effective. New programs and new instructional materials can create confusion and even strife in a school. Changes to the curriculum should be taken seriously, and should only be made after due consideration and discussion. All teachers should be included in the decision, and all teachers should understand that they will be held accountable for actually implementing the new curriculum and using the new materials.

In developing the curriculum, particular emphasis should be placed on structured vocabulary instruction. Most struggling readers come from linguistically diverse backgrounds, and many also come from low-income households. Research in vocabulary development indicates that students from linguistically diverse and low-income backgrounds tend to have more limited vocabularies than their more advantaged peers (Cummings, 1984; Hart and Risley, 2003). However, a substantial amount of research on vocabulary instruction has shown that deliberate, integrated instruction of vocabulary can significantly decrease the “vocabulary gap” that exists between advantaged and disadvantaged students (Beck, McKeown and Omanson, 1987; Blachowicz and Fisher, 1996; Bos and Anders, 1990; McKeown and Curtis, 1987). As part of the integrated curriculum, vocabulary instruction in different classrooms should be complementary, with repeated reinforcement of key concepts and terms. Extra emphasis should be placed on the academic vocabulary that is often key to success for students from linguistically diverse backgrounds (Cummings, 1984; Qian, 2002) as well as the “Tier 2” words that are critical for successful academic development (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2002).

Additional Literacy Resources

In addition to the core reading materials, supplemental, high-interest reading materials should also be made available to struggling readers. Engaging, interactive computer programs that support decoding skills, reading comprehension, and writing composition should be made available on computers in every classroom, as well as on computers in a central technology laboratory. The campus administration should endeavor to secure funding to provide every student with portable computers with wireless internet capability. Technology should not be used as a surrogate for high-quality classroom instruction, but instead should be used as a tool for reinforcement, refinement, and application of skills. All school-owned computers should have high-speed internet access, and the integrated curriculum in all classes should include a component in conducting internet research.


While most research on literacy development has focused on the cognitive components of learning to read (phoneme awareness, vocabulary, semantics, decoding fluency, etc.), most experts in literacy development also acknowledge that the student’s intrinsic motivation to engage in literacy activities is one of the primary determinants of literacy development. Without motivation, older struggling readers do not develop proficient literacy skills. Many older struggling readers develop aversion attitudes and avoidance behaviors that extinguish literacy development (Anderson, Tollefson, and Gilbert, 1985; Worthy, 2000).

While a great deal is understood about the cognitive domains, less is known about cultivating motivation in struggling readers. The research literature in this area is somewhat sketchy, but there is some evidence supporting a few strategies for stimulating motivation in adolescent struggling readers.

Where possible, instructional materials should be used that are clearly relevant and intrinsically interesting to the students (Hidi and Baird, 1986; Schiefele, 1999; Sleeter and Grant, 1999). The curriculum should be built around the state standards, and should incorporate strategies shown by research to be most effective for developing the literacy skills of struggling readers. However, the curriculum and materials also need to be relevant and interesting to the students. Older struggling readers are more motivated to engage in literacy activities for longer periods of time when they feel the activities are intrinsically interesting or beneficial to them. Materials and instruction that seem disconnected from their lives, ambitions, or concerns are rarely effective for enhancing and accelerating the growth of literacy skills.

Students should also have regular input into selection of reading materials and instructional activities (Carson, 1990; Turner, 1995). Many of the instructional resources that are found in high-quality reading programs are relevant and attractive to struggling readers in middle- and high-school, but very often students have very little interest in much of the material or subject matter. Schools and teachers often find they must work with the students to find other appropriate and engaging instructional materials that can be used to supplement the materials in the core reading program.

Every year, a committee comprised of both students and teachers should evaluate candidates for addition to the school library. Students and teachers will collaborate to make decisions about library purchases, including books, reference materials, and periodicals. Students and teachers should also collaborate to develop plans to promote awareness of and interest in the library materials.

Finally, instruction should be designed to encourage social discussions of reading and writing activities. Social discussion and collaboration has been shown to support both student motivation and comprehension of materials (Hynds, 1997), and may be of particular benefit to struggling readers.

Professional development

Every teacher and administrator should be expected to play a role in helping all students develop mastery of language, in oral, written, and other forms. However, among middle and high school teachers, expertise in literacy and language instruction is rare. Beyond elementary school, most teachers view themselves as teachers of content, not teachers of reading and language skills. Even highly qualified, expert secondary teachers are often at a loss when confronted with students who are struggling with literacy and language barriers. Therefore, literacy in the content areas should be a cornerstone of professional development for all staff.

Literacy professional development for all staff should focus on effective grouping strategies for accelerated literacy development (Mehan, Villaneuva, Hubbard, and Lintz, 1996), reader-based discussion strategies (Newell, 1996), concept-driven instruction and questioning techniques (Ruddell, 1996), and other effective content-area reading strategies.

Delivering and coordinating this professional development (and facilitating all of the other components described above) is a full-time job. So, a full-time literacy coach should be staffed to lead this effort.

A literacy coach is a reading specialist who takes leadership and responsibility for improving literacy achievement in a school (Wren, 2005). The literacy coach provides guidance and support to teachers trying to learn new literacy concepts and strategies. The literacy coach helps teachers to plan effective instruction. And the literacy coach works closely with the school leaders to ensure that the school continuously improves in their efforts to provide high-quality reading instruction to all students.

A Question from a Reader on the Discussion Forum:

I have some middle and high school teachers whom I expect will have some questions (in other words, “resistance”) regarding the whole idea about older students needing to establish precurser skills in phonics (accuracy, automaticity). Any advice?

I have advice, but I don’t think you’ll like it.

When I work with secondary teachers, I tell them that every teacher needs to be at least aware of the cognitive processes involved in learning to read. Reading is so important, every teacher should at least understand it. They should be armed with information and skills because they never know what kind of impact they can have or what kind of “teachable moment” will present itself.

However, I also tell secondary teachers — content-area teachers — that what I want them doing is focusing on fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension within the content areas. Every day. I tell them that I don’t expect all secondary, “content-area” teachers to teach basic reading skills, but I do expect them to use effective strategies for teaching advanced reading (and writing) skills.

If a student is in 6th, 8th, 10th grade and still needs basic phonics and word-identification work, it should not fall on the history or science teacher to teach those skills. I think that’s asking a little too much. (If the history teacher is armed with knowledge, and sees an opportunity to teach those skills to students in need, that’s wonderful — but it is not an expectation I have.) If a secondary student is struggling with reading at that level — the basic word-identification, phonics level — that student should spend one or two elective periods per day working on those skills with reading teachers with advanced training and expertise in that kind of instruction.

In the content areas, teachers should be spending their time teaching fluency (through repeated oral reading of content material EVERY DAY until all students are reading at or beyond a grade-appropriate criterion), vocabulary (using effective research-based strategies), and above all comprehension (at high levels of sophistication). And, of course, I think they are also supposed to be enhancing relevant background knowledge in whatever domain they are teaching.

And if there is one huge favor secondary teachers can do for their students, it is to teach them to write. Every day. Voluminously. I can’t stand getting college-age students who still don’t know how to communicate thoughts effectively through writing. Writing builds reading fluency. Writing builds comprehension and vocabulary. Writing and revision and editing builds appreciation for syntax and discourse and rhetoric. I am just barely cynical enough to believe that teachers do not expect writing from their students every day because they don’t want to grade that many papers every day.

Anyway, like I said, you probably won’t like my advice, but there it is. I know we want to believe that every teacher is a reading teacher, and I do believe that. But secondary content-area teachers should not be expected to teach basic reading skills. They should further the literacy development of their students in grade-appropriate ways.


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