6 Reasons Why Struggling Readers in Middle School Don’t Get the Help They Need

By Dr. Carolyn Brown

Reading failure in middle school is an urgent issue. Two thirds of U.S. middle schoolers are not proficient in reading, and approximately half don’t yet have the basic skills they were expected to learn in elementary school.

The outlook for these students is grim if we don’t address their needs — 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.

Upon entering middle school, struggling readers often shoulder a heavy burden that includes years of failed reading interventions, a negative view of themselves as learners, and poor reading and study habits. They then typically encounter even more obstacles preventing them from getting the help they need. Here are six common barriers that can prevent both the accurate diagnosis and the effective implementation of reading intervention in middle school.

  1. While district-wide testing will reveal which students are reading below grade level, middle school teachers often do not have the right tools, training or experience to administer additional assessments to figure out exactly which specific skills students are missing. As a result, struggling readers frequently receive no targeted intervention to close their foundational gaps.
  2. Common assessments used by school teams don’t drill down enough and typically do not differentiate between decoding knowledge and automatic use of that knowledge. Without detailed and specific information, it is difficult to identify the most appropriate interventions.
  3. The typical schedule of middle school is inflexible and doesn’t lend itself to regular, daily intervention. Subject-area teachers may not communicate regularly and effectively about their struggling readers and, as a result, those students can slip through the cracks.
  4. Intervention can, incorrectly, become a catch-all category that replaces rather than enhances regular ELA instruction. Misapplied interventions can even impede the progress of students lacking basic skills by limiting their intellectual growth and acquisition of knowledge.
  5. Even if students’ specific reading deficits are appropriately identified, ELA teachers are typically not trained to deliver foundational reading instruction, and professional development that focuses on the efficient development of basic reading skills is not routinely available at the middle school level.
  6. 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 type of regular practice that is critical to their success.

In our next post, we will share specific strategies for middle school educators to address these common challenges so that they can ensure they are accurately and efficiently identifying the specific skill deficits of struggling readers, implementing effective and differentiated intervention without delay, and setting the stage for meaningful growth.

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.

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