8 Strategies to Help Struggling Middle School Readers Get the Help They Need

Numerous roadblocks are preventing below-grade-level readers in middle school from being properly assessed and remediated as we discussed in our previous article, “6 Reasons Why Struggling Readers in Middle School Don’t Get the Help They Need,”  So what can educators do? From the moment middle school begins, educators must be equipped to triage struggling readers so they can accurately and efficiently identify their specific skill deficits, implement effective and differentiated intervention without delay, and empower them to take charge of their learning. In this article, we provide eight strategies to achieve these objectives.

  1. Get good information

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. But rather than testing students at length, pick wisely and ensure the assessments you use will provide the information you need. Carefully select research- and evidence-based assessments that provide detailed information on students’ specific reading deficits. Also, make sure that your school specialists and teachers 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.

  1. Train your staff

Chances are, educators in your school or district are not up to speed on the latest in reading in learning science. Moreover, middle school teachers may not feel that teaching foundational literacy skills is even in their job description. Therefore, it is essential that school and district leaders not only communicate the urgency of addressing middle school reading failure, but also provide appropriate, relevant, and ongoing professional development and resources. Take it a step further by hiring 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.

  1. Build trust  

Students typically won’t engage with their learning until they feel safe and comfortable in their learning environment. Teachers should work hard to build a trusting relationship with their struggling readers and position themselves as “coaches” who believe in them and help them embrace the work as important and relevant. This trust is foundational to engaging and supporting student motivation, confidence, and hard work required to become a skilled reader. Teachers should also help them understand that the problem is not theirs alone to solve and they may need a different approach.

  1. Be honest 

By middle school, students will see right through teacher obfuscation and are more than ready to take charge of their learning. Coach teachers to use straightforward language in their conversations with struggling readers, taking time to explain the underlying issues and provide a clear plan of action. They should explain to students that they have “gaps” in 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.

  1. Demystify the struggle

Even after years of failure, students may have no idea why reading is so difficult and frustrating for them. Teachers should explain to students that cognitive science has discovered that there are new approaches to 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.

  1. Put it in context 

Students may check out if they don’t see the relevance of the work they’re doing, so teachers should be sure to integrate the work into contexts that are relevant to the student by targeting high-interest, student-selected topics. They should 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.

  1. Focus on vocabulary

Throughout their instruction, teachers ought to engage students in oral discussions that expand their background knowledge and expose them to higher-level vocabulary words. Within this meaning-based and personal interaction, they should review the structure of these targeted vocabulary words to reinforce word recognition skills.

  1. Set goals 

An important way for students to take charge of their learning is via goal setting. Work with them to develop specific goals and then identify steps along the way to measure progress. Encourage them to periodically evaluate and revisit those goals, and of course, be sure to celebrate successes.

Moving forward

Reading is the foundational gateway skill to future success and must be accessible to all students. Schools need tools and approaches that break through the barriers that prevent so many students from achieving academic and economic success, particularly those from historically underserved groups who make up a disproportionate share of failing students. School and district leaders must recognize and convey the urgency of addressing reading failure. They should develop and 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.

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