Over the past several years, our work has focused on students in middle school who struggle to read because they lack basic reading skills. Unfortunately, at least half the students who can’t read at grade level fall into this category.

I’d like to reflect on the remarkable impact of teachers and administrators who have moved their middle schoolers to acquire these basic skills and believe in themselves as learners and readers. Not only did these educators believe in their students but they created a process for helping them get on track with reading with the right motivation, knowledge, and practice.

Why is it so hard to make change with struggling readers in middle school?

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. Middle schoolersoften opt out of interventionsbecause they don’t want their peers to know they struggle with basic reading skills. They are frequently absent or choose not to fully participate in the practice that is vitally important to improvement. Moreover, they must shoulder the burden of their reading failure just as they are confronted with the challenges associated with adolescence.

Dealing with developing basic reading skills in middle school is challenging for a number of reasons.

  • Educators (both teachers and administrators) assume that students come to middle school with basic reading skills.
  • Middle school teachers/interventionists are often not trained to assess or teach foundational reading skills.
  • Intervention tools and plans at middle schools are often focused on comprehension or fluency strategies rather than the underlying problem of automatic word recognition.
  • Often, schedules at middle school are not amenable to systematic interventions that focus on these basic issues.
  • Students move between multiple teachers each day, and there is often less awareness and communication about the needs of the whole student. This means they often slip through the cracks.
  • Current assessments typically identify whether basic word-level problems are present, but do not differentiate between decoding knowledge and automatic use of that knowledge, which is essential for fluency.

A systemic view of change

The educators we’ve worked with systematically tackled institutional barriers as they carefully balanced the learning, emotional, and social needs of these students. They understood two things: their students had to understand the problem and believe they could improve and accept responsibility for that change. Teachers set up an environment in which students were fully engaged, informed about their basic reading issues, and motivated to do the hard work of filling in the gaps.

As a team, teachers and administrators worked tirelessly to redefine their approach and meet their students’ needs. Over the course of the year, we observed middle schoolers taking responsibility for their own learning and reading difficulties. The fact that educators believed these students could succeed as readers, learners, and contributors made all the difference in moving them towards success in high school and graduation.

The following process illustrates how students can get on track and develop reading fluency.

System Level

  • Set the stage for meaningful growth (plan the implementation, set goals, and reorganize if it’s not working).
  • Provide professional learning for teachers.
  • Introduce a school-wide approach to focus on reading development and improvement.
  • Implement instruction and interventions with fidelity and within a structure that is comfortable for these students.
  • Allocate the budget to support these initiatives.
  • Unpack misperceptions about struggling students’ attitudes, interest in learning, and their capacity for growth.

Student Level

  • Identify for students in straightforward language their underlying issues and present a pathway to solve them.
  • Involve students in decision-making and commitment to practice.
  • Explain why the intervention requires focus and hard work. It will pay off when reading makes sense, school becomes easier, and learning improves.
  • Establish a trusting relationship between student and teacher as the foundation to help students embrace the work as important and relevant.
  • This trust is essential to engagement and supporting student motivation, confidence, and the hard work required to become a skilled reader.
  • Help students understand the problem is not their fault and is not theirs to solve alone. They may need a different approach to learn to read, like many students.
  • Discuss the importance and the process of building basic skills and practicing them in a variety of situations until they are successful.
  • 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.
  • Jointly develop specific goals with each student and then identify steps to measure progress and encourage students to periodically revisit and evaluate those goals.

Final thoughts

It is critical that students who are still struggling to read in middle school get effective intervention as soon as possible. Every day they cannot understand the more complex texts they are required to read across the curriculum is another day of feeling unsuccessful. There is a path forward. Use the recommendations in this blog post to convey to students that this problem is not their fault. They are capable of learning how to read, and become successful learners.