4 Ways to Support Struggling, Adolescent Readers

August 28, 2019
Girl with laptop outside

One of the most complicated and critical issues facing post-secondary district leaders today may be hiding in plain sight. Literacy rates among secondary students are staggering with millions of high school students struggling to read at grade level, and at least 70 percent of these struggling readers requiring some form of remediation to successfully complete grade level content.

With an increased focus on early literacy, far less attention and funding has been directed to “reading to learn” efforts, specifically comprehension and content area reading strategies for secondary and post-secondary students as they move on to increasingly complex concepts. There is a misguided perception that once students learn to read in elementary school they will be fully prepared for success in middle and high school classrooms, but that’s simply not true. Very few older, struggling readers need help reading the words on a page; they need help effectively comprehending what they read.

Fortunately, there are solutions. Districts can apply four evidence-based practices that have a dynamic and powerful impact on literacy and comprehension to unlock success for struggling, adolescent readers.

1) Identify Individual Needs.

The task of differentiating instruction for struggling readers can be difficult to manage at the secondary level. We know that providing instructional safety nets for students who have fallen behind can make all the difference, but districts must first understand what each student needs. This requires ongoing diagnostic and prescriptive formative assessment that informs teachers how individual students are progressing in real-time. Learning improves when assessments are used to formatively guide instruction. For greatest effectiveness, formative assessment needs to be embedded within the context of lesson activities, not the result of a several-times-a-year assessment. Technology applications and online learning can simplify this process and provide immediate data on student performance so student needs are identified early and often. The data that ongoing assessment delivers will provide teachers with an effective method for monitoring academic progress and pinpointing student needs.

2) Appropriate Intervention Tools and Scaffolded Support. 

The implementation of evidence-based strategies can improve students’ ability to read and understand complex, grade-level texts. Below proficient readers need help understanding individual words and, most importantly, broader reading comprehension. Recent studies from Reading Next and the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk indicate that several evidence-based, classroom practices are proven to effectively improve reading achievement, including:

  • Providing explicit vocabulary instruction.
  • Providing direct and explicit comprehension strategy instruction.
  • Providing intensive and individualized interventions for struggling readers.
  • Increasing student motivation and engagement in literacy learning.
  • Reading a variety of texts and analyzing them across a variety of disciplines.
  • Building background knowledge through exposure to rich content.
  • Teaching students, through modeling and direct instruction, to monitor their comprehension while reading.

3) Student Motivation and Engagement. 

Motivation is critical for struggling students to reach grade level. To stay motivated, students need to believe they can do it. Secondary students routinely report that they do not take their studies seriously, feel disengaged in the classroom, and are alienated from school. Engagement increases when a perceived challenge and a student’s skillset are in balance, instruction is relevant, and the learning environment is within their control. Research from Elfrieda H. HiebertOnline scaffolds that support adolescents’ comprehension, found that adolescents are motivated when they believe they have some control over their learning. Students need instructive feedback when they struggle and immediate feedback when they succeed. Providing content that is relevant, interesting, and instructionally sound can help keep adolescent students interested and motivated to learn.

4) Instructional Coherence. 

Districts should strive for instructional coherence and avoid what can be referred to as “curriculum chaos,” or implementing a number of programs on a single campus. Over time, these programs and strategies have contributed to a number of instructional problems students experience when working in multiple programs targeting their skill deficiencies. For example, a student may be placed in one program for core instruction, receive intervention support in another, ELL support from yet another curriculum, etc. The problem is exacerbated when the scope and sequence of skills in these solutions do not align and teachers have not been effectively trained on each platform. A comprehensive program that serves multiple instructional purposes may make more sense and maximize time and money in a district’s search for solutions that work effectively across student populations.

Moving Literacy Forward

These evidence-based practices outline a path to help below proficient readers find success in grade-level instruction. Of all the school-related factors impacting student performance, evidence-based instructional materials matter most. By implementing these evidence-based practice, educators can effectively utilize digital curriculum to place more below proficient readers on a trajectory for academic success.


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