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A former special education teacher shares how to identify and support struggling readers in middle and high school--even in a remote learning environment

How to support older struggling readers

A former special education teacher shares how to identify and support struggling readers in middle and high school--even in a remote learning environment

The reasons that students remain struggling readers in middle and high school are frequently based on myths and misconceptions.

The first big myth, based on reading assessment measures, is that comprehension is the problem. The majority of reading assessments and standardized tests for older students focus on reading comprehension measures without determining gaps in the essential components that lead to comprehension: decoding, fluency, and vocabulary. A low comprehension score doesn’t tell teachers what they need to know to intervene, yet the proposed solution is often more reading “strategies.” This is generally unsuccessful because, as stated by Dr. Anita Archer, “There is no reading strategy powerful enough to compensate for the fact that you can’t read the words.”

Decades of research have shown that effective readers have a solid and automatic knowledge of how to translate the sounds of our language to the print that represents those sounds. This begins with the sounds for consonants and vowels—called phoneme proficiency—and an understanding of how speech and print work together for reading and spelling. Without this foundation, the ability to develop accurate and automatic word recognition and fluency will always be limited.

Another misconception is that struggling readers aren’t trying hard enough or must be less intelligent than their peers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The majority of students with dyslexia, for instance, have average or above-average intelligence. Teachers may assume that students are lazy or not working very hard because secondary teachers often don’t know the characteristics of dyslexia or how to identify a struggling reader who has spent years hiding this fact. When educators know how to identify a student with a learning or language disability, they can act immediately to begin remediation. Here are steps educators can take to support struggling readers in middle or high school.

Learn struggling readers’ coping mechanisms and provide a supportive environment

Students with dyslexia and weak decoding skills build coping mechanisms in their early years to prevent adults and peers from discovering their limitations. Avoiding embarrassment is the primary goal of struggling readers and it is understandable that they will often go to great lengths rather than be shamed. Creating supportive relationships in a safe environment is key to working with these students. Educators can build trust by eliminating requirements for all students to read aloud in class and assignments that would expose them to potential ridicule.

Because screening for dyslexia and reading difficulties often ends in elementary schools, it benefits educators to become aware of what older students are doing when they’re performing reading or writing tasks and to look for these compensation strategies. For example:
● Do students participate in discussions but avoid anything connected with reading out loud?
● Are the same students conveniently requesting to use the bathroom or go to the nurse’s office during independent reading?
● Do they appear fidgety, distracted, or “off task” during reading?
● Are there consistent behavior issues when students are asked to share reading or writing assignments in front of their peers?

Educators can also watch for repeated spelling errors, letter reversals, and the use of simple words and limited responses in their students’ writing—or not turning in work at all. If teachers begin noticing any of these, it is helpful to talk with other teachers and look at work samples to identify patterns. Families are the greatest source of information and often a conversation with parents or caregivers can shed light on a student’s reading history and possible options for support.

Making sure struggling readers feel supported

Once a student is identified as a struggling reader, there are two primary ways to support them. The first is providing access to the curriculum and content that will help them keep pace with their peers. During this unusual school year, teachers have the opportunity to do things differently that may better assist struggling readers. For example, a number of teachers are reading books out loud with their students online, who are following along, and then having virtual discussions to support understanding. Students working from home can also access resources like text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and spell-checking apps to support decoding, writing, and spelling. Adults use these resources all the time, and they can be incredibly helpful accommodations for students to use without the knowledge of their peers.

There is often more time now when remote students aren’t in class all day five days a week. At home or during breaks in instruction, educators can provide support in a variety of ways. Some options include allowing students to:
● Keep pace with the English class by listening to an audio book;
● Connect to science and history topics by watching an educational video that increases background knowledge and builds vocabulary;
● Access resources that provide reading content at their instructional level; and
● Work on projects where their strengths can be highlighted.

Most importantly, these students require targeted reading instruction with a research-based program designed for secondary students that can be delivered virtually or in-person.

Confronting challenges outside the classroom

During the pandemic, older students may be working remotely more often and missing valuable intervention. Software ensures that students continue to receive Structured Literacy instruction delivered at their own pace and allows them to join small group intervention online without being pulled from other classes. Research supports the need for adequate time for secondary students to apply the foundational skills they need to become more proficient readers. Without these skills, students are destined to fall further behind and join the 19% of graduating seniors who leave school with only marginal reading ability. Thirty-two million adults also fall into this category. For the majority of middle and high school students, effective intervention provided by knowledgeable and skilled educators is their last hope.

Literacy impacts all academic areas: the ability to do word problems in math, identify information in social studies, and participate in discussions about novels in English class. But reading isn’t confined to school performance. As students get older, a driver’s license is often a necessity, but getting one can be a major challenge if they can’t read the manual or pass the test. Getting a summer or part-time job may be very difficult if reading or writing is involved. Areas of interest and competency, like sports, may be eliminated because of poor grades. There is often an emotional impact, too, because of shame and anxiety that others will discover their deficit. A benefit of the current school situation is that having adequate time and access to targeted digital instruction could result in significantly more positive outcomes for these students, in the classroom and beyond.

Reading is the only skill that students need for six hours a day, every single day, for 12 years. This year provides an opportunity for educators to become more aware of the students who are struggling readers and how to better support them. For school administrators, the challenge is to begin now to ensure that educators have the training and resources to provide appropriate reading intervention to secondary students, regardless of setting.

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