According to the Nation’s Report Card, about two-thirds of eighth-graders are not proficient readers. What’s even more alarming is the fact that the size of that cohort has remained steady for the last 25 years! This means, unless they have had intervening remedial instruction, the majority of ninth-to-12th-grade students are also non-proficient readers. And, as can be seen by the Report Card, those inadequate reading comprehension skills are producing below-grade-level performance across academic subjects.
Fortunately, research shows that adolescence is not too late to learn to read well. The challenge for teachers is that one class of students will contain a wide range of reading abilities and needs, from those who are virtual non-readers to ones who are at grade level or above grade level.
So, how do we teach all those students to read well? How do we maximize student learning? And how do we minimize the time it will take to get them to reading proficiency?
Understand students’ strengths and weaknesses
Even when they display similar reading proficiencies, students’ overall strengths and weaknesses are going to be very different. Therefore, it is essential to pinpoint the specific reason for a student’s lack of proficiency.
You can find information on students’ strengths and weaknesses through the following resources:
● Individualized Education Programs
● Formal educational evaluations
● Universal screeners
● Progress monitoring tools
● Summative assessments
● Teacher observations—yours and other teachers’, including those who have worked with the students in the past
Determine the cause
Once you have that information, you can use the Simple View of Reading formula to determine the cause of particular patterns of strengths and instructional needs. The formula proposes that reading comprehension is the product of two interdependent components: word recognition (also called decoding—the accurate and automatic translation of printed words into their spoken equivalents) and language comprehension (the ability to derive meaning from sentences and text through listening):
Word Recognition x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension
Students can struggle with either or both components, giving rise to three learner profiles. Below is a brief overview of how to identify these different learner profiles and address their learning needs, but you can find more details in a white paper, “Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing Why They Struggle.”
Adequate language comprehension, inadequate word recognition
Students with this profile focus so much of their cognitive resources on sounding out the words in a text that they can’t pay attention to the text’s actual meaning. But they have very good listening comprehension; if they listen to the text, they can focus on meaning. Some may have dyslexia. These students need word recognition instruction in order to be able to instantly and accurately recognize words so that their cognitive resources are ready for meaning.
Inadequate language comprehension, adequate word recognition
These students can read accurately and fluently, but they will struggle to tell you what the text is about. They have limited vocabulary and are confused by non-literal language, e. g. idioms, metaphors, and multiple meanings. These students benefit from learning morphology (the meaningful parts of words), and the syntax of complex text. They should be reading grade-level classical and contemporary informational and narrative text, but you’ll need to provide scaffolding to help their comprehension.
Inadequate language comprehension, inadequate word recognition
These students’ reading inadequacies may be due to high mobility; every time they move to another school, they’re dealing with a different curriculum, resulting in disjointed learning and (very likely) low motivation. Finding books with subject matter that matches their interests could ignite their enthusiasm for reading. They will need the instruction prescribed for the previous two profiles.
This profile may also describe English learners who have strengths in decoding and language comprehension in their native language but may still be learning to read and write in English. If the students are Spanish speakers, you can take advantage of the fact that 30-40% of English words have cognates (words descended from the same language) in Spanish since both English and Spanish contain Latin and Greek parts.
Apply the Structured Literacy™ approach to each student’s needs
The instructional approach best suited for students with these profiles is Structured Literacy™. Informed by reading science, it emphasizes the structures of language:
● Phonology (the language’s sound system)
● Orthography (the language’s written system)
● Morphology (meaningful parts of words)
● Semantics (meanings of words/relationships among words)
● Syntax (sentence structure)
● Pragmatics (the use of language)
● Discourse (the organization of spoken and written language)
Students receive explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction that contains a logical order of skills and concepts (moving from simple to more complex). New learning builds on prior knowledge, and instruction is multisensory or multimodal so as to engage students and increase memory retention.
Explicitly teach academic language and personalize learning
Additionally, all the student profiles discussed need instruction in academic language to help their comprehension. Also called “the language of the classroom,” academic language consists of domain-specific words, literary words not often used in everyday conversation, and synonymy (thinking about words that have the same meaning).
The most important thing we educators can do is meet each student where they are. When students enhance their areas of strength and remediate areas of instructional need, they have energy and ideas for the future—hope. According to the Gallup organization, when students have hope, they can set attainable goals and can see multiple pathways to achieving those goals. This increases their agency, their engagement, and their wellbeing. All of that is necessary for them to achieve college, career, and life success.