Reading problems in middle school and high school students

It's never too late! Learn how teenagers can dramatically improve their reading skills.

By Kevin Feldman, Ed.D.

Recently, there's been a lot of research and discussion about early intervention and teaching basic reading skills to kids before the age of nine. But what happens to kids with delayed reading skills when they enter middle and high school? Are accommodations in the classroom enough? Is it too late to teach reading? In this article, Kevin Feldman, Ed.D., addresses these questions.

While I certainly support and am whole-heartedly behind the whole notion of early intervention and prevention, the fast answer is it's never too late. It is only harder. We have very good evidence [of this] from a number of studies. Researchers like Louisa Moats and Barbara Foorman at the University of Houston Medical Center, Sally Shaywitz at Yale, and Don Deshler at the University of Kansas and his group have clearly documented that adolescents, even adults, can dramatically improve their literacy skills.

Kids who struggle with reading don't need a dramatically or categorically different approach [to reading instruction]. We've explored that issue, and they don't need to be walking balance beams, writing in the air, doing esoteric, strange things. What they need is what everyone needs - only they need more of it, with more precision, and with more careful adjustment because they find reading and writing more confusing. The good news is that with this increase in time and careful attention to the details of teaching - and that's really the "rocket science" [of teaching reading] that Louisa Moats talks about - what we find is that virtually all students can make tremendous growth in their literacy.

It doesn't happen overnight, but, for virtually all kids, we can close that gap. Now they may never be fabulous readers, but they can all get dramatically better and, therefore, become more independent and have more choice and agency in their lives. They [can] grow up and become contributing adults, meanwhile flying on their strengths. I think that's an important balance: We're working at shoring up those things that we're not so good at, but simultaneously really focusing on those things that we are good at. So we don't fall into the "Oh, I'm disabled across-the-board," but say, "I have challenges in reading and writing, and I'm working on them, but there are many other things I'm really good at."

Nobody's good at everything, but we can all get better at things that are important, through time, teaching, practice, and lots of support from those who love us.

Improving adolescents' literacy skills is more difficult, and it's more difficult for a number of reasons. One major reason is this whole thing of attitude. We find that a lot of adolescents - understandably, if they've been struggling with literacy - have really developed negative attitudes about reading, writing, the whole subject of dealing with improving their academic skills. There's no simple solution here. But it's very, very important that whatever approach folks use, that it's really done in partnership with adolescents. They [must] really understand that improving their reading and writing skills is not something that adults do to them. It's really something that is done with them. That means forging a partnership so that the kids and young people understand the specifics of what's going on - what we can do, how long it will take - so that they have ambitious but realistic goals.

The other part of the question is, are accommodations enough? And this is something that I've run into in schools all the time. By middle school or high school, for students who may be in special education or have been identified as having reading difficulties, the entire focus [of their programs] is on accommodation. And there's not a focus on really closing that literacy gap or accelerating literacy skills. It's almost as if people have tacitly given up and are saying, "You know what? You'll always read at, say, a third- or fourth-grade level. There's nothing we can do about that. So we're just going to focus on giving you books on tape, advanced organizers, and other things to accommodate your reading difficulty."

My recommendation is we need to work on both. These are not either-or options. We can close that literacy gap by direct focus, instruction, and practice - at a student's instructional level and using age-appropriate materials - and work on appropriate accommodations simultaneously. That really means that parents have to be educated and informed about these processes and not get caught in that either-or dilemma, either accommodations or direct instruction in reading. We can have both.