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Getting ready for middle and high school reading

Middle- and high schoolers interpret, analyze, and discuss more-advanced texts. Here are the tools they'll need to succeed.

By GreatSchools Staff

In elementary school teachers focus on basic reading skills as students progress from learning to read to reading to learn. Starting in middle school, however, students must develop more-sophisticated skills such as reading for speed and comprehension as well as interpreting texts. But just when many kids reach the point where they need instruction in those areas, teachers may emphasize course content over reading skills.

How do you know if your children are on track? Our guidelines give you all the details you need to assess their aptitude.

Beyond the basics

Just as middle-schoolers must adjust to juggling multiple classes and more difficult assignments, they must also adapt their reading skills. Science, social studies, and English each have their own vocabulary and structure, and students need to move from answering simple questions about content and plot to reading longer, more complex texts that require gathering and analyzing information. According to "Why the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy Demands a National Response," a 2006 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education: "To succeed in high school and beyond, students must become chameleons, able to adapt to a range of academic contexts, each of which requires its own set of literacy skills."

A crisis in literacy

While most of the emphasis in classrooms nationwide has been on making sure all students learn to read by third grade, national tests reveal a literacy crisis at the middle and high school levels. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than two-thirds of eighth-graders read below grade level, and half of those students score below the most basic level. Some 6 million middle- and high schoolers are classified as struggling readers. Lacking rudimentary reading skills, many of them are at a high risk of becoming high school dropouts.

These frightening statistics have led educators to realize that teaching reading doesn't end at third grade. They have a twofold task: making sure all students achieve the fundamentals of literacy and helping them go beyond the basics to learn complex reading skills.

In upper grades, teachers may feel pressured to focus on curriculum content rather than reading skills. But students who aren't developing more-sophisticated reading skills may find it difficult to understand the subjects they are studying. In response to this problem, some middle and high school administrators have adopted such programs as after-school tutoring, literacy coaching, and reading-skills instruction for teachers.

If you suspect your middle-schoolers are having trouble with reading, ask them to summarize a chapter from a novel or textbook. If they have difficulty explaining what they just read, seek help from a teacher or counselor — and find out what support your school or community offers for struggling readers.

What reading skills do middle- and high schoolers need?

As students advance through middle and high school, they transition from simple readers and stories to more difficult, content-rich materials including novels, plays, textbooks, laboratory manuals, and technical texts. In science classes students must learn how to read and write lab reports, while in history classes they must interpret historical documents and understand biographical information.

"They move from understanding the story in middle school to understanding the author's vision in high school," says Lance Balla, a high school English teacher in Bellevue, Wash., and consultant for the Educational Testing Service and the College Board. "A ninth-grader might read Romeo and Juliet and learn about it as a love story. In later years, they might look at what was Shakespeare's vision of love and how [it's] different from another author's. They might look at a concept and how different texts address it — for example, the idea of justice in Crime and Punishment versus Hamlet."

In upper grades, literacy skills and content knowledge become intertwined. Students must develop sophisticated writing and reading skills along the way in order to fully understand the content of their courses. For instance, they must learn how to interpret data from tables and diagrams as well as to predict what they might learn from a given text and connect it to what they've already read.

Wondering how to boost your children's reading skills? Review vocabulary with them; encourage them to keep a dictionary, thesaurus, or encyclopedia close by; and help them engage with the text by showing them how to take good notes and summarize the main points.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/12/2010:
"Good article. I believe part of the problem today with students not doing well not just in reading...in any class, has to do with the influx of students that cannot read english. Schools teach to go as slow as the slowest student..that puts the rest of the children behind and not getting the attention they need. No child should pass..if he/she cannot read. Non-english speaking (foreign) students should be separated and put in a separate class. "
03/11/2010:
"I have two granddaughters in middle school. While both are taking advanced classes neither have good reading skills. When I attempt to get them to read they think I'm being mean to them. What can I do to show them how important good reading skills are? They witnessed me completing college work and saw how much work was necessary to maintain good grades. But this did not affect them. Can anyone give me some advice. "
03/11/2010:
"Reading Skills and Comprehension should be part of the core curriculum, all through to college, with text across content areas and with text that is well-written and leveled. Thank you for outlining the needs but recommending a dictionary or thesaurus for a student is too late in middle school and high-school 'busied' with core subjects yet generously funded and peppered by non-reading electives for the less successful students or readers. Remedial help after school is not enough, too little too late. Not even native speakers of English are getting essential reading lessons. Parents too often confuse sounding of graphs and glyphs by precious and precocious children to be the end of reading lessons, falsely concluding that any further reading lessons are for ESL learners alone, and not likely to be challenging nor entertaining for their bored English speakers. Too much wit and time have been indulged-in parsing between Learning-to-Read and Reading-to-Learn. Reading skills ou! ght to be developed through all the precious years before college. Too often, the teachers and adults themselves are products of deficient public schools system with reading skills long-neglected. Reading should be a subject in itself, taught by reading experts, not haphazardly taught by literary teachers or social studies teachers. Instituting Reading into a core subject, as has been done with Math or 'Rithmetic, structuring time for Reading teaching and learning with trained reading specialists (not any jobless career-writer or -journalist) is a worthwhile investment before kids are expected to do internet-research in 4th grade. It's a shame well-written textbooks have been traded-in for the health-care of barely literate content-teachers who expect quantity with 100's of pages of reading and long essays per week. We should not have come to a state where content teachers at increasingly higher levels shake their heads in wonderment (or disbelief) at student's reading abi! lity, yet have the nerve to tie it to parents' academic-econom! ic success and involvement."
08/24/2009:
"you are ready for high school!!!!!!"
08/3/2009:
"Thank you for the information because I have one entering High School for the first time,and he is in special education and I have two and that is also in special education one is is the 7th grade and the other is in the 6th grade. "
07/13/2009:
"I have a son entering 7th grade this Sept. He has struggled with Reading/Reading Comprehension this past school year. I went in for teacher conferences twice and the teacher did not have any advice on how to help him bring his grade up. He says he reads a short story, closes the book to answer the questions based on what he read and most of the time comes home with a 70 on his test. Other times its an open book test but still gets the same grade. He says its when they ask questions like, 'what do you think the .... means in this paragragh' that cause him trouble. It's not the facts, it's the interpretation of the story that causes him a low grade. If the teacher can't be more specific then what do you do? I recently purchased a Summer Language Arts Review workbook with the hopes that it and I can help him before 7th grade starts in Sept. He loves to read just about anything. He asks what a word means and/or looks it up on the net or in the dictionary so.....I just ! don't get it. Hopefully this workbook will help him."
06/9/2009:
"The point size is too small. Parents won't read this tiny type. I shouldn't have to cut and paste all these articles to Word to increase the size to a readable one. "
06/2/2009:
"Is it possible to email me a list of books that will hold my sons interest this summer? He is interested in the military,Marines, and he likes WW2. He is now in the 7th grade. He likes diary types of books. He has read all of Henry Winklers books and of course many other types, but it is a struggle to get something with stability that will hold his interest. Thank you"
01/5/2009:
"I am currently writing my thesis which concerns a group of middle school first formers who read below the grade four level. I found this article very informative. I am developing a literacy kit that can be used by all content area teachers to assist those students. I am reading on the various research based reading methodologies and programs to get ideas for this kit. I would appreciate any article that proves to be useful for my thesis. I thank you "
07/29/2008:
"i would seriously recommend some historical fiction, something that makes them want to look up on the internet something that is true, but is involved with their favorite fictional character. i suggest 'Bloody Jack' to the older readers, as it is fictional, yet has a lot of 18th century characters that were real. I really enjoyed it (don't get thrown off by the name.)"
07/24/2008:
"My child id new to the Florida school system. In Rhode Island, there is a list of recommened books for each grade level to read over the summer. Does Florida have that system? They are also required to write a summary report about the book. That counted as the first grades of their English Grade. "
06/11/2008:
"As curriculum coordinator for a public charter school in florida, I often meet with resistance from parents about our summer reading program. Newsletters like yours help support the concept of practice as critical to maintaining and improving skills. we constantly emphasize the needs for direction instruction and modeling of reading stategies for middle school learners for this is truly the age that they move from learning to read to reading to learn."
03/20/2008:
"This reading was right on point! I agree, as a late reader, I understand the importance of sharpening your reading skills as early as possible. Waiting on makes it harder but not impossible. Thank you:) "
02/19/2008:
"Thanks a ton. Now I am learning more better than i did before in the last few quarters. A B+ to an A!!! Thanks so much for this information!!!! >(:)< :) :0!!"
01/24/2008:
"I have a friend whose child does not apply himself to any of his classes except Gym & Choir. He has been tested and has no learning disabilities, he has talked to counselors. When his parents asked (2yrs ago) if he could be held back because he did not learn anything, they were told because of the NCLB as long as he received a 1.0 grade average he would be passed and his parents could not choose to hold him back. Is this true?"
06/7/2007:
"Thank you! This information will be helpful for my son and I for the future years. This summer, June 28th, he will attend SCORE Summer Program, for Organizational skills, Time Management, and Preparing for & Taking Test. I can utilize this information to build his reading skills."
05/15/2007:
"I am an ESL teacher in Berwyn, IL. It is a proven fact that parents should engage their children in many genres in books of interest. This should be done at school and public libraries, bookstores and home libraries and even news stands. It will certainly make for a better reader, writer and researcher at all levels. "
12/11/2006:
"Overall, NCLB has helped provide better services to children at-risk of school failure and many of those children would not have gotten any services if it was'nt for NCLB. Districts need to find other sources of funding to meet their goals. SES is for a different set of educators and professionals. Teachers, schools, and districts need to change with the times. NCSP challenges districts to think and get busy. Why fight against something that is helping to improve learning?"
12/11/2006:
"Overall, NCLB has helped provide better services to children at-risk of school failure and many of those children would not have gotten any services if it was'nt for NCLB. Districts need to find other sources of funding to meet their goals. SES is for a different set of educators and professionals. Teachers, schools, and districts need to change with the times. NCSP challenges districts to think and get busy. Why fight against something that is helping to improve learning?"
11/3/2006:
"I am a teacher in training for 7th grade English. Essays are important for recall and specific trends and indepth research. I cannot see my students without a subject to write about--maybe just a lack of organizational skills or priorities. If they do indeed lack subject matter the internet is a good resource tool and/or listing activities and hobbies with intent on further research. I believe the hardest part to do is to start writing. If again my students show hesitancy I may ask them to journal for the first few weeks of school to explore where their general interests lie. A story with an enriched vocabulary would benefit also or an article report on a current subject of choice is also appropriate. A video clip of several movies voted on in class a day prior may also trigger topics to write about for an essay topic. I think originality of subject matter is up to my students preference in presentation. Later in the year I would award them with participation in a group presentation thereby exercising their natural instincts toward multimedia shows and presentation to the other class members."
10/17/2006:
"I think that this is a great experience for myself and my friends it is really going to help me suceed in school,and also in life this is a great way to start focusing on how i am going to prepare myself for high school ...........thank you.......~lakisha~......"
10/10/2006:
"As a new teacher at a charter school, I couldn't agree more how vital continuing to teach good reading skills at home are. Many of our students are from underprivileged homes, but a parent/guardian's involvement in making sure they hone their reading skills is not only free, but invaluable!"
09/28/2006:
"Wow. This is really helpful. I will start now working with my daughter. Thanks."
09/27/2006:
"I am very happy to receive this information, I have to teach my daughter her reading skills, she is in 6th grade and 'floated' through grade school not being able to read proficiently. Phonics were not taught in our school district while she was in K-3. Whole language failed my daughter. She cannot spell, sound out words, nor comprehend. I am happy to receive any extra help so that I may help her."
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