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.

YouTube video

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.

YouTube video

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.