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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.

Comments from readers

"i really like this child is struggling alot "
"My child was reading well below grade level. The school district pushed Wilson. This is a type of Orton-Gillingham, phonics based reading approach, works for decoding, but does little to address reading comprehension. I obtained an outside evaluation (at my own expense) and found my child was reading 5 years below grade level. The school never made this clear. As I left the IEP meeting saying I wanted to find another reading program for my son, the CST members had comments like "It's not a magic bullet" and "You should still continue with Wilson" but luckily I did not listen to them. I was able to find a reading specialist that used an SRA program called READING SUCCESS. My child went up 2 grade levels in reading in one summer of tutoring and has gone up at least 2 more levels in the 3 months since then. There is also a spelling program caled Morphographs that helps with spelling. Writing is an important component. My child's school district is clueless when it co! mes to writing instruction, so I have hired a writing tutor. Steve Graham & Karen Harris provide excellent research on writing strategies for struggling writers that tutors can rely upon. Students that struggle must have explicit, direct instruction. To often in the classroom teachers rely on a hit or miss approach if they do not have a specific intervention program to follow. Accountability is key to success. Insist on informal reading inventories given by reading specialists at the end of each marking period. My son is entering high school, so don't let the school tell you it is too late. Get measurable IEP objectives if your child is classified. Make sure baseline data is included and the ending goal is stated. "
" There are many articles about how to help the struggling learner, but where are the schools and teachers that can do this job? Everyone talks a good game, but where are the results? "
"The issue with weak readers when they come to Middle School and high school is that they cannot keep up with the expected reading in their classes. Not only are they not getting meaningful instruction to improve their reading skills, they are expected in their classes to read at a level and at a pace they cannot keep up with. To support my own son who was a very weak reader, we used books on tape and when necessary I had to read aloud to him when the book did not exist on tape or when the teacher assigned textbook reading or an article. Sadly this is what parents have to do unless the school is willing to make great accommodation or unless the parent enrolls their child in a special needs private school. This article did not make any specific recommendations to parents but those would be recommendations to parents based on my own experience with my son and students alike. To support a weak reader though school, it falls to the harried parent to do that and often in the face of great resistance from the school which oddly tries to demand that the student be 'independent' with homework and assignments. The fundamental conundrum is that the school demands a weak reader 'keep up' while knowing their reading skills haven't 'caught up' to grade level. This article seems to soft-pedal by the harsh realities of what it means to 'close the gap' - which is that once a student hits middle school and high school the gap has grown pretty large for the weak reader."
"As an elementary special education teacher I think this article is totally on point. There should always be long-range goals considered so kids can grow up to be successful."
"Whare can I get help for my daughter who will be entering HS in 09/2011. She hates reading she gives us and the scholl a hard time when it comes to being still and reading."
"This is a GREAT article. This is exactly what's happening with my son. Now, what do we do about it? I read the article, then was disappointed that there were no recommendations or a link for schools or other facilities that work towards accomplishing this goal HELP!! "
"As a single Mother of a child with as the School called it ' rare learning disability ' I couldnt agree more with you on this article. My son is will be graduating this June and is reading on a first grade level but i havent given up on doing my best to keep him motivated to improve his reading. However I am currently tryinh to find the right High School that best fits his needs because he has alot of ambition and I dont want him to be placed where he will give up and drop out. Alot of Schools say they dont have the programs he needs and others say he doesnt quite fit in for a Special School although he is borderline to being accepted.....?"
"i need help i am a low income family and i cant afford a tutor "
"This paper is really lacking in actual, specific strategies for 'closing that gap.' "
"Thanks Dr. Feldman! I need your article in my thesis. I'll cite you properly. Please keep on publishing articles about development of reading.:-)"
"I will post it in a papper let everyone now"
"Great article! Closing the reading gap should absolutely be our goal. The problem we teachers face is that there is often no diagnositc tool available or there is a lack of appropriate curriculum for these students. In high school we see them for one year without really knowing anything about them when they come in and we struggle to teach large classes with such a heterogeneous mix, it can be daunting, particularly when you are trying to create curriulum for 5 different classes every day while keeping up on assessments. We need the resources to help these kids develop on track! "