Special Report
Reading & Literacy

How Schools Can Support Older Students Who Lag in Reading

By Sarah Schwartz — January 04, 2022 11 min read
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At the beginning of 2020, Shelly Emann felt like her district was on the right track with reading instruction.

In the Madison public schools in New Jersey, where Emann works as a K-8 instructional coach, teachers in kindergarten and 1st grade had just started using a program that taught students the building blocks of reading in a systematic progression: how to identify the different words in sounds, how to match those sounds to letters, and how to use that knowledge to decode new words.

Emann hoped that this new system would head off some of the reading difficulties she had seen in her nearly two decades as a 4th grade teacher, working with many students who didn’t know how to read through harder words with multiple syllables.

But then, COVID-19 hit. “That threw us for a loop,” Emann said.

Getting wiggly 5- and 6-year-olds to sit through phonics lessons on Zoom that spring was a losing battle. And then last school year, pandemic-adjusted schedules didn’t always leave enough time for K-2 teachers to pull together small groups of students for additional support. This year, the district is expanding the new reading program to 3rd grade, too, but supply-chain issues delayed the delivery of materials for the first few months of the school year.

Madison is far from unique. Over the past two years, many students across the country spent less face-to-face time with their teachers during a critical period of their reading development: the first few years of elementary school, in which students learn how to read words.

National studies of student-test scores during the 2020-21 year found that these students weren’t doing as well as their peers in years past. And now, some teachers and reading specialists say that they’re seeing more 4th, 5th, and 6th graders with reading difficulties than they used to.

Still, Emann feels good about the progress Madison is making. The elementary principals have worked together to create an intervention block for all kids in grades K-5, and the district has hired additional reading interventionists.

Just as importantly, she feels like the pandemic has finally amplified the message she’s tried to convey to her colleagues for years: Many older students in grades 4 and up have gaps in their foundational reading skills, too—and that limits their ability to access grade-level work.

Now, the teachers she works with want to talk more about finding and fixing foundational skills gaps, because they’re trying to address learning loss, Emann said.

The pandemic has intensified some students’ reading difficulties

Older students struggling with reading is not a phenomenon new to the pandemic. In 2019, before COVID disrupted schools, scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 66 percent of 4th graders and 73 percent of 8th graders were at or above a “basic” level of proficiency in the subject.

But the turmoil over the past two years has resurfaced questions about exactly how best to get students up to speed, and it’s directed funding toward academic recovery. The pandemic also hit at a pivotal time for reading instruction: When the virus started to shut down schools in the spring of 2020, many states and districts were in the middle of a years-long push to align early-reading classes more closely to research-based practice.

Reading well is a complex process, involving lots of different skills like recognizing and understanding vocabulary or monitoring comprehension. But the building blocks of reading ability, the foundational skills, involve decoding the printed letters on the page into spoken words. If students can’t read words and fluently connect them into sentences, they won’t be able to understand what they’re reading.

Decades of studies have shown that explicitly and systematically teaching students which sounds represent which letters—teaching them phonics—is the most effective way to get them reading words. This happens in students’ first years of school, usually kindergarten through 2nd or 3rd grade. But as reporting from Education Week and other outlets has demonstrated, many elementary-teacher-preparation programs don’t teach their students how to deliver that kind of instruction.

As a result, teachers say, some students move on to higher grade levels with gaps in their ability to read words. Research bears this out: Many older students who have comprehension difficulties also struggle with word-level reading.

This reality flies in the face of the maxim that students “learn to read” in K-3 and then switch to “read to learn” in older grades. In fact, as this research demonstrates, the issue is less clear-cut. Students who didn’t get enough practice with word-level reading will continue to struggle as the demands of content knowledge and comprehension ramp up.

The pandemic has only compounded this issue, widening the gaps between students who can read fluently and students who can’t, said Tiffany Hogan, a professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston and the director of the institute’s Speech and Language Literacy Lab.

“Teachers are having to differentiate instruction in a way that they never have before. It’s a really Herculean task,” she said.

What foundational-skills gaps look like in older readers

Foundational-skills gaps can show up differently for older students from how they do for younger ones, said Jeanne Wanzek, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University. “Maybe they don’t have gaps in phonics and word recognition that might be more common in K-2, but they struggle with reading multisyllabic words and they don’t really have a strategy for that,” she said.

That is the case for Jenna Madden’s 3rd graders.

“Most of my students are able to decode a one-syllable word, but they have trouble with the 2nd grade material, where they have to decode multisyllable words,” said Madden, who teaches in Emann’s district in New Jersey. “And now in 3rd grade, we’re seeing not only two-syllable words but words with three or four syllables in grade-level text.”

It’s also likely that students will have mastered some parts of the K-2 curriculum but not others. “There’s often splintered skills,” Wanzek said. “It’s just more complex, in terms of where their strengths are.”

Struggles with word reading and comprehension feed into each other, she added: Students who skip a lot of words because they can’t decode them will have a harder time understanding the text, applying comprehension strategies, and storing new knowledge. As students progress through the grades and must read more academic texts, they have to rely on more background knowledge and vocabulary—information they may not have, Wanzek said, if they had trouble reading related content in earlier grades.

“If you’re struggling at 4th or 5th grade or higher, it’s not going to be as simple as if you’re in kindergarten,” Wanzek said. “Often, it’s multiple components that need to be addressed, and we see in the older grades that these multicomponent interventions have higher effects.”

Older students with word-reading difficulties do need support for those skills, Wanzek said. But reviews of research on upper-grades interventions also find that explicit-vocabulary and comprehension-strategy instruction can improve students’ reading ability. For example, teachers can show students how to paraphrase what they’ve read or draw inferences based on information in the text and prior knowledge.

Madden, the 3rd grade teacher, makes it a priority to teach students grade-level skills and content, even as she also attends to the building blocks of reading.

“Even though I have students who are reading below grade level, it’s still important to expose them to grade-level text,” she said.

How to address foundational skills without neglecting grade-level work

How schools address older students’ word-reading difficulties depends on what skills children already have.

For students who have some phonics skills and can decode short words, one research-based recommendation is word study. This involves teaching students how to identify different syllables within words and how to read through multisyllabic words, but it also includes morphology: the study of the smallest units of meaning within words.

Morphology instruction teaches how to break up words like “untouchable” into parts: the prefix “un-,” the root “touch,” and the suffix “-able.” And it teaches the meaning of those parts, which research has shown can support vocabulary development.

For students who need support in reading fluency, researchers recommend having students read passages aloud, with monitoring and feedback from a teacher.

This kind of supplemental instruction can be done in a separate intervention block. But it isn’t always necessary to break out these skills from whole-class teaching, Wanzek said. “The good news is that we actually do know from previous research that you can make incredible gains in reading with older grades—as well as younger grades—by focusing on classroom instruction.”

That is the approach that Bayside Middle School in Virginia Beach, Va., is taking. The school has woven morphology and fluency instruction into whole-class lessons, said Rene Martinez, the 6th grade literacy coach at Bayside.

Students who need more support than what’s offered in core classes spend additional time working with reading specialists on a digital supplemental program that addresses foundational skills. And students who struggle with decoding one-syllable words or letter recognition get time in small groups with reading specialists and interventionists.

Teachers are having to differentiate instruction in a way that they never have before. It’s a really Herculean task.

Many students struggled with grade-level work before the pandemic, and the shift in practice in the district isn’t a response to COVID alone, Martinez said. But the disruptions of the past few years have exacerbated students’ needs, she added.

During the 2020-21 school year, Martinez started working with the district’s high school and elementary language-arts coordinators to figure out how the school could fill in foundational-skills gaps while still keeping middle schoolers on track to tackle high-school-level work. Together, they adapted a 6th grade curriculum to maintain focus on essential grade-level skills and content, while also allowing time for core instruction in morphology and fluency. This is the first year teachers are working with the new program.

Lorraine Hajjar-Conant, who teaches 6th grade English/language arts at Bayside, didn’t think students would like much of the small-group work, with its focus on reading aloud and breaking down words into parts. But so far, kids look forward to it, asking her in the mornings whether they’ll get to do it that day. She’s seen some improvements in students’ comfort with reading aloud, too.

Even so, it’s a tricky balancing act to make time for fluency and word work while also teaching 6th grade skills, like identifying the causes and effects of events in informational texts, Hajjar-Conant said. Teachers try to integrate the two as much as possible—for example, asking questions about plot, characters, and theme while students are reading fiction for fluency practice, she said.

“I think it’s great that we’re trying something different to see if we’re going to get a positive outcome,” Hajjar-Conant said. She’s looking forward to next year, when the school will have data on whether these changes helped set students up for more success in 7th grade.

Experts anticipate a ‘protracted period of catch-up’

Even though these foundational gaps can underpin reading difficulties, there are barriers to addressing them in older grades.

“It was something that was completely new to all of us, because we’re not from an elementary background,” said Hajjar-Conant. The school has started work this year to address students’ foundational-skills gaps, both in whole-group instruction and intervention.

“It was a lot of new vocabulary and a new way of learning information. It was definitely a struggle,” Hajjar-Conant said, of the learning process for her and her fellow teachers.

Teachers in older grades may have to put in more legwork to use assessments that can diagnose foundational-skills gaps and materials that can support instruction in that area, Wanzek said. Most of the screeners and diagnostic tests that can identify word-reading issues are the domain of special education teachers, and they’re not generally used in older-elementary general education, she added.

It can also be harder to find age-appropriate materials, said Hailey Love, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Often when children are perceived as being behind, they’re subject to practices that are actually found to decrease motivation.”

Teachers might have students only read texts at their “level,” which would be written for younger children. It’s important that students still get to engage with grade-level material and that they have the same choice in reading materials that other kids have, Love said.

And then, there’s the shift in mindset. Middle school teachers are used to spending their time teaching to middle school standards, not how to sound out words, Hajjar-Conant said.

“The way that our administrators are trying to put it is, it’s not something additional. We need these kids to read at a 6th grade level, so if we have to go back to 3rd grade skills, that’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “We’re going to have time to address the standards, but we need to teach them how to read.”

Martinez, the literacy coach, acknowledges that change is a long process. Asking teachers to try new instructional methods poses an extra hurdle to jump in a year already fraught with COVID-related challenges.

“Schools are just humans, put together. And humans have limitations,” said Hogan of the Speech and Language Literacy Lab. Her team works with school partners, and many of their literacy initiatives were “rocked by COVID,” she said. In some of these schools, teachers are also trying to support students through the traumas they’ve experienced over the past few years, like losing parents to the virus.

For Hogan, the answer isn’t to abandon efforts but to acknowledge that they might take a more circuitous route than expected. “I think that what needs to be kept in mind,” she said, “is that there’s going to be a more protracted period of catch-up than we anticipated.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2022 edition of Education Week as Many Older Students Struggle With Basic Reading Skills


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