Reading & Literacy

Older Students Who Struggle to Read Hide in Plain Sight. What Teachers Can Do

By Elizabeth Heubeck — May 16, 2024 6 min read
Image of a seventh-grade student looking through books in her school library.
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For more than two decades, national tests have been informing educators that nearly 3 in 10 8th graders lack basic mastery in reading.

An April RAND report underscores the persistence of that issue—it highlights the sizable percentage of secondary English/language arts teachers who frequently engage their students in activities related to foundational reading skills, including phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, print concepts, and fluency.

By highlighting the uncomfortable reality of teachers engaging adolescents in activities normally associated with much younger students, like decoding words, the RAND report put into perspective the broadscope of the nation’s literacy crisis.

“We have been paying a lot of attention to how children in K-3 learn to read,” said Anna Shapiro, lead author on the study. “These findings tell me that secondary teachers are perceiving a big need among their students to go back to fundamentals.”

The study also raises a lot of questions for educators, including:

  • How do older students who struggle to read go undetected?
  • What is at the root of the reading proficiency problem among older students?
  • How can educators support struggling older readers in ways that they’ll be receptive?

Here’s what literacy experts, researchers, and teachers tell us on these issues.

How struggling older readers slip through the cracks

John Bennetts, a literacy consultant and former elementary school teacher, believes that many struggling older readers have been hiding in plain sight for quite some time.

“My hunch is that the problem has always been there, we just haven’t been looking for it in the older grades and not in the right ways,” he said.

Many students who fail to learn the basics of reading become increasingly sophisticated about hiding their struggles, explains Bennetts. They grow their sight vocabulary by memorizing “high-frequency” words. They often avoid reading aloud in class. Some eventually opt out of class, and school, altogether.

A landmark 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 23 percent of students considered “low, below-basic” readers drop out or fail to finish high school on time, compared to 9 percent of children with basic reading skills.

Decoding struggles often go overlooked

Even when teachers do recognize that these students are somehow lagging behind their classmates, they may not have the time or resources to figure out why. And frequently, teachers attribute the problem to the wrong reason, Bennetts explains.

“They [teachers] just say, ‘They can’t comprehend it,’ and they’re not looking deeper under the hood,” said Bennetts. “But they’re starting to think about looking under the hood.”

Rebecca Kockler, executive director of Reading Reimagined, a program that’s part of education research nonprofit Advanced Education Research and Development Fund, draws the connection between students with poor decoding skills and poor reading comprehension, a problem she says researchers are discovering is much broader than previously thought.

“We think about 40 to 50 percent of middle and high school students in America cannot perform this skill at the rate they need in order to be able to access reading comprehension,” said Kockler, the former assistant superintendent of academics in Louisiana’s education department. “If you had asked me when I was in Louisiana how many kids in middle school had decoding issues such that they couldn’t access comprehension at all, I would have said five to seven percent.”

She points to a landmark 2019 study that analyzed more than 30,000 students in 5th through 10th grade and found that those who scored below the ‘“decoding threshold"—meaning they were unable to decode grade-level text automatically, with accuracy and efficiency—made no significant growth in their reading comprehension ability over the next three years.

“The idea of an incredibly stark decoding threshold, that when kids fall below it they show zero growth in reading comprehension, was pretty astounding,” Kockler said.

Examining the breakdown between decoding simple and more complex words

Decoding starts early, and the majority of early elementary students can effectively decode simple, one-syllable words like “cat.” Those who can’t master this task likely make up the estimated five to seven percent of students with dyslexia, explains Kockler.

But, she notes, the letters “cat” in the middle of “education” present a very different decoding challenge—one that students with a low decoding threshold will often attempt the same way they would with the one-syllable word. But Kockler points out that being able to decode “cat” does not set a student up to be able to decode “education.”

The complexity of the English language and the diversity of its linguistic patterns, which change the most with multisyllabic words, add to the decoding challenge and require a lot of practice, which doesn’t always happen, Kockler explains.

“When you’re not doing any practice with multisyllabic word instruction, some kids are naturally going to get it anyway. And some kids will really struggle,” Kockler said. That’s where the halt in reading growth tends to happen among the struggling readers.

Supporting older students who struggle with reading

The first step to helping older students who are struggling to read is to diagnose the problem correctly, says Kockler, who recommends using an assessment specifically validated for older students, such as Stanford University’s free tool ROAR.

Bennetts reminds teachers to start small. Often, the problems have been building over several years. One idea he calls a “quick hit” is to focus, in class as a whole, on breaking down multisyllable vocabulary words like “computation,” and calling on a struggling reader to read the easiest syllable (com), and assigning “tion” to a more competent reader. That way it’s systematic, but not singling out any one student.

“Is it going to make a 7th grader who can’t decode able to? No, but it’s a start,” he said.

LaMar Timmons-Long, who teaches 11th and 12th grade English in a public school in New York City, finds ways in group and individual settings to check in with students’ reading proficiency. He does read-alouds in class that include all students, which can help him gauge fluency and other foundational reading skills. Because of the inclusive culture he purposefully develops in his classes, he says students generally feel comfortable contributing regardless of their skill level.

He also meets with students individually to review their writing assignments, which gives him the opportunity to support students with reading deficiencies in a more direct and private manner. “The moments in class where I can connect with students one-on-one have been really beneficial,” Timmons-Long said.

Bennetts echoes that empathic, one-on-one approach. “The kids already know they’re behind, they know they can’t read the words. If we say, ‘You need this because you’re behind,’ that’s not very inspiring,” Bennetts said.

He prefers to use a more honest and optimistic approach in his one-on-one work with middle and high school students struggling with reading.

“Because of their age, I do feel like they’re capable of having an honest conversation about where they’re having challenges,” said Bennetts. “I tell them: ‘Here’s how I’m going to help you. It’s going to be hard work, but I’m going to support you.’”

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