Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Reading & Literacy Opinion

Many Older Students Are Struggling to Read. How Can Teachers Help?

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 14, 2023 8 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s post is the first in a series by the authors that will appear throughout the school year.

Their posts will address the question:

How can teachers support middle and high school challenged readers?

‘Bringing Content Alive’

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is a professor and the chair of the educational leadership department at San Diego State University and is also the dean of faculty affairs at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego.

Diane Lapp, Ed.D., is the Distinguished Professor of Education at San Diego State and is also an academic coach at Health Sciences High and Middle College.

Maria Grant, Ed.D., is a professor of education at California State University, Fullerton, and is also a physics teacher at Health Sciences High and Middle College.

Sarah Ortega, M.A. is the ELD coordinator at Health Sciences High and Middle College:

Secondary teachers believe they are planning instruction for students who can read grade-level materials. The National Assessment of Educational Progress data from 2022 suggest this may not be the case since scores for 8th graders were lower than any since 1998.

‘Bringing Content Alive’

Some students sit silently in their classrooms, head low, trying to disappear in their seats. Others opt for confrontation to distract from their academic struggles, and others are chronically absent. Looking beyond these behaviors, we find students who are avoiding exposure as limited readers or nonreaders. They attend many schools, including ours, which is a culturally and linguistically diverse high school in California.

Concerned, we viewed their literacy skill sets through the lens of the reader as a code breaker, meaning maker, text user/analyst, text critic, and text actor (Freebody and Luke,1990; Cervetti & Pearson, 2023). We realized that some prerequisite skills, including those of the code breaker were a must in order to assume these roles.

Through our research, we identified learning needs in the areas of self-regulation, word-recognition skills, language, study skills, vocabulary, and comprehension. We took instructional action across the disciplines to address these. Here we focus on developing word-recognition skills to fluently decode and comprehend texts, but over the next few months, we will share instructional ideas in each of these areas that support secondary students strengthening their reading skills.


Fluency, which is the ability to read words in a text accurately and automatically, supports text comprehension since the focus is on meaning making rather than on decoding. We found the following strategies work well to support fluency and reading comprehension.

1. Performance Reading – Reading fluency can be developed by creating scripts related to information in a content article to bring historical events, scientific information, and world events to life. Bringing the content alive for students allows them to build their content knowledge and fluency while engaging in repeated reading of script lines. In social studies, students were studying famous people in American history and the following is a sample from a script two students were rehearsing to perform.

Journalist: Tell us about your childhood and how that fueled your interest in aviation.

Armstrong: One of my earliest childhood memories was when my father took me to the National Aire Races in Cleveland. I also recall learning about Lindbergh when I was in elementary school.

2. Sophisticated Sentences – Teachers can develop reading fluency by using the sophisticated-sentences protocol, which includes the teacher identifying and sharing a sentence from the content text that is complex in structure, vocabulary, or syntax. The teacher models reading the sentence followed by a choral reading with the class, then students independently read the sentence. After this repeated reading, the class discusses what made the sentence complex. In preparation for fluently reading a text on the connection between climate change and chemistry, the teacher shared the following sentence to introduce content-difficult vocabulary:

Climate change is a result of the emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases and other menacing chemicals being discharged into the atmosphere.

Word Study

A student’s comprehension of complex texts is tied to their deep understanding of the vocabulary in that text. Some words need to be taught explicitly, while others can be understood by looking at the clues inside the word as well as the context. Teachers can model their thinking by showing how they were able to uncover the meaning of these words. These engaging strategies work well to support language learning in content classes.

1. Arm Tapping - Teachers use a routine for studying vocabulary in the disciple-related passages they are reading. They first decide on words that are essential to the understanding of the text, cannot be understood through the context of the text, and have some unusual spelling patterns. As a class, students quickly note the spelling patterns, affixes of the word, and check the morphology through other sources. Then they chunk the spelling of the word into 3-4 letter combinations gradually progressing down the arm, with the goal of being able to fluently read, understand the meaning, and incorporate into their writing and speaking. Words recently learned by students included “foreign,” “equilibrium,” and “initiative.” For example, the classroom teacher had students divide foreign by tapping “f-o-r” at the shoulder, then “e-i” at the elbow, and “g-n” at the wrist. Teachers selected words with high utility.

2. Reading Multisyllable Words - Often, fluent reading is interrupted when a student encounters a multisyllable word, like “unicellular” or “polynomial.” Teaching students how to analyze the structure of confusing words supports their agency as readers. First, identify if the word contains any prefixes, suffixes, or familiar roots. If students are unsure, this needs to become a teaching point. Next, note vowel sounds in the word. Each vowel sound will identify one syllable. Separate the word into syllables and say each. Then put the syllables back together and say the whole word to see if it makes sense. Next, use the surrounding text context or a dictionary to supply the meaning of the unknown word.

With targeted instruction, older students begin to see themselves as readers and learners. Their school mindset begins to shift. No longer feeling defeated they begin to see possibilities for themselves. Personal achievement is a springboard for moving past being a codebreaker and becoming meaning makers that can analyze texts and monitor progress. Coincidentally, other classroom behaviors begin to become more positive.


Thanks to Douglas, Diane, Maria, and Sarah for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy Older Students Who Struggle to Read Hide in Plain Sight. What Teachers Can Do
Going back to basics may get to the root of the problem.
6 min read
Image of a seventh-grade student looking through books in her school library.
A seventh-grade student looks through books in her school library.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages
Reading & Literacy The Key Parts of a 'Science of Reading' Transformation, According to One State Chief
Under Carey Wright's leadership, Mississippi pulled off a reading "miracle." She has a similar transformation in mind for Maryland.
6 min read
Dr. Carey Wright, the interim state superintendent for Maryland, discusses improving literacy instruction and achievement with Stephen Sawchuk, an assistant managing editor for Education Week, during the 2024 Leadership Symposium in Arlington, Va. on Friday, May 3, 2024.
Carey Wright, the state superintendent for Maryland, discusses improving literacy instruction and achievement during Education Week's Leadership Symposium in Arlington, Va., on May 3, 2024.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Reading & Literacy Teachers Are Still Teaching Older Students Basic Reading Skills, Survey Finds
Who across the K-12 spectrum engages frequently in activities that promote foundational reading skills? The answer may come as a surprise.
4 min read
Group of kids reading while sitting on the floor in the library
Reading & Literacy Spotlight Spotlight on The Science of Reading in Practice
This Spotlight will help you analyze new curricula designed to build knowledge, review the benefits of reading aloud to students, and more.