What are some keys to helping middle school students become stronger readers?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of Effective Instruction for Middle School Students with Reading Difficulties: The Reading Teacher's Sourcebook

About the authors

Dr. Carolyn A. Denton

Carolyn A. Denton, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Children's Learning Institute, part of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. A former teacher, she conducts research in schools focused on reading intervention, response to intervention models, coaching as a form of professional development, and reading comprehension.

Dr. Denton has served as the head of the Texas Adolescent Literacy Project, an initiative of the Texas Education Agency focused on the development of intervention approaches for struggling middle school readers.

Dr. Sharon Vaughn

Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D., holds the H.E. Hartfelder/Southland Corp. Regents Chair in Human Development and is executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, an organized research unit at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Vaughn's current research focus is on effective interventions for students with reading difficulties and students who are English language learners.

Dr. Jade Wexler

Jade Wexler, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She has almost 15 years of experience as a teacher and researcher in the field of special education.

Dr. Wexler 's current research focuses on investigating effective practices for adolescents with reading difficulties, including those in the juvenile justice system. She also investigates methods to decrease dropout rates and increase school engagement for students at risk for dropping out of school.

Deanna Bryan

Deanna Bryan, began her teaching career working with children with severe disabilities. While teaching in a life skills classroom, she met a student that she believed could learn to read. She began tutoring this student one on one and this is where her passion for teaching reading began.

Ms. Bryan spent most of her teaching career working with middle school students. She was a public school special education reading teacher for 91⁄2 years before going to work for the Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Deborah Reed

Deborah Reed, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Texas at El Paso. She has spent 19 years working with adolescents as a middle and high school teacher, technical assistance provider, and researcher.

While at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, Dr. Reed served as principal investigator of the Texas Adolescent Literacy Academies, which resulted in the training of more than 21,000 content area and intervention teachers.


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BONUS! Get free tips from the book on how to move struggling readers away from relying heavily on teacher guidance to becoming independent readers.

Q: What are some of the distinctive reading demands faced by a student entering middle school?

A: Students who reach the upper grades face expectations such as reading and comprehending upper-level content area expository text at a swift pace. This text typically includes complex content, vocabulary, and multisyllabic words. Without adequate background knowledge, language skills, and the ability to decode and comprehend this text, students will likely struggle in their content area classes.

Q: How does the school recognize when a student struggles with reading? Who typically provides help for these students in middle school?

A: When students reach the secondary grades, we typically have a lot of knowledge about their educational history and therefore, can already identify those who are struggling. In addition, schools can use brief screening measures or assessments that are already in place such as a state assessment to identify who is struggling to comprehend.

Further diagnostic testing is necessary to identify specific needs of a student. Sometimes we recognize who is struggling when students are continually misbehaving or trying to avoid doing their work.

Q: Your new book outlines a three-tiered schoolwide approach to reading intervention. How essential is a schoolwide approach to reading intervention success?

A: It is critical to have a schoolwide model in place so not only is a supplemental reading intervention teacher providing support, but all content area teachers are infusing reading strategy instruction into their content area instruction.

A schoolwide approach is critical to student success so that students can generalize the strategies they are learning in a Tier 2 or 3 class to their work in their content-area Tier 1 classes. Aligning this support—such as by using content area text in a Tier 2 class that mirrors what students are learning in Tier 1—is encouraged.

Q: Accurate assessment is key to designing targeted instruction for individual learners. What are the steps of reading assessment for middle school students?

A: At the secondary level we typically take a "top-down" approach rather than a "bottom-up" approach. By this, we mean that we typically assess for overall comprehension difficulties first and then continue "down the line" to determine what the source of those difficulties is.

If you used this method, you would assume the student has adequate foundational skills but is struggling to make meaning from text. You would, therefore, sequence your diagnostic assessments to begin with the critical components of comprehension and only assess foundational skills (e.g., word recognition) if the higher-level skills could not be ruled out as contributing factors. For example, you might administer a test of fluency or word identification.

Q: What are some teacher behaviors that make a difference in learning for students with reading difficulties?

A: Teachers of students with reading difficulties need to be especially cognizant of incorporating features of effective instruction in their teaching that can help intensify instruction. Using appropriate pacing, teachers need to be sure to model new skills by using methods such as a "think aloud" to expose thinking and provide explicit instruction.

Teachers should follow this explicit instruction by providing students many opportunities to respond and practice and making sure to give immediate and corrective feedback so that students are practicing the right things! Teachers need to use frequently collected data to make decisions about adapting and intensifying instruction.

Q: Middle school students who have struggled with reading often have a high-level of frustration—what have you found effective in motivating and keeping readers engaged in their reading instruction?

A: To keep students engaged in reading instruction:

  • Make sure that instruction is appropriate by utilizing data to match instruction to their needs
  • Keep a quick, but appropriate pace.
  • Change activities frequently.
  • When possible, allow choice in reading material and align material with what they are expected to read in their content classes so they begin to generalize the strategies and content they are learning and feel it is worthwhile.
  • Most of all, use explicit and systematic instruction.

The best way to engage and motivate students is to provide them appropriate instruction so that they feel they are learning!

Q: You have been very involved in studying what helps middle school students become stronger readers. Projecting forward 10 years, if there is one change you'd like to see in schools' approach to middle school students' reading difficulties, what would it be?

Schools at the secondary level need to take a schoolwide approach where ALL teachers are taking responsibility for ALL learners.

This means that content-area teachers will also incorporate reading strategy instruction into their classes. It is also critical for teachers to learn to utilize data to drive their instruction and capitalize on ways to intensify instruction for struggling learners. Many teachers need to incorporate features of effective instruction into their teaching to intensify and differentiate instruction for all learners.


Effective Instruction for Middle School Students with Reading Difficulties: The Reading Teacher's Sourcebook

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Be sure to see these other titles:

Building Comprehension in Adolescents: Powerful Strategies for Improving Reading and Writing in Content Areas

Building Comprehension in Adolescents: Powerful Strategies for Improving Reading and Writing in Content Areas

Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction: Connecting Assessments to Effective Interventions

Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction: Connecting Assessments to Effective Interventions

The Fundamentals of Literacy Instruction and Assessment, Pre-K–6

The Fundamentals of Literacy Instruction and Assessment, Pre-K–6

Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners

Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners

Powerful Writing Strategies for All Students

Powerful Writing Strategies for All Students

Becoming a Professional Reading Teacher

Becoming a Professional Reading Teacher