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Adolescent Literacy: Helping Students Who Read Below Grade Level

Related Tags: Assessment, K-2 Primary
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Moderator's note: The post below is in response to the following email we received:

"I am a teacher in a high school special ed program. It is often hard to find materials for my students. I need ones that are written to a population of readers in grades 2-4, but for teenagers. I have previously used the books Charlotte's Web and Holes. The problem is that I need discussion references for this grade level 9-12. I am trying to set up a curriculum for next year with reading in world, American, and English literature that is written low, but has enough to keep the interest of my students and is available on audio. Can anyone help with suggestions, but please remember I have very little money for class sets and I will probably be the one buying some of the books. Thank you."

In the health academy I started in 1986 in California, my first concern was the students' level of reading: Most of the high school academy students were reading around the third-grade level. My teacher externship at a local hospital had me exploring the hospital library, and that experience indicated to me that the majority of reading in health is probably at grade level fourteen, or the second year of postsecondary education. After leaving the externship, I was determined to teach my students how to read, and I immediately drove to the local university and enrolled in a master's program in reading.

In this quest, I found three strategies that encourage low-level high school students. First, I discovered "skinny books." Publications exist out there that list titles of such books, such as Books Junior High Boys Like to Read. I looked for materials such as these with classic titles and bought simplified, illustrated versions of Tom Sawyer, Lorna Doone, and War and Peace for my classroom.

I also encouraged my students to read and read and read, inviting them to choose books about topics that interested them, such as basketball and movie stars. Then I asked them to read more difficult material. Newsweek magazine had a weekly medical column based on an article from the New England Journal of Medicine. Students first read the Newsweek article so they understood the concepts and then read the original journal article. In this process, I started teaching students successful reading strategies.

Finally, students wrote their own books. This strategy is effective, because students have to learn more about reading in order to write. Students loved reading each other's books, and I kept the books (they could make one for themselves and one for the class) in order to build a classroom set.

Stay tuned: next -- how to motivate students to read boring textbook information.

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Connie Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your most valuable partner in teaching reading is your school librarian. This credentialled teacher can partner with you to direct students to the reading that they will enjoy. We are also here to team with you, the classroom teacher, in teaching reading strategies at the secondary level.

Far too many reading teachers forget that this ally is there to support and teach students the vital skills they need. We're also experts in the literature of our patrons - ask us for titles!

Mary Platner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read these postings with great interest, especially noting that I have taught "special ed" for 31 years. Like my son, many of my students have learning disabilities. The National Center for Learning Disabilities and the National LD Association report that over half of learning disabled students are significant delayed in reading. Since textbooks have a readability level similar to the intended grade level, such as a 7th grade social studies textbook has a 7th grade readability level, a student with poor reading skills experiences great difficulty accessing the general core curriculum.

The United States Department of Education-Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has announced that it is revising the definition of "print disabilities," which is currently defined by the Library of Congress's National Library System (NLS). The NLS defines "print disabilities" as those who are blind or have significant visual impairments or orthopedic disability that doesn't allow a person to hold a book or turn pages. Many of us are hoping that the revised definition will be more expansive and at least include students with other disabilities. Copyright law has special provisions for those with "print disabilities." (Please note that a handful of states, notably Kentucky and Arizona, already have laws in place for textbook accessibility for ALL disabled students.)

The revised definition could have very important implications to education across our nation. This is critical in that the 2004 Reauthorization of IDEA (national special ed law) has provisions for those with "print disabilities" and established the "National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard" (NIMAS) as the national file format. NIMAS gets all K-12 textbook publishers and public schools on the same page and allows the base digital file of printed instructional materials to be transformed into CDs, mp3 files, as well as Braille and large print books.

ACCESSIBLE or UNLOCKED CDs of textbooks, etc. can then be interfaced with other software, such as text-to-speech. Text-to-speech software not only allows the student to hear the text but also can easily be rigged to highlight the word or sentence as it is being read aloud, thus pairing the visual with the auditory. In addition, many commercial text-to-speech programs have greatly evolved in the last couple of years and now include many other learning supports in the same program. These include not only PHONIC spell checkers but also "fact" depositories to stash research information for later retrieval into papers, homophone checker, word prediction, scanning, graphic organizers, single words translated into another language, notetaking, and highlighting by different colors and then collecting the highlighted text by color to generate a student-made study guide.

In addition, one program can directly go into the text while others require the user to copy the text and then import it on to the program's clipboard before the program's featuers can be activated. This extra step could be obstacle for some students. Also, the former program can also read pdf files, including email and many Internet-based files.

Some of the major vendors are significantly discounting for volume purchases; another is also selling school and district licenses for any student to use. Many of these learning supports give a struggling student, including those who are English Language Learners, a fighting chance and provide great learning tools for many "typical" students as well as addressing different learning styles.

All in all, this exciting software adds an important tool to a teacher's set of tools to address differentiated instruction.

Please help spread the word of these strives in educating ALL students!

Josh Lawrence's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One way to guage motivation to read is by looking at student independent reading during summer months. A 2006 survey of urban adolescent students (Summer Reading Survey Report ... see link below) indicates that students are reading email and web at rates that far surpass their reading of books. I think that educators need to really understand how important this trend is becoming and do a better job connecting our work in school to those kinds of readings that students are intersted. That being said, there is not eveidence in this report that student web reading is helping them in vocabulary, reading fluency or reading comphrension. Actually, my analysis suggests that it is only student that have better comprehension skills that make gains from independent reading (see AEAR presentatation in How summer reading predicts fall vocabulary scores same link below)

I also want to follow up on the plug for the school librarian but mentioning that the children's librarians in large urban centers have access to an amazing range of texts and are often willing to request them from the entire library system for your students. This approach has been very successful with my students in getting really compelling books in their hands to generate interest in topic they did not know they were interested in (like ancient Greece.)

Heidi Reina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Have you looked into using They recently permitted free membership for schools serving students with print disabilities. As much of the funding is coming from IDEA, your class might qualify. They have a collection of more than 40,000 books and 150 periodicals available on audio.

The info about free qualifying memberships is on the website. They also have Teacher Recommended Reading by grade level.

Give your local adult literacy resource center a try. I've taught adults to read, and the resource center has quite a bit of material that can hold the interest of older readers.

Holly Gougeon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a middle school media specialist I have discovered some ways to help our reluctant readers. One company that I highly recommend is Townsend Press. They have a series of short novels called The Bluford series. The books can be purchased from them in paperback for $1 per book. They deal with teenagers and teenage problems. Our students love them - even the boys who usually only read non-fiction.
There are a lot of publishers who now publish graphic novels (the kids call them comic books) and low level-high interest non-ficiton books. Most library media specialists in a school setting should know who the publishers are.

Ann Poellet's picture

I am a special ed. teacher in a middle school. I am trained to work specifically with students who are funcitoning at least 3 grade levels below their current grade. There are very intensive programs that are designed to remediate students with severe reading disabilites: I use Orton- Gillingham, LANGUAGE!, 6 Minute Solution and REWARDS. You must be trained to use the OG. My community also has a FREE tutoring program for struggling readers. They must first be diagnosed as Learning Disables or have dyslexia. Tutors volunteer and are trained in a program called Barton ( a simplified Orton Gillingham). Students that have miraculously made it to high school and are multiple grade levels behind need intenstive intervention either inside the classroom or from an outside source. Whatever has been used with them is obviously not working.

I have a collection of high interest/low readability books in my classroom. You can find them in special ed. teacher  catalogs. Off the top of my head I cant think of the name of the catalog I use to purchase them. Anne Schraff (not sure on spelling) is the author of many of these books. Hope some of this helps!

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