Literacy

Finding the Source of Reading Difficulties

Readers who are struggling in upper elementary and middle school may benefit from phonics instruction.

May 18, 2018
Students doing schoolwork in a middle school English classroom
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It’s a common refrain heard in upper elementary and middle school teachers’ lounges: “These kids can’t read!”

But what do we really mean when we say a child can’t read?

Too often, we don’t know what we mean—we just know that the child’s needs seem too overwhelming for us to address. As a result, intervention in these cases often looks like more test prep passages, more graphic organizers, more annotation strategies. All of this doesn’t treat the underlying causes of the child’s reading difficulties—instead, it frustrates the child and the teacher further.

I’m not blaming teachers. Educator preparation programs and certification exams for middle grades teachers generally touch only lightly on foundational literacy. This makes it difficult for teachers to isolate the cause of a struggling reader’s difficulties.

There are several places where students’ understanding can break down. One of the most difficult for intermediate teachers to address is decoding, or the process of recognizing what sounds are represented by the symbols on a page (that is, sounding out words).

Students who are unable to decode text need remediation in phonics. Ideally, every school would have enough literacy interventionists to meet every child’s needs; realistically, however, it often falls to the classroom teacher to deliver these interventions.

The Continuum of Literacy Development

Before we can talk about remediation, we need to ensure that teachers in the middle grades understand the big picture of early literacy development. Literacy development—like all kinds of human development—follows a similar general progression for nearly all people, although no two children develop identically.

Literacy development moves along a continuum from phonology (all sound, no writing) to orthography (all writing, no sound). Phonics—a systematic mapping of sounds onto patterns of letters—is what helps us bridge the gap between the two.

Within phonics, there are many subskills that develop in a relatively predictable order. If any of the earlier skills in the continuum are missing, students will be unable to access increasingly difficult text.

Determining Where Kids Are

To meet kids’ needs, we need to know where they are. Diagnostic assessments in intermediate grades often take the form of standardized test passages, with the data analyzed in terms of standards—summary, main idea, character development, and so on. For our most struggling readers, however, these data do not give us the right information. We need to know where their knowledge of phonics breaks down.

There are two assessments that can be given quickly and easily to struggling readers to find where they are in their literacy development:

  • The free Quick Phonics Screener can be administered orally in just a few minutes.
  • The Primary, Elementary, and Upper Level spelling inventories from Words Their Way can provide more information about students’ abilities.

Moving Kids Forward

Once we know where kids are on the literacy continuum, the real work begins. A substantial body of research suggests that traditional methods of teaching children to read have been ineffective and leave too many children at risk for reading failure. One way to remediate for all readers—especially those who are most at risk—is with systematic spelling instruction.

Research supports the use of spelling instruction to teach children how sounds map onto patterns of letters and how these patterns are transferable to other words, rather than teaching an isolated set of words to be memorized every week and promptly forgotten after Friday’s quiz.

In fact, spelling instruction supports reading development more than reading instruction supports spelling. Teacher and psychologist Louisa Moats describes the relationship between the two: “Learning to spell requires instruction and gradual integration of information about print, speech sounds, and meaning—these, in turn, support memory for whole words, which is used in both spelling and sight reading.”

Words Their Way is one helpful resource for this developmental approach to spelling. Children sort words based on their sounds and then draw conclusions about spelling patterns. They are then assessed on their ability to apply these patterns to unfamiliar words, rather than ones they’ve memorized.

Another resource is the Florida Center for Reading Research, which publishes research-based Student Center Activities that can be used in small groups and during tutoring to reinforce crucial phonics skills.

Fitting It All In

Another difficulty intermediate-level teachers face is figuring out when to execute these small-group interventions. Teachers can pull together small groups during independent work times in class—for example, when students are working on independent reading or research, or in book clubs. This requires setting up engaging academics for the rest of the class, as well as iron-clad systems that allow teachers to focus on the small groups rather than on behavior management.

Relearning how to teach phonics—or learning how to do so for the first time—can seem like a daunting task to teachers who also need to implement best practices in secondary literacy in their classrooms. But children who are reading far below grade level need us to meet them where they are. By building our knowledge of how literacy develops, we can make sure that we can support every child.