How to Help Striving Adolescent Readers
Middle school teachers can create avenues for students to engage with meaningful texts that encourage their literacy skill development.
Difficulties in reading and writing sometimes create shame and confusion—and this is certainly true for older students (grades 6–12) who have spent a considerable amount of time in some form of school and who may still be striving in literacy growth.
Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward identify readers as striving or thriving. As I think about my experience teaching middle grades, and the children I continue to work with and visit as part of my work as a literacy professor, I use the word “reader” first because, though striving, my students are still very much readers.
Explore the Benefits of Connected Word and World Experiences
Adolescents crave meaningful reading with relevant purposes across a range of texts. Paolo Freire noted that we read both the word and the world and pointed out the powerful role that literacy plays in social change and individual identity. The deep knowledge of the real and media-connected world that adolescents are busily building can be presented authentically in the readings that their teachers offer them.
While some older readers do need to encounter vocabulary separately prior to reading, a focus on isolated words without connections to real text is simply laborious. Though some may push back on connecting with student interests and inquiry, I find that this approach fosters much more engagement than a reading about food additives would (no joke, my students had to read about food additives for an assessment once upon a time).
To help build an appreciation of reading, I strongly advocate for wide and diverse text curation, including authentic experiences that students can relate to and/or learn from. This requires the teacher to be a constant reader and to curate a digital and print library that has multiple types of texts, including graphic novels and verse novels to engage readers. To read widely, I engage with critical friends who read extensively, and I’ve learned from librarians. I also follow sites like NetGalley to see what’s coming soon and Book Riot to find lit lists for young adult readers. By approaching reading in this way, a teacher can position reading as accessible so adolescents can recognize that they are, in fact, active readers.
Combine Mechanics and Meaning
Removing text and focusing on individual words, whether on worksheets or in the context of computer programs, essentially removes what might cause a love of reading to flourish in the first place—the voice of an author, speaking relatable truth.
While attention to word knowledge is important, context is also a must. Repetitive literacy tasks can only do so much, and additional supportive intervention programs have their limitations. Adolescents benefit from reading living texts (or texts with lively subjects), texts with believable young characters, and texts that deal with topical issues—these help reading fluency to develop, the rich experiences providing organic reasons to reread.
In order to focus on meaning while building exposure to words, I advocate for creating organic and innovative reasons for students to return to texts—and one of the best ways that I know to do this is to ask students to create something in response to a reading. A reader’s theater activity or graphic novel adaptation of a text, or part of a text, both require students to return to the written words and transpose them into a new product. On top of that, lesson plans written with this kind of assessment in mind naturally include higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.
I also recommend encouraging students to note the relationships and structures among words and word families in order to read for meaning beyond tackling individual words; compiling a reader’s notebook where new words can be recorded is one way to go after this goal. Finally, I encourage multilingual and multimodal approaches to vocabulary instruction (essentially, focusing vocabulary on anything beyond writing words and definitions). Having students engage with real objects, respond creatively and in performance with words, and encounter words across images and texts to build comprehension is work that reflects the active, textual, and digital world we live in.
Make Writing a Priority
I simply can’t imagine teaching reading without teaching writing. Exploration of the world and self is reflected in readings, but articulations of identity can only be expressed in writing. How often should students write? My answer is always every day, and I think this is true for any level; the length of time may be 5 to 15 minutes or more, depending on the task at hand.
Writing and composing, in my review, includes creating and drawing and isn’t always governed by a rubric. We can embrace digital composing, and we can certainly offer mentor texts that give students the chance to see themselves reflected and to peer into other people’s experiences—as Rudine Sims Bishop notes in her seminal work, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Tools like Book Creator, Padlet, Jamboard, and Pixton can help students engage in making and responding. The “T” word comes into play when thinking about writing—there simply isn’t enough time to develop essay responses to material every day. Thankfully, essays aren’t the only kind of writing that we can include in instruction.
We write about what we read; we read about what we are interested in writing. Expanding on content across modes, creating, and sharing our experiences is part of why we care about English language arts (ELA) class.
Continue the Conversation
While these ideas are a beginning, there’s much more to continue talking about when it comes to inspiring older readers to engage in literacy work. Chances are, students of this age are already involved in some form of engagement with the written word—music, social media, gaming—but some may not have seen the connection between these activities and their ELA class.
We can change that. As we rush to fill learning gaps, it’s also important to embrace our students’ humanity and encourage an appreciation for our subject matter beyond the summative exam.