Evidenced-Based Practices for Literacy Intervention in Middle School

These practical strategies for building up struggling middle school readers’ literacy skills can help them read more fluently.

May 30, 2024
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As a middle school English language arts teacher for 15 years, I saw my share of struggling adolescent readers. I was often perplexed by how my students could have made it to sixth, seventh, or eighth grade without ever having learned how to read fluently or even crack the alphabetic code with automaticity.

When I moved to instructional leadership at the elementary level, I discovered so much about how kids learn to read and what middle-grades teachers might do to help support their struggling readers.

I was lucky to come to the elementary world when I did. An added perk to the more frequent hugs, faster rates of development, and gentler attitudes, there were some really exciting shifts in primary literacy instruction. A year or two into my work at the elementary level, these shifts had just reached nationwide turning points, helped along by the work of journalist Emily Hanford. Her podcast, Sold a Story, exposed the lack of scientific research supporting the multimillion-dollar balanced reading programs that most elementary schools like mine had been using for decades.  

Due in large part to Hanford’s work and recent state legislation, K–2 literacy teachers are making some pretty big shifts that we can all learn from. Namely, we’re discovering how to get better at teaching kids to read with direct and explicit instruction in reading foundations skills. This looks like more focus on decoding (determining spoken sounds from printed text) and encoding (writing printed text from spoken sounds), among other evidence-based practices that are rooted in neuroscience.

So what can middle-grades teachers do with students who may not have received the evidence-based structured literacy instruction most kids need to learn how to read fluently by third grade? The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has put together an educators’ practice guide with recommendations that can help. Here are three.

Teach kids how to decode multisyllabic words 

I remember one student—we can call him Tyler—who wrote in the oversized letters of a much younger child. When reading aloud in small groups, Tyler would use all of his mental capacity to struggle through each word, often trying to guess using the word’s first letter. Unfortunately for Tyler, and so many others like them, his inability to decode graphemes (letter symbols) with their corresponding phoneme (unit of sound) left him at a loss as words and sentences grew more and more complex.

For adolescent readers who struggle with decoding, the goal now must be rapid acceleration in learning. They have so much time to make up; we cannot keep them working at the primary level of consonant-vowel-consonant decoding (CVC)—e.g., cat. These students need to now work with multisyllabic words in order to access grade-level texts. 

This means first assessing our struggling older readers and then creating an inventory of sound patterns they do know, in order to build off their successes and breed more success. Tyler despaired regularly with the same line: “I can’t read.” If I had had a list of letter-sound patterns at the time, I would have been able to point to what Tyler could read and then armed him with a routine of word attack.

This routine of word attack might include teaching students how to systematically break words into syllables and then determine the meanings of each word part. These smaller, meaningful parts of words are often called morphemes. For students like Tyler, learning common prefixes, suffixes, and Greek/Latin roots can help give them strategies to decode longer multisyllabic words in context.

Teach kids How to read fluently 

Students like Tyler who struggle with decoding are rarely able to read fluently. Since working in an elementary school, I have learned that fluency includes three components: rate, accuracy, and prosody, or reading with appropriate expression.

Teachers of older students who struggle with reading can help them become fluent readers by using repeated readings of grade-level complex texts. Each new reading should be purposeful and intentional and should provide opportunities for students to engage in new thinking while gaining practice with becoming fluent readers of text that will become more familiar and accessible with each repeated reading.

Teachers can also prepare students for building their reading fluency by supporting their work with word attack strategies before they read the complex text in its entirety. This will allow students the opportunity to practice decoding multisyllabic words and prepare them for understanding longer words in context, so that they don’t stumble when they come to them. Modeling fluent reading of text and choral reading routines will also serve to help support older students who are still working toward becoming fluent readers of their grade-level texts.

teach comprehension strategies while building knowledge 

For Tyler, many grade-level texts were incomprehensible. He spent so much mental energy trying to eke out each individual word, his reading was choppy and halting, and he had limited cognitive capacity left for understanding. 

What we are learning now is that comprehension is not a skill taught in isolation, but rather the result of having strong background knowledge in a topic. A colleague of mine has often used the example of reading complex medical texts compared with texts on pedagogy. We know enough about pedagogy to understand the jargon, make inferences, connect to new ideas. Reading new research on appendectomies, however, would leave many of us with some gaping holes in our understanding.

Likewise, background knowledge is critical for developing our students’ comprehension skills. This is why, in addition to supporting students’ accelerated development in decoding and fluency, middle-grades teachers should focus on reading a lot about a single topic rather than a lot of texts about a variety of unrelated topics. 

For example, in one high-quality curriculum resource, EL Education, seventh graders spend a quarter of the year digging deep into epidemics. They spend the first three weeks reading a wide variety of nonfiction texts, building their domain-specific vocabulary, applying close-reading skills, and engaging in discourse around this single topic. The added benefit to this topic-based learning is the potential for collaboration with science, social studies, or arts teachers, which could aid students’ reading comprehension in other classes as well.

And their success breeds success: When students know something about what they’re reading, they will recognize the words and syntax, read more fluently, and ultimately better comprehend what they’re reading.

Teachers of early adolescents can take heart that the recent changes in elementary school should mean that fewer and fewer students will come to them as struggling readers. In the meantime, these age-appropriate, evidence-based practices can help shore up students’ reading skills if they missed explicit phonics, fluency, and knowledge-building instruction in primary grades. These practical strategies can help empower teachers to support their students’ independence as they prepare for high school reading and beyond.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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