Bridging Foundational Reading Gaps in Middle School

An intense program in phonological awareness can help middle school students who are struggling to keep up with reading.

March 17, 2023
xavierarnau / iStock

In 2017, teacher feedback highlighted a common theme that had developed: Some of our middle school students weren’t making enough progress with their reading skills to keep up with a typical middle school reading load. Most of these students received extra reading support, through an additional reading class or tutoring, but for some, this wasn’t enough.

In response, my district created a summer invitational for middle school students who showed gaps in their foundational reading knowledge. We defined this as students who were missing phonological knowledge as evidenced by the Phonological Awareness Screening Test (PAST), anecdotal information from classroom teachers, and evidence of reading issues from a variety of state and local assessments. 

As secondary educators, we were grounded in teaching comprehension skills. We didn’t have much knowledge of or training in teaching foundational reading skills. As preparation, we received early literacy instruction with a Pathways to Reading trainer, and we read David Kilpatrick’s book Equipped for Reading Success. Kilpatrick is a professor emeritus of psychology, a certified school psychologist, and a leading researcher in the field of reading. His book provided us with a clear program to guide our work.

Our Structure 

Working within the summer school frame, we had four weeks for the invitational. We kept the numbers small so that we could work intensively with each student. The district hired two teachers who each taught three-hour morning and afternoon sessions, and I was their instructional coach and parent liaison. 

We leaned on Kilpatrick’s information regarding older readers who struggle with phonemic awareness issues, and we followed the structure he outlines in his book. Each session included three instructional cycles. 

We began with one-minute activities and vowel practice at each student’s level, followed by various activities to work with onset-rime units. (The onset of a syllable is the consonant sounds that come before the vowel, and the rime is the vowel sound and any other consonant sounds that follow in the syllable.) After working with phonological awareness, we moved on to word-reading strategies and reading in context, which included some fluency work. 

There’s a lot more information available to teachers now, just six years later, but we relied on two valuable educator assets: collaboration and creativity. The teachers and I talked each day about what worked, what didn’t work, and any suggestions for the next day. Teachers also made on-the-spot adjustments, and this freedom led to some of the most successful, innovative strategies of the summer. 

Paying Attention to Student Attitudes

Social and emotional issues can override the work. Not surprisingly, the students struggled emotionally and acted out. Teachers dealt with attitude issues and comments about “baby work.” 

What we did. Utilizing stations helped solve some of the social and emotional issues. Since each session was small, we thought we could function as we would in a small group, but we discovered quickly that this wouldn’t work. Students needed time away from peers to work intensively.

After a few missteps, we ended up with these stations: Onset-Rime, Multisyllable, Read Words, Read in Context, Photo Booth (visual texts), and Bookshare, a digital text station. We provided step-by-step instructions at each station, and we had a “station sheet” that documented which stations students accessed that day and included a place for a brief response of some kind. For example, the Read in Context station included a place for students to document a couple of words they felt good about understanding and a place to document words they didn’t know.  

Including more than phonological work

With foundational reading gaps, students needed time to bridge to grade-level texts. Since the decodable books (books that provide readers with specific letter-sound connections practice) we had access to were all for young readers, we had to be creative. We also needed ways that students could engage with words at their own grade levels. 

What we did: First, we decided that we’d use visual texts as a way to bridge to grade-level work. While these intermediate students struggled with most aspects of phonology, including phonemic awareness, syllabication, and basic fluency, their oral language skills closely matched the skills of their peers. We provided engaging visual texts, asked students to discuss the texts first, and then had them write about their understandings, questions, etc. We started at the word level and then progressed to the sentence level, working through spelling approximations so that students always ended with accuracy. 

We also used many of literacy education professor Tim Rasinski’s strategies, including working with Greek and Latin roots, using vocabulary timelines, playing with idioms, choral reading, and reading poetry. 

Creating community is essential

To maximize time, we skimped on community building at first. By day three or four, we recognized that we needed to spend more time creating community, and we had to work on it every single day.  

What we did: We pooled everyone’s most successful community-builders, which included creating heart maps and sharing the story of a personally significant photo, and we started dedicating at least five minutes at the beginning of each session to these activities. We also provided opportunities for students to engage in games at break times. Our most successful were Four Corners and a hula-hoop contest.  We didn’t make the games mandatory activities. Not every student joined in every time, but about two weeks in, we were averaging full participation more often than not. 

We recognized that we needed ways to include identity work, too. We added  journaling and gave students the option to journal anytime they were waiting for the teacher or finished early. We asked students to bring in their favorite school-appropriate song lyrics, which we projected on a screen and did choral readings of, followed by singing along with the songs. We worked to get students to celebrate each other’s successes. 

Including space for creativity

Teachers had the freedom to make adjustments as needed as long as the core lessons were in place. Because of this, it felt easier to handle the challenges. Daily brainstorming sessions were the highlight of every day, and these sessions also helped us create a strong, supportive, collaborative team. 

What we did: We constantly adapted on the fly. For example, one day a teacher only had one student show up for a three-hour session. The student was despondent about being the only one there, so the teacher came up with some fun options to weave into the day. One was to create a hopscotch pattern of onset-rime level work, incorporating movement and fun into the day. 

We also added some games to help students replace some of their negative attitudes and experiences with positive ones. One of their favorites was Rasinski’s Word Ladders. He has now published an updated version.

The Results

All students except one gained three to five levels on the PAST. Teachers also noted gains in vocabulary, stamina, discussion skills, and general attitude toward reading. We recommended ongoing support through the next school year for all of the students.  

Alongside the students, we learned both research and instructional strategies for helping striving middle school readers. We also walked away with experiential knowledge of applying the research and strategies within our own context, which is the most valuable kind of learning.

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

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