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It’s Not Too Late: Turning Struggling Adolescent Readers into Successful Readers

Practical strategies for enhancing literacy instruction

Literacy is essential for success in school, but when students at the middle and high school levels continue to struggle with reading, the consequences can be lifelong. Struggling adolescent readers are more likely to have discipline or behavioral issues, to have lower academic achievement overall and to drop out of school. Many districts don’t offer reading specialists or targeted support at the middle and high school levels, focusing on other priorities because the common perception is that it’s too late to help students’ reading skills by the time they reach adolescence. 

But it’s not too late to make a difference for these students. This web seminar explored some practical, research-based strategies for supporting struggling adolescent readers from renowned literacy expert, researcher and author Louisa Moats, and the director of exceptional education in the Henrico County Public Schools. The presenters discussed these proven strategies, and a blended ELA learning solution called LANGUAGE! Live®, to intervene and turn struggling readers into successful readers, while supporting all learners and helping them achieve reading success.

Louisa Moats Ed.D.

Literacy Instruction and

Professional Development Expert

Author, LANGUAGE! Live

Donice Davenport

Director of Exceptional Education

Henrico County Public Schools (Va.)

Louisa Moats: Who are we talking about when we talk about struggling readers? This population includes kids with global difficulties with learning who never caught on to reading—kids who are English language learners, kids who have diagnosed and recognized learning disorders, and an undifferentiated group of what we would call “instructional casualties,” or kids who haven’t had the opportunity to learn to be good readers because they have missed instruction for one reason or another.

 These students are less skilled at monitoring their own comprehension when they read. Unless reading is a mediated experience for them, they’ll read right over their errors. They are definitely less fluent and accurate in word recognition. Also, they tend to be less aware of language structure in general, beginning with phonology, but extending to other aspects of language. Their vocabularies are impoverished, and that of course has an impact on their ability to learn content area subject matter, and to recognize the words in academic language.

One of the reasons why districts tend not to invest in these kids with the requisite resources and time allocation is that they’re viewed as sort of hopeless cases. One of the reasons that happens is that the gap between them and their peers has widened over time and they have stagnated in their growth. One of the reasons for that is that text has become more challenging in terms of the vocabulary, the decoding that’s required, the syntactic processing or sentence comprehension that’s required, the range of knowledge that is required to make inferences, the experience with reading that’s required, and the habit of persistence that’s required with longer segments of text. We design instruction to take all of these realities into account.

We feel very much that the themes and the texts that students are given regardless of their reading levels has to be age-appropriate and provocative and interesting. But we have to scaffold the readings, anticipating all of the language demands the students may have, and adding a certain amount of support and pre-teaching and after-teaching. We can graph out what the teacher does before, during and after reading. Teachers interacting with students, hopefully in small-group settings, on verbal dialogue, oral language discussion and oral language modeling is necessary to build language skills. A significant improvement can occur at any age if sufficient time is devoted. Successful programs are explicit, systematic, cumulative and linguistic, and they integrate listening, speaking, reading and writing. They also include a lot of peer collaboration, with some choice built into the extra exercises and readings.

With one year of LANGUAGE! Live implementation, if at least six units of a 12-unit program are taught, we get significant gains in lexile rankings of what students can read and comprehend—significant gains in silent contextual reading fluency, and a significant gain even in spelling, which is very hard to achieve in this population.

Donice Davenport: Across the board, tier I instruction has to include an emphasis on increasing students’ exposure to authentic texts, and must provide opportunities for teachers to engage in targeted conversations with students about the texts they’re reading, focusing on students’ connections and areas of specific weakness by building on students’ strengths in reading.

These are some tier I strategies that our division has employed that have proven to be effective and necessary for adolescent readers. These strategies have to be included across all content areas. Students have to be exposed to diverse texts that allow them opportunities to make connections and to engage in conversations in order to build their comprehension of the text and to expand upon their vocabulary. Additionally, teachers have to be trained and supported in utilizing explicit instructional strategies for leading students in summarizing, synthesizing and understanding those processes which are associated with key academic vocabulary and skills required to read text.

Appropriate resources are an important part of tier II instruction. Divisions must realize that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach that will support struggling readers, and that they should adopt curriculum, materials and programming that can be targeted for instructional match based on the needs of the groups of students. Teachers and interventionists have to be trained in the processes and programs that are being used, and divisions have to provide administrative oversight in order to promote fidelity of implementation. Teams have to consistently track student progress and move students into and out of intervention groups as determined by the data collected.

In tier III intervention we support the students with the most significant deficits and instructional needs. Once again, the instruction is specific and intensely targeted to students’ individual needs, but we have to decrease the group size, and sometimes even support students in a one-to-one setting. We increase frequency and duration of the support provided for students and monitor the data even more frequently to adjust the instructional programs.

 This is our third year of implementation with LANGUAGE! Live, which is supported by Voyager Sopris Learning®. On average we’ve had a pretty significant gain in lexile level for students who were engaged in LANGUAGE! Live. We found once again that student selection and fidelity of instruction are key to the success of any programming, and that there has to be a high level of division-level support.

Before this webinar I had an opportunity to get feedback from a group of our LANGUAGE! Live teachers. They said they feel so much more empowered and prepared to teach reading. They’re seeing their kids exhibit increased vocabulary and an increased drive to read, and they are appreciative of those real-world text connections that are afforded through the process of teaching this program.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit: