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Simple Strategies to Help Struggling Readers Achieve Grade-Level Success

Diversity and Digital Content Expert, author, and presenter
Updated on
Modified on June 22, 2023
  • Reading
  • Reading Intervention


It’s a sobering thought: only one-third of American students entering high school are proficient in reading (National Assessment of Educational Progress). Many students lack the basic, foundational reading skills necessary to be successful academically.

Early in students’ education, they must learn to read but as they progress, particularly, to secondary education, they must read to learn. Subjects such as social studies and science require more close reading and older students often are expected to read complex and varying types of texts. Getting older students on level and empowering them with the skills necessary to read proficiently is critical. Research has shown students with lower reading abilities graduate at lower rates or worse yet, drop out, and young people without a high school diploma may earn less income than their peers who graduate.

Yet, there is hope. Research indicates there are five building blocks for adolescent readers: word study, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation. Helping middle and high school students achieve grade level is possible with the right approach and proper intervention. Here are a few points to consider:

• One of the keys to help struggling readers is to get them reading more. As with most activities—for example, playing an instrument—the more you practice, the better player you become. The more students read the better readers they grow to be. Studies show students read more when they read culturally relevant books. When students can engage and connect with texts, they are more likely to want to read. Mirror and window books and activities are an integral part of a quality reading program. Mirror books and online experiences allow students to see themselves in the text they are reading. 

Window books and activities offer views of the world around us and enable readers to look into the lives of others and make deeper connections with the content, thus producing higher levels of engagement. Students should see themselves in what they read and within the curriculum we use to help them master literacy skills. Without this, they are likely to get a subtle message they aren’t important. Ideally, the content a teacher selects should affirm students’ identities and allow them to make meaningful connections to their own culture and existing background knowledge. In other words, a well-rounded collection is critical for the older, struggling reader. Within LANGUAGE!®Live, Voyager Sopris Learning’s comprehensive literacy strategies solution, peer tutors of varying ethnicities help students see themselves as they practice and learn. Plus, the program’s avatars allow them to build their own likenesses.

• Another strategy to develop intrinsic motivation for reading is to help students discover true passions and interests. An effective program of reading instruction requires knowing and understanding student interest and speaking to students at their level. Middle and high school students who need to learn foundational literacy skills don’t want to be taught with the same materials as a first grade student. It’s important to speak to students in an age-appropriate way and learn more about them. This could be as simple as giving them a reading survey or as intricate as conducting in-depth, one-on-one interviews. These interviews should lead to discoveries regarding students’ personal interests, hobbies, fears, dreams, career aspirations, favorite television shows or movies. What the teacher learns about each student will help them engage students by providing material they can truly connect with. Low motivation translates to disengaged readers.

• One-on-one or personalized reading instruction is beneficial for struggling readers, which also is built into LANGUAGE! Live. Individualized instruction allows students to receive the instruction they need at the appropriate pace needed to strengthen their skills. This allows teachers to observe and analyze student performance and make continual adjustments in their instruction. Explicit instruction, customized support, and modeling can be extremely effective when working with older readers.

Older students who struggle with reading often find it stressful. You can destress reading by providing a comfortable environment in which to read—a cozy corner, comfortable couch, or soft rug. Make the space inviting. Allow students to select material they are personally interested in and encourage them to read for pleasure. Attach no grades, quizzes, book reports, or other requirements. Let them read for fun and to develop the love of reading.

• Lastly, share your excitement and enthusiasm about reading. It’s hard not to get excited when you are in the presence of other excited people. Communicate your love of specific authors or titles with your students. Share stories about how a book changed your life or point of view about an issue. Describe your favorite place to read. Encourage your students to talk about their reading experiences.

About the Author
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Michelle Easley
Diversity and Digital Content Expert, author, and presenter

Michelle Easley is the author of How to Increase Diversity in School Library Collections and Programs. A graduate of Emory University, Easley is a national presenter, diversity and library advocate, and speaker. She has served on the Southeast Regional Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Education Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and also served as an Instructional Systems Specialist for the Department of Defense, Elementary and Secondary Education.

Easley spends her free time volunteering with homeless youth.

Learn more about Michelle Easley