Teachers Can Support Struggling Readers in Middle and High School

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This article was written by Larry Ferlazzo on Ovtober 6, 2023 and published by EdWeek. 

Oral Language

How do I know what I think until I see what I say? ” This quote, often attributed to Forester, illustrates a common practice of language assessment employed by many teachers as they listen to and assess students’ depth and breadth of understanding. Since language represents one’s thinking (Vygotsky, 1934; 1986), instruction that supports language development is central to learning.

As mentioned in our earlier post, teachers at our high school concerned about the literacy skills of our students designed instruction to advance learning in the areas of self-regulation, word-recognition skills, language, study skills, vocabulary, and comprehension. In this post, we focus on instructional practices that promote oral language as a bedrock for reading growth. Some of the ways that teachers foster oral language skills are highlighted below.

1. Quick Connection Cards

These are free electronic cards that contain ideas to easily support students engaging in brief discussions as they voice their thinking, hear the voices and ideas of their peers, and collaborate to problem-solve.

To begin, download the free cards.

Next, identify a daily discussion question.

Then invite students to independently think about their response to the question. They can jot down a few notes if written support is needed before next sharing with a partner. After sharing, students may expand or refine their initial response. Finally, students can stand in a whole-class circle to voice their thinking. This process supports students adding context, providing examples, and building confidence as they elaborate on ideas. Confidence as speakers is built as students move from an individual response to a shared class collaboration.

2. Audio files

Audio recording is enthusiastically done by students as they practice and engage in language-based collaborations with friends and strangers on Tik-Tok, messaging apps, and in other ways. They record narrated videos to post and then listen with friends to learn about clothing, makeup, music, and leisure activities.

Audio recording can also be used to listen to and practice language as students discuss academic content—momentum in physics, character analysis in English, and statistical analysis in math. In one English class, students recorded their brainstorms in anticipation of writing their book reviews of The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, by A.R. Hinton. They shared audio-recorded brainstorms and gave feedback in audio response. They then drafted their reviews.

Finding Voice 

In social studies class, students listened to famous speeches to learn about prosody—the patterns of speech, intonation, and tone—as they discussed the elements of language that were impactful in each speech. Students next used audio recording to craft a 30-60 second speech on a topic of importance to them.

Reviewing Written Work

After recording, students listened to identify if their intent was conveyed. Hearing their written words helped them identify areas to clarify and edit. This can also occur as partners listen together and evaluate.

During this peer-feedback opportunity, students asked questions like the following to support each other: Are the ideas clear and easy to understand? Is the audio/writing captivating because of vivid descriptions, engaging storytelling, persuasive arguments, or other techniques? Does the tone match the topic, purpose, and audience? Can I highlight the strengths of the writing? Does the word choice demonstrate command of the topic?

3. Repeated Readings

Students exposed to new content language while reading often slow down to analyze unknown words or phrases and consequently lose meaning. Teachers, previewing a text and identifying this possibility, offer students support to complete the reading with accuracy and speed that doesn’t interfere with comprehension.

Together, students and teacher divide the passage into 200-word sections. The teacher then models how to repeat the reading of the passage 2-3 times while gaining additional fluency and speed each time. Students then take this on and with a partner read the passage no more than three times—one reads, one listens, switch, then do it together. This whole-class or smaller-group practice promotes reading speed, accuracy, and comprehension. As pairs read, the teacher circulates, offering performance feedback about the accuracy of the oral reading and asking questions to promote comprehension of the passage.

How Do We Assess Growth

We monitor oral- and silent-reading growth through weekly teacher observation of student classroom performance and by reviewing Achieve 3000 scores, which are recorded and adjusted monthly based on reading performance. Additionally, content teachers administer Cloze passages related to the content being studied. These literacy assessments and related supports, offered by grade-level content teachers, provide insights about reading comprehension and developing language growth. However, when reading-comprehension growth is not continuous, we further monitor language and skill development through additional measures and the support of an educational specialist.

One measure we use for this individual monitoring of language and comprehension growth is Literably, which is an assessment tool that provides information on a student’s reading of a passage with attention to fluency, accuracy, word recognition, phrasing, and intonation. It also provides a quick comprehension check.

We have found that in addition to language supports, some students not yet strong in grade-level text comprehension need foundational skill development. If no monthly gains are made in their Literably scores, we huddle to listen to their oral-reading word accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. Doing so, we can identify skills needing to be addressed as we design their next instruction.