Struggling Readers: Skilled Readers Emerge Where Reading in the Content Areas Is Taught and Practiced

By Silverman, Fran | District Administration, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Struggling Readers: Skilled Readers Emerge Where Reading in the Content Areas Is Taught and Practiced


Silverman, Fran, District Administration


AN OLD SAYING IN EDUCATION GOES, "Students learn to read in elementary school, and read to learn in secondary school." But what if students arrive in middle school without having mastered simple vocabulary, decoding skills and comprehension, and can't read well? What if the lifelong love of reading that teachers hope to instill never takes root?

"The philosophy that if we teach students to read by third grade we don't have to worry anymore is definitely not true," says Melvina Phillips, a consultant for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and author of Creating a Culture of Literacy. "I have students who can read every word on the page and not miss a word, yet can't comprehend and understand the vocabulary," she says "And we quit teaching reading by middle school." Phillips is also concerned about test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that show a resulting drop in literacy rates between fourth- and eigth- graders. And while average reading test scores for fourth-graders were higher in 2005 than in 2003, average scores for eighth-graders decreased over the same period.

Multiple Issues

There are many reasons for the middle school slide in literacy, including the lack of professionals who can identify and diagnose students with reading difficulties. For example, in Indiana, there has been a 90 percent drop in the number of middle school reading specialists over twenty-five years, says Carl Smith, director of the Family Learning Association in Bloomington, and this is typical of what is going on around the nation. Furthermore, most teachers certified for middle schools are not trained to diagnose reading problems or help students with reading deficiencies, Smith adds.

According to Lucy M. Calkins, professor of English education at Columbia University's Teachers College and author of The Art of Teaching Reading, language arts teachers simply do not dedicate enough time for reading. "English is usually in 45-minute periods," she says, "but the data say that students need two hours of reading a day to maintain grade level." Calkins advocates 90-minute language arts periods where students read at least 30 minutes in class, followed by explicit instruction on reading skills such as looking for clues about what will happen next in a story, or making connections between the setting of a novel and how it affects the characters.

However, what is less widely accepted is the fact that teachers in other content areas can assist struggling readers significantly, and can structure activities that will boost student performance in reading content-based material. Reading instruction is a responsibility shared by all teachers, regardless of level or content area, but for many the task may be daunting.

Reading in the Content Areas

Middle school administrators need to take steps to improve reading in the content areas, though for most teachers the pressure to cover material takes precedence over reading skills. Also, teachers in other content areas are generally not familiar with reading strategies and not informed about successful programs. But growing numbers of administrators are working to end the middle school literacy slide by restructuring the school day and providing staff development in literacy to every teacher, from music to physical education. …

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