Why is Teaching Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers So Complex?

Why is Teaching Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers So Complex?

Students of all ages who have difficulty with reading know how deeply their reading and writing difficulties can affect the entire school day. For example, students may begin to struggle in other content areas if they cannot read the information in their textbooks. In the same way, students and educators alike are keenly aware of how quickly a lack of reading proficiency in one grade can lead to increasing issues as the student moves up through their school career. As students progress from the elementary grades to middle and high school, educators build on the literacy skills taught by their predecessors.

So, where does that leave middle and high school students who are not proficient readers? Students with non-proficient reading skills may have begun having difficulties at any point over the course of six to 12 years of schooling. Perhaps a student was an excellent reader until middle school, when assignments started to require higher-level thinking for the consideration of arguments and opinions expressed in a text. Or perhaps a student has always had difficulty decoding new words, but could coast by using context clues and illustrated passages in earlier grades. With each additional grade, new skills are built on this cracked literacy foundation, and students with reading difficulties fall further and further behind.

Because these factors are not always easy to identify for either the educator or the student, teaching non-proficient adolescent readers becomes incredibly difficult and complex. As students progress from grade to grade, educators must identify needs from a massive combination of skill sets, spanning everything from basic reading fundamentals to higher-order comprehension skills.

Since the needs of non-proficient secondary students vary widely, educators are faced with unique challenges. When non-proficient adolescent readers continually experience failure and frustration, they often develop feelings of hopelessness and lose faith in their ability to succeed. This may result in the development of maladaptive habits such as reliance on guessing, fake reading, or just avoiding literacy assignments altogether.

Students with reading difficulties also present other challenges for their teachers. Not only must secondary teachers support student reading achievement, they must also ensure that students gain relevant content knowledge despite their reading difficulties—and secondary teachers report that they are rarely prepared to teach students who struggle with reading, particularly in the content areas (Kamil et al., 2008; Ness, 2009; Snow, 2002). When teachers do learn strategies to teach non-proficient readers, they rarely receive ongoing support, and the strategies are often not implemented with fidelity (James-Burdumy et al., 2009). As students age, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to catch up and prepare for college and their careers.

Fortunately, there are several strategies for middle and high school teachers to help address the needs of non-proficient adolescent readers. Although literacy skills are fundamental, it isn’t necessary to go back to square one and reteach literacy from the beginning. Instead, educators can help students identify problem areas, support their development, and build a stronger and more complex understanding of literacy. Secondary educators can use adaptive assessment, personalized learning, motivational strategies, and teacher resources to help close the gaps.


Adaptive assessment 

Since secondary students have already been exposed to years of literacy instruction, educators need adaptive assessment to precisely and efficiently pinpoint each student’s exact skill level. It is not enough to simply recognize that students are having difficulties. Instead, educators must uncover specific skill gaps and follow through with targeted instruction to ensure their progress.

  • Identifying student needs is the first step to guiding appropriate instruction. For example, an adolescent student who has difficulty learning content vocabulary may need to directly study prefixes, suffixes, and root words to decode meaning. Literacy assessments can help educators determine where students are having trouble.

  • Continual assessments allow educators to see where students have progressed—and where they continue to struggle. Rather than relying on semester-end tests for content knowledge, educators can continually assess language skills and fine-tune their instruction to meet student needs.

Personalized learning

Personalized learning is critical due to the complexity of instructional demands for secondary students. As students move through the upper grades, text complexity and the amount of reading required in their classes continues to increase. Additionally, middle and high school students take content-specific classes such as history, science, or math, all of which include their own vocabulary and reading requirements. The fact that many secondary teachers are prepared to teach a specific content area as opposed to reading can present a major challenge. All educators can personalize learning for their students by considering the following:

  • When choosing supplemental readings, select texts with varying levels of complexity. “Non-proficient” is a broad label that may apply to a range of reading proficiencies, from non-reader to just below grade level.

  • Consider other learning needs that may be impacting a student’s literacy skills. English language learners, special education students, gifted learners, and other students present unique learning needs that require specific adjustments to the curriculum.

  • Offer alternatives to assignments that may test a student’s literacy skills more than their content knowledge, such as independently reading from textbooks or writing essay responses. Perhaps students could do readings from the text in small groups of their peers, or work together to produce a skit about the content. Provide opportunities for students to interact with the material in a variety of ways that support their needs and use their strengths.

Motivational strategies

Adolescent readers may have begun to fall behind their peers at any point—whether this was six months ago or six years ago. Motivating students to continue building their literacy skills is a difficult task, especially if they have been struggling for a long time. While students may need different reading material or supplementary resources as they catch up, educators can motivate these adolescents by paying attention to their need for engagement, competence, and autonomy.

  • Provide material that meets students at their current skill level. Keep in mind that even if a teenager is working on elementary-level skills, the content should be relevant to their age and interests.

  • Ensure students understand the purpose of an assignment and what is expected. This helps satisfy an adolescent’s need for competence and ability to complete the assignment successfully.

  • Whenever possible, allow students to choose between several projects, topics, or work spaces. Involving students with choice helps adolescents express their autonomy.

Teacher resources

All educators are familiar with their queue of teacher resources: those age-appropriate, high-interest, relevant student materials they will use to engage the class. However, “teacher resources” also refer to the materials that educators use to shape their instruction. An eighth-grade teacher may have 20 students whose skill sets range from second grade to eighth grade. It’s no wonder that secondary educators are looking for materials to provide personalized assessments, differentiate instruction, and motivate their classes. Educators of all content areas can benefit from the following:

  • Curriculum guides and supplementary materials that help educators break down instruction to meet a variety of needs. For example, teacher manuals could be written in a way that breaks instruction into smaller chunks and provides repetition, lots of practice, visuals, and a multimedia approach.

  • Information on how to leverage what motivates adolescents in instruction. For example, peers can time each other as they read sight words or choose from a range of materials and activities.  

Although non-proficient adolescent readers have complex needs, middle and high school educators can still help build these students’ literacy skills. Through the use of adaptive assessments, personalized learning, motivational strategies, and teacher resources, educators can identify specific needs and aid their secondary students. It’s important for educators to approach non-proficient reading in their secondary students using a wide range of strategies, as many different factors impact students’ literacy skills. Since middle and high school students have already received years of literacy instruction, it can be difficult to determine where and how they began to fall behind. However, with dedication and support, secondary educators can fill gaps in understanding and continue to build the literacy skills of their non-proficient adolescent readers.

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