Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.


All my blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0

Complete PDF of the Teaching Reading in Secondary Schools is also here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AAAIKplGUIX1XqTgEnXBC4L1a/PDFs?dl=0&preview=Teaching+reading+in+secondary+schools.pdf

Teaching reading in secondary schools: Some theoret

ical and

practical issues.

Teaching reading in secondary schools: Some theoret

ical and

practical issues.

What is known about the reading difficulties experienced by a proportion of students entering secondary school (20-30% according to the National Reading Panel, 2000)?

What does it take to make a difference to their literacy at this relatively late stage in their schooling?

Though there is less known about effective reading intervention for older students, the research does provide us with some pointers. For a fuller description of this research, see Older students’ literacy problems (updated 2017)

How far behind might these student be?

The best way to find out is by screening all intake Year 7 students – either in their feeder schools late in their Year 6 or early in Year 7. It is a little more work to catch them late in Year 6, but it allows more time for intervention planning. Ideally, choose a test that has either a decoding or a word reading subtest. There are many such tests available, and obviously choosing an assessment that allows for group testing is more time-efficient.

Can research provide answers? Is there much research on secondary students' reading?

“Although research specific to adolescent literacy is not as extensive as research on beginning reading (Boulay, Goodson, Frye, Blocklin, & Price, 2015; Herrera, Truckenmiller, & Foorman, 2016; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), there is a strong and growing consensus that if what we currently know about literacy instruction for adolescents were more broadly applied in practice, there is “little doubt that levels of adolescent literacy would improve” (p. 1, Torgesen et al., 2007). A recent quantitative synthesis of reading programs for adolescents found 33 studies published between 1970 and 2007 involving 39,000 students (Slavin, Cheung, Groff, & Lake, 2008).” (p. 38-39)  

Fien, H., Anderson, D., Nelson, N.J., Kennedy, P., Baker, S.K., & Stoolmiller, M. (2018). Examining the impact and school-level predictors of impact variability of an 8th grade reading intervention on at-risk students’ reading achievement. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 33(1), 37–50.

Some relevant research

“The struggling readers in this study were multiple grade levels (3–7 years) behind their typically developing peers in reading ability. Results of both group and individual analyses indicate these older struggling readers can be remediated and for some, gains of two, three, four, or more years can be accomplished with only 1 year of instruction.” (p.588)

Calhoon, M. B., & Prescher, Y. (2013). Individual and group sensitivity to remedial reading program design: Examining reading gains across three middle school reading projects. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26, 565-592.

 “Students from the 10th and 90th percentiles differ by grade equivalents equal to their grade (i.e., 6 grade difference at the end of 6th grade)”. (Biemiller, personal communication, August 1, 2002) Professor Andrew Biemiller, Institute of Child Study, University of Toronto.

 What comes after screening?

Having completed a screening, it then remains to decide what resources in terms of teachers, aides etc you can commit, and how many periods you can allocate. You then need to make a cut-off point, usually selecting the most needy students for an intervention. You might expect 20-30% of your intake to be in need of help with literacy.

This approach, of course, ignores the cohort of struggling students already enrolled in your school. This creates the dilemma of how to expend resources – on your current students or future students. This is a difficult value decision. The older the student the more difficult the progress, but they are your students right now – whatever year they are in. However, if you focus on your intake students, you can hope to alter their trajectory through the secondary careers. If this occurs, there is a benefit to administration and teachers through the increased academic competence of this cohort over the ensuing years and the lessened demands on the school’s resources of school failure, disciple issues, and early school leaving.

So, where to start?

The most obvious problem that struggling readers are likely to display in class is in their comprehension of subject texts. However, that does not necessarily imply that comprehension should be the main focus of intervention.

First, these problems did not arise suddenly at entry to secondary school. They could have been identified and attended to at or around primary school entry. However, this hasn’t occurred, and it is often not until around Year 4 that the earlier problems are brought into stark relief. Texts become more complex, both in word structure and in vocabulary in this period, and the students who had previously struggled (but it was hoped, would have had an educational growth spurt by now) are now clearly well below the minimum expected reading levels needed to cope with a secondary curriculum.

Second, the comprehension problem is usually contingent upon an underlying decoding and fluency delay. If only comprehension is addressed, progress will be minimal – because getting the words off the page fluently is a pre-requisite to comprehension.

We need to decide whether our scant resources should emphasise decoding or comprehension

 Some relevant research

“Phonological decoding made a significant unique contribution to reading comprehension for the eighth/ninth-grade group, to spelling for the fourth/fifth- and eighth/ninth-grade groups, and to the decoding rate and accuracy measures for all three groups, with only three exceptions”.

Nagy, W., Berninger, V.W., & Abbott, R.D. (2006). Contributions of morphology beyond phonology to literacy outcomes of upper elementary and middle-school students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 134-147.

“In 90% of cases, the source of reading comprehension problems is poor word recognition skills (Oakhill & Garnham, 1988).”

Stuart, M. (1995). Prediction and qualitative assessment of five and six-year-old children's reading: A longitudinal study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 65, 287-296.

“Research suggests that teaching children to read words quickly and accurately can also increase their reading comprehension (Tan & Nicholson, 1997). The theory behind fast and accurate word reading is that good readers are very good at reading words. They have over-learned this skill through much reading practice. As a result, like skilled musicians and athletes, they have developed automaticity, as a result of many hours of word reading practice. What this means is that they have over-learned word reading skills to the point where they require little or no mental effort. As a result, they are able to put all their mental energies into reading for meaning.”

  1. B. Thompson & T. Nicholson (Eds.) (1998). Learning to read: Beyond phonics and whole language. New York: Teachers College Press.

 “The vast majority of school-age struggling readers experience word-level reading difficulties (Fletcher et al., 2002; Torgesen, 2002). This “bottleneck” at the word level is thought to be particularly disruptive because it not only impacts word identification but also other aspects of reading, including fluency and comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). According to Torgesen (2002), one of the most important discoveries about reading difficulties over the past 20 years is the relationship found between phonological processing and word-level reading. Most students with reading problems, both those who are diagnosed with dyslexia and those who are characterized as “garden variety” poor readers, have phonological processing difficulties that underlie their word reading problems (Stanovich, 1988)” (p.179).

Nelson, J.M., Lindstrom, J.H., Lindstrom, W., & Denis, D. (2012): The structure of phonological processing and its relationship to basic reading. Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal, 20(3), 179-196.


“Without accurate decoding skills, these youngsters’ performance will deteriorate rapidly in the middle elementary grades, when greatly increased demands are made on comprehension and on the ability to recognise a large number of unfamiliar words (Chall, 1983; Mason, 1992)”.

Spear-Swerling, L., & Sternberg, R.J. (1994). The road not taken. An integrative theoretical model of reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27(2), 91-103.


"National longitudinal studies show that approximately 75% of those with reading problems in third grade still experience reading difficulties in the ninth grade (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher 1996; Shaywitz, Holahan, & Shaywitz, 1992). Students who experience reading difficulties in the early grades often suffer what has been called the "Matthew Effects" (Stanovich, 1986), a gap between good and poor readers that widens through the grades. Mikulecky (1990), for example, found that a group of secondary students two or more years behind their peers in reading ability were differentially affected by their tendency to avoid reading. These students read very little during or outside of school. Over the two-year period of the study, their reading comprehension performance actually declined."

Mikulecky, L. J. (1990). Stopping summer learning loss among at-risk youth. Journal of Reading, 33(7), 516-521.


“There is therefore a significant gap in the evidence base from RCT’s [randomised controlled trials] concerning the efficacy of language comprehension intervention. Clarke, Snowling, Truelove, and Hulme (2010) demonstrated using an RCT the effectiveness of an oral language intervention (comprising strategy use, vocabulary, figurative language and spoken narrative) in improving the reading comprehension skills of primary school students. To date such an approach has not been evaluated using an RCT in secondary schools.” (p.125)

Paul, S-A.S., & Clarke, P.J. (2016). A systematic review of reading interventions for secondary school students. International Journal of Educational Research, 79, 116–127.


What does it take to intervene effectively with older students? Intensity is a key element. That is, half-hearted efforts won’t work


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