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Unlocking the Power of Reading Interventions for Middle School

By: Christine Zimmermann 01/23/2024

Learn how to implement middle school reading intervention programs to help students become strong and motivated readers.


A young student reading at a desk.

If you're an educator grappling with helping your striving middle school students grasp on-grade level texts, you’re not alone. In fact, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)1 reports that 30 percent of Grade 8 students in the US score below a basic reading level, while a sobering 69 percent score below grade-level proficiency.

This has a ripple effect that you witness every day. Students with reading difficulties encounter challenges across all academic areas, as the middle school curriculum leans heavily on independent reading skills. The risk of these students falling further behind is real.

But here's the silver lining—this is a problem that can be solved with middle school reading intervention strategies.

The Science of Reading for Middle School Students

The Science of Reading is based on years of empirical research that breaks down how learners become proficient readers. The science is sparking change in the way that reading is taught to young learners at the elementary level, and these tenets are equally important at the middle school level to pave the way for meaningful reading interventions for striving readers. 

What Makes a Skilled Reader?

Skilled reading requires proficient word-recognition skills and language-comprehension skills. Digital and oral assessment tools can help identify the areas in which each of your students needs support to put them on a path to proficiency. 

Word-recognition skills are foundational to decoding the words on the page. If your students cannot yet decode, you’ll need to address these gaps first. If a student decodes well, they may only need instruction in language comprehension, which will enable them to make meaning out of the content they read. Literacy expert Dr. D. Ray Reutzel said, “As important as reading foundational skills are, they cannot produce proficient readers on their own. Students also need instruction to help them build their background knowledge, language comprehension, expand their vocabulary, and deploy comprehension strategies strategically to become proficient readers.” 

Middle School Reading Intervention That Works

No matter what kind of support your striving readers at the middle school level require, three things are true:  

  • They are below-grade level readersnot below-grade level thinkers. 
  • Reading has been frustrating for them in the past. 
  • With the right instruction, they can become stronger readers. 

To best support them, focus on interventions in critical content that are developmentally respectful. Middle school reading intervention should focus on building intrinsic motivation so students are more engaged in their learning. When possible, let your students choose what they read. Select material with visual elements that honor students’ maturity and texts that are rigorous but within reach, and provide scaffolding as needed. As always, be sure students understand the “why” behind their assignments. They will be more engaged and satisfied with their reading experiences when content feels relevant, developmentally appropriate, and offers them the right level of challenge.

Teach Critical Content for Word Recognition

If your middle school students cannot yet decode, you’ll need to address gaps in word recognition first. Some key areas where you can focus interventions include: 

1. Teaching Multisyllabic Words

These students are at risk of falling further behind across academic areas. They need to quickly gain access to complex grade-level content. By focusing on strategies that teach the architecture of words, such as morphology, these students can learn to decode more words at a faster rate.2

2. Building Fluency

Fluency allows readers to shift their focus from sounding out words to making sense of content.3 While students are building decoding skills, fluency practice should leverage decodable texts that use the letter sounds and combinations that students have been taught. 

Teach Critical Content for Comprehension

Students must also build proficient language-comprehension skills to become fluent and independent readers. To give your students the best chance at success, focus your reading interventions on three areas:

1. Building Knowledge

Once students have mastered decoding, their growth relies heavily on background information. When they build on what they know, they’re better able to make meaning from the text and increase their access to future content.4 Spend time up front providing brief background context, and use nonfiction to increase knowledge and scaffold learning across subject areas. 

2. Expanding Vocabulary

Middle school content becomes increasingly sophisticated, and academic vocabulary can be especially challenging. Define conceptually critical words before reading, and pause intermittently to explain the meaning of other essential words.5 Provide strategies for attacking unfamiliar words, and model how to use context clues.

3. Determining the Main Idea

This can both demonstrate and reinforce comprehension by encouraging students to identify and synthesize the most important ideas in a passage. Model using a routine to determine the main idea. Offer consistent steps so students can focus on comprehension and gradually release responsibility.6

By pinpointing your students’ reading skills gaps and focusing on the critical content, they will make gains and you will see them blossom before your eyes. 

Want to learn more about supporting your students’ literacy growth? Sign up for the i-Ready literacy newsletter, watch this video, download this whitepaper by Reutzel, or check out Dr. Devin Kearns's session of our Science of Reading webinar series that focuses on older striving readers.

To hear more from Christine Zimmermann about reading intervention, listen to this episode of the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.


1NAEP. (2022). NAEP Report Card: 2022 NAEP Reading Assessment. The Nation's Report Card. https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/highlights/reading/2022/

2Institute of Education Sciences, What Works Clearinghouse™. (2022). Providing reading interventions for students in grades 4–9: Educator's practice guide. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/Docs/PracticeGuide/WWC-practice-guide-reading-intervention-full-text.pdf
3Ibid
4Ibid
5Ibid
6Ibid