Noteworthy Voices 2-MIN. READ

Supporting Older Readers

By: Kandra James 01/24/2023

Learn how to teach your older, struggling readers to become more confident, successful readers.

Student reading at desk.

The long-term effects of early literacy can be staggering. According to American Public Media’s  Hard Words: Why Aren’t Our Kids Being Taught to Read?,  research shows that “children who don't learn to read by the end of third grade are likely to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives, and they're likely to fall behind in other academic areas as well. Students who need support with reading are more likely to drop out of high school, end up in the criminal justice system, and live in poverty.”

Now—more than ever—our students need additional support in foundational skills such as phonics to rapidly build the skills they need to decode and encode, spell with confidence, and become fluent, independent readers and writers.

How Do You Reach an Older, Struggling Reader?

When students in the upper elementary, middle, and high school grades need support in subjects like history or earth science, it’s often because they are encountering complex, multisyllabic, and often domain-specific words. As educators, we can support students by dissecting these words and encouraging them to use their decoding skills.

One of the challenges of reading intervention for older students is teaching concepts from the Grades K–2 levels to students who are now 11, 12, and 13 years old without infantilizing them. It’s important to take the same foundational skills content taught in those earlier grades and adapt how you deliver the instruction—both in scope and sequence—to engage and accelerate learning for your older students.

A “short a” vowel decoding lesson, for example, would feature cat, mat, sat words for earlier grades. But that same lesson would—and should—look different for a 12-year-old. A lesson for an older student should teach short a decoding strategies using words with a higher complexity in meaning and usage, such as ad, wax, satin, valid, and axis. Also, the lesson should be taught at a faster pace with type size, illustrations, and a visual design appealing to older students.

Addressing Decoding Skills Gaps

Lori McLaughlin, literacy coach at Pembroke Lakes Elementary in Pembroke Pines, FL, has been an educator for 29 years. She uses fast-paced, intensive lessons and extensive practice that address decoding skills gaps. “I can get a lesson done in a 30-minute period—it’s easier to target students in one session, and you’re hitting on more skills in a timely manner. If I am working on the ar sound and I complete the lesson within that time frame, I can move on to additional practice with ar or add continuing, different skills.”

Another helpful decoding strategy for older students is to focus on teaching them to become more morphologically aware, meaning segmenting words into affixes (i.e., prefixes and suffixes) and roots, or base words, and the origins of words and word part meanings. Studying the meanings of word parts within words helps students decode and unpack meaning as they are doing so. Helping a student become morphologically aware increases their word power exponentially, because 60 percent of vocabulary acquired by school-aged children is morphologically based.

Educational and linguistic research has shown a significant increase in the number of complex word forms in academic texts between Grades 3–8 that are morphologically based. The benefit of being morphologically aware is twofold for students. It assists with acquiring missing decoding skills and improves their vocabulary development and word attack skills within complex, grade-level, content-specific text.

Consistency Begets Success

Lessons that use a systematic sequence of instruction provide a consistent routine that allows students to apply each concept in increasingly challenging situations to build accuracy, automaticity, and fluency. This approach will help your students progress quickly through phonics intervention lessons while engaging with grade-level, complex text. It also keeps them motivated and feeling successful, which ultimately impacts all their subjects.

The bottom line is that it’s not too late to teach fundamental reading skills to your older students. Providing age-appropriate content and scaffolded support can empower your students with the fundamental tools they need to become successful and confident readers.

Listen to our Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast—Oral Fluency—for more tips on teaching reading.