Research School Network: Supporting Struggling Readers at Secondary School

Supporting Struggling Readers at Secondary School

by Durrington Research School
on the

We have been lucky enough to add a few new books to the Durrington Research School library this term, one of which is James and Dianne Murphy’s Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teachers Needs to Know about Reading. In this book, the authors cite research carried out in the US and published in Effective Instruction for Adolescent Struggling Readers. This paper provides some interesting research evidence and ideas for practice, which may or may not suit your context. However, there is plenty of food for thought to support the complex decision making required when it comes to supporting struggling readers in secondary school.

The Issues

Even in the modern multi-media world, most of the content information that secondary students need to learn is accessed via print-based texts. Consequently, for students to succeed in their school learning and beyond they must be able to read. However, whilst there is a wealth of research-evidence and intervention guidance available for struggling younger readers, the scope for struggling older readers is much more limited. In addition, the reading interventions that are in use often omit crucial aspects of the reading process or fail to be diagnostic enough to pinpoint the exact reading aspect with which individual students require support.

The Research Evidence and Ideas for Practice

The authors of Effective Instruction for Adolescent Struggling Readers isolate five instructional recommendations for older readers’:

word study;
comprehension; and

The difference between this list of instructional approaches for older readers compared to younger readers is the replacement of phonemic awareness and phonics with word study and motivation. Although the approaches are individualised, there is a great deal of interdependency and crossover between all five strands.

Word Study

Word study incorporates instructional practices that support students with decoding words, which means recognising speech sounds in words and knowing what words these sounds make. Word study is therefore a reading skill that also contributes to reading comprehension. Likewise, effective decoding ability at word level is necessary for reading fluency. However, it is important to differentiate between slow decoding and inaccurate decoding. Whilst the latter issue could resolved with word study intervention, the former issue would be more likely to be resolved with a focus on one of the other strands as is appropriate.

Instructional reading activity at word level is often put in place for younger students, but it may well be appropriate for older struggling readers, as the choice of instructional method depends on the student’s individual reading need rather than their chronological age.

Practical Strategies for Word Study

  1. Show students how to break words down into syllables and then blend together for multisyllabic words.
  2. Teach students the meanings of common prefixes, suffixes, inflectional endings, and roots. Show students how to break words down into these meaningful parts and then blend together for the sound.


Good readers are fluent readers. They decode words accurately and quickly by sight. These readers can therefore dedicate their cognitive effort on comprehension of meaning. Reading fluency does not cause comprehension, but it is a necessary component. Readers who struggle with fluency read slowly and laboriously; decode accurately but slowly; do not use punctuation to pause; and lack expression when reading.

Fluency interventions fall into one of two categories: repeated oral reading and non-repetitive wide reading. Repeated oral reading involves reading the same passage many times, and can help automate the words in the passage. Alternatively, non-repetitive wide reading involves reading passages from an array of texts but all of which contain readable’ words for the individual student. This has the advantage of exposing the student to different text types and content, which may be especially useful at secondary school.

Practical Strategies to Increase Reading Fluency

  1. Model fluent reading of the selected passages either through the teacher or a capable peer.
  2. Provide feedback on the modelling, for example how punctuation was used.
  3. Provide frequent opportunities for the struggling reader to practice fluent oral reading and give feedback.
  4. When choosing passages to practise for fluency, teach any new vocabulary beforehand or make sure the student already knows the words.
  5. In non-repetitive wide reading, the student should practise with successive passages, for example from the same novel or text book.


Vocabulary is related to reading comprehension. It is not just about vocabulary knowledge but word consciousness, too. Word consciousness means having a firm grasp of a word at multiple levels, and therefore understanding the word’s subtlety, nuance and playfulness in different contexts.

Dale’s (1965) continuum is a useful benchmark for word consciousness:

1. I’ve never heard of this word.
2. I’ve heard of the word, but I’m not really sure what it means.
3. I can recognise the word in context.
4. I know the word well, including its various forms, definitions and uses.

When deciding which words to teach secondary students, the research evidence suggests that a focus on those which students will encounter most frequently in the texts that they will read is a beneficial approach.

Practical Strategies for Vocabulary Instruction

Take a look at Durrington Research School’s previous blogs on explicit vocabulary instruction here.

Comprehension means gaining meaning and understanding of the information and ideas from a text. As the need to gain meaning from a text increases through school, so does the need for comprehension as well. Teachers of all subjects often ask students to comprehend from a text, but fail to explicitly teach strategies for how to do this.

Successful readers know when they do not comprehend a part of a text and can use strategies to fix this issue. Struggling readers are often unable to recognise that they have not understood a part of the text, and if they do they often lack strategies to fix the problem.

Practical Strategies for Comprehension

  1. Activate prior knowledge so that students can connect what they read to what they already know. Ways to activate prior knowledge include looking at headings, key topics and concepts before reading, or making a prediction and confirmation chart.
  2. Use graphic organisers (visual representations) to help students identify, organise and remember important information from what they read. Examples of graphic organisers include Venn diagrams, story maps and framed outlines.
  3. Teach comprehension monitoring strategies, such as questioning (see below) so that students can keep track of what they do and do not understand as they read. Strategies to fix areas that are difficult to understand include the methods from the area of word study.
  4. Teach summarisation skills, for example choosing one word to replace multiple related words from the text, so that students can identify the most important parts of what they read. This will help to focus their reading.
  5. Teach students to ask and answer questions before, during and after reading. These can be questions that come from the teacher as well as questions that the students generate themselves. The answers could be explicitly found in the text or may need to be inferred.


Students who are motivated and engaged with reading increase their use of the strategies, and therefore become more proficient readers. However, adolescent struggling readers lack motivation to read and so do not practise the reading strategies. These students therefore have limited access to content information, world knowledge and vocabulary that would improve their reading ability.

Practical Strategies for Motivation

  1. Provide content goals for reading, or in other words a question or purpose for reading. This will make it clear why a student needs to read a text and will increase their interest in what they are reading about. For example, if reading a text about whales a content goal could be to find out how many species of whale exist.
  2. Support student autonomy by allowing them to choose what to read where possible. Control this to some extent by offering a list of prescribed texts.
  3. Use texts that link to students’ own interests. In secondary schools, where learning about new things is a common goal, this can mean ensuring that students have background knowledge before they start a text so that the unfamiliarity is not a deterrent.
  4. Increase opportunities for collaborative reading where students can read together, and share and discuss the information.

In 2018 – 2019, Andy Tharby and I will be running a three day programme aimed at anybody with a literacy responsibility including secondary literacy leaders, subject leaders and classroom teachers. The training will explore approaches to reading, writing and vocabulary development through the lens of robust research evidence. There will be a particular focus on methods to use with secondary students who currently struggle to access the literacy demands of the key stage three and four curriculum.

The training will include practical and time efficient strategies that can be taken away and immediately applied in your setting.

Fran Haynes

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