Meeting the Literacy Needs of Adolescent Readers

Nov 5th, 2019 | Category: Columns, Elementary/Middle School Education, Literacy In the Classroom
By Jenna Nelson

Struggling Adolescent Readers in the Middle Grades

Within the United States (US), the middle-grades level encompasses grades 5-8. As students move from the elementary level into the middle grades, they encounter more complex forms of literature, which require well-developed literacy skills with which to interact with these materials. In these grade levels, classroom instruction moves away from the one-classroom elementary model to subject-specific classrooms (i.e., English Language Arts, social studies, mathematics, and science). 

Starting in fourth grade, students begin regularly interacting with grade-level texts. This shift in school literature becomes further complex as students move into the middle grades. Discipline-specific literature is more complex and requires strong literacy skills for successful interaction with the material as students are now regularly decoding words, analyzing literature for underlying meaning, and engaging with academic language. If student literacy skills are not well-developed, particularly in the areas of reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension, struggling adolescent readers face immense challenges with engaging with the material and interacting with it on a deeper level. When students are unable to understand complex texts, their learning is hindered as they are not able to successfully access the course reading and content or read for understanding (Clemens, Simmons, Simmons, Wang, & Kwok, 2017). 

Additionally, once students are in the middle grades, content-area teachers have traditionally been unprepared to support student literacy development, as it is expected that adolescents ought to have mastery of foundational literacy skills related to vocabulary, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Historically, middle-grades teachers have not viewed the development of these foundational literacy skills as instructional priorities within their content area (Clemens et al., 2017; Meltzer, Smith, & Clark, 2002). Although this is the case, the reality is that these skills are essential to student success in reading and content-area performance. 

Adolescent Literacy Performance

Literacy skills in reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension are fundamental skills that students are believed to have mastered through their learning at the elementary level and reading instruction is not considered as a responsibility of secondary teachers (Clements et al., 2017; Meltzer et al., 2002). This perceived understanding is, unfortunately, incorrect. Rather, many adolescents leave the elementary level without strong foundational skills in these fundamental literacy skills. In the most recent study on reading performance conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2017, NAEP (2017) found that 24% of eighth-graders in the US have not mastered fundamental literacy skills. This study consists of data from both public and private schools across the nation. According to Rasinski (2017), students who score below the basic level experience challenges with:

locating relevant information, making simple inferences, and using their understanding of the text to identify details that support a given interpretation or conclusion. They also experience difficulty in interpreting the meaning of words as they are used in the text. (Rasinski, 2017, p. 519)

Ultimately, students scoring below the basic level have challenges with
reading comprehension.

These literacy struggles are further specified and considered in a study conducted by Clemens, Simmons, Simmons, Wang, and Kwok (2017). In their research on the prevalence of reading fluency and vocabulary difficulties of struggling adolescent readers (grades six through eight) on reading comprehension, they found that 96% of student participants exhibited deficits in reading fluency and/or vocabulary as they, on average, scored below average in their performance on several literacy assessments. These are the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test, Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation, Gray Oral Reading Test, and Passage Reading Fluency. From the results of this study, the researchers found that 20% of the students in their study could be identified as struggling readers. The researchers indicated that 57% of struggling readers possessed combined difficulties in fluency and vocabulary. Additionally, they found that 80% of the struggling readers possessed fluency difficulties, with or without difficulties with vocabulary (Clemens et al., 2017). From these results, the authors posit that “for most struggling adolescent readers, problems in understanding text may be rooted in insufficient knowledge and skills that are needed to read text efficiently and free the cognitive resources to permit higher order processing, connect ideas, infer meaning, and draw conclusions” (Clemens et al., 2017, p. 793). The findings from this research indicate that struggling adolescent readers lack foundational skills in reading fluency and vocabulary, making it challenging for them to comprehend course literature and to fully engage with course material. 

Similarly, Cirino, et al., (2013) conducted a study on reading skill deficits in struggling adolescent readers. They found that reading fluency, vocabulary skills, and reading comprehension are correlated and impact student ability to comprehend literature. In the study, they examined the difficulties that 1,748 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students had in decoding, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Through their study, they found that their participants who had struggles with comprehending also, most predominantly, had difficulties with decoding and fluency (Cirino et al., 2013). 

It is evident that struggling adolescent readers are in need of support in vocabulary, reading fluency, and reading comprehension to be able to successfully engage with the increasingly difficult course content at the middle-grades level. Through focusing on these areas, teachers can support student literacy development and help learners at this level find academic success. The middle grades present an opportunity for students to develop these literacy skills prior to entering high school when discipline-specific reading becomes increasingly complex. 

Content Area Literacy 

As student learning becomes content-specific, the literature that students engage with becomes more complex while they progress through the grade levels. With a disciplinary curriculum, students must develop complex, discipline-specific literacy skills and understandings to engage with the course material (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012; Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Unfortunately, even if adolescent readers know strategic reading strategies, many students struggle with how to employ their knowledge of these strategies to a specific content area. At the same time, content-area teachers are typically not prepared to support struggling readers with the literacy needs in their classrooms (Clemens et al., 2017). 

At the middle-grades level, an understanding of technical literacy skills that are discipline-specific is necessary for learners to develop in order to move away from generalizable literacy skills and strategies and develop discipline-specific literacy competencies (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Therefore, it is important for content-area teachers to foster student literacy. When student literacy is supported, students are able to engage with the material on a deeper level, enhancing their learning through purposeful interaction with the text. The move to deepening student learning in this manner becomes difficult, however, when learners have not mastered the foundational literacy skills of vocabulary, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. 

Interrelated Skills for Improving Student Literacy

To improve the literacy of struggling adolescent readers, teachers should focus their instruction on vocabulary, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Focusing on these essential literacy skills allows for educators to provide their students with the literacy tools that will help them be successful in the classroom. 

Vocabulary Development. Vocabulary knowledge is an essential building block for understanding the English language and comprehending text. Therefore, morphological knowledge must be developed in students in order to develop strong literacy skills. Under vocabulary, morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in the English language. In English, we have root words and affixes that, when combined, form words and express meaning. Student ability to understand the interactions between word parts and their ability to construct meaning from those parts are both essential to strong vocabulary knowledge and student reading comprehension. Vocabulary knowledge is important because reading comprehension can be impaired if students do not know the meaning of a word (Clemens et al., 2017; Goodwin, Petscher, Carlisle, & Mitchell, 2017; Swanson, Vaughn & Wexler, 2017). 

Vocabulary instruction that is focused on developing the morphological knowledge of struggling adolescent readers has been found to be an effective strategy for advancing student literacy. Since struggling readers are likely to have more frustrating experiences in school trying to understand how written words work, “introducing morphology as an organized system that links words even when pronunciation shifts appear irregular […] may motivate struggling students to study words more closely” (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010, p. 171). By studying morphological families of words, struggling adolescent readers will be exposed to advanced, complex vocabulary with the support of the connected words they do know. Through learning the structure and meaning connections of associated words, readers are able to build lexical representations, thus improving their vocabulary (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010; Swanson et al., 2017). 

At the middle-grades level, morphological knowledge is particularly important because students are working with complex, discipline-specific literature, requiring them to have academic language fluency. Academic language encompasses content-area words, or the language of schooling (Goodwin et al., 2017). Academic language is morphologically complex and typically consists of morphological relatives, making it essential for students to possess strong morphological knowledge (Goodwin et al., 2017). For struggling adolescent readers, it is important to focus on the development of academic language as knowledge of content-area words plays a vital role in reading comprehension. Through developing student morphological awareness, struggling adolescent readers will begin to better understand the complex academic language tied to their content-area courses and comprehend the discipline-specific literature of their various subject areas. 

Reading Fluency. Reading fluency is another skill area of focus for improving the literacy of struggling adolescent readers because this skill is the bridge that connects vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. Fluency is not typically viewed as an area for instructional focus in the middle grades because it is perceived that fluency ought to be mastered during elementary years of schooling (Rasinski, Rikli, & Johnston, 2009). Fluent reading and word identification skills are part of reading comprehension and allow for students to engage with the material more deeply (Clemens et al., 2017). 

When developing reading fluency, educators should focus on automaticity and prosody. Automaticity is the rapid, effortless word recognition that develops through reading practice. Students’ ability to automatically recognize and read a word is important because it allows them to focus on higher-order comprehension processes. Prosody is a fluent reader’s ability to use pitch, stress, intonation, and timing to communicate meaning while they are reading. Prosody and reading comprehension are related because when reading fluency is weak, reading comprehension lags as prosody links reading fluency to comprehension (Rasinski, 2012). 

Developing student reading fluency is important because it allows for students to read a text accurately and automatically with proper expression and emphasis. By improving student automaticity and prosody, struggling readers will be able to “comprehend a text at a more sophisticated level than only the text itself offers” (Rasinski, 2012, p. 519). As previously noted, fluency is the bridge between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. It is necessary that adolescent learners develop strong reading-fluency skills to help them better understand and interact with discipline-specific content at the middle-grades level. 

Reading Comprehension. Reading comprehension is a third skill that educators should focus on when developing the literacy of struggling adolescent readers. This skill allows students to navigate and understand the various texts they encounter, not only within their content-area coursework, but also throughout their lifetime. Reading comprehension is associated with readers’ prior knowledge of the content, semantic knowledge, and the ability to pick out essential information, organize it, make inferences, and predict the consequence (Seok & DaCosta, 2014). At the secondary level, literacy demands become more complex, therefore student ability to comprehend the literature that they read requires sophisticated literacy skills (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). 

Vocabulary and reading fluency are two reading competencies that impact student reading comprehension (Rasinski, 2017; Duke, Pearson, Strachan, Billman, 2011; Clemens et al., 2017). Skilled adolescent readers are able to process the content they are reading through their ability to recognize words and read them fluently. These learners are also able to better apply critical thinking skills to construct meaning from the literature they are reading (Duke et al., 2011). Duke et al. also note that skilled readers have “greater stores of knowledge, including language knowledge (e.g., vocabulary, or complex syntax, or grammar), textual knowledge (e.g., of text structures and textual devices), and word knowledge (e.g., disciplinary, interpersonal)” (p. 55). Through this knowledge, these readers are able to more easily engage with the literature on a deeper level. When students are not struggling to comprehend a text, they also become more motivated and engaged with the material as they are able to read more actively, helping learners better develop their knowledge and skills. 


It is evident that vocabulary development, reading fluency, and reading comprehension are correlated and influence student ability to engage with course materials at the middle-grades level. Through developing student skills in these three areas, educators will help students navigate and understand the various texts they encounter—both in school and in the greater society. As seen on the NAEP (2017) reading performance results for eighth-grade learners, a significant population of learners in the US continue to struggle with literacy. Through actively working to develop their vocabulary, reading fluency, and reading comprehension, struggling adolescent readers can become well-equipped to engage with the discipline-specific content of their middle-grades and secondary coursework, ultimately helping these students thrive academically. LEJ


Bowers, P.N., Kirby, J.R., Deacon, S.H. (2010). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80, 144-179. 

Cirino, P.T., Romain, M.A., Barth, A.E., Tolar, T.D., Fletcher, J.M., & Vaughn, S. (2013). Reading skill components and impairments in middle school struggling readers. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26(7), 1059-1086. 

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Rasinski, T., Rikli, A., & Johnson, S. (2009). Reading fluency: More than automaticity? More than a concern for the primary grades? Literacy Research and Instruction, 48(4), 350-361. 

Seok, S. & DaCosta, B. (2014). Oral reading fluency as a predictor of silent reading fluency at secondary and postsecondary levels. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 58(2), 157-166.

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Shanahan, T. & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40-59. 

Swanson, E., Vaughn, S., & Wexler, J. (2017). Enhancing adolescents’ comprehension of text by building vocabulary knowledge. Teaching Exceptional Children, 50(2), 84-94. 

Jenna Nelson, Ed.D, is an assistant professor of Curriculum & Instruction and Curriculum & Instruction Program Leader at Concordia University Chicago (CUC). Her research interests include gifted and talented education, secondary English education, literacy, and teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners