Supporting Struggling Readers’ Comprehension Across the Curriculum

Yuko Iwai, Department of Educational Studies, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, yiwai @

As we know, literacy is considered an essential tool leading students toward academic success, and without a solid foundation with strong teacher support, they struggle with understanding content in all subjects. According to McFarland et al. (2019), in 2017:

  • 32% of the nation’s fourth grade students scored below basic levels of reading proficiency, and 31% scored at basic levels of reading proficiency
  • 24% of the nation’s eighth grade students scored below basic levels of reading proficiency, and 40% scored at basic levels of reading proficiency
  • 28% of the nation’s twelfth grade students scored below basic levels of reading proficiency, and 35% scored at basic levels of reading proficiency

We also know that teachers must understand their students’ backgrounds, personalities, reading levels, interests, and learning styles in order to recognize struggling readers, plan for appropriate interventions, and provide best practices. Struggling readers display various characteristics. For example, they typically experience difficulties in phonemic awareness and phonics skills and rely on a very limited vocabulary, which prevents full comprehension, thus they experience low motivation to learn. Others are often English learners (ELs) who need other types of interventions and support mechanisms.

While meaning-focused lessons improve struggling readers’ comprehension, teachers frequently implement skill-based lessons and passive learning methods such as worksheets and lecture, especially given the reality of high-stakes testing (Bolinger and Warren, 2007; Knapp, 1995). Many also lack confidence to teach struggling readers and seek more resources to gain knowledge and skills to support these learners (Vanden Boogart, 2016). Therefore, I offer four specific strategies and resources that classroom teachers can immediately apply to support struggling readers’ learning across the curriculum: (a) Hot Seat, (b) Ten Important Words, (c) 3D Responses, and (d) Semantic Feature Analysis (SFA). I used these strategies in my literacy methods class so my teacher candidates could learn the procedures and how to apply them across different subject areas. A range of my teacher candidates’ licensure tracks included early childhood, elementary education, and middle level education.

Hot Seat. A strategy asking students to role-play characters and be interviewed by the rest of the class.

  1. Direct all students to read the same story and learn about the characters.
  2. Select a student to play a main character and prepare opening remarks including key information and events from the story.
  3. Direct the student to sit in a “hot seat” and introduce the character to the class. (e.g., “Hello! My name is Rosa Parks. I am the first person who did not give up my bus seat in Montgomery.”)
  4. Invite classmates to interact with the character and ask questions. The student responds by impersonating the character.
  5. Select a different student to summarize the main ideas from the interactions.

Tips and Application. This strategy is very interactive. Teachers can select multiple students and direct them to role-play different characters. This modification will enrich interactions and deepen students’ understandings of the story. Teachers can use biographies in order to examine history (e.g., characters from the Union and Confederacy during a Civil War unit) and can create costumes to make this strategy more interactive and authentic. Some students may not be able to come up with questions on their own during this activity, so providing suggested prompts may be helpful.

Benefits for Struggling Readers. A hot seat is a very useful strategy for struggling readers because it puts them into a situation requiring them to think about what characters from the story feel and sound like. Instead of answering reading comprehension questions on paper, this strategy empowers them to understand the story in a meaningful way.

Ten Important Words. Students select ten key words from a story or reading passage, discuss their thoughts and comments in groups or with the class, and create a summarizing statement.

  1. While reading a passage, direct students to independently select and record the ten most important words.
  2. Ask them to share their lists with their group or the class.
  3. Assign them to write a one-sentence summary of the passage/reading selection and encourage them to use as many of their selected important words as possible.

Tips and Application. Teachers can use this strategy to empower students to summarize main events in a story, such as Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez. In social studies and science, teachers can use this strategy to investigate specific information such as historical events or science concepts, such as Nicola Davies’ Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes. Informational books typically contain complex words (Hiebert & Cervetti, 2012), and struggling readers find it difficult to read informational books. Focusing on key words helps students comprehend reading passages (Liebfreund, 2015). Some students may also struggle to write a one-sentence summary of the reading selection. To solve this problem, incorporate small group work instead of individual work; in small groups, struggling readers and writers experience reduced anxiety, feel supported by their peers, and work collaboratively to craft a sentence. Another suggestion is to use this strategy for a section from a passage rather than from a whole text.

Benefits for Struggling Readers. Ten Important Words supports struggling readers as it gives them a focus or task while reading. There are no right or wrong answers regarding which ten words they select, but they must share why these ten words are important to them. Hearing peers’ explanations and learning about different perspectives help struggling readers develop their reading comprehension.

3-D Responses. Students create three-dimensional objects to describe their understandings of a story or a text.

  1. Direct students to read a story or biography.
  2. Invite them to choose an idea, feeling, event, or character from the story.
  3. Ask each to create a three-dimensional object from pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, aluminum foil, or any other material and share it with groups or the entire class.

Tips and Application. 3-D responses incorporate multi-sensory activities, and struggling readers and ELs learn better when they participate in visual, hands-on activities. Students select what to express after reading a passage, which increases self-autonomy. Even when several students read the same story or the same biography, each one will create and share a different sculpture. By sharing their works, they learn different perspectives and interpretations, which increases their reading comprehension. Teachers can use this strategy in different subjects including English Language Arts, science, and social studies.

Benefits for Struggling Readers. Struggling readers benefit from 3-D responses because this is a multimodal, hands-on activity. When I used this strategy in my literacy methods class, my teacher candidates introduced diverse perspectives based on the same story in a very meaningful interaction. Struggling readers, especially those who may not be able to express their thoughts and understandings in writing, can express them visually using this strategy.

Semantic Feature Analysis (SFA). This graphic organizer focuses on vocabulary and helps students understand how selected vocabulary on a topic relates to key features or characteristics of the text (Pittleman, Heimlich, Berglund, & French, 1991).

  1. Select a general topic or concept from a reading (e.g., mammals, fruits, types of dinosaurs, polygons).
  2. Make a list of typical elements related to the topic (e.g., square, rectangle, triangle, trapezoid for “polygon”).
  3. List features or characteristics that some of the elements might have (e.g., three-sided, four-sided, convex, equilateral).
  4. Encourage students to place a “+” in a grid in which a given element has that feature, a “-” where it doesn’t, or a question mark if they cannot determine a relationship.

Tips & Application. A semantic feature analysis is easy to implement. Teachers must carefully select a topic with sufficient and appropriate features or characteristics. Student and teachers can use it across different subjects including English Language Arts (e.g., characters from literature), science (e.g., types of clouds), and social studies (e.g., comparing and contrasting political leaders or the 13 colonies). To use this strategy effectively, teachers must carefully select a reading passage because some concepts and vocabulary words may contain ambiguous answers.

Benefits for Struggling Readers. A semantic feature analysis helps struggling readers visually “see” connections among related vocabulary words. Often, struggling readers experience difficulty identifying key words, so seeing key vocabulary words and their relationships provides them with context and background knowledge of the topic and story/text.

How can teachers use innovative literacy strategies to support struggling readers? They are strongly encouraged to use technology and high quality children’s books effectively across the curriculum. The following include helpful, suggested resources.

Apps and Software. Utilizing technology resources improves struggling readers’ comprehension and increases motivation (Conn, Sujo-Montes, & Sealander, 2019). These resources provide different modalities, enhance ways to connect and interact with text, supply options to work at their own pace, and activate their prior knowledge by exploring images and information related to the topic and text they read.

  1. Nearpod is a useful online platform that provides teachers with lessons on different subjects such as English Language Arts (ELA), science, math, and social studies. Teachers can modify pre-made presentations to accommodate their own students’ needs. Students can work on tasks on their individual screens and create their own presentations.
  2. Wonderopolis offers teachers a number of reading resources on ELA, science, math, social studies, technology, and arts and culture. A reading passage is read aloud, and students follow along as it highlights the words. Included are key vocabulary words and their definitions as well as vocabulary and comprehension quizzes.
  3. Popplet is an online mind-mapping tool similar to semantic maps on physical paper. It gives students a way to visualize their understandings by creating webbed outlines of content and by brainstorming or mapping their ideas and knowledge components for papers and presentations.
  4. Sock Puppet is an interactive online tool. Students work with their peers to create a puppet show to demonstrate their understandings of a lesson or to create a quick summary from a selection of a reading passage.
  5. Vocaroo is a tool for students to record their voices on a selection of reading passages, to record their own summaries of reading passages, or to create other voice recordings for their own digital products.
  6. StoryKit is a tool to create electronic storybooks. This tool includes functions to draw on a screen, attach photos, and add sound effects.

Trade Books. Teachers must carefully select trade books appropriate for all students. Richeson (2019) used trade books for her fifth graders’ social studies project on Abraham Lincoln, and they examined and engaged in critical text analysis and more complex writing. Frye (2009) used trade books in her social studies lessons and found that struggling readers increased their comprehension. The resources presented in this section have received endorsements by experts.

  1. Literacy. The International Literacy Association provides lists of children’s books on Children’s Choice, Teachers’ Choice, and Young Adults’ Choice by the International Literacy Association (ILA) and Children’s Book Council (CBC). Children’s Choice includes recommended book titles that children themselves evaluated and classified into three groups: beginning readers (Grades K-2), young readers (Grades 3-4), and advanced readers (Grades 5-6). Teacher’s Choice includes a list of children’s books for the same three groupings classified by teachers. Young Adults’ Choice provides a list of adolescent children’s books reviewed by adolescents.
  2. Math. The California Department of Education provides an option to search for mathematics at targeted grade levels. The search will result in a list of recommended books as well their annotations.
  3. Science. The National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) provides a list of high quality science trade books, all of which were evaluated and selected by the NSTA collaborating with the Children’s Book Council (CBC). It also provides a list of Best STEM Books for K-12.
  4. Social Studies. A search on the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) website will provide a list of trade books published since 2000, carefully selected by a Book Review Committee organized by the NCSS with the collaboration of the CBC.

Five Tips for Teachers

  1. Provide a safe learning environment. Struggling readers experience many anxieties and low motivation due to difficulties in learning. Create a warm, welcoming, and safe classroom community. Teachers need to show all children they care about them. Set and explain norms in the beginning of a school year so students know their teacher’s teaching philosophy, guidelines, and routines. Assure students that it is acceptible to make mistakes while engaged in learning. Respect all students, get to know them well, and learn about their interests. All of these actions will equip teachers to select reading appropriate passages and texts that challenge students in developmentally appropriate ways.
  2. Offer one-on-one or small group instruction as often as possible. This type of instruction empowers teachers to adjust the instructional pace appropriate for struggling readers and can contribute to reducing the number of struggling readers (Simmons, Kameénui, Stoolmiller, Coyne, Harn, 2003). Small group instruction also provides students with increased opportunities to interact with their teachers and peers and to work successfully on tasks.
  3. Use multisensory activities. Struggling readers including ELs learn when they read and interact using multimode activities. As shared in this article, increase opportunities for students to do craft work (e.g., 3D response strategy) and use visual aids and auditory support to remember both content and key vocabulary. In general, struggling readers do not fare successfully with traditional worksheets and quizzes.
  4. Provide enough time and remain patient. Struggling readers need longer processing time than other students. In particular, beginning and intermediate ELs need extra time to process information as they read. They often think in and rely on their native language to transfer information into English or vice versa. Teachers might feel some ELs are not responding to their questions because they are quiet for a while before answering. However, the teachers need to keep in mind that ELs process with at least two languages, especially in the beginning stage of their English learning. Waiting enables them to process and use their native language and knowledge before translating to and responding in English.
  5. Offer a variety of strategies. After a thorough meta-analysis of studies on reading comprehension, the National Reading Panel (2000) concluded that students remember what they studied and improve their comprehension when teachers use a variety of strategies. Teachers must use different strategies appropriate for struggling readers’ learning styles, reading levels, interests, and reading goals.

To support struggling readers, teachers must know them well, plan best practices and interventions, and implement these using multisensory modes. Struggling readers typically come to school with low motivation for learning. Therefore, teachers must carefully select reading passages or texts that interest them and are appropriate for their reading levels. Teachers also need to keep in mind that struggling readers, including ELs, encounter challenges in many subjects and that incorporating literacy in these subjects assists their learning. Hands-on literacy strategies improve learning in ELA, math, science, and social studies. Be creative, be innovative, and be supportive in lesson delivery. Literacy is essential for academic success.

Bolinger, K., & Warren, W. J. (2007). Methods practiced in social studies instruction: A review of public school teachers’ strategies. International Journal of Social Education, 22(1), 68-84. Retrieved from the Education Source database. (Accession No. 507973003)

Conn, C. A., Sujo-Montes, L. E., Sealander, K. A. (2019). Using iBook features to support  English language learners and struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 35(5), 496-507.

Frye, E. M. (2009). Integrating instructional-level social studies trade books for struggling readers in upper elementary grades. Illinois Reading Council Journal, 37(4), 3-13.

Hiebert, E. H., & Cervetti, G. N. (2012). What differences in narrative and informational texts mean for the learning and instruction of vocabulary. In E. B. Kameenui & J. F. Baumann (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice (2nd ed., pp. 322–344). Guilford.

Liebfreund, M. D. (2015). Success with informational text comprehension: An examination of underlying factors. Reading Research Quarterly, 50(4), 387-392.

McFarland, J., Hussar, B., Zhang, J., Wang, X., Wang, K., Hein, S., … Barmer, A. (2019). The Condition of Education 2019 (NCES 2019-144). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Retrieved from the ERIC database. (Accession No. ED444126)

Pittleman, S. D., Heimlich, J. E., Berglund, R. L., & French, M. P. (1991). Semantic feature analysis. International Reading Association.

Richeson, T. L. (2019). Fifth grade students’ disciplinary literacy using diverse primary and secondary sources. Councilor, 80(1), 1-79. Retrieved from

Simmons, D. C., Kameénui, E. J., Stoolmiller, M., Coyne, M. D., Harn, B. (2003). Accelerating growth and maintaining proficiency: A two-year intervention study of kindergarten and first-grade children at-risk for reading difficulties. In B. R. Foorman (Ed.), Preventing and remediating reading difficulties: Bringing science to scale (pp. 197-228). York Press.

Vanden Boogart, A. E. (2016). A mixed methods study of upper elementary teacher knowledge for teaching reading to struggling readers (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses A&I database. (UMI No. 10037652)

Decoding at the Secondary Level

Lisa Hollihan Allen, West De Pere School District, lhollihan-allen @

Decoding, or word identification, is the ability to decipher a particular word out of a string of letters. According to the National Institute for Literacy, approximately 10% of all adolescents struggle with word identification skills, an estimate likely higher if you look at only struggling adolescent readers (National Institute for Literacy, 2007). Imagine that you have 100 students in your classroom every day, at least 10 of them could be struggling with a word level deficit. If they’re struggling with the words, there could also be deficits in comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. Sometimes even if they know the word in conversation and were paying attention in class (their listening vocabulary), they are unable to decode it in print. Photosynthesis starts with a ‘p’? (Just tell them, “Yep, just like phone.”)

I started my career teaching middle school English and literature. I earned my master’s degree in reading in order to be a better English teacher, not to be a reading specialist. Eventually (a long story that involves kids, daycare and a surprise twist) I transitioned into a K-12 district reading specialist, which evolved into teaching 6-12 literacy intervention in West De Pere, Wisconsin, a rapidly growing district in suburban Green Bay. We have approximately 3400 students, are bursting at the seams, and are about to break ground to build an intermediate school. Our administration is supportive of literacy and we are constantly striving to do what is best for our students.

When I started the transition from English teacher to reading specialist, the learning curve was high. I had been using my master’s knowledge for comprehension only. I probably passed tests about fluency and decoding, but I confess it never occurred to me to integrate that into my classes. I joke about how I want to call my former students to see if they’ll come to my house on Saturday mornings because “I know what to do now!” Decoding is a critical part of comprehension and many of our students struggle with it.

The Two Parts of Decoding

Letter-Sound Relationship
The letter-sound relationship is knowledge of the letters or groups of letters which represent the individual speech sounds in language.

  1. Alphabetic principle is the understanding that letters represent sounds which form words and the knowledge of predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds.
  2. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made up of individual units of sound, called “phonemes.”

The majority of adolescent students will not need remediation at this level, but for those who do, this section will provide strategies that will support them in decoding new words and syllables in a text.

Readers who are phonemically aware understand that three phonemes, /b/, /a/, /t/, form the word ‘bat’ and that the word ‘bath’ also has three phonemes because /th/ is one sound. Readers who are phonemically aware are also able to identify and manipulate sounds. They can replace the initial sound /b/ in “bat” with a /p/ to make a new word, “pat.” They can replace the medial sound /a/ in “pat” with an /i/ to make “pit”. They can make the word “pin” by replacing the final sound /t/ in “pit” with an /n/.

These skills are typically acquired in kindergarten and first grade. If older students did not fully develop their phonemic awareness as young children, they can experience difficulty with decoding when they encounter unfamiliar words. This weakness becomes especially apparent as they encounter new, multisyllabic words. Shaywitz (2003) asserted that students unsuccessful in reading words unfamiliar to them might also struggle with poor phonemic awareness skills. This is especially complicated for older readers with dyslexia. Students with significant gaps may require a systematic intervention taught with fidelity by a trained reading specialist using the following strategies and activities to break the letter-sound code:

Tapping sounds. I learned about tapping sounds when I was trained in the Wilson Language System. Students use their fingers to tap out the sounds in a word or syllable. For example, for the word “bat,” tap a different finger for each sound in the word: three taps for three sounds. The kinesthetic aspect of tapping provides an additional sensory input to simply hearing the sounds. An example of a script for tapping sounds is as follows:

Teacher: Say “blast.”
Student: “Blast.”
Teacher: Tap the sounds in “blast.”
Student: (touching pointer finger to thumb) /b/, (middle finger to thumb)
/l/, (ring finger to thumb) /a/, (pinkie finger to thumb) /s/, (pointer finger
to thumb, again) /t/.
Teacher: Now put it all together.
Student: (running thumb along tips of fingers) “Blast.”

When I started teaching Wilson at the high school level, I wasn’t sure how open the students would be to doing this. Would they think it was babyish? Maybe they did (they probably did), but they also knew they needed help and that I rarely saw a reluctant attitude (although I could tell you stories about “reluctant attitudes”). Teachers in the building would even tell me that they noticed my students putting their hands under the desk and tapping a word or a syllable when they needed to.

Manipulatives: Letter tiles and magnetic letters. Make or buy letter tiles or magnetic letters, using one color for consonants and another (preferably red) for vowels. Identifying consonants and vowels by color helps students with the concept that we read by syllables and that every syllable has a vowel sound.

Students make words using Wilson Language System tiles, magnetic letters, cut out letters and an overhead projector.

Word ladders (aka laddergrams, word-links, word golf, doubles). This game requires players to get from the predetermined first word to the predetermined final word by guessing hints and changing one letter. For example:

Turn CAT into DOG:
_ _ _ (hint: a small bed)
_ _ _ (hint: a round mark)

Besides being (English teacher) fun, word ladders facilitate students’ understanding of common letter patterns that make up words. They can be played individually or in teams.

Cunningham’s (2000) book Systematic Sequential Phonics They Use introduces another type of word ladder she calls “Making Words”. In this version, students read or listen to clues and use the provided letters to form the answer word. This book includes activities appealing to kindergarten students as well as older struggling readers and second-language learners.

In the following example inspired by Cunningham’s model (McKnight and Allen, 2018), students use six letters to build ten words. Notice that each hint is followed by an example of the target word used in a sentence. Through following the series of instructions, the word making progresses from at to paint:

Letters: a i t s p n
1. Take 2 letters and makethe word at. (Practice is at 4:00.)
2. Change one letter and make the word it. (It is important to be on time.)
Add one letter and make the word pit. (Get there early to help with the high jump pit.)
3. Change one letter and make the word pat. (The recipe in F.A.C.E. called for one pat of butter.)
4. Add one letter and make the word spat. (Usually they’re best friends, but they’re having a little spat right now.)
5. Change one letter and make the word span. (The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has an arm span of 6′ 7″.)
6. Take out one letter and make the word pan. (If you all pass the test, I will bring a pan of chocolate brownies.)
7. Change one letter and make the word pin. (Bring in a baby picture and we will pin them all on the wall.)
8. Add one letter and make the word pain. (Her injury is causing a lot of pain.)
9. Add one letter and make the word paint. (We get to paint in art class today.)

Word Analysis
Adolescents who struggle with reading typically do not struggle at the phonetic level but with the more complex task of word analysis. If they cannot read 70 percent of the words on standardized lists, some weakness in word recognition or identification is suggested. Caldwell and Leslie (2009) use this approach to identify older students who need reading intervention.

Allington (2012) claims in his most recent edition of What Really Matters for Struggling Readers that students need to accurately read 98 percent of the words on each page in order to be considered independent readers of that text. His earlier studies indicated a slightly lower threshold of 95 percent. It is critical for readers to develop word recognition competency.

Sight/high frequency words. These are words students need to be able to recognize “by sight.” This is especially important as many sight words do not follow the phonics rules. For example, why isn’t would spelled wud and why isn’t of spelled uv? The ability to decode these words automatically helps build fluency and increases the level of engagement in a text to deepen comprehension. They shouldn’t have to slow down and use cognitive energy to decide if the word is where or were.

In the 1950s (updated in the 1980s), Edward Fry developed a list of the most common words to appear in reading materials in grades 3-9. He advocated that learning all 1,000 words would equip these students to read about 90% of the words in a typical book or newspaper. This link to the Fry List will take you to a website with the lists, lessons, flashcards and games.

Word families. Word families/phonograms/rimes/chunks share a pattern of letters. The “chunk” begins from the vowel and goes to the end of the word or syllable. A simple word family is –at. Words like bat, cat, and mat belong in the –at word family. These are simple words, but once a student is familiar with the 30 or so most common word families, they can use them to help decode many words. Word families work in syllables, too. The word family –at can help students decode words like batten, battery, category, patronize and attentively. If they recognize the /at/ together as one unit instead of /a/ and then /t/, it will be easier to decode higher level words with greater fluency.

Word Family Examples (McKnight and Allen, 2018):
ack: pack, attack
all: hall, install
ain: rain, complain
ake: cake, awake
ate: gate, debate

The 37 most common word families in English (Wylie & Durrell, 1970):
ack, ain, ake, ale, all, ame,
an, ank, ap, ash, at, ate,
aw, ay, eat, ell, est, ice,
ick, ide, ight, ill, in, ine,
ing, ink, ip, it, ock, oke,
op, ore, ot, uck ,ug, ump, unk

Prefixes and suffixes. Another word analysis tool is to look for affixes, letter(s) added to a word that changes the meaning. Prefixes are found at the beginning of a word and suffixes are found at the end of a word. The most common prefix is un– which means not or opposite of. When you add the prefix un– to the word constitutional, you have a new word, unconstitutional—not or the opposite of constitutional.

If we teach our students the meaning of common prefixes, we can help them understand the meaning of words:

Suffixes are added at the end of words. There are noun suffixes (runner), adjective suffixes (wonderful), adverb suffixes (happily) and verb suffixes (writing). Adding a suffix sometimes changes spelling: consonant doubling–run, runner; change y to i—carry, carried and deleting the silent e–write, writing.

Like prefixes, a suffix can help students understand the meaning of words:

Root words. Noticing root words can help students decode. A root is the basis of a word that holds meaning, but isn’t usually a word by itself. The root word sist means to make firm, to stay, but there is no such word as sist—you have to add prefixes and suffixes as in insist, persisted, desist, When we teach our students to recognize root words (which are short) and to recognize prefixes and suffixes (which are short and relatively easy), they will be able to decode a long word like inconsistently as sist with prefixes and suffixes.

The meaning of the root can help students solve words:
struct– build—construct, deconstruct, deconstruction
rupt– break—erupt, disrupt, disruption, interrupt
flex—bend—flexible, inflexible, flexibility
sect– cut—section, disect, bisect, sector, intersection
scrib-write—scribble, script, inscription,
pend-hang—pendulum, pending, suspenders

Word map with root “spec”
I Have, Who Has with root words

Six syllable types. “Secondary students encounter 10,000 or more new words per year in their content area texts”—most are multisyllable (Hougen, 2015). If they have not internalized the information that every syllable has a vowel sound and that we read words by syllable, they need explicit instruction regarding the six syllable types and the vowel sounds. When they see the word “accomplishment,” they might just see a long string of letters and either take a guess or go ahead and skip it. I had a sophomore who could shoot out four or five long words that started with the same letter as the word he was trying to decode. His first word analysis strategy was rapid-fire guessing—and he knew a lot of big words; he just couldn’t read them. If we can prompt students by saying, “All the syllables are closed,” they can start at the beginning of the word and read across it, knowing all the vowels will be short.

Syllable Types: The Clover Model
Closed            got
Le               goo-gle
Open             go
double Vowel      goat
v-E               globe
R-controlled       glory

My colleague, Missy Hagel, made a ThingLink Clover Six Syllable Types that explains the six syllable types.

“Secondary students with reading difficulties commonly have difficulties with decoding and fluency, which results in poor comprehension” (Hougen, 2015). Reading involves a complex combination of word analysis and comprehension strategies. Core teachers can use explicit instruction in word recognition and vocabulary (decoding). We can assist our students with word analysis by breaking down content words and drawing attention to suffixes, prefixes, root words and syllables. We can’t pretend we don’t know that many struggle at this level. Reading instruction needs to continue into middle and high school in order for them to meet the rigorous challenges they face in school and eventually allows them to meet the increasing demands for literacy in the workforce. It is our responsibility.

Allington, R. L. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs (3rd edition). Allyn and Bacon.

Caldwell, J., & Leslie, L. (2009). Intervention strategies to follow informal reading inventory assessment: So what do I do now? Pearson.

Cunningham, P. M. (2000). Systematic sequential phonics they use: For beginning readers of any age. Carson-Dellosa.

Hougen, M. (2015). Evidence-based reading instruction for adolescents grades 6-12. CEEDAR Center.

McKnight, K. S. and Allen, L. H. (2018). Strategies to support struggling adolescent readers, grades 6-12. Rowman & Littlefield.

National Institute for Literacy. (2007). Key literacy component: Decoding. Retrieved January 30, 2020, from

Shaywitz, S. E. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. A.A. Knopf.

Wylie, R. E., and Durrell, D. D. (1970), Teaching vowels through phonograms. Elementary English, 47, 787-91. Retrieved from the Education Source database. (Accession No. 519615081)

Book Tasting at Horace Mann Middle School

Tina Thone, Horace Mann Middle School, Sheboygan, tthone @

First, I knew I had to be concise with the time restraints. I had only 60 minute class periods and knew I had to choose genres that my students gravitated to, but I also wanted them to explore genres that they wouldn’t otherwise choose. I decided on science fiction, historical fiction, mystery, realistic fiction, graphic novels, and biography.

Thone 2

To begin, my students made reservations the week before the book tasting. I knew the tables would be set up so that six could sit at each one. With these reservations, I made assigned seating. As they entered the library, they found their name card with a table number. They then found their table.

Each table was set up to look like a fine dining experience. I purchased tablecloths, each student had a placemat to jot down notes, they were given a menu as their guide for the book tasting experience, and they answered questions about each book they “tasted.” In the center of each table, I brought in my personal cake plates from home and stacked the books on each one. Each table was a different genre represented by a decorative sign and a homemade table sign.

Thone 1

With the amount of time, each student was able to get through only three genres. While they tasted three books per genre, they used their menu to guide them. They took notes on their thoughts of the cover, their reaction to reading the first few pages of the book, their take on how the author grabbed their attention, and rated of each book they tasted.

When they finished three rounds, they chose three books they were really interested in reading and documented the titles on a bookmark. Depending on which books were available, they checked out a new book!

The bookmarks were kept and used for further book checkouts.

Thone 4

I also reached out to my very supportive parents for donations of baked goods, napkins, and plates. So many parents donated that we had more than enough for all four of my ELA classes. The kids enjoyed a special treat after they found their new books to read.

The students had nothing but positive feedback on this experience. We visit the library every other week for book exchanges. Many asked if we could do this every time we exchanged books! Even my reluctant readers found this to be an engaging experience. I think the best part was that my students continued to check out the choices on their bookmarks.

Thone 5

The biggest thing that I would change is the amount of time spent doing this. I think I would try to adjust our schedule so we had more than 60 minutes. I think it would be great if the kids could make it to every genre. I felt it was important that they could experience three books from each genre, so extending the experience would make it so much better!

Thone 3

Book Tasting at Black River Falls Middle School

Amy Recob, Black River Falls Middle School, amy.recob @

Raid the dollar store for tablecloths, flowers, fake candles, a mini violin, and fancy plates

recob 3

I found a sampling of books at 5 different levels

The students walked into “Chateau de Recobia” to find their place cards at candlelit tables (with book choices at their level — not many picked up on that)

recob 4

The hostess of Chateau de Recobia handed out tasting menus with a Diner’s Scorecard so patrons could rate the various books they were sampling.

recob 2

recob 1

I brought out different “courses” if the customers were not satisfied with any of their choices.

Toward the end of the dining experience, students conversed about the main courses and collectively decide on one to read as a group for literature circles. I did allow some students to stray from the group.

recob 5

Reigniting the Love of Reading With Penny Kittle

Emily M VanDyne, Union Grove High School, emilymvandyne @

For the first time in my career, I looked out at my class and wasn’t excited. In fact, I was the opposite of excited – I dreaded coming to work. Thirty senior students sat in my brightly decorated classroom with glazed looks in their eyes, brains on autopilot. Some were staring blankly at their open books, some were smirking at their phones not so conspicuously hidden within the folds of the pages, and some weren’t even bothering to hide that they weren’t paying attention. The lights were off, the audiobook was on, and no one cared.

I took in the indifference and lethargy and thought, I hate this. This wasn’t a management issue; it was an engagement issue, and it had been going on for quite some time. I had used every weapon in my arsenal. High interest and topically relevant books? Check. Fun and diversified discussion formats? You got it. Rearranging the room? Done. Groups, partners, individuals, YouTube, surprises and prizes, strict and lenient … I had tried it all. I got the same apathetic attitudes no matter what I did, and the kicker was I knew they still weren’t reading the books. Hence the annoying audio that now blared in my classroom. I guess I was hoping they could absorb the content through osmosis. There was no getting around it: I felt like a failure. I was supposed to be teaching everyone to read and appreciate literature, but it seemed like I was causing them to actively hate it. They were miserable; I was miserable. I just didn’t know how to fix it.

My parents say I came out of the womb with a book in my hand. I grew up in the age of Harry Potter and Twilight and I loved every magical minute of it. You would never find me without a book. My teachers would often half-heartedly scold me for reading instead of completing my algorithms, but even I—the enthusiastic reader—occasionally faltered in English class. There were assigned books that I didn’t read. I pretended to read them, but I didn’t. Why would I follow the predictable tragedy of King Lear when the last battle of Hogwarts was unfolding? Why would I spend hours on the Mississippi River with Huck when I could be in Forks, running with werewolves and vampires? How could I possibly surrender time to a book I found vaguely interesting (at best) when there were wars to be won and loves to be found in my other books? If I—a self-identifying bibliophile—didn’t have an urgency to read all the books the curriculum demanded, how could I expect someone who didn’t love books to do it?

Yet, that was exactly what I was doing in my classroom. I chose the books that they read because I had a degree and I knew better than they did. As a teacher, I was doing precisely what I hadn’t liked as a student. Ever the realist, I told myself that I was being presented with two choices: evolve or repeat. Continuing down this road was not an option for me. I refused to go one more semester with classes who fake-read books and hated English. I didn’t know what the change would be, but I knew there had to be something better than what I was doing.

My Background
I am a 28-year-old English teacher who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2013 with a double major in English Education and Spanish Education and I have a Master of Science degree in Educational Leadership from Carroll University. For the last six years, I have been working at Union Grove High School in Union Grove, Wisconsin, population 4,000, nestled outside of Racine between sprawling corn fields and newly minted industrial complexes like Amazon and FoxConn. The union district high school has between 800 and 1,000 students any given year, most of whom live in and around the rural town, but about 20% are open enrolled from Racine. Of our graduating seniors, about 71% go on to four year universities, 11% enroll in technical schools, and 18% have found their calling in the military or workforce. Union Grove High School runs on a traditional block schedule. Classes meet every day for one semester and are 83 minutes long.

Finding Penny Kittle
My frustrations with the curriculum, it just so happened, came to a peak while I was going through my master’s program. It was while I was chatting with a few of my cohorts that one of them mentioned Penny Kittle, an English teacher from Maine who had a successful formula for not only getting adolescents to grow as readers, but also for getting them to authentically enjoy reading. Immediately on returning from class, I ordered and read her Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers (2013), since I was most interested in changing the way reading was done in my classroom. The first sentence of the synopsis had me nodding: “Penny Kittle wants us to face the hard truths every English teacher fears: too many kids don’t read the assigned texts, and some even manage to slip by without having ever read a single book by the time they graduate.” Through reading, it became clear that Kittle takes a progressive approach that might be daunting to some teachers. She asserted that students weren’t reading because they simply weren’t interested in our books. If we help them choose the right book, though, and give them time everyday to read, think, create, and reflect, we could craft a powerful love of reading and grow their skills simultaneously.

I know that her assertions throughout Book Love weren’t meant to make me feel like a failure, but they did anyway. I had always prided myself on teaching beautiful, classic literature in a challenging environment. “A book,” Kittle countered, “isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it” (p. xvi). I had also prided myself on giving engaging lectures and holding thought provoking class discussions. Kittle parried, “Students need to be reading and writing more than they need to be listening to me talking” (p. 57). Reading Book Love was a reckoning that made me reevaluate what I had been doing for the last five years, but I found myself agreeing with every statement she made, particularly about how standardized testing plays into education. Kittle argues that while districts (and politicians and community members) can become obsessed with test data, educators need to remember what’s important: “None of our local or national tests measure the joy students take in reading or their stamina for it. None measure our ability to create lifelong readers in thirteen years of schooling. Those are critical, haunting omissions” (p.137).

Kittle believes that English curricula should focus on growing reading stamina, reading fluency, and nurturing a love for reading. She lays out her philosophies in practical and applicable ways, even going so far as to include sample lesson plans and dialogues of her conversations with students. So many educational books are grounded in brilliant ideas, but they leave the reader wondering where to start and how. Not this book. I had a wealth of resources at my fingertips, a map of where to go, and a reignited passion to get me there. As I finished Book Love and prepared for the quickly approaching new semester, I was excited, but so overwhelmed. Overhauling my curriculum for just one class would take time I didn’t have, patience I could hardly spare, and a recognition that this semester would be based on trial and error. Going back to an apathetic classroom, though, wasn’t an option when I had a chance to create a joyful classroom. I sat at the coffee house each weekend crafting new curricula and ransacked used book stores for new additions to my classroom bookshelf. The question that Kittle implies repeatedly throughout Book Love became my motto: If not you, who?

With more enthusiasm than I’d felt in awhile, I looked up my classes for the next semester. I had two sections of Senior English and they would make the perfect pilot group. A quick look at the data showed me the following:

I had 55 total students, split between two sections

55% were male, 45% were female

Average GPA was 3.3

Four had failed a previous high school English course

I had taught 11 in previous courses

I approached my principal to share my ideas for implementing a curriculum change and was fortunate to have the immediate support to roll out a Kittle-inspired curriculum. Getting our students to love reading? He was on board. Later, when I would explain this conversation to colleagues from other districts, I received some shocked looks. In their districts, they explained, they would never tell their principal that they thought their curriculum was not working and would never be allowed to try this new idea without tying it to every standard. I feel fortunate that I work in a district that encourages risk-taking and recognizes that the standards do not cover every skill we want to teach. Never have I felt nervous to try something new for fear of reprimand or judgment. I’ve always been given unconditional support for any new endeavors or curriculum. Teaching is not a stagnant profession and new ideas should be welcomed, celebrated, and explored. Failure might be a part of the exploration process, but that’s okay. It is the same message about failure and change that we teach every day. Perhaps we should practice what we preach. My principal was as eager about this new venture as I was and he left me with just one command: “Let me know what I can do to help you.”

The Standards and Data
When talking with fellow educators about this new curriculum, I would receive the same question: How is this linked to the state standards? I knew this question was inevitable. We live in a strict testing culture where every lesson must be tied to a standard. I value the skills that the standards are trying to address, and while I understand the desire to prove the validity of a curriculum by showing precisely what skills are being addressed, I think we are overlooking one major flaw: Reading skills cannot be developed if no one is reading. And no one is reading.

The standards do not cover the joy of reading and they do not mention stamina, both integral components of successful students (and happy adults, in my opinion). If we are serious about creating a generation of independent thinkers who are motivated, empathetic, and patient, these must come first. When I notice a certain skill is lacking, I make a mini lesson and work with that student during individual conferences. But tying this curriculum to the current standards is not my priority. Reading skills work in concert with each other and can absolutely be taught through this curriculum because my students are finally reading in a meaningful way (and enjoying it!). Skill development and growth is always a priority, but again, these skills will not develop or grow if no one is reading. That has to be the first priority. My goal is not to make sure my students can do well on a standardized test that does not accurately measure their abilities anyways. My goal is to nurture a love of reading, help them increase their stamina, deepen their thought process, and grow their fluency over time.

Daily Elements
As I read through Book Love, I picked out the major elements that would work for my classroom. Knowing there was no way I could implement every idea, I decided to build up the new curriculum over time, step by step. A routine was established immediately, clung to ferociously, and credited much of the success to the habits formed because of it. Each day began with three activities, without exception: current events, quick writes, and reading.

Five-to-ten-minute current event discussions fostered a familiarity with politics, economics, and human rights issues, while helping these young citizens learn how to discuss controversial topics in a respectful manner. It was also an opportunity to teach the skills of bias detection and other components of journalism.

Daily book talks helped students think about what they might want to read next. After current events, they pulled out their notebooks and flipped to their Next List, the list they kept of all the books they might want to read next. On the first day of class, I introduced eight books of varying complexity and genre via book talks, quick and simple and always using the same formula: start with the basics, give them a summary, read a passage, and pass it around. I started off by revealing the title, the author, other works by the author, and if I had read the book and liked it or not. Next, I tried to pique their interest with the summary, to give them an idea for the complexity and writing style with the passage, and to get the book in their hands so they could look at the length, page through it, and read some passages. After the first week, I only introduced three books a day, and after the second or third week, I was down to one a day. I also invited students to do book talks, and many took me up on the offer, whether they were currently in my class or not. The books I chose came from my classroom library, but I also frequently asked the librarian to borrow copies that I didn’t own. I took my students to our school library at least twice a semester, when our librarian kindly organized books into themes and helped even the most reluctant readers find something to read. Often, this is the first time they check a book out from the school library. At the start of the semester, I reserved 15-20 minutes for daily book talks, but this quickly dwindled to 5 minutes as the semester went on.

Quick writes helped them find their writer’s voice and be comfortable writing daily in a reflective and creative manner. I wrote right along with them as we answered questions, wrote about moral dilemmas, or engaged with mentor texts. I often shared my own writing and editing process before asking them to share their work. It fostered an environment of trust and constant improvement. Depending on the the type of writing we did, this took 10-20 minutes.

After writing came everyone’s favorite part: reading time. At the beginning of the semester, we spent a few days just finding books that interested each individual student. The key to making this process work is finding the right books for the right readers. By the start of the week, everyone had chosen a different book. To start reading time, I might introduce a few new books that they may choose to add to their active Next List. Finally, we would read. Everyone would take out a choice book (myself included) and have silent, uninterrupted reading for at least twenty minutes every day. I would quietly conference with each student every few days, helping them through challenging parts, listening as they explained what had transpired since our last conference, and guiding them through choosing their next books. In the beginning, reading for twenty uninterrupted minutes was a challenge for most. By the end of the class, all of my students could easily read for upwards of fifty minutes and still want more time.

Class always began with this routine. From there, the day would be broken into one of two categories: writing workshop or podcast listening. When we were working on a writing project, I would create mini-lessons based on what I saw them struggling with or on a skill we were working on. We did fun, creative writing and worked up to argumentative, research-based writing in a multi-genre narrative. In all, everyone completed seven pieces of writing, ranging from narrative poems to research. We would practice a skill and then practice using that new skill. We would imitate forms and study beautiful words. Alternatively, when we were listening to a podcast, we would practice active listening skills and comprehension activities. I found that everyone adored the podcasts Serial and Criminal; many have told me that they are now active podcast listeners. Over the course of the semester, we did only two traditional whole class reads: Macbeth and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Because my goal was to improve reading stamina and fluency, I chose to follow Kittle’s advice for homework. Students were expected to read for two hours outside of class each week. When I explained this, they were confused. They asked how many pages were required in the two hours. That depends, I told them, on what book you are reading. I gave them this example: When I read Harry Potter, I can get through half of the book in two hours. When I read Wuthering Heights, though, I might only get through forty pages in two hours. It all depends on the kind and level of book, and since we are all reading different books, it doesn’t seem fair to assign a page requirement. I saw some of my slower readers’ faces absolutely light up at the possibility of not falling behind immediately. I walked them through Kittle’s simple process for determining their reading rate and explained they had to redo this process for each new book they started.

Within the first few days of class, I gave my seniors a survey with questions about their habits and their thoughts on reading and writing. After asking about their lives, their jobs, their hobbies, and their dreams, I asked them about their past English classes.
vandyne table 1

Clearly, I had my work cut out for me; yet, I didn’t feel like this was an inaccurate representation of a typical English class.

Undoubtedly, it was the best semester of my teaching career. Not only did my students read more than ever before, but I remembered why I became an English teacher in the first place: the magic of books! Everyone read every day, which I couldn’t say before. They wanted book suggestions and begged for more reading time in class. They read challenging books and wanted to have analytical discussions. Their stamina and fluency increased, along with their appreciation for a gripping narrative. Their writing improved, and they became engaged world citizens. I watched them become calmer. I watched them choose to read rather than play on their phones. I watched them smile and laugh and share their books with their peers. I watched them fall in love with reading. I could give you anecdotal evidence all day long, but the results of the final survey speak for themselves.

vandyne table 2

Some teachers argue that when students get the chance to choose what they read, they will pick easy books that they can get through quickly and with little challenge. I did not find this to be the case. In fact, some of the most chosen books were The Catcher in the Rye, Pride and Prejudice, The Handmaid’s Tale, and A Game of Thrones. They gravitated toward these difficult books and would often stop in before class to ask rather analytical questions. It was rewarding and relieving that the classic books I adored weren’t being left to collect dust on the bookshelf.

Ultimately, my students read and enjoyed a high volume of books. Between January 15 and May 25, they read an average of 12.6 books. I hesitate to give this quantitative data because it does not accurately represent their reading journey, as it does not take into account the length of the book. For instance, one read two books over the course of these months. That seems like an underachievement until you consider that one of those books was the Bible. Another read Yancey’s 5th Wave trilogy over the course of these months. Again, this seems underwhelming until you consider that it was the first time he had completed a book in his high school career. I was continually impressed and humbled by how they challenged themselves without my prodding.

Seeing my students reading and enjoying their books, watching them grow as writers and being excited about creating and sharing … I’m not sure how to go back to a traditional English curriculum. I loved teaching that class, and I’m not willing to give up that feeling.

After piloting this class and sharing the results with colleagues, some members of my department initiated a book study on Gallagher and Kittle’s 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents (2018). It has been an eye opening and, at times, challenging course. The plan moving forward is implementing the Kittle theory in all of my classes. This will be a process and it will take time. For now, I am focusing on bringing Kittle’s philosophies into the Sophomore English curriculum, which demonstrates to both students and colleagues that fear of a strict testing culture should not deter our efforts to educate the next generation in the best way we know. Being open to change, after all, reflects a higher nature of the human condition.

Gallagher, K., & Kittle, P. (2018). 180 days: Two teachers and the quest to engage and empower adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kittle, P. (2013). Book love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Just One More Thing

Amy L Menzel, Waukesha West High School, almenzel @

We’ve all seen the teacher memes. You know, the all-too-relatable ones that depict teachers eager and energized on the first day of school, overwhelmed and exhausted on the last day (or at the end of the first week). We go in ready to roll, ready to do things bigger and better than we’ve ever done them and sometimes we do, but all of August’s ambitions have tough competition when faced with dreary December days and the mania that is May. It’s easy to feel dejected when you realize it’s February and you haven’t made good on your promise to infuse more poetry into your lessons, or when you realize you never made those bookmarks you’ve been promising students since October … and it’s now March. So much to do, so little time: the adage of the teacher.

That’s why I’ve decided to focus my efforts, to identify one specific change I can and WILL make each school year that will most benefit my students and their learning. This one thing is a non-negotiable. Come what may (and May will come), I will make sure this one thing gets done.

I have Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher to thank for this shift in perspective. Last summer I had the good fortune of attending their conference hosted by CESA 6, where they started the first day with a quote from Steve Jobs: “To go forward, you have to leave something behind.” Read: you can’t do it all. Phew. Right from the get-go I was given permission to let something go. (Cue that song from Frozen. It’s just too bad it can’t be standardized testing.)

As the two-day conference continued, the sentiment shared in those first few minutes was reiterated in various ways. “We tell students what matters by what we pay attention to,” I wrote in my notes after, I’m sure, one of them said it. It reminded me of a phrase a yoga instructor regularly used: “Where your eyes go, your body will follow.” The conference was turning out to be a yoga session for my teaching mind. I was bending and stretching and centering my teacher self. I was finding focus.

Kittle and Gallagher’s book 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents begins with a chapter titled “Start with Beliefs.” It’s more English teacher yoga, guided instruction for thinking through your purpose and approach. It guides you to find your focus and prioritize your efforts since, as they note in the closing thoughts in this chapter, “the budget of time is limited.”

So it all comes back to that ol’ adage: so much to do, so little time.

I’m no longer overwhelmed by this reality. Instead, I’m inspired. I have this currency of time and I get to choose how to spend it. I need to spend it wisely, of course, since there’s not a lot of it, so I need to think about what will best help my students learn and grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.

Last year I determined that the one move I was going to make was to incorporate daily book talks. Every day I would talk about a different book. This was non-negotiable. And it was SMART. Not only is the practice backed by research by Wozniak (2011), Homan (2015), and Cremin et al (2014) (in which it is noted that “The will to read influences the skills as well”), so it’s smart in the traditional sense, but it was also smart in the SMART sense. It was a goal that was Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based. It provided me focus for making a move that would help engage and empower my students.

I think transparency in teaching is important and spend a significant amount of time discussing the rationale behind my teaching and our practice, so I shared my SMART goal with my students on day one. I told them why I was going to book talk every day (beyond the fact that it would be a ton of fun), and I told them that I wanted to be held accountable. I made a book talk display to preview the week’s coming literary attractions and to keep me honest about my efforts. “If you don’t see new book covers in the frames each week, call me out!” I said. I also told them to let me know if they felt I wasn’t providing enough suggestions in a certain genre or if they weren’t feeling any of the titles I was suggesting. “These book talks are for you, folks, so let me know what you want to hear!” I took requests and sometimes created themes for a week of book talks. One week was designed in response to some not-so-tactful feedback I received from a self-identified “non-reader.” “This week’s for you, Bobby!” I said, determined to make a reader out of him yet.


Menzel1I see each of my classes four times each week.
Every day a new book talk.

And I kept at it. I read about books and I talked about books, and the interest, if not the love (but, yes, sometimes the love) spread. While I was focused on this one thing, I realized that I was telling students what matters by showing them what I pay attention to. Reading matters and I was focused on reading so that they would read and become better readers, better writers, and better thinkers. My eyes were focused on books and my students’ eyes followed. It was all because of just one thing.


Menzel2I added this approach after seeing it modeled on social media.
More books, more talk, more reading.

I finished the year having book talked a different title every single day. I dropped the last book after my last book talk of the year–like a mic drop, because I’m nerdy like that. And because I was proud. I was proud of having completed my goal, but more proud of the progress my students had made as readers, writers, and thinkers. It was all because of just one thing.

Now that I have the book talk routine down, I’m going to focus my efforts this year on daily notebook work. It’ll be like the research-based practice I started at the beginning of last year–the practice that fizzled as the year went on. This year, there will be no fizzling. There will be writing. Every day. I will pay attention to this because it matters. Students will come to understand it matters because it will be what I pay attention to. When everything else vies for my teaching attention and I feel frazzled and overwhelmed, I will find my teaching center, and further student success, in just this one thing.

I’m already envisioning our collective celebratory pen drop after another successful year.


Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Collins, F. M., Powell, S., & Safford, K. (2014). Building communities of engaged readers: Reading for pleasure. London: Routledge.

Homan, J. S. (2015). Using book talks and choice to increase reading motivation (Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin-River Falls). Retrieved from

Wozniak, C. L. (2011). Reading and talking about books: A critical foundation for intervention. Voices From the Middle, 19(2), 17-21. Retrieved from the ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ951876)

Reading Aloud to Older Students: Benefits and Tips

Lisa Hollihan Allen, West De Pere Middle School, lhollihan-allen @


“Reading aloud is the best advertisement because it works. It allows a child to sample the delights of reading and conditions him to believe that reading is a pleasurable experience, not a painful or boring one” (Trelease, 2013). I have been reading aloud to my secondary students every day my entire career. Allow me to share three of my favorite “conditioning stories” with you.

I have read Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows out loud many, many times. In case you didn’t know, there are some very sad parts. It’s such a great read-aloud though, so I have figured out a way to read through the sad parts without crying or getting choked up. While reading the words, with all the emotion and expression called for, I think of something else. Once, while I was reading one of the sad parts, I distracted myself by thinking about my plans for after school. I won’t give away anything in the plot in case you haven’t read it, but that day I looked up and I saw two eighth-grade boys crying in the front row. Two! One was trying to tip his head back ever so slightly so nobody behind him noticed while he blinked the tears away, but the tears came out anyway. The other one already had his head cradled in the crook of his elbow on the table, and he’d wipe his tears on his sleeve with the thumb of his other hand. Both boys were barely moving and listening intently. Well, I completely lost it. I got choked up and the tears came out of my eyes. They made me cry! I was saying the words I’d said many times while thinking, “I’ll stop for gas and then go to the store to pick up something for supper.” I saw these two eighth grade boys cry in school and it hit me. Wiping my tears I said, “Wow! I’ve read this book a million times! I knew this was coming! I don’t know why I’m crying this time!” While the class was focused on me, the boys gathered themselves and then joined in on the good-natured teasing from the class. Each boy knows I saw him–I’m not sure if they know about each other, and they know I didn’t say anything. Taking the time to read aloud is worth it.

One year when I read Hinton’s The Outsiders and then showed the movie, a girl suddenly sat straight up, pointed at the screen and burst out loudly, “That’s not what he looks like!” when C. Thomas Howell, who played Ponyboy, came on at the beginning. (She was very embarrassed.)

Reading aloud Palacio’s novel Wonder provides an occasion to “get to know” a kid with a rare medical facial deformity who is forced to deal with bullies in middle school. Your students will not only get to know Auggie, but they will love him and want to be his best friend. The life lessons and discussions about the power of bullying and the power of being brave and kind are incredible. One of my favorite memories of reading this book aloud is, after a particularly kind gesture in the story, one of my students simultaneously pushed his chair back, threw his arms in the air, and yelled “This is now officially my favorite book!” Then he looked around at everyone and pushed his chair in, saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” The whole class was smiling and saying things like “me too” and “no, I get it,” and “it’s my favorite book, too.”

I started my career teaching middle school English and literature and transitioned into a K-12 district reading specialist, which evolved into teaching 6-12 literacy intervention in West De Pere, Wisconsin, a rapidly growing district in suburban Green Bay. We have approximately 3400 students, are bursting at the seams, and are currently working toward going to a referendum to build. We know this is a good problem to have. Our administration is extremely supportive of literacy and we are constantly striving to do what is best for our students. We know we are lucky.

I have been reading aloud to these students my entire career. To be honest, my reasons for starting were not research based. My reasons were worry based. I was an intern and teaching six sections of 7th- and 8th-grade English and literature. New to lesson planning, it took me awhile to know how much to expect to be able to do in each hour. (I know you know what I’m talking about.) I tried to OVER plan (like you did) so there would never be any, “What should we do until the end of class?” moments. It didn’t always work. I went to my mentor, Irene Hucek, and asked her if she thought it would be a good idea, and if I would be allowed, to start reading a novel aloud if there was extra time at the end of class. She thought it was a great idea. What started as a time filler has become one of the most effective tools to demonstrate to students that reading is good and enjoyable. According to Oczkus (2012), “Reading aloud every day to your students is a research-based, proven way to motivate your students to read on their own, model good reading, promote critical thinking, and create a sense of community in your classroom”  (p. 21). I have found all of these to be true.

In their book Learning under the Influence of Language and Literature, Laminack and Wadsworth (2006) describe six types of read-alouds: books that … address standards, build community, demonstrate the craft of writing, enrich vocabulary, entice children to read independently and model fluent reading. Addressing standards might be a stretch for me, but otherwise I have read all of these types of read-alouds.


Benefits of Reading Aloud to Older Students
Gives them a positive experience with a book. Many of our adolescent students have never read an entire book. They might lack the skill, time, interest, availability, whatever–they’ve never read a book cover to cover and some are pretty open and proud about their “reading is stupid” opinion. In my experience, there has never been a student I have not won over because they’ve enjoyed at least one book that I read aloud. It doesn’t matter what the obstacle is, reading aloud provides positive experiences. Sharing a compelling, enjoyable, important, or funny book with their classmates can be powerful. They start to trust that reading can be a good thing and that maybe this teacher knows what she’s doing. One year, the teacher across the hall witnessed in-between classes when a student of mine, fresh off of in school suspension, hurried to the podium to quick read what he missed from the read aloud. That teacher was convinced that taking to time to read aloud was worth it and she’s been reading aloud to her classes ever since.

2. Exposes them to books, genres, authors and topics. According to Hinds (2015), “Reading aloud can advance teens’ listening and literacy skills by piquing their interest in new and/or rigorous material” (p. 1). Typically listening comprehension is higher than reading comprehension; therefore, reading aloud is an effective way to encourage students to take on a challenging book. Secondary teachers can read poetry aloud in their classes. Science teachers can read poems from Scieszka and Smith’s Science Verse (2004) to introduce or spark interest in topics such as states of matter or metamorphosis. There are many sophisticated children’s books that could be used to introduce or enhance a topic. Polacco’s Pink and Say (1994) could be read during a civil war unit. Try reading it aloud without getting a little choked up at the end–it’s not easy. Bunting’s picture book The Wall (1992) illustrates the profound loss a family can feel as a boy and his father visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Secondary teachers can also read newspaper, magazine, or online articles aloud to start real-world conversations about their content. If we model reading because we’re interested, we are doing a service to our students

3. Encourages students to read the remaining books of a series on their own. When Hunger Games by Collins came out in 2010, I read it out loud to my freshmen and sophomores. They loved it. One of my students happy-shocked her parents by asking for a copy of Catching Fire (second in the trilogy) as a gift so she could read along.
hunger.jpgHigh school students attend Hunger Games together

These students were so wild for the dystopian genre that when we were done with the Hunger Games series, I read the first book in Westerfeld’s Uglies series. I got smart, though, and read only the first one and then made the second one available for them to read on their own. They did. The magic doesn’t just happen with dystopian series. I have had success with the Patterson’s Maximum Ride series, Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, Nielsen’s Ascendance trilogy, and Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.


maximum.jpgAfter listening to Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson, students read other novels in the series including graphic novels


4. Provides the opportunity to discuss life concerns and builds a sense of community. Our older students face many confusing issues and messages about life and the world around them. Discussing it around a character or a situation based on a book can be a safe, comfortable place to talk about dangerous, uncomfortable topics. The pain of eating disorders can be lived through Anderson’s Wintergirls. After reading Bauer’s On My Honor, you can have amazing discussions about personal responsibility, blame and peer pressure. Palacio’s novel Wonder introduces students to a character with a rare medical facial deformity opening the class up for compelling discussions about bullying and the power of kindness.

5. Builds vocabulary. Secondary reading requirements are vocabulary rich. This is good, but it can also be a challenge: “Secondary students encounter 10,000 or more new words per year in their content area texts” (Hougen, 2014). Reading aloud to students can expand their vocabulary and improve their comprehension. When we’re taking the time to read aloud, we are another source of exposure to learning new words.

6. Increases fluency. When I was first transitioning from an English teacher to a reading specialist to an intervention teacher, I didn’t understand the power of fluency for improving comprehension (or even exactly what fluency was). Reading fluently means reading accurately, effortlessly, at the proper rate, and with expression. Along with decoding, fluency affects comprehension and is often thought of as the bridge from decoding to comprehension (Pikulski and Chard, 2005). When we read aloud to our students, we provide a model for fluent reading that our students can emulate when they’re reading on their own.

false.jpgAfter listening to The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen, a student reads The Runaway King, the second book in the Ascendance trilogy.


Tips for Reading Aloud
Preview the book. It will be easier for you to read fluently, you can choose “think aloud” sections, and you can prevent any accidental R-rated moments.

Introduce the book. Read the back and the inside flap and activate any needed background knowledge.

Ask what happened in the book yesterday before you start each read aloud session. It helps bring their heads back to the story and prepares them for active listening.

Decide how long and when you plan to read. I read the first ten minutes of class, but it works better for some teachers to read the last ten minutes.

Use your voice. Read enthusiastically–if you can pull off the character’s Irish brogue–do it! Read at the appropriate rate–quickly when it’s suspenseful and slowly when it’s sad.

Occasionally model intellectual curiosity and research skills by looking topics up during the middle of the book.

Occasionally stop and have a nonacademic conversation about the book in the middle of reading.

Keep a chart of the characters and their traits for the students who need it.

Watch their body language. Fidgeting or watching the clock might mean you need to stop for the day or even pick a new book.

Have a brief discussion after reading. What happened today? Any predictions?


character chart.jpgCharacter chart for Patterson’s Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment


There are academic benefits to reading aloud to older students, and they are important. What will keep you taking the time to read aloud is the look on your students’ faces as they get angry for a character, feel a character’s pain, or experience righteous indignation. Their faces will keep you reading aloud when you see them celebrating or laughing with a character, or feel a character’s love, happiness, sense of achievement, or vindication. You’ll keep taking the time to read aloud when you overhear students having rich discussions–without you! It’ll feel totally worth it when you see students who normally don’t read on their own time–either because they don’t believe they’re readers or just don’t want to be a reader–carry around a book. I’ve seen all these things happen and I believe it can be attributed to reading aloud. Time well spent.

Book Lists and Ideas to Get You Started


Hinds, J. D. (2015, November 25). A curriculum staple: Reading aloud to teens. School Library Journal. Retrieved from

Hougen, M. Evidence-based reading instruction for adolescents, grades 6-12 (Document No. IC-13). Retrieved from CEEDAR Center website:

Laminack, L. L., & Wadsworth, R. M. (2006). Learning under the influence of language and literature: Making the most of read-alouds across the day. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Oczkus, L. D. (2012). Best ever literacy survival tips: 72 lessons you can’t teach without. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Pikulski, J. J., & Chard, D. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. Reading Teacher, 58(6), 510-519. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database. (Accession No. 16402260)

Trelease, J. (2013). The read-aloud handbook (7th ed.). New York: Penguin.

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Jessica McQueston, doctoral student in Special Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, mcqueston @

Abstract. McQueston illustrates how peer-mediated strategies were used with the Special Olympics “Young Athletes” program. These modifications allowed teachers to implement this program more readily, thereby promoting the inclusion of students with disabilities. Using pillars of collaborative strategic reading, all group members can contribute to the success of the group, thus disrupting the idea that students with disabilities can receive only help.

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Jeannette Russell, School Support Teacher, Milwaukee Public Schools, and Associate Lecturer in Early Childhood Education, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, russellj @

Abstract. Russell provides strategies for constructing text-dependent questions and for assisting students when answering these questions.

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Kristal Mott (mottk @, 6th-Grade Reading Teacher, Ripon Middle School, and 6-12 Literacy Coach, Ripon Middle and High Schools

Abstract. Mott examines research surrounding the components of literacy practices that have a positive effect on student reading engagement. The research suggests three instructional practices that promote such engagement: student choice of texts, time to read, and social interactions around texts. In addition to explaining the research and instructional practices that lead to an increase in reading engagement among students, Mott shares current issues with reading engagement and the benefits toward reading achievement.

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