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Expert Q&A

Interventions for Eighth Graders

What are some good interventions for students who are in the eighth grade? Do you have any good ideas for adolescents who struggle with reading?

There may be a variety of reasons why an eighth grade student may struggle with reading, so you need to remember that there is no “one size fits all” solution in terms of interventions. It is also helpful to know how the intervention(s) will be delivered and by whom (i.e., will the intervention be delivered in a pull-out, small-group setting, or will it be delivered in the general education classroom? By a literacy specialist, or by a classroom teacher?)

The quote below is from Reading Next. It offers a summary of the different factors that can contribute to reading difficulties.

“Part of what makes it so difficult to meet the needs of struggling readers and writers in middle and high school is that these students experience a wide range of challenges that require an equally wide range of interventions. Some young people still have difficulty simply reading words accurately… Most older struggling readers can read words accurately, but they do not comprehend what they read for a variety of reasons. For some, the problem is that they do not yet read words with enough fluency to facilitate comprehension. Others can read accurately and quickly enough for comprehension to take place, but they lack the strategies to help them comprehend what they read…. In addition, problems faced by struggling readers are exacerbated when they are ESL or have learning disabilities.” (page 8)

And don’t forget possible weaknesses in vocabulary! A good assessment plan is important to identify what is causing the reading problem. Below, I’ve offered some suggestions for interventions that address each of the areas noted above.

Reading words accurately: Some students have not mastered the underlying decoding skills necessary to accurately read both familiar and unfamiliar words. This weakness becomes especially apparent as students encounter new, multi-syllable words. A systematic phonics intervention may be needed in this situation. A full program such as Wilson Reading, the Sonday System, Project Read Phonology and Linguistics strands, SRA Corrective Reading, or other similar programs may be necessary for students who have significant gaps in their phonics knowledge. Some students may have spotty weaknesses in some phonics elements or with the ability to apply their phonics knowledge to new, multi-syllable words. Program such as Rewards, Phonics Blitz, and Lexia SOS software may be helpful in these cases. In a small percentage of cases, struggling adolescent readers may have an underlying phonemic awareness difficulty—a program such as Lindamood Bell LIPS may be appropriate in these situations. With all of these programs, it is important that they be taught with fidelity (i.e., with a trained instructor, for the amount of time per week and in the class size recommended by the program).

Not reading words with enough fluency: Some students have the underlying decoding knowledge, but they have not “practiced” reading enough to become fluent. Fluency includes having enough speed and accuracy, but also enough “automaticity” (being able to do the task without having to think about it) so that they are free to concentrate on the meaning of the text they are reading. There are formal interventions available for providing fluency instruction (e.g., Read Naturally, Great Leaps). The use of these programs makes instruction easier because the reading and support materials are provided in the program. However, in the absence of a program, teachers can plan activities such as alternate oral reading with a model or peer, simultaneous oral reading, repeated readings, and phrase-cued reading using material that is not part of a formal fluency program. LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) Module 6 “Getting Up to Speed: Developing Fluency” is a professional development resource for teachers about how to teach fluency.

Weak vocabulary and language skills: Many students have no difficulty decoding the words, but once they have read them they still cannot comprehend because they are unfamiliar with many of the words. Or, they are not familiar with complex sentence structures. ELL students in particular may have these problems, but students with English as a first language may have these problems, especially if they did not receive enough oral language development before entering school. Also, adolescent struggling readers usually have not been reading very much through the intermediate grades, which also contributes to having vocabulary and language structure weaknesses. The best intervention for vocabulary and sentence structure development is professional development that is provided to all teachers so they can imbed instruction to address these weaknesses into their content teaching. Research has shown that vocabulary develops primarily through wide reading, as well as direct instruction in skills such as word analysis (e.g., common roots, suffixes, and prefixes), use of content to help determine meaning, and direct teaching of important content-related words. Vocabulary Through Morphemes (Sopris West) is a resource for word analysis skills. Research has also shown that the least effective instructional practice is to have students memorize definitions of lists of words that are unrelated to the content they are reading in subject classes. For this reason, I do not recommend the use of any number of “vocabulary workbook series” that consist of weekly word lists that must be learned.

Lacking comprehension strategies: Even students who have relatively strong decoding and fluency skills, and who have well-established vocabularies, still have difficulty comprehending what they read. This may be because they have not developed the before, during, and after strategies that are the hallmark of a good reader. Research has identified certain strategies that should be taught, including when and how to use each strategy. These include comprehension monitoring skills, answering and generating questions, using graphic organizers and story structures, summarizing, and activities that help students activate prior knowledge and make predictions before they read. Most importantly, the research concludes that the best place to teach these strategies is during content classroom instruction, and that teaching students to use several strategies together is most useful. Again, I believe the best intervention for comprehension is the provision of professional development to all teachers so they will know how to teach these strategies imbedded in classroom instruction. There area several research-based models that do this, including Reciprocal Teaching, the SIMS strategies (University of Kansas), and Collaborative Strategic Reading. Comprehension and vocabulary professional development is what my company, Keys to Literacy(opens in a new window), specializes in, so I will also recommend my two professional development programs “The Key Three Routine: Comprehension Strategy Instruction”,and “The Key Vocabulary Routine.”

Combination interventions: It is important to state that even though some students have underlying decoding or fluency weaknesses that may require interventions that address these specific reading components, they will most likely also need instruction in vocabulary and comprehension strategies at the same time. By the time students reach middle school, years of not reading enough have usually taken their toll on vocabulary and comprehension development. We do students a disservice if we wait until they have improved their decoding and fluency skills before we address vocabulary and comprehension. There are some intervention programs such as LANGUAGE! that combine decoding, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and writing instruction into a combined program. When programs such as these are used, it is very important that they be used with fidelity if they are to work (i.e., teachers who are trained to use the program, use of the program for a minimum amount of time per week).

As you can see, the answer to your question is not simple. We must make our intervention instructional decisions on the particular needs of each student.