An old saying in education goes, "Students learn to read in elementary school, and read to learn in secondary school." But what if students arrive in middle school without having mastered simple vocabulary, decoding skills and comprehension, and can't read well? What if the lifelong love of reading that teachers hope to instill never takes root?
"The philosophy that if we teach students to read by third grade we don't have to worry anymore is definitely not true," says Melvina Phillips, a consultant for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and author of Creating a Culture of Literacy. "I have students who can read every word on the page and not miss a word, yet can't comprehend and understand the vocabulary," she says "And we quit teaching reading by middle school." Phillips is also concerned about test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that show a resulting drop in literacy rates between fourth- and eigth- graders. And while average reading test scores for fourth-graders were higher in 2005 than in 2003, average scores for eighth-graders decreased over the same period.
There are many reasons for the middle school slide in literacy, including the lack of professionals who can identify and diagnose students with reading difficulties. For example, in Indiana, there has been a 90 percent drop in the number of middle school reading specialists over twenty-five years, says Carl Smith, director of the Family Learning Association in Bloomington, and this is typical of what is going on around the nation. Furthermore, most teachers certified for middle schools are not trained to diagnose reading problems or help students with reading deficiencies, Smith adds.
According to Lucy M. Calkins, professor of English education at Columbia University's Teachers College and author of The Art of Teaching Reading, language arts teachers simply do not dedicate enough time for reading. "English is usually in 45-minute periods,'' she says, "but the data say that students need two hours of reading a day to maintain grade level." Calkins advocates 90-minute language arts periods where students read at least 30 minutes in class, followed by explicit instruction on reading skills such as looking for clues about what will happen next in a story, or making connections between the setting of a novel and how it affects the characters.
However, what is less widely accepted is the fact that teachers in other content areas can assist struggling readers significantly, and can structure activities that will boost student performance in reading content-based material. Reading instruction is a responsibility shared by all teachers, regardless of level or content area, but for many the task may be daunting.
Reading in the Content Areas
Middle school administrators need to take steps to improve reading in the content areas, though for most teachers the pressure to cover material takes precedence over reading skills. Also, teachers in other content areas are generally not familiar with reading strategies and not informed about successful programs. But growing numbers of administrators are working to end the middle school literacy slide by restructuring the school day and providing staff development in literacy to every teacher, from music to physical education. They are also hiring literacy coaches, purchasing diagnostic and remediation software, testing students more frequently and carving out time to let students read in school.
For example, the Jonesboro Public Schools in Arkansas recently launched a literacy initiative to strengthen reading skills in the upper grades. The district held literacy-training labs to help teachers diagnose reading problems and help struggling students in their content areas, beefed up school libraries, and budgeted time for students to have book discussion groups. "The strong emphasis on developing those skills is the best chance we have for creating life-long readers and successful problem solvers,'' says Jane Jamison, Jonesboro's director of federal programs, testing and technology.
Similarly, the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina provided in-service training for sixth- seventh- and eighth-grade teachers across the curriculum to develop a reading and writing protocol, and added a daily 30-minute period where students can read anything from novels to comic books. "You have to set the expectation that reading and writing are interdisciplinary, whether in math or keyboarding," says middle school principal Gregg Decker. The teachers test incoming students to assess reading levels, continue the testing regularly, and provide access to textbooks at various reading levels in most content areas.
Incorporating reading instruction into content areas is not as overwhelming as one might believe, since any reading assignment can be broken down into three comprehension-building steps: "before reading" strategies such as brainstorming, skimming content and previewing headings; "during reading" activities including questioning, inferring and rereading; and "after reading" activities such as summarizing and reflecting. Skilled readers emerge from classrooms where effective reading strategies in specific content areas are taught and practiced.
Fortunately, professional organizations that support middle schools, such as the groups listed below, offer a variety of recommended resources on teaching reading in the content areas. These include What Principals Need to Know About Teaching Reading from the NAESP, and Promoting Literacy in Grades 4-9 from the NMSA. As Patti Kinney, president of the National Middle School Association puts it, "There is a lot of emphasis on school reform that won't help if we ignore the middle school."
Fran Silverman is a contributing editor.