Most of us go into education because we care about children and about the world. We want to help our children be the best they can be and reach their fullest potential. Reading is the most basic skill that we help our students develop. Knowing how to read helps students be successful and provides a means of entertainment. When we teach our children to read well and to love reading, we open doors for them through which they can gain knowledge, understand the world, become lifelong learners, and go places they may never physically visit. Reading helps develop critical thinking, creative problem solving techniques, and an understanding of other people and cultures.
Research reveals that adolescents who struggle with reading typically bring a frustration and failure in reading with them to the middle school level. They do not reach middle school and suddenly develop a reading block. As middle school teachers who often do not get training in teaching reading, we need to work with primary grade teachers and develop inventive ways to address their needs. In this collegial effort, we will help them overcome their struggles and frustrations. Some key ways that we can help them is to develop learning clubs and literature circles and to implement a program that will help track their progress. By tracking their progress, we can identify their struggles and provide intervention.
Learning clubs help students by placing them with peers who will help them. This is very much like peer tutoring but takes place in a structured group that studies specific topics. When we use learning clubs, it is important to balance teacher direction and facilitation so students are working together to solve problems, discover new information, or gain a deeper understanding of concepts. It is not unusual to hear students exclaim, "Oh, I get it now!" or "Wow, that is so cool!"
Learning clubs are helpful in content areas such as social studies and science. One way that we used learning clubs was to implement a program that required students to produce a quality project. Because quality projects require working across the curriculum, it is important to make sure students with various abilities are grouped together. Students use their research skills to find information on the topic, writing skills to formulate the content of the project to meet project guidelines, art skills to illustrate and make models of the topic, technology skills to develop web pages or slide presentations, communication skills to share their information in a way that ensures that all members of the group understand the final product, and social skills so they can work together as a unit.
Literature circles are primarily helpful in language arts, however, they can be useful in other content areas when novels are appropriate to help develop a real life understanding of content. Adolescents can read novels to help them understand human conditions and relationships that are part of their culture and world. Novels help them identify with emotions they are feeling and develop an understanding of the impact emotions have on society. We read novels that portray struggles that adolescents may have and provide time for them to discuss the struggles in their literature circle followed by whole-class discussion. Because they realize that what they are thinking and feeling is not so different from many others, the feelings of isolation that plague adolescents are minimized.
Literature circles can be organized in a couple of ways. Students can choose a book that they want to read with their group, much like a book club. This approach gives students a sense of ownership in the process. When our school does this, we provide a list of possible books to expedite the selection process. Students often read a novel that they would not have chosen on their own and are amazed at how much they enjoyed reading the book. As they read and discuss the book, "I didn't think of that, but it makes a lot of sense" is a common reaction. Sharing the novel with peers through discussion and analysis often leads them to exclaim "That was the best book I've ever read!" as they conclude the novel.
Intervention for Struggling Readers
One of the biggest impediments for learning clubs and literature circles is the struggling adolescent reader. According to research, cognitive engagement is important for adolescents who struggle with reading. Early intervention is not always enough. According to Moreau (2014), many students need intensive instruction throughout their educational career to prevent them from falling further and further behind. If teachers are willing and able to help them, struggling middle school students want to be engaged and improve. One way to help these students is to use a system that identifies their weaknesses and provides intervention.
In one example, a highly intelligent middle school student did very well in sixth grade, but in seventh grade he began to slip behind and exhibit uncharacteristically low performance. His teachers consulted a reading specialist who offered to interview him. As part of the interview, she had the student read a passage to her. Noticing that he skipped words and entire lines, she questioned him about the text. He told her that while reading, the words "just disappeared." He noticed them under the line he was reading, but when he got to the line they were in, the words were gone. She recommended that he see an eye specialist who diagnosed him with sight tracking deficit. His teachers had never heard of the condition, but the eye specialist had seen it before and knew how to work with the student to provide intervention that helped correct the problem.
Some students struggle because they have poor phonetic development or comprehension skills. These adolescents are at high risk for giving up and failing to complete high school. Having a program that can identify struggles and track progress helps these students become more confident readers, increasing the likelihood that they will be successful in high school and beyond.
Research indicates that because struggling readers read less they continue to fall further and further behind. According to Moreau (2014), this will follow them into adulthood. If we can teach them to read across many interests, they have a better chance at becoming a lifelong reader.
The students we have in our classrooms today will be the leaders of tomorrow. All of them have gifts and talents that can make the world a better place. Reading is one way for them to develop and use their gifts and talents as it builds their knowledge and self-esteem. As teachers, we can impact the future by helping struggling adolescent readers overcome the obstacles they encounter. As they overcome their struggles, they gain the confidence they need to share their knowledge, just as they share their insights in learning clubs and literature circles. What a joy it is to watch an adolescent flourish as they conquer their struggles and unmask their brilliance, gifts, and talents!
Moreau, L. (2014). Who's really struggling? Middle school teachers' perceptions of struggling readers. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 37(10),1-17.
Catherine A. Sharbel is a middle school science teacher at Holy Rosary Academy, Nashville, Tennessee.
Deborah Hayes, Ed.D. teaches at Carson-Newman University, Jefferson City, Tennessee.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2018.