Directions for Literacy Leaders to Support Underachieving Middle Level Students’ Reading Achievement

The purpose of this research summary revolves around the collection of empirical work published within the last decade that focuses on middle level students most in need of support for their reading achievement. Statistics generated by the National Center for Educational Statistics (2013) note that 64 percent of eighth grade students do not score as proficient in reading and that middle school students’ overall reading progress has stagnated. In addition, findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2013) note that only 38% of students score at or above proficiency levels in reading and the gap between the reading achievement of white and non-white students further support the timelines and importance of this summary. The tendency to blend middle level students with high school students under the umbrella of adolescence also points to the need for a more specific focus on middle grades students and their teachers (e.g., Alexander & Fox, 2011).

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:

  • Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them
  • Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning
  • Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches
  • Leaders are committed to and knowledgeable about this age group, educational research, and best practices

For this summary, leaders are broadly defined as the array of interested parties who directly or indirectly impact the implementation of the practices stemming from these empirical investigations (e.g., teachers, administrators, counselors, instructional coaches, and paraprofessionals). Three overarching notions linked to promoting middle level students’ literacy achievement hold importance for these leaders: (1) a belief that all students can and should read better, (2) a commitment to district, school, and classroom environments that support research-based recommendations, and (3) a recognition that “best practices” hold contextual variability (e.g., Lewis, Enciso, & Moje, 2007).

As previously stated, the basis for this summary includes empirical work published in the last decade that addressed middle level students’ reading achievement. This resulted in the consideration of 27 articles. The designs of the 27 articles included experimental (.30), quasi-experimental (.26), qualitative (.22), and mixed methods (.11) approaches. The manuscripts appeared in 15 journals, four linked to special education (Learning Disability Quarterly, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Remedial and Special Education, and Learning Disabilities Research and Practice), one focused on teaching in general (Teacher Education), and the remaining oriented toward the middle grades as well as general literacy audiences (Reading Research Quarterly, School Psychology Review, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Literacy Research and Instruction, RMLE Online, Journal of Literacy Research, American Educational Research Journal, Middle School Journal, and Reading Psychology). The final journal publishes synthesis pieces (Review of Educational Research). The general content of the articles spanned seven categories: (1) an array of individual topics linked to literacy acquisition (.37), (2) affective contributors (.23), tiers of intervention (.15), programs (.07), interventions (.07), professional development (.07), and one synthesis (.04). These categories were further consolidated and reported under the labels of cognitive, affective, and programmatic findings along with recommendations for professional development. A concluding section addresses the overall direction that these findings suggest for furthering middle level students’ achievement as well as recommendations for future research.

Cognitive Findings

The individual topics addressed in these studies covered areas agreed upon as important for reading comprehension for all readers: fluency, vocabulary, word identification, and connected text (acquiring understandings beyond the word level) (e.g., Rasinski, 2011). However, and as a reminder, the studies selected for this review tapped middle level students as the population of interest. The following sections provide findings for each area, findings that stem from a focus on students in the middle grades and apply directly to them.

The two studies that addressed fluency for middle level students found gains in reading rate (Morris & Gaffney, 2011; Spencer & Manis, 2010). The participants in each study engaged in an array of oral reading practices (e.g., repeated reading and timed reading of words, phrases, and sentences). However, while fluency can impact comprehension, these studies did not find those links. Based on these findings, care should be taken to make sure that a middle level student’s dysfluent reading actually interferes with understanding a text before instructional time is spent on fluency activities.

These vocabulary studies took several directions. Burns, Hodgson, Parker, and Fremont (2011) considered the appropriateness of previewing a text and preteaching key words. While both directions significantly impacted these middle level students’ comprehension, they considered preteaching keywords more efficient since it involved less preparation and instructional time. Specifically, previewing involved developing short questions to guide a student’s reading and statements to engage them in the content of the text. Preteaching keywords simply involved their selection and presentation. Lesaux, Kieffer, Faller, and Kelley  (2010) addressed academic vocabulary and found that a program called Academic Language Instruction for All benefitted second and first language learners. Harmon, Wood, Hedrick, Vintinner, and Willeford (2009) collected quantitative and qualitative data to examine the use of word walls. They found that teachers used them for a variety of purposes that students considered beneficial (e.g., reviewing for a test, completing assignments, and assisting writing tasks). Students also noted an overall appreciation of word walls and specifically noted the control over their learning that the use of word walls afforded and the active engagement that accompanied it.

Word Identification
Diliberto, Beattie, Flowers, and Algozzine (2009) added syllable skills instruction to the regular curriculum for the middle level experimental group in their study. The control group received the same amount of instructional time, but it did not include syllable instruction. Following the completion of 60 mini-lessons, the experimental group significantly outperformed the control group on measures of word identification and comprehension and reduced the gap in fluency.

Too often, explicit attention to syllabication ends well before the middle grades (Greenwood & Bilbow, 2002). These findings support the potential benefit of its continuation.

Connected Text
Before turning directly to the studies that addressed improving the understanding of connected text, a study by Prior et al. (2011) merits reporting. This study compared silent and oral reading and found that by grade seven silent reading assumes benefits for understanding text. This offers encouragement for teachers to promote silent reading over oral reading options to better support comprehension.

A number of studies examined think aloud strategies. Fisher, Frey, and Lapp (2011) looked at their benefits with English language learners. They found that the results depended on English proficiency. Specifically, greater proficiency in English led to more benefits from think aloud strategies. Caldwell and Leslie (2010) taught students various think aloud options (e.g., paraphrasing, summarizing, making new meaning, relating to prior knowledge, reporting understanding, and distinguishing between prior knowledge and test information). Students benefitted from applying them to expository selections.

A smattering of other studies also holds notable findings. Vaughn et al. (2011) found significant advantages to instruction in four comprehension strategies (preview, the use of fix-up strategies, gist, and summative statements). Meyer et al. (2010), when using a web-based program that focused on text structure, found comprehension advantages with elaborated feedback as opposed to simple responses. In a study by Henry, Castek, O’Byrne,, and Zawilinski (2012), students benefitted from an Internet version of reciprocal teaching.

Across the studies in this cognitive section, several commonalities characterize this body of findings. First, teachers continue to matter. They provide the interventions, guide students’ use of various practices, and allot time for them. Second, potentially important information received explicit instruction. Students were not left to learn by chance or inference. Finally, comprehension provided the overall goal for any instructional direction. In other words, a focus on syllabication or fluency did not become an end unto itself but offered a potential support for understanding text.

Affective Findings

With the ongoing influence of the No Child Left Behind era (2001) and the current attention to Common Core State Standards (2010), the affective contributions to literacy learning (e.g., engagement and motivation) too often get set aside. The current attention to things like grit, defined as a personality trait that allows individuals to stick with things over time until they master them, (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007) and an overall mindset of perseverance and stamina (Dweck, 2006) afford reminders of the influence of affective dimensions.

To address middle level students’ interest and engagement in reading, Brinda (2011) introduced Ladders to Literacy, an approach that included six areas to use when reading a text. Brinda found that students’ grades improved, their assignment completion increased, and their overall enjoyment improved. Daniels and Steres (2011) identified three school-based conditions that also influenced students’ attitudes: (1) making reading a priority, (2) modeling and support from adults in the school, and (3) the creation of motivating learning environments.

Programmatic Findings

In looking at programs that help students read better, one thing remains consistent: time spent on areas of identified needs holds benefits. Whether formally labeled as Response to Intervention or generally framed as assistance, recipients of interventions fare better than comparable groups who receive standard classroom instruction, resulting in an upward trend, a statistically significant difference, or the maintenance of instructional gains (Graves, Brandon, Duesbery, McIntosh, & Pyle, 2011; Roberts, Vaughn, Fletcher, Stuebing, & Barth, 2013; Vaughn, Cirino, Wanzek, Wexler, Fletcher, Denton, & Francis, 2010; Vaughn, Wexler, Leroux, Roberts, Denton, Barth, & Fletcher, 2012). These improvements do not come quickly, but they do allow a lessening of the gap between the lower and higher achieving readers on the measures selected for comparison. Pitcher, Martinez, Dicembre, Fewster, and McCormick (2010) add reminders about maintaining a focus on student needs, including student choice, and providing reading specialists to work directly with students. Finally, the program selected for a student does not seem to advantage one group of students over another. Instead, the old adage that something is better than nothing seems to prevail (Edmonds, Vaughn, Wexler, Reutebuch, Cable, Tackett, & Schnakenberg, 2009; Shippen, Houchins, Steventon, & Sartor, 2005).

Professional Development Recommendations for Literacy Leaders

While only one study referred to professional development for teachers’ improvement of their literacy instruction for middle level students, its inclusion remains important. Many schools rely on professional development in an array of formats. Receiving guidance about pieces of importance for professional development driven directly from efforts conducted with middle level teachers can guide these decisions. Reed (2009) unveiled several factors that proved beneficial. First, effective professional development was simultaneously relevant, ongoing, and frequent. In addition, it was job-embedded. In other words, the direction of these sessions related directly to the work at hand, and on many occasions occurred during the act of teaching. Finally, professional development carefully balanced opportunities for collaboration with colleagues and interactions with input from external experts. Under these conditions, benefits extended beyond language arts teachers to those teaching within the disciplines.

Concluding Comments

The compilation of findings from this review of research underscores several points to remember as teachers attempt to help middle level students read better. First, the small number of articles that focused exclusively on middle grades and students in most need of literacy assistance underscores the need for more research. On a positive note, it evidences attention to cognitive and affective dimensions of learning to read. This could prevent teachers from overemphasizing the cognitive areas at the expense of the equally important affective contributors. It also addresses a range of topics that middle level teachers encounter and where students might need improvement (e.g., fluency, text structure, oral and silent reading formats, vocabulary, syllable skills, and internet reciprocal teaching). It provides some input about evaluating programs, interventions, and professional development. These can prove valuable. However, this review also unveils cautionary notes. Within this period of time, only one of eight topics received attention in more than one study. This raises concerns about perhaps placing too much faith on a single study. Replication does more than confirm findings;it also introduces multiple contexts and the varied success of good ideas across them. One category (tiers of intervention) was investigated by the same team of researchers. Certainly, researchers are expected to have a compelling and coherent line of research. However, a limited range of researchers might narrow the thinking and become overly convergent in its specific questions and findings. This review also inserts a question about the influence of special education stances and practices on regular education classrooms. This becomes especially important when the majority of students with literacy needs are neither placed in special education classrooms nor eligible for special education services (Department of Education, 2013). (As a reminder, approximately 35 percent of these articles were published in special education outlets.) Finally, the influence of specific journals also introduces questions to consider. In this corpus of research, three journals accounted for 48 percent of the published pieces. Sixty eight percent of the outlets published a single manuscript. Whether these splits matter warrants further attention.


Alexander, P., & Fox, E. (2011). Adolescents as readers. In M. L. Kamil, P. D Pearson, E. B. Moje, & P. P.Afflerbach (Eds.), Handbook of reading research volume IV (pp. 157-176). New York, NY: Routledge.

Brinda, W. (2011). A “ladder to literacy” engages reluctant readers. Middle School Journal, 43(2), 8-17.

Burns, M. K., Hodgson, J., Parker, D. C., & Fremont, K. (2011). Comparison of the effectiveness and efficiency of text previewing and preteaching keywords as small-group reading comprehension strategies with middle-school students. Literacy Research and Instruction, 50(3), 241-252.

Caldwell, J., & Leslie, L. (2010). Thinking aloud in expository text: Processes and outcomes. Journal of Literacy Research, 42(3), 308-340.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Daniels, E., & Steres, M. (2011). Examining the effects of a school-wide reading culture on the engagement of middle school students. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 35(2), 1-13.

Department of Education. (2013). A first look: 2013 math and reading NAEP 4 & 8. Retrieved from

Diliberto, J. A., Beattie, J. R., Flowers, C. P., & Algozzine, R. F. (2009). Effects of teaching syllable skills instruction on reading achievement in struggling middle school readers. Literacy Research and Instruction, 48(1), 14-27.

Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance, and passion for long term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(6), 1087-1101.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset. New York, NY: Random House.

Edmonds, M. S., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Reutebuch, C., Cable, A., Tackett, K. K., & Schnakenberg, J. W. (2009). A synthesis of reading interventions and effects on reading comprehension outcomes for older struggling readers. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 262-300.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2011). Coaching middle-level teachers to think aloud improves comprehension instruction and student reading achievement. Teacher Educator, 46(3), 231-243.

Graves, A. W., Brandon, R., Duesbery, L., McIntosh, A., & Pyle, N. B. (2011). The effects of tier 2 literacy instruction in sixth grade: Toward the development of a response-to-intervention model in middle school. Learning Disability Quarterly, 34(1), 73-86.

Greenwood, S. C,, & Bilbow, M. (2002). Word identification in the intermediate and middle grades: Some tenets and practicalities. Childhood Education, 79(1), 26-31.

Harmon, J. M., Wood, K. D., Hedrick, W. B., Vintinner, J., & Willeford, T. (2009). Interactive word walls: More than just reading the writing on the walls. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(5), 398-408.

Henry, L. A., Castek, J., O’Byrne, I. W., & Zawilinski, L. (2012). Using peer collaboration to support online reading, writing, and communication: An empowerment model for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 28(3), 279-306.

Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., Faller, E. S., & Kelley, J. G. (2010). The effectiveness and ease of implementation of an academic vocabulary intervention for linguistically diverse students in urban middle schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 196-228.

Lewis, C., Enciso, P., & Moje, E. B. (2007). Reframing sociocultural research on literacy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Meyer, B. J., Wijekumar, K., Middlemiss, W., Higley, K., Lei, P., Meier, C., & Spielvogel, J. (2010). Web-based tutoring of the structure strategy with or without elaborated feedback or choice for fifth- and seventh-grade readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(1), 62-92.

Morris, D., & Gaffney, M. (2011). Building reading fluency in a learning-disabled middle school reader. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(5), 331-341.

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No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, ESEA 2001, Title I.

Pitcher, S. M., Martinez, G., Dicembre, E. A., Fewster, D., & McCormick, M. K. (2010). The literacy needs of adolescents in their own words. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(8), 636-645.

Prior, S. M., Fenwick, K. D., Saunders, K. S., Ouellette, R., O’Quinn, C., & Harvey, S. (2011). Comprehension after oral and silent reading: Does grade level matter? Literacy Research and Instruction, 50(3), 183-194.

Rasinski, T. (2011). Rebuilding the foundation: Effective reading instruction for the 21st century. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Reed, D. K. (2009). A synthesis of professional development on the implementation of literacy strategies for middle school content area teachers. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 32(10), 1-12.

Roberts, G., Vaughn, S, Fletcher, J., Stuebing, K., & Barth, A. (2013). Effects of a response-based, tiered framework for intervening with struggling readers in middle school. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3), 237–254. doi: 10.1002/rrq.47

Shippen, M. E., Houchins, D. E., Steventon, C., & Sartor, D. (2005). A comparison of two direct instruction reading programs for urban middle school students. Remedial and Special Education, 26(3), 175-182. doi:

Spencer, S. A., & Manis, F. R. (2010). The effects of a fluency intervention program on the fluency and comprehension outcomes of middle-school students with severe reading deficits. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 25(2), 76-86.

Vaughn, S., Cirino, P. T., Wanzek, J., Wexler, J., Fletcher, J. M., Denton, C. D., & Francis, D. J. (2010). Response to intervention for middle school students with reading difficulties: Effects of a primary and secondary intervention. School Psychology Review, 39(1), 3-21.

Vaughn, S., Klingner, J. K., Swanson, E. A., Boardman, A. G., Roberts, G., Mohammed, S. S., & Stillman-Spisak, S. (2011). Efficacy of collaborative strategic reading with middle school students. American Educational Research Journal, 48(4), 938-964. doi:

Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Leroux, A., Roberts, G., Denton, C., Barth, A., & Fletcher, J. (2012). Effects of intensive reading intervention for eighth-grade students with persistently inadequate response to intervention. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(6), 515-525.

Annotated References

Daniels, E., & Steres, M. (2011). Examining the effects of a school-wide reading culture on the engagement of middle school students. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 35(2), 1-13.

In this qualitative study, the authors turn their attention to promoting a culture of reading in a middle school. The study was conducted in southern California in a school with 68% non-white students and an overall student body who lived below the poverty line, held English as a second language, or had both of these attributes. Data stemmed from interviews with 18 students, focus group discussions with teachers, and individual teacher interviews. These data were analyzed using procedures typical of a qualitative tradition. As background for these findings, the principal evidenced his commitment to reading by offering support to all teachers on how to promote reading within their classrooms, dedicating specified time to read, promoting student choice, and offering school-wide support for teachers. The principal personally supported reading by establishing 15 minutes for everyone on campus to read silently, giving book talks in English classes, asking students about their reading, and devoting staff meetings to teaching faculty how to talk about books with students. From the study, the authors unveiled three conditions linked to students’ and teachers’ desire to read: (1) making reading a priority, (2) adult modeling and support for reading, and (3) creating motivating learning environments for students. Accomplishing these conditions stemmed from administrative support (as previously described), district grant money to purchase books, classroom libraries, teacher expertise about young adult literature, the development of a school literacy council, student choice about what books to read, and the ongoing belief of teachers that all students could read given the appropriate amount of support.

Diliberto, J. A., Beattie, J. R., Flowers, C. P., & Algozzine, R. F. (2009). Effects of teaching syllable skills instruction on reading achievement in struggling middle school readers. Literacy Research and Instruction, 48(1), 14-27.

The following question guided this study: To what extent is there a difference between students with high incidence disabilities, including ADHD, and those students at risk for reading failure who received direct, explicit, and systematic supplemental instruction in syllable skills versus students with high incidence disabilities, including ADHD, and those students at risk for reading failure who did not receive instruction in syllable skills on reading achievement? Students from three middle schools were randomly assigned to a control or treatment group. Across a six month period, all students received the same amount of instruction based on the core curriculum at their school. The presence or absence of the intervention (Syllable Skills Instruction Curriculum) was the only difference between the groups. The intervention consisted of scripted lessons that focused on the concepts of importance for syllabication use (e.g., vowel/consonants, syllabication generalizations, and accenting patterns). At the end of the intervention period, significant differences arose in word identification, word attack, and reading comprehension in favor of the experimental group. Fluency attainments also favored the experimental group.

Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. H. (2013).Engagement with young adult literature: Outcomes and processes. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3), 255–275.

In this qualitative study, Ivey and Johnston question students’ perceptions of the outcome of their teachers’ decision to forego whole-class assignments of classic texts in favor of students’ self-selection of young adult literature (both fiction and nonfiction). Data came from interviews with students and teachers conducted at the end of the school year, classroom observations, informal exchanges with students and teachers during class time, and video and audio recordings of student-initiated small-group book discussions. The findings unveiled students’ extended time spent reading and widespread talk about books in and out of school. Students also noted the broadening of students with whom they interact and increased trust between students and with teachers. Students also noted the changes in their view of themselves as readers, a stronger sense of agency, an increase in curiosity, and a stronger sense of intellectual competence. They also enhanced their understanding of the world as well as insights about how texts work. Evidence also pointed to students’ improvement in rate of reading, vocabulary, grammar, comprehension, and strategies for addressing confusions that arose as they read.

Recommended Resources

Christenbury, L., & Bomer, R. (Eds.). (2009). Handbook of adolescent literacy research. New York, NY: Guilford.

Gallagher, K. (2004). Deeper reading. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lenski, S., & Lewis, J.(Eds.). (2008). Reading success for struggling adolescent learners. New York, NY: Guilford.

Taylor, B. M., & Duke, N. K. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of effective literacy instruction: Research based practice K-8. New York, NY: Guilford.

Wilhelm, J. D., & Novak, B. (2011). Teaching literacy for love and wisdom: Being the book and being the change. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


Mary F. Roe is a professor and head of the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at Utah State University. She is a member of the AMLE’s Research Advisory Committee.

Maria Goff is a doctoral student in the Learning, Literacies, and Technologies Ph.D. program at Arizona State University.

Published June 2014


  1. This article was significant in helping middle-grade level students achieve their goals with the support of educators through all kinds of findings like cognitive, fluency, vocabulary, and more. This article was great.