Key Features of Effective Reading Intervention for Middle School Students

Student Reading

Today’s middle schools are energetic, dynamic environments, as administrators and teachers strive to incorporate the range of abilities of their students into the increasing demands of advanced curriculum in all subject areas. As I’ve traveled around the country talking with teachers about their classroom experiences, I’ve noticed that many teachers who work with middle school students face a common struggle: How can they meet curriculum goals and standards when so many of their students struggle to read grade-level text? The most recent NAEP scores show that 30% of 8th graders performed below NAEP Basic in reading (Nation’s Report Card, 2022), which is a larger percentage than in 2019. These struggling readers need intervention in the basic areas of reading: phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Yet, in middle school, students truly need to be prepared to read at a higher level—for the purpose of learning. Students who can’t access the complex texts presented in middle school classrooms are likely to fall further behind academically, which can lead to decreased motivation and interest in school. There is no time to spare.

The vast knowledgebase known as the Science of Reading has taught us that struggling readers need more intensive, explicit instruction than their peers who learned to read without significant struggles. Providing this instruction is much easier said than done. Middle schools face the daunting task of providing effective, individualized literacy interventions in spite of limited resources and trained staff. Often, middle school teachers are content-area experts who have not been trained in teaching reading. Even with literacy specialists on staff, how can teachers address the unique needs of such a large population of struggling readers? The gap between student needs and available resources creates a barrier to student success across all content areas.

To overcome these challenges, middle schools need a flexible intervention that struggling readers can use largely independently and at their own pace, addressing their specific, unique needs. This intervention must be engaging and appropriate to their level, without being babyish, which can be difficult to achieve for older students working on foundational skills. In addition to engaging content, middle school literacy interventions also need to be motivating, to encourage students to persist at a task that is challenging and probably frustrating for them. All of this must also fit into an already jam-packed schedule of classes that contain content that may be over students’ heads.

To effectively accomplish these tasks, schools need the right tools. In working with middle school struggling readers for over 30 years, my colleagues at Read Naturally have identified key elements that result in the most success for teaching this population to successfully read and comprehend grade-level material.

When selecting or evaluating a reading intervention program, middle schools should look for the following key features:

  • The program should be evidence-based and aligned with the Science of Reading, with a proven track record of working well for the middle school population.
  • The program should allow for accelerated progress through lower levels of material, so students can catch up to their peers and confidently read grade-level material as soon as possible.
  • The program should be straightforward for busy teachers who may not have a literacy background to understand, implement, and adapt to meet individual students’ needs.
  • The program should include robust training and support, and volunteers and classroom helpers should be able to be trained to assist with implementation.
  • The program should allow each student to practice reading at their instructional level—a level that will challenge but not frustrate the student—and to move up as they improve. The program should include plenty of material at each level, from a first-grade through an adult reading level.
  • The program should allow students to work mostly independently and check in periodically with their teacher to evaluate their progress. This independence will develop confidence and allow for better differentiation.
  • The program should be easy to customize so that students can focus on the areas of reading instruction they need most, whether it’s phonics, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, or all of the above.
  • Students should see frequent evidence of their improvement so that they are motivated to keep making progress.
  • Quantifiable data should be tracked and readily available to help teachers make the best instructional decisions and maximize students’ progress toward their long-term goals.
  • The program should emphasize comprehension as the ultimate goal of reading and provide opportunities for students to demonstrate the knowledge they obtain through comprehension-focused activities.
  • Students should receive modeling of what fluent reading sounds like in order to develop prosody, and students should have opportunities to practice reading with expression.
  • Students should practice reading the same text several times in order to develop automaticity and accuracy. Progress monitoring should be incorporated into this activity to make it enjoyable for students.
  • Vocabulary-acquisition strategies, such as word definitions provided in context, should be present in order to help students understand increasingly sophisticated text.
  • Reading passages should be at appropriate lengths for students to develop reading stamina, as grade-level material at the middle school level and beyond requires students to read for longer stretches of time.
  • Reading passages should be high-interest and incorporate nonfiction in order to build background knowledge and foster comprehension. The material should not be babyish, as older students need content that respects their maturity and helps avoid feelings of shame or embarrassment. This ensures they remain engaged and motivated.
  • The program should be one that students enjoy using so that they are willing to invest the time necessary to build their skills.
  • The program should be affordable for all school budgets, because every student deserves effective reading instruction.

Thanks to decades of working with and studying the middle school population, the teachers at Read Naturally developed the Read Live program to incorporate all these features and more. Programs like Read Live enable students to improve their foundational reading skills while striving to meet the academic demands of middle school curriculum.

The ability to read well has a huge impact on all other academic areas, and middle schoolers can’t afford to fall farther behind. An effective, enjoyable program to help middle school struggling readers improve quickly will make all the difference during these challenging years and beyond.

Diana Phillips is the Assistant Director of Research and Professional Learning Materials at Read Naturally. In her 20 years of teaching students of all ages and ability levels, Diana has developed a passion for supporting teachers as they encourage students to become better readers.