Teaching Kids What They Don’t Know: Literacy Edition


It’s hard, when you’re a secondary teacher and you see that some of your students read at a 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade level. Having been there, I’ll say frankly that it can be downright scary, not knowing what to do or how you can help.  And, what we often hear, if we hear anything at all, is to simply reduce the reading levels of any text we assign the students. Taking a, well, blog page from my colleague Geoff Krall at Emergent Math, I’m going to argue that every teacher (ELA, core content, electives, technology, arts) can, and should, learn how to support readers themselves.  Even if you’re the math teacher or science teacher. In fact, you might be best positioned to help these students.

Here’s the problem: assigning students a lower level text masks the issue instead of addressing it.  It doesn’t teach students the skills they need to access more difficult texts. Of course, some schools pull kids out and teach them foundational skills in a remedial class.  This is a tempting solution, but it’s usually demotivating and hasn’t been shown to be particularly effective (see, for example, Ivey and Baker, 2004).  Another solution- put it on the ELA teacher.  Secondary ELA teachers are in the same position as everyone else, however- they have their own curriculum to teach and may not know how to support kids either.

Secondary students who read at a K-5th grade level may need help in a variety of areas, but many will need support in decoding words, or sounding them out, and fluency, or reading smoothly and at the right pace.  I’d like to discuss decoding and fluency briefly today because I think these are the areas where secondary teachers have the least knowledge and experience.  And, while they aren’t the only skills struggling readers need assistance with, I find they’re the areas where those readers are least likely to receive help.  This is where you, the teacher, come in.

First of all, how can you find out if your students do, in fact, struggle in these areas? Easy- arrange a situation where you have the students read aloud to you- a math problem, say, or the first paragraph of an entry document, maybe- and note if they struggle sounding out the words or they read in a jerky or disconnected way.

And then, you help.  You can do it, I promise. 🙂 In fact, as I alluded to above, there’s evidence that pull-out, intensive instruction focused on decoding isn’t very effective for older students, and that more purposeful decoding instruction integrated into the regular curriculum yields better results.  What might that look like?


  • Take a look at the vocabulary words for a project, unit, problem, or piece of text.  Look at them carefully- how do you say them? What are the syllables and how do you pronounce each one? Any patterns that might not be obvious to struggling readers? Example: linear equation: lin*e*ar  e*qua*tion. You might note that the “ar” is pronounced “urr”, “qua” is pronounced “qway” and that “tion” is pronounced “shun.”
  • Think about ways to support students in decoding those words.  You might have a word wall where you divide the words visually into syllables, help students divide words into syllables as they read selections aloud to you, or do small group vocabulary instruction where you also go over how to say the words.  You’re building their content knowledge and supporting students where they need the most help in a way that’s meaningful to students because it’s connected to your larger unit.


  • Take a look at what you’re having students read and note any sections with dense syntax or complicated ideas or a higher frequency of multisyllabic words.
  • Consider ways to support students with their fluency as they read those segments. Model reading aloud fluently yourself.  More importantly, have students read those sections multiple times, perhaps looking for different information each time. Reading something more than once silently or aloud has been shown to increase fluency and fluency and comprehension are linked (see, for example, Rasinski, 2004, or Seok and DaCosta, 2014).  Consider ways to integrate fluent reading into your projects, e.g. by using podcasts, plays, or other deliverables that will require students to read aloud fluently.

As you can see, these ideas don’t take much time.  And think of it this way- if students can’t decode or sound out words or read fluently, they’re going to really struggle with content, any content.  And lastly- if this kind of instruction is best integrated meaningfully into curriculum, someone has to do the integrating- you!


Literacy Coach for New Tech Network

Posted in Decoding and Fluency

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