Helping Middle School Readers

When we think about helping kids with reading we automatically picture a young child in elementary school. However, there are many students in middle school who also struggle with reading for one reason or another. This age group is tricky to find resources for because they’re in between the learning how to read stage and practicing for the SATs and ACTs.

I’ve taught middle school language arts for six years and have seen students enter my 6th grade classroom at a third grade reading level and be expected to perform at or above grade level.  Sadly, this is the reality for so many teachers, students, and parents. Every year on back to school night I give the same speech and I always have parents emailing me that I was right by the end of the year. Below is my yearly speech:

Middle school is one of the hardest parts of growing up. There are a lot of social situations that arise that often impact academics. Your child will not always get an A. Your child will make a mistake. It is okay. These middle school years are a time of change; physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. Their brains are literally developing right now, and girls do mature faster than boys. Your child may not “get it” this year, and that’s okay. Each child develops at their own pace and for some it doesn’t click until further down the road. As a parent, the best thing you can do for your child is to be supportive. They will cry. They will be stressed. You will get into homework fights. They will yell at you because they don’t know how to handle what is going on. Just remember that it will pass.

Over the years I’ve talked to countless parents about how to help them improve their child’s reading, some even burst into tears during our conversations. Middle school is extremely challenging for parents and students, but there is help available. Today’s post is about how to help middle school readers and is for parents.

1. Know your child’s reading. Every year, without fail, I have at least one student who struggles with reading right off the bat. When I meet with the parents they act surprised because they say that in elementary school the child’s reading wasn’t an issue. Some parents at this point say that I’m too hard, that the school expects too much, or that their child is just being lazy. I spend so much time trying to get parents to recognize the struggle that we waste valuable time that could have been spent creating and enacting a reading plan.

My suggestion for parents is to keep an open mind. It’s okay if your child is not at the reading level they are expected to be at because many times they just aren’t ready. It is not a reflection on you as a parent in any way, some kids just need more time and more practice. Be open to suggestions from the school, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. I have found that typically boys struggle the most with higher order reading skills, like making inferences. I always tell parents it’s because their brain just isn’t there yet, but it will be. Many times I see the “click” moment in girls over the summer of going into seventh grade, and the boys are the summer going into eighth grade.

2. The role of reading. Once students hit middle school many parents feel that their child doesn’t have to read as much anymore, when in fact they need to be reading more. In elementary school, kids learn to read and in middle school it shifts to kids reading to learn. Most of the information they get is by reading a textbook, an article, etc., so they in fact need to practice reading more because it’s the main source of their learning.

If a child is struggling with reading a textbook provide them with nonfiction reading practice at home. This can include online articles and magazine subscriptions. Below are some great resources.

*For students who love sports, but aren’t ready to tackle Sports Illustrated or  adult Sports Illustrated Kidsarticles, SI (Sports Illustrated) Kids is perfect. This website (click here) has online articles about all different sports written at a lower reading level. The structure of the articles mirror those of adult articles so students are still learning how to navigate nonfiction text structures. The website is user-friendly and ideal for young readers.

*If your child loves animals then they should check out Kids National Geographic (click here). This website is super kid friendly and includes information on all different types of animals. It also has games for kids to play, which is always a plus.

Time for Kids*A great website for news is Time for Kids (click here). This resource is meant for students in grades K-6, so it is not for all middle school students. It is also available in print version if your child prefers to read the old fashioned way.

If a student struggles with reading novels, have some easier books at home for them to read. Ask the teacher for some suggestions or do a quick Google search. A go to list for me is from Goodreads (click here).

3. Read aloud. I know it sounds ridiculous because by middle school students can read independently. However, reading aloud is still super important at this stage of reading development. When kids hear a story they don’t have to worry about decoding unknown words or trying to figure out definitions, they can simply focus on comprehension. This allows them to create pictures, or a movie, in their head. Visualization is key to reading comprehension at this stage. Audiobooks are also phenomenal for helping kids visualize, and they’re perfect for when parents are too busy to read aloud.

Some options for incorporating read alouds include:

*Read together before bedtime. This can be a family activity or one-on-one. You want to make it a routine in order for it to be effective, however, it’s okay to miss a night here and there.

*Listen to audiobooks. Kids are so busy going to different after school activities, so it Audiobookmakes physically reading aloud a little challenging (especially in front of their friends). You can get books on CD at the library and listen to them as a family in the car or download audio books from iTunes and play them in the car or kids can listen to them on their iPod or phone. If you don’t want to spend money on audiobooks, do a Youtube search for the specific book you want. I have used Youtube read alouds for books like A Wrinkle in Time and kids have loved being able to listen independently.

4. Accept the twaddle. Every parent wants their child to read the classics, but in reality many children don’t want to read these. If your child doesn’t like to read and they bring home Diary of a Wimpy Kid, accept it. Many times kids gravitate towards the twaddle (easy, nonsense books) because they don’t have the self confidence to read the harder texts. Normally I allow young middle school (6th grade ish) students to read these books the first few months of school, then I challenge them with more complex texts. This way they are reading and building their confidence, without feeling too frustrated or overwhelmed.

5. Easy approaches to fiction. Students who are struggling readers need a little more guidance when they read fiction, especially class novels. Each teacher has their own approach and expectations and it varies with each text. As a parent, here are some easy ways you can help your child with a school fiction book.

*Read it with them. I have had parents who read class novels when the class does and that is totally okay. You can read the book with your child at home, or read it on your own and then discuss it with your child, whatever is most comfortable for you.

*Use the audio version. Many struggling readers prefer the audio version because they can just focus on the comprehension component. Have your child listen to the audio either before or after independently reading to help them fill in gaps. If the teacher allows it, encourage your child to listen to the audiobook during reading time in class.

*Talk about the book. Reading is a social activity because many times readers want to share their thoughts and opinions about what they read. Start off by asking reading comprehension questions (click here for some ideas) and then have your child describe specific characters and events to you. This dialogue helps students think about what they read on a different level then just plot. I usually suggest to parents that a child should choose one quote per chapter that speaks to them (it was descriptive, it was confusing, or just really good). Have them share this quote with you and talk about it. This type of activity helps with making inferences, a skill many middle schoolers struggle with.

*Sparknotes. I am one of those teachers that actually tells students about Sparknotes Sparknotesbecause when used appropriately they really are a great resource. After your child has read a chapter, have them look for a summary of that chapter online on Sparknotes. If the book is not there, Google chapter summaries for the specific book. Chapter summaries highlight important concepts from the chapter that a struggling reader may miss. They are often short and concise so the reader does not have to worry about vocabulary and long descriptions. I also suggest that students read chapter summaries before they take a quiz or a test just to make sure they comprehend the text.

6. Easy approaches to nonfiction. Many children struggle with the structure and language of nonfiction because it is so different than fiction. The good news is that students read more nonfiction in school because it is used in every class. Below are some easy at home ways to help your child navigate these challenging texts:

*Define the vocabulary. Some teachers require students to record the definition of vocabulary words in a text. In textbooks these words are often bolded and highlighted and the definition can be found in the glossary. As your child is reading make sure they are at least defining the word so they can understand the content. Typically textbook vocabulary words are crucial to understanding the overall picture of the reading.

*Summarize the reading. Depending on the length and teacher requirements, it is good to stop periodically and summarize the reading. Some students work best if they write a sentence summary for every heading, while others like to verbally summarize a section. Find out what works best for your child and go with that. I would make sure they are stopping frequently and especially during a long or information heavy section.

*Work while reading. Many times teachers give a chapter guide that needs to be completed with a reading. Instead of reading the whole chapter then filling out the guide, do the work while reading. This requires your child to slow down and process the information in more than one way.

*Record questions. If your child has questions about the content of the reading have them write it down to ask the teacher. Even if there is a quiz on the information, by having a specific question ready a teacher is more likely to answer it before doing anything with the content.

Middle school are challenging years to begin with, even more so for struggling readers. Always remember to ask for help, especially from the teacher. If you have any specific questions you would like to ask me, feel free to email me at littlereadingcoach@gmail.com.