Why Distance Learning Might Actually Benefit Older Struggling Readers

Once educators get beyond some common misconceptions, they can take practical steps to identify secondary students with literacy challenges and use technology to support them.

By Laura Axtell

Here’s a sobering statistic: In 2019, 30% of 12th grade students were identified as reading below the basic level on the NAEP assessment. If you include those reading below proficiency, that percentage rises to a staggering 63%. Achievement for these lowest-level readers actually decreased from 2015, meaning that after twelve years of education, more than half of all students will go into the world with limited literacy skills.

Reading is the only skill that K-12 students need for six hours a day, every single day. All academic areas are impacted by reading: the ability to do word problems in math, identify information in social studies, and participate in discussions about novels in English class. But reading isn’t confined to school performance. As students get older, a driver’s license is often a necessity, but getting one can be a major challenge if they can’t read the manual or pass the test. Getting a summer or part-time job may be very difficult if reading or writing is involved. Areas of interest and competency, like sports, may be eliminated because of poor grades. There is often an emotional impact, too, because of shame and fear that others will discover their deficit.

These issues are often compounded for students of color or those who are impoverished or live in rural areas with less access to resources. If the current pandemic has revealed anything, it is the  lack of educational equity that exists across the country. School staff have had to make major adjustments when students don’t have internet or devices or basic supplies needed to receive instruction remotely. In many cases, those students have missed consistent time with their teachers and there is a growing concern that a substantial percentage of students will suffer “learning loss” that will cause them to fall even further behind. This may be more acute for older students in middle and high school.

Secondary students, often significantly behind in reading, are frequently less likely to receive appropriate intervention than elementary students. This inequity exists for several reasons:  secondary teachers rarely receive training to teach basic reading skills, schools don’t prioritize time for students to receive the amount of intervention that would allow them to catch up to their peers, and there are fewer options for high-quality reading instruction materials for older students.

So much of the focus beyond 4th grade is on meeting ELA standards that pre-service middle and high school teachers often receive very little information about identifying and remediating reading difficulties such as dyslexia. In order to support older readers and their teachers, it is helpful to first address some common misconceptions.

Misconception 1

A big one, often based on reading assessment measures, is that comprehension is the problem. The majority of reading assessments and standardized tests for older students focus on reading comprehension measures without determining gaps in the essential components that lead to comprehension: decoding, fluency, and vocabulary. A low comprehension score doesn’t tell teachers what they need to know to intervene, yet the proposed solution is often more reading “strategies.” This is generally unsuccessful because, as stated by Dr. Anita Archer, “There is no reading strategy powerful enough to compensate for the fact that you can’t read the words.”

Decades of research have identified that effective readers must have a solid and automatic knowledge of how to translate the sounds of our language to the print that represents those sounds. This begins with accurately knowing consonant and vowel sounds, regardless of age, and understanding how speech and print work together for reading and spelling. Secondary teachers are often unsure how to assess foundational reading skills or address deficits; yet, studies show that aggressively correcting phonological awareness difficulties and providing phonic decoding instruction are two of the most successful elements for intervention.

Misconception 2

Another misconception is that struggling readers aren’t trying hard enough or must be less intelligent than their peers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The majority of students with dyslexia, for instance, have average or above-average intelligence. Teachers may assume that students are lazy or not working very hard because secondary teachers often don’t know the characteristics of dyslexia or how to identify a struggling reader who has spent years hiding this fact. Educators can take the following steps to identify and support struggling readers in middle or high school.

How to Spot Struggling Readers

Students with dyslexia and weak decoding skills build coping mechanisms in their early years to avoid shame that gets stronger as they get older. It benefits educators to become aware of what students are doing when they’re performing reading or writing tasks and to look for these compensation strategies.

For example:

  • Do students participate in discussions but avoid anything connected with reading out loud?
  • Are the same students conveniently requesting to use the bathroom or go to the nurse’s office during independent reading?
  • Do they appear fidgety and distracted during reading? Are there consistent behavior issues when students are asked to share reading or writing assignments in front of their peers?

These are common strategies students with dyslexia use to avoid embarrassment. Educators can also watch for repeated spelling errors, letter reversals, and the use of simple words and limited responses in their students’ writing—or not turning in work at all.

How Distance Learning Can Help

There are two primary ways to support these students. The first is providing access to the curriculum content that will help them keep pace with their peers. During this unusual school year, teachers have the opportunity to do things differently that better support struggling readers. For example, a number of teachers are reading a book out loud with their students online, who are following along, and then having virtual discussions to support understanding. Students working from home can also access resources like text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and spell-checking apps to support decoding, writing, and spelling. Adults use these resources all the time, and they can be incredibly helpful for students to use without the knowledge of their peers, something they might be reluctant to do in class. Also, there is often more time now because students aren’t in class all day, five days a week. At home or during breaks in instruction, students can:

  • keep pace with the English class by listening to an audio book;
  • connect to science and history topics by watching an educational video that increases background knowledge;
  • have access to resources that provide reading content at their instructional level; and
  • work on projects where their strengths can be highlighted.

Most importantly, these students require targeted reading instruction with a research-based program designed for secondary students, such as Reading Horizons Elevate®, that can be delivered virtually or in-person.

During the pandemic, older students may be working remotely more often and missing valuable intervention. Instructional software ensures that students continue to receive Structured Literacy delivered at their own pace and can join small-group intervention online without being pulled from other classes. Research supports the need for adequate time for secondary students to apply the skills needed to become more proficient readers. The current school situation may allow for an increase in the amount of time necessary to prevent that.

This year provides an opportunity for educators to become more aware of their struggling readers and how to support them better, and for school administrators to ensure that reading intervention is available in any setting. Although COVID-19 restrictions won’t always affect how teachers and students interact, the need for appropriate instruction for older struggling readers will continue.


Laura Axtell, a former special education teacher and high school administrator, is now an education specialist for Reading Horizons.


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