Hameray Classroom Literacy Blog

How to Engage Striving Readers in Middle School, Part 1

Editor's Note: This blog was previously published, we're re-sharing it today as teachers begin to plan their fall semester.  


By Susan Weaver Jones, Reading Specialist, Guest Blogger

While some middle school students may be capable of successfully demonstrating their reading comprehension, there may be striving readers who are painfully aware that they cannot read or write anywhere close to their on-level peers. In this two-part blog post series, I'll explain how you can help striving readers in middle school foster a love of reading and improve comprehension. In this first part, I'll describe the qualities of leveled books that will spark curiosity among your students.

In elementary school, students, families, and their teachers work together to develop needed literacy skills. By middle school, though, there may not be as much support for students who struggle with reading fluency and comprehension. In addition, parents of striving readers may have despaired as they witness their children's academic difficulties being perpetuated year after year.

Few people enjoy pursuing ventures at which they have demonstrated a decided lack of proficiency. Not surprisingly, students who don't read well for whatever reason often do not like reading. Middle school students who have difficulty reading do not usually embrace reading tasks. Indeed, they avoid actual reading to the extent they can by substituting the appearance of reading instead. You may have noticed that they'll glance at words they can't decipher, turn pages rapidly, and glean what meaning they can from available graphics. Pretending to read becomes their means to cope with reading assignments.

To try to accommodate the basic reading levels at which these students function, some teachers provide low-level texts typically used in elementary classrooms for guided reading lessons. Unfortunately, books designed with younger students in mind do not appeal to most middle school students, despite the more accessible text. The older students may need considerable reading practice, but they don't want to advertise their lack of proficiency by reading books that look and sound babyish to them and their classmates.

That discouraging, but realistic, picture of struggling middle school readers could eliminate any vestiges of hope. Fortunately, not all is lost! What if the manageable text was combined with young adult characters, intriguing plot lines, engaging comic book style graphics, and short chapters? Picture-supported stories, reminiscent of popular graphic novels for teens, can appeal to middle school students in ways typical guided reading leveled books do not. Hameray has five different series, each specifically designed to appeal to striving readers and their interests, covering both biographies of historical figures and sci-fi adventures, and everything in between! 

Reluctant readers might find themselves curious to discover what happens in chapter books with titles and themes that remind them of stories portrayed in other media, such as television, movies, and electronic games. These narrative texts can also engage students to make real-world connections between classroom lessons and life outside of school.

                                                                                                           For example, consider the high-interest, low-level chapter book, Killer Robot, from The Extraordinary Files series. Instead of giving struggling readers isolated opportunities to practice comprehension skills in the absence of actual reading material, you help kids apply what they're learning while reading a book they can handle, such as Killer Robot. To make learning relevant and meaningful, you can discuss Common Core reading standards within the context of the chapter book in which students can practice reading skills, such as sequence, problem-solving, cause, and effect.

This is important because struggling middle school readers understand the concepts behind the reading skills taught. Still, they lack the opportunity to apply the skills to text that is appropriate for their reading levels and interesting for their age group. Chapter books created with middle school struggling readers in mind fill that void. With such books, students can work on skills that are transferable to other reading situations. Given time and practice, students may be surprised to realize they have also developed a love of reading they thought they would never experience!

Initially, though, students who struggle with reading may require some persuasion to give any book a fair chance since their literacy experiences may not have been positive overall. That's why a chapter book like Killer Robot  is significant for reluctant readers who have the potential to grow into students who choose to read. Killer Robot  also capitalizes on an intriguing robotic theme that appeals to students! Curiosity will be inevitable about why things happen in a story involving artificial intelligence and deadly life-forms. The illustrations will also pique students' interests and promote speculation about the plot, especially at the end of the narrative text.

Many middle school students have a keen interest in and relevant prior knowledge about advances in robotic technology through television shows, movies, and video games. They can use their background knowledge to make connections between the familiar media and the unfamiliar narrative. This will serve as a helpful foundation for reading and understanding Killer Robot  and other books in The Extraordinary Files series.

Determining why a character would be interested in an evil robot could prompt an interesting discussion among your students, which is a great way to approach the book's content. Stay tuned for the second part of this two-part blog post series because I'll describe how to help struggling readers in middle school with this level T chapter book.


Susan is an elementary educator from Orlando, Florida, who currently works as an ESL teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has taught students in kindergarten through eighth grade as a Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, Reading Recovery Teacher, and Literacy Coach. She is also the author of several leveled readers in the Kaleidoscope Collection. If you like what you read here, be sure to read more by Susan on our blog.