Blog Post
Supporting Striving Teenage Readers with the Science of Reading

In April, I wrote a First Person article for Chalkbeat NY on how I fear we are leaving older students out of the discussion on the science of reading. What I implied, but did not say outright, is the root cause of this: we are leaving the teachers of those older students out of this national conversation. I was one of these teachers. When I was in graduate school for secondary English education, I took a course called the Teaching of Reading. As we read Susan Sontag and Kylene Beers, Lucy Calkins and Harold Bloom, I realized that course was not going to teach me how to teach students how to read. At the time, neither I nor my professors thought that my graduate school cohort pursuing state certification to teach students in grades 7-12 would need to know how to teach teenagers how to decode, encode, or move through a text with fluency. I received an amazing teacher education in how to teach reading as a means for further learning. But on my first day of teaching middle school, when I watched my pre-adolescent and adolescent students try to sound out words or use pictures to guess the words on the page, I realized that I needed to learn to teach teenagers how to read.

There is a false binary too often created in teacher education programs and professional development settings. It is a hopeful false binary and goes like this: teachers in grades K-3 teach students to learn to read, while teachers of students in grades 4 and up teach students to read to learn. Continue reading for ways to support striving teenage readers with the science of reading, as well as specific Storyshares resources that align with these key strategies.

1. Funds of Knowledge: Funds of knowledge refer to the understandings, interests, cultural and family histories that people have as a result of their life experiences. In the 1990s, researchers Luis C. Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez applied the idea of funds of knowledge to teaching, finding that curricula are reflective of White, middle-class experiences and ignore the funds of knowledge of the majority of students that have different lived experiences. When it comes to learning to read, this puts students whose life experiences are reflective of the mainstream even further ahead because of their ability to comprehend what they already know. 

All older students come to us with more years of lived experience than the younger children most “early literacy” curricula were created for. They come to us with well-developed interests, passions, and hobbies and with experiences inside and outside of school that are often colored by their struggles with reading and with the clever ways they learned to compensate for that struggle. For example, a middle school student with years of experience (and trauma) being called on to read aloud might learn to depend on images, colors, and text features to guess words and derive meaning. The science of reading is, by definition, research-based. The use of funds of knowledge builds upon years of research in culturally responsive pedagogy. At Storyshares, we designed the These First Letters series – our first set of decodable chapter books for teenage striving readers – with the funds of knowledge in mind.

2. Independent Reading → Strategic Reading: In my experience coordinating reading interventions in middle and high school settings, I can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that scheduling/programming is the biggest hurdle when it comes to giving students the support that they need. At the same time, research shows that independent reading time drops in secondary grades to the detriment of older students, particularly older students who either lack a quiet place to read outside of school or who are still practicing reading skills that require scaffolding from teachers and literacy professionals. When we first prioritize independent reading by allotting regular classroom minutes to settling students with a book, we support all readers, from those who are striving to decode and those who inhale text voraciously. Then, once we settle students with books, educators can pull small groups for short bursts of reading interventions and guided reading supports, focusing on word attack and fluency strategies, comprehension tools, and more. The These First Letters series of decodables comes with an educator guide that breaks down the tenets of structured literacy and applies them to the books in the series. 

3. Train Teachers: The vast majority of teacher education programs at both the BA and MA levels do not teach the science of reading to prospective teachers of teenagers. They operate with the assumption that when students enter the sixth grade and beyond, they go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” The task of teachers of striving teenage readers is to help students learn to read while reading to learn. This is no small feat and will require teachers to be well-versed in the multi-pronged approach of structured literacy. When we train teachers in a layered Science of Reading-aligned approach like structured literacy, educators can teach reading to learn and learning to read simultaneously. In order to use the science of reading to support striving teenage readers, we need to develop capacity in the teachers of those teenagers. That’s why we are piloting a new professional development series: Teaching Teenagers to Read. With six sessions designed to work with the hectic schedules of teachers, schools, and districts, we want to break down and share best practices when it comes to teaching literacy to those most often left out of this national conversation.