Teaching "Reading" at the Secondary School Level

By Stephanie Killam


Being able to read is a life-long skill. The importance of Language Arts as a core subject in school is often put into question. Many individuals do not make the connection that Language Arts builds foundation for every other subject. Without Language Arts, one would not be able to read a Social Studies textbook, analyze the various parts of a Physics diagram, or write up a lab report for Biology or Chemistry. Writing skills and a varying vocabulary make resume-writing much more successful, and, in turn, make the prospects of being hired for a desired position much more likely. These are basic reading and writing skills, as they are the very foundation of reading.

As necessary as these skills are, they do not always come easily, or naturally, for everyone. Often, struggling with reading is more obvious in lower-level elementary school because so much emphasis is placed on building these skills. For this, there are plenty of different early reading intervention programs available. As students advance further through school, and less emphasis is placed on learning to read, being able to detect struggles with reading becomes increasingly difficult. At the middle and high school levels there is an expectation of being able to read because almost all activities at these levels require it to complete assignments and do well. In 2006, Statistics Canada reported that 71% of fifteen year old students were performing at or above expected reading levels. Alternatively, this means that 29% of students are performing below reading level expectations. This comes out to be about 3 in every 10 students. Which would be about 6 in a classroom of 20 students. It is reported that of the 10-15% of students who will eventually drop out of high school, 75% report having difficulties reading (Lyon. G, 2003).

An important thing to remember is that a "struggling reader" does not equate to a "bad reader." Students who are great at reading may still struggle. Many of these difficulties are not based on an inability to identify sight words or to read through a sentence. A lot of these difficulties are from an inability to read through a paragraph and remember what it was about at the end. Or to understand larger, unfamiliar, words that occur frequently throughout a text (context clues). These students lose the motivation to continue reading a text, or to even try to begin with if they feel like every time they read something, they fail assignments or get frustrated because they cannot successfully make it all the way through. This page is designed to help teachers give students the tools that they need to be successful readers, increasing deeper comprehension, opening doors of ability for further analysis and critical thinking.

A Little Sympathy Test

Cris Tovani (2006), author of the book Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?: Content Comprehension, Grades 6-12, includes this little passage in her book to help teachers gain a bit more awareness of where students are coming from when they are faced with difficult texts such as Chaucer, Mary Shelley, and Shakespeare.

Read this and try to decode what it says. Read it first in your head.

Uans appona taim uas tri berres: mamma berre, pappa berre, e bebi berre. Live inne contri nire foresta. NAISE AUS. (No mugheggia). Uanne dei pappa, mamma, e beibi go tooda bice, onie, a furghette locche di doore.

Bai enne bai commese Goldilocchese. Sci garra nattinghe tu do batte maiche troble. Sci puscie olle fudde daon di maute; no live cromme. Den sci gos appesterrese enne slips in olle beddse.

Bei enne bai commese omme di tri berrese, olle sonnebronnde, enne send inne scius. Dei garra no fudde; dei garra no beddse. En ura dei goine due to Goldilocchese? Tro erre inne strit? Colle Puissemenne?

Dei uas Italien Berrese, erne dei slippe onna florre.
Goldilocchese stei derre tri uicase; itte aute ausenomme, en quiste bicose dei eshe erre tu meiche di beddse, sci sei "Go to elle," enne runne omme criane to erre mamma, tellen erre uat sanificese di tri berrese uer.
Uatsiuse? Uara iu goine du- go comliene sittiolle?

Difficult isn't it? Did you find yourself skimming parts of it because it did not make sense and you got bored? Did you find that you gave up completely after the first bit because it made no sense at all? Did you skip right down to the bottom looking for answers without trying to decode it? Now go back and read it out loud. Make note of words that sound familiar. Here's a hint: The title "Di Tri Berrese" is "The Three Bears" and the first sentence reads: "Once upon a time was three bears: mama bear, papa bear, and baby bear."
When you get back to the bottom, ask yourself these questions:
Does merely sounding out words help you understand the text any better? Do you need to think hard about what you're reading in order to better understand it? What strategies were you able to use to help you better decode it? Tovani writes that teachers who do this activity in her reading workshops "note that phonetic pronunciation is just a small piece of the strategy puzzle. They catch themselves making connections to the original story of the three bears. They find themselves asking questions about confusing parts, and substituting logical phrases for ones that make no sense. They compare dialect in the piece to what they've heard on The Sopranos, and read with those inflections in mind" (pg. 28).

Consider these factors when you are teaching reading comprehension skills. "Master" readers do all of these as second nature, but these are skills that need to be learned in order to master. A full translation of this text can be found at the very bottom of this page.


Different Types of Struggling

Although this particular page is less on the skills of actual reading (word-recognition, word order, etc) and more on content comprehension and teaching the skills required to actually "read into" a text, there are different types of struggling to read worth noting.

ESL Students

English as a Second Language are students whose primary language(s) or home language(s) is other than English and may therefore require additional services in order to develop their language abilities in the English language to succeed in Canadian society and in school. These students may be Canadian-born, immigrated from another country, or refugees. Having English as a second language does not in and of itself make a student "special needs," though ESL students may also have mental or physical challenges, behavioural difficulties, and/or giftedness (British Columbia Minister of Education, 1999).

Learning Disabilities

A learning disability is a disorder that affects a person's ability to either interpret what they hear or see or to link information from different parts of the brain. Although the individual with a learning disability has an average or above average IQ, the disability becomes evident in both academic and social situations. The individual can have marked difficulties on certain types of tasks while excelling at others. This website (where this definition came from) has multiple resources on Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorder in Alberta: http://www.ldaa.net/

Auditory, Phonological, and/or Language Processing Issues

Students with central auditory processing challenges often experience difficulty in the classroom when they have to listen while other sounds are present. They may or may not be able to locate the source of the sound or identify the correct sound that is made. Predicting speech is also a difficulty, along with determining rhyming words and other word patterns.
A student with phonological processing needs may have limited sound-to-symbol (written letter) skills, may take longer or be unable to recognize sounds and identify parts of words (rhymes, blends, syllables etc.), may make errors in speech and/or written language and may not be able to remember things that are presented orally.
Language Impairment:
A learning disorder characterized by an impairment in comprehension and/or use of verbal communication or the written or other symbol system of communication, which may be associated with neurological, psychological, physical, or sensory factors, and which may:
a) Involve one or more of the form, content and function of language in communication; and
b) Include one or more of the following:
• Language delay;
• Dysfluency;
• Voice and articulation development, which may or may not be organically or functionally based.

Identifying a Struggling Reader

Often times, a struggling reader is not struggling solely with reading. As stated in the introduction, reading and reading comprehension are the foundation of many other subjects, and an inability to comprehend while reading will lead to difficulties in most other subject areas that require guided question sheets that follow a textbook, reading math word problems on an exam, and reading arguments to be able to create a well-developed position paper for Social Studies.

It is difficult to lump all struggling readers into one or two specific characteristics (Benchmark Education, 1997-2012), here are some common areas of weakness found in students who struggle with various aspects of reading:

  1. Comprehension
  2. Higher-level-thinking questions
  3. Vocabulary
  4. Listening
  5. Formal Speaking (eg. presentations)
  6. Informal Speaking (eg. explaining own thinking in small- or whole-group settings)
  7. Communication through written forms

A student may struggle with all of these components or just one or two of them.

Strategies to Help Develop Reading Comprehension

Providing scaffolding instruction is very important. Scaffolding is a method of instruction when just introducing a new concept in which the teacher supports students in their learning (this is naturally done in a classroom by simply explaining a worksheet to students or giving step-by-step directions for an activity). Eventually, these supports are gradually removed as the student begins to gain independence with learning strategies, promoting their own cognitive, affective, and psychomotor learning skills and knowledge.

In terms of scaffolding instruction with reading comprehension, a teacher would clearly model a strategy for achieving comprehension while reading in whole-group instruction. Afterwards, the teacher would have students move into smaller groups in which they would repeat the process as a small group, with the teacher monitoring. Finally, students are given opportunity to use these reading comprehension strategies independently (Benchmark Education, 1997-2012). Below are some ways a teacher can model reading comprehension strategies to students.

Cris Tovani writes on how to help students apply reading comprehension strategies in any subject, and presents strategies for teachers to assist struggling readers.
1. Mental Modelling: "If teachers can slow down their thinking and notice what they do as expert readers of their content, they will know how to design effective strategy instruction. They can show students through modeling their own reading process how proficient readers attack different texts" (pg. 26). She emphasizes that in order to identify what a reader is struggling with, you, as a teacher, must put yourself in a similar situation to determine, as a good reader, how you would negotiate through the difficulty. These difficulties may include: rereading a text for the nth time; reading difficult or uninteresting text; starting a book; making sense of graphs, poetry, word-problems, and convoluted/difficult texts. Teacher modeling can help students learn to identify what strategies are best for the text they are tackling.
2. Select a challenging text for yourself, and model reading it to your students, showing them how you would work your way through it. What did you do as an expert reader to get through the content?
394933_10150488729331139_715201138_8816203_729647832_n.jpg3. Modelling how to stay with a text: Identify what causes you to want to abandon that text. Lack of background knowledge? Difficult vocabulary? Long descriptions interfering with comprehension? It is important for students to know that you are the expert in the room, but it is also important for them to know that you have read the same text they are reading a couple of times, and even you did not know all the answers to questions the first time you read it either. Pair students up for the first chapter of a novel. Tell them that one of them will be the reader, while the other is the secretary. The reader reads through the text and pauses at the end of each paragraph, or the end of the chapter, discussing questions that might come up based (initially) on basic plot elements, while the secretary writes them down (eg. "what's a charnet house?" or "is this guy's laboratory in his house?). Eventually students will learn to master and internalize this process. Always teach that there is no shame in re-reading portions of the text if you need to.
4. Define a Purpose for Reading: Many students equate reading well with reading fast. It's not a race. "Good" readers adjust their pace based on what they are reading, and in turn retain more information. If you are looking for a name in a phone book, you are likely to read fast. When you are reading a word problem in math, you will probably read slower to pick out important details. If students understand the purpose of a reading assignment, they will be more likely to slow down their reading pace to make note of what is important content, and what is necessary to remember. Keep in mind that many times when students do not have a purpose for their writing, their minds wander.
5. Graphic Organizers: Graphic organizers are wonderful for developing fuller comprehension of short or long texts. Possible categories could be: Chapter, Major Events, Characters Involved (New, Old?), Inferences, Evidence, Questions I Have. This gives students plenty of opportunity to record important aspects of a text that contribute to comprehension and "holding" thoughts and events in their minds. It is also a visual representation of what has just been read. Teach students that this is a skill that can be used not only for reading English class texts, but can also be transferred to studying for any other class. It becomes a great study tool once filled out.
6. Paraphrasing: Paraphrasing what has just been read, whether this is after a paragraph, a few pages, or a chapter, being able to paraphrase is a great indicator of basic events that have happened during that portion. Again, being able to paraphrase a portion of a text is a great study tool as well.
7. Comprehension Constructor Sheet: Asking yourself questions while reading a text is an integral part of active, engaged reading. Start this process by having students write down all questions they have while reading. As the proceed through the chapter/text, have them check off questions they are able to answer. Sometimes this happens right away, and sometimes this does not happen until way later. Demonstrate this to students by reading part of a text aloud to the whole class, and write questions on the board as you think of them. After you are able to answer a couple of your questions, place a check mark beside them. Have students do this individually afterward. Once this skill is developed, explain that there are different ways of answering questions: 1) Answering your own questions directly from the reading; 2) Researching answers (such as word definitions or using a search engine); and 3) inferring a possible answer with evidence from the text. Create a sheet that has 3 separate columns. The first column says, at the top, "Question I asked that I can answer after reading" and underneath has "Question" with some space below and then "Answer." The second column will say "Question I could answer if I researched it:" and the third column will say "Question I can answer myself by inferring."
8. Reading in Small Groups: Asking students to read in small group discussion:
  • stimulates higher levels of thinking
  • develops social skills
  • develops listening skills
  • encourages articulation of thinking
  • honors all learners
  • holds kids accountable
  • helps students remember
  • allows students to make connections
  • allows others to see different perspectives
  • and promotes deeper understanding
Most of these are learning objectives in the English Language Arts Program of Study.


Teaching reading comprehension is so important. Not only does it allow students to absorb what they are reading, but it gives them a chance to learn to love reading. A great quote is "Learn to read, teacher by teacher. Love to read, book by book" (- Unknown). Every child deserves to know what it is like to just get lost in their imagination, through the wonders of a great book. No one should lack this amazing experience because they are hindered by an inability to fully comprehend what they are reading, which leads to frustration and, if left too long, a developed hate for reading and literature, never mind ever reading for pleasure. Taking the time to show students strategies for developing these skills will not only help them succeed in school, but give them a skill that lasts a life time. Be the teacher who took the time to give them the gift of loving to escape into another world, filled with much adventure and excitement.



Why Do Some Children have Difficulty Learning to Read
This website comes from the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. It is a longitudinal research study completed in Canada following students with reading difficulties, and explains that "instructional programs that provided systematic instruction in phonemic aware-ness, phonics, guided repeated reading to improve reading fluency, and direct instruction in vocabulary and reading comprehension strategies were significantly more effective than approaches that were less explicit and less focused on the reading skills to be taught (e.g., approaches that emphasize incidental learning of basic reading skills)." It states further that "failure to develop basic reading skills by age nine predicts a lifetime of illiteracy." Read on to find out why!

Comprehension Resources
Here's a link that has a bunch of other links to different websites that have worksheets, lesson plans, and additional strategies for helping students with reading comprehension.

English Language Arts Resources
This is just an awesome website that offers a large variety of different resources for English Language Arts teachers, particularly at the secondary level (though there are some resources that transfer to the primary level as well).

Fluency through Fables
This is a resource for teachers of ESL students. It provides lesson ideas that involve using fables (such as the tortoise and the hare) to help increase language fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary.

Learning Disabilities Association of Alberta
This website was mentioned earlier on this page, but is worth mentioning again. It has a plethora of resources for learning disabilities and ADHD as well as events and programs and services.

"The Three Bears" Translation

Once upon a time was three bears: mama bear, papa bear, and baby bear. Live in the country near forest. NICE HOUSE. (No mortgage). One day papa, mama, and baby go to the beach, only they forget to lock the door.

By and by comes Goldilocks. She got nothing to do but make trouble. She push all the food down the mouth; no leave crumb. Then she goes upstairs and sleeps in all the beds.


By and by comes home the three bears, all sunbrowned, and sand in shoes. They got no food; the got no beds. What are they going do to Goldilocks? Throw her in the street? Call a policeman?


They was Italian bears, and they sleep on the floor.

Goldilocks stay there three weeks; eating out of house and home; and just because they asked her to make the beds, she says "Go to hell," and run home crying to her mama, telling her what sons of bitches the three bears are.

What's the use? What are you going to do - go complain to city hall?


Kasten, W. C. & Wilfong, L. G. (2005). Encouraging independent reading with ambiance: The book bistro in middle and secondary classes. International Reading Association, 48(8), 656-664.

Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading?: Content comprehension, grades 6-12. Markham, ON: Pembroke Publishers.