CommonLit Secondary Classrooms Schools & Districts Five Ways to Help (older) Students Build Reading Skills

Simple strategies to improve students’ reading comprehension abilities and build their reading engagement

According to the 2022 NAEP Reading Assessment, only 32% of 4th grade students are proficient in reading, and the figure drops to 29% for 8th grade students. While it’s true that teachers in upper grade levels often aren’t trained to provide foundational reading skills, the reality is that they have students in their classes who cannot independently read on-grade level texts. These students are in need of support and assistance to gain skills and build confidence. How can teachers work to help older students gain reading skills without going back to foundational reading instruction?

Here’s a list of five ways to help older students build their reading skills and increase classroom engagement:

1. Build background knowledge before reading 

Studies have shown that by giving students information or background knowledge about the topic of an article or lesson prior to reading can help the reading and information “stick” better. While a simple step, it is one that’s sometimes overlooked due to the teacher's assumptions that students are already familiar with a topic. Providing this critical info can easily be accomplished with classroom discussions about the topic of the lesson before the material is read, showing pictures of items in the lesson to create visuals and ground students’ learning, and by simply previewing the material ahead of time with students and answering questions. 

One effective and easy way to boost background knowledge is taking advantage of the Related Media selections available with each CommonLit lesson. With every lesson on the CommonLit site, there are videos, podcasts, and other multimedia resources that help students envision and engage with what it is they’re going to learn about before they begin reading. Setting the stage for students to learn can help increase their reading skills by making the information more understandable and accessible.

Three separate video screenshots with clocks and sleepy people

2. Annotate with a purpose 

The goal of annotating is to increase students’ engagement with text which can lead to increased reading comprehension; however, annotating is always high on students’ “least favorite things to do” list. Most teachers have seen students highlighting entire paragraphs when asked to annotate or simply underlining entire sections. One way to improve annotating efforts is to give students a clear direction and purpose when annotating. This can be done by providing a specific question or item to look for as students are reading. For example, finding figurative language in a text, identifying main points in each section, or answering a specific question related to a paragraph can work to give students direction on how to successfully annotate. Additionally, teacher modeling of annotation is an effective way to set students up for success.

A helpful feature with each CommonLit lesson are the digital annotation tools that are available for students. For example, teachers can give students a specific question to answer via annotations, and then the student’s annotation can then be read by the teacher on the CommonLit website. This helps make students more accountable for their annotations as well as gives them notes about the lessons to read later on.

Poem text with picture of staircase

3. Build vocabulary skills

One primary component when looking at how to improve reading skills is vocabulary usage and the ability to understand and internalize new words as students come across them. Taking the time to go over unfamiliar vocabulary words during whole class readings will benefit student comprehension as well as work to increase vocabulary acquisition over time. This can be done by stopping to take note of unfamiliar words and helping students use context clues for identifying word meaning. Tracking these words on classroom Word Walls, encouraging students to use the words when speaking and writing, and looking for them in other contexts can also help with vocabulary learning.

For explicit vocabulary instruction, the CommonLit 360 curriculum includes lists of academically-centered vocabulary with each unit. These lists feature accompanying activities to help students learn the words as well as vocabulary quizzes to assess students’ knowledge of the words

4. Require multiple readings and break down text

Getting students to read something once can be tough, so requiring them to read an article or story over is definitely a big ask. The benefits are so tangible, however, that it’s worth investing some time showing students how this simple practice can impact them and their learning. Knowing what’s going to happen before it occurs sheds a new light on the material as it’s being read and leads to improved reading skills and inferencing insights.

Another effective strategy for how to improve reading skills that can be used along with rereading is breaking down texts into smaller sections and checking for understanding as you go. A simple tool for this is using the Guided Reading Mode available with each CommonLit selection. With Guided Reading Mode, the text is broken down into manageable sections, and there’s a question to accompany each section. Once the question is answered correctly, the next part of the text is unblurred, and students can continue reading. Using Guided Reading Mode and then a reread of a lesson can help raise students’ reading comprehension and build confidence.

Raw fish and green onions on a cutting board accompanied by text

5. Give students a choice of materials  

While there will always be instances where all students in a class have to read the same passages and lessons, it’s also important to give them a choice of materials when feasible. Experts agree that engagement levels increase when students get to choose the lessons that they’re asked to complete. Increased engagement can then lead to increased performance, achievement and confidence. 

Finding multiple texts for students to choose from can be time consuming for teachers; however, one solution is to utilize multiple lessons from the CommonLit website. Using the Paired Texts feature on CommonLit will give teachers additional lesson ideas that align in topic, themes, or writing styles. Knowing that lessons are carefully selected and readily available makes it simple to offer students a chance to own their learning by deciding which text they would like their teacher to assign to them.

Three separate texts with image of sleeping person, school bus, and person asleep in bed

While teachers of older students don’t always have the training to help them learn how to read, they can give students in-the-moment strategies to assist in improving reading skills. 

To get more information on how a partnership with CommonLit can provide your school or district with assessment and data-tracking tools to assist teachers as they work to help students improve reading skills, reach out today.