Reading Teacher

Learning to Read for Older Students

Learning to Read for Older Students

In discussions about struggling readers, we often talk about “early intervention.” But when students fall behind early -- and interventions begin too late -- these readers continue to struggle well beyond elementary school.


What can parents, educators, and schools do to support the older struggling reader? Across the world, this question is increasingly urgent: in the U.S. alone, nearly 130 million adults read below a sixth-grade level.


Literacy is a key determinant of long-term success in several spheres, including academic success, earning potential, and both physical and emotional well-being. Even for struggling older readers, there is hope to regain the skills and confidence necessary for reading success.


Read on for the latest information on learning to read for older students, common causes of literacy lags, and three strategies to excite and encourage older readers.

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The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Recipe For Struggling Older Readers


After months of virtual instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, educators reported significant reading struggles among their older students. Many students never received adequate instruction in phonics, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how letters represent sounds. As a result, many students now enter higher grades with significant gaps in their reading abilities.


These gaps widened during the pandemic, although research indicates that struggling readers have struggled for decades, and often for the same reasons -- many of which originate in inadequate phonics instruction. When older readers cannot read effectively at the word level, they inevitably face challenges with overall comprehension.


Ultimately, this complicates the belief that U.S. students simply “learn to read” in K-3, in the words of Education Week. Expectedly, older students cannot “read to learn” if they lack the skills to decode more basic words -- let alone, comprehend entire storylines. These issues are compounded by the events of the past few years, as well as an overall lack of opportunities or encouragement to read -- which, over time, means that students never develop the reading fluency skills to build their comprehension.

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Reading Interventions for Older Struggling Students


In the wake of a pandemic, what can supportive adults do to help older readers recover essential reading skills? While the answer partially depends on the student and the curriculum, literacy experts have identified several research-based strategies to rebuild the foundation for lifelong reading.


1.   Use Graphic Organizers

A graphic organizer is an invaluable teaching tool for educators of older students. These organizers allow students to visually depict relationships between facts, concepts, and ideas. Teachers and students can use graphic organizers to break complicated texts into simpler chunks, using pictures, smaller sentences, and diagrams to communicate the major themes.


Graphic organizers are ideal for struggling older readers, students with learning disabilities, and any student who identifies as a visual thinker and learner.

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Example of a storyboard, a type of graphic organizer. Image Source: Wondershare

2.   Introduce Small Group Phonics Instruction

Working in small groups allows teachers to provide as much explicit instruction as necessary -- which is particularly relevant for phonics instruction.


For older readers, experts recommend focusing on two areas of phonics instruction: multisyllabic word reading and structural analysis. Don’t be alarmed by these big terms: they mask simple concepts that produce confident, competent readers.


  • Multisyllabic decoding is a reading strategy that teaches students how to read and spell words with multiple syllables. Readers learn to break words into syllables and identify the vowel patterns in each syllable to read the word.
  • Structural analysis is similar, but instead of breaking words into syllables, students focus on specific word parts, like prefixes, stems, and suffixes.

Just like any other phonics method, both of these reading strategies should be taught through direct and explicit instruction.


To support students’ progress, teachers or parents can make the common syllabic vowel patterns visible on posters or sticky notes throughout the classroom or at home. Readers can reference the patterns while decoding and blending syllables -- and eventually, they’ll be able to decode on their own, without these visual supports.


3.   Meet Students Where They Are

Not every student comes from a home with access to books, educational games, or family members who have the capacity to read with their children at home. In view of this reality, teachers are encouraged to meet students where they are in their educational journeys, using the available science to design lessons that honor the needs of older struggling readers.


In addition to phonological awareness and decoding, literacy experts also emphasize the importance of vocabulary and writing skills for older readers. Teachers and parents can engage these students in conversations about popular media, literature, and current events, which often require the use of more complex words. Writing about these conversations can greatly enhance comprehension, as well as the memorization and application of new vocabulary.


Learning to read for older students is a winding journey -- but with the right strategies, constant encouragement, and the power of phonics, it’s a deeply rewarding one.

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  • In the U.S. and other countries, thousands of older students struggle with basic reading skills: a longstanding concern that was exacerbated by virtual instruction during the pandemic.
  • Inadequate phonics instruction is a common denominator among many struggling older readers.
  • To help older students restore foundational reading skills, parents and educators can utilize the following strategies:
    • Graphic organizers
    • Small groups phonics instruction
    • Personalized instruction to meet each student’s history and needs, with an emphasis on vocabulary and writing

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In 2022, Is Third Grade Still the Make-or-Break Year for Reading?

In 2022, Is Third Grade Still the Make-or-Break Year for Reading?

In celebration of National Reading Month, educators and parents across the U.S. are reading daily with their students. With each book, they’re discussing new sounds, unfamiliar words, and world-expanding narratives. Of course, we know that the work of learning to read extends far beyond the month of March: especially in 2022, it takes a lot to catch students up to the literacy milestones they’re expected to meet by the end of third grade. Today, we explore how third grade reading levels shape students’ long-term reading success when accounting for the effects of the pandemic, students’ individual circumstances, and educational inequities.

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Research on the science of reading has shown that third graders who cannot read at grade level are most vulnerable to dropping out of school. Because today’s third graders experienced months of virtual literacy education, it is difficult - and perhaps even inaccurate - to apply this research to the early readers of 2022. Nevertheless, third grade is still widely recognized as the final year children are learning to read, after which they are “reading to learn.” The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), also known as the U.S. report card, uses third grade reading scores to assess students’ reading performance: if third graders score well on the NAEP and related assessments, research indicates they have a better chance to go to college and reap greater lifetime earnings. Conversely, data suggests that early literacy gaps are even wider among low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities and other reading challenges such as dyslexia.

While this make-or-break year has undoubtedly been affected by the pandemic, new legislation in various states recognizes the importance of third grade despite COVID-19 setbacks. Take Grand Island, Nebraska, where third graders are celebrating National Reading Month: like many other U.S. school districts, most Grand Island elementary teachers did not learn about the science of reading in their teacher training programs. In response, the school district implemented district-wide training in the science of reading, driven by the belief that “literacy is liberation.” As of this month, around ⅔ of the district’s elementary teachers have completed additional training on early literacy; moreover, under the Nebraska Reading Improvement Law, all Nebraska schools are required to provide instruction grounded in the science of reading to support early literacy. By screening early for reading barriers and collaborating with parents, the Grand Island district is committed to nurturing strong and confident readers by the culmination of third grade.


The Read Across America program honors the same commitment. Throughout National Reading Month and beyond, the program seeks to uplift students and authors of color, individuals with disabilities, and others whose voices have not always been heard - let alone, read. In addition to receiving science-backed literacy education, it is vital for students to see themselves in the stories they read and to experience the connection between reading success and “real-life” achievement. In a recent panel hosted by the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, program director Hank Fien stated that educational disparities “have mirrored disparities in wealth, employment and virtually every positive indicator of health and well being.” A third grader’s reading scores do not just inform their fourth grade year: these scores shape how students are viewed by teachers and how students view themselves, reinforcing the importance of early literacy instruction that acknowledges the science of reading and language as a civil right.

make or break year for reading


  • Historically, third grade reading scores have been a valuable metric to assess students’ long-term wellbeing and prospects for higher education and employment.
  • In response to COVID-19, and in recognition of systemic barriers that disproportionately affect disadvantaged students, some U.S. school districts are arming teachers with early literacy training in the science of reading.
  • Third grade reading scores continue to inform the development of new legislation and curricula to support today’s youngest readers.

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Access Level 1’s four interactive stories and the accompanying supplemental resources to teach elementary students how to read. No credit card is needed. Join the 42,635 teachers and students using our reading program.

Decodable Books: Do They Actually Work?

Decodable Books: Do They Actually Work?

how decodable books work

Learning to read comes naturally to some children; they seem to just get it without needing to understand and learn the phonic codes that make reading sensible. For some, on the other hand, learning to read isn’t always that simple.


When it comes to reading, several children need a systematic approach in teaching in order to acquire this skill incrementally. As they begin learning to read, decodable books prove to be an integral part of the entire learning process.


At this point, some of you are probably asking a pretty important question: “What are decodable books?” Don’t worry – in this blog post, we’ll answer all your concerns regarding decodable books and reveal if they actually work or not.

What we’ll cover:

  • What are decodable books?
  • How do decodable readers work?
  • Purpose of decodable books
  • Why are decodable readers important?
  • Do decodable readers work?

What Are Decodable Readers?

Decodable books or decodable readers are texts that only contain specific phonics patterns or codes, which the student has already learned. These books usually involve high-frequency words.

How Do Decodable Readers Work?

Decodable readers are designed particularly to align with precise, systematic phonic instruction. They’re simple stories formed using exclusive terms that are phonetically decodable, using letter patterns that students have already learned in phonics classes.


For example, a student at the initial learning stages of reading who only knows short vowel sounds can decipher simple terms like bed, pig, and hat; however, he/she will not be able to decode words like owl and see.


On the other hand, a student at a greater reading level who already knows multi-letter phonograms like OA and AI will be able to decode more complex terms like goat and snail.


Moreover, Education Week reveals that decodable books have no storyline; they’re entirely nonsensical whether you begin on the first page or the last page, and even if you read backwards.

Purpose of Decodable Books

The purpose of decodable readers is to enable students to practice the phonic patterns and codes their teacher is teaching them. So far, they’ve proved to offer an outstanding opportunity for in-context practice. Many experts believe that students should practice phonics words and patterns in isolation as well as in the context of writing and reading.


Additionally, these books are used only for short periods to help students develop and improve decoding skills. Once these are in place, students move on to reading varied and wonderfully rich children’s literature.


Note: When searching for decodable books for kindergarten or 1st grade, know that the word ‘decodable readers’ is often used improperly, especially when it indicates books in which only half the terms are decodable. This can be extremely frustrating for many children and may not even support good reading habits. Therefore, keep in mind that good decodable readers – like the ones provided in Reading Teacher programs – are fully decodable and allow your students to read each word.

Why Are Decodable Readers Important? 

Apart from effectively teaching phonics skills, there are some other ways decodable books help students and teachers. Here are some of them:


  • Children learning to read can read decodable books independently
  • Decodable readers encourage students to practice their decoding skills rather than merely relying on images and guessing.
  • These books establish and foster a self-reliant approach among beginning stage readers.
  • With decodable books, learners experience immediate success and acquire interest, enthusiasm, and confidence for reading.
  • These books focus on a target grapheme (spelling) and phoneme (sound).
  • Decodable readers aid successful reading of children’s literature.

Do Decodable Readers Work? 

Yes, it is true that decodable readers effectively teach phonics skills to struggling students, but they do not teach them some of the other vital decoding skills of vocabulary and grammar.

Closing Note

A decodable reader is an excellent tool if you intend to teach and improve the reading skills of young learners. They will not only make learning how to read easy and effective but also fun.


Click here to see our range of decodable books for kindergarteners and 1st graders or explore other Reading Teacher programs that can make reading lessons fun and successful. You can access interactive videos, quizzes, stories, and printable books that have set over 40,000 students on a straight road to academic achievement through our platform.

Start Teaching Reading for Free Now!

Access Level 1’s four interactive stories and the accompanying supplemental resources to teach elementary students how to read. No credit card is needed. Join the 42,635 teachers and students using our reading program.