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Still learning—reading beyond grade three: At a glance

Learning to read doesn’t end in elementary school. Even students who are strong readers by the end of third grade need to develop more advanced reading skills to succeed in middle and high school.

Progress in reading achievement stalls in the upper grades. In 2004, average reading scores for nine-year olds on the Long Term National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) rose to their highest level in the thirty-three year history of the assessment (11 points). For thirteen-year olds, progress has not been as dramatic, scores rose only 4 points between 1971 and 2004. Average scores for seventeen-year olds stayed virtually the same (Perie, Grigg, and Donahue 2006).


A number of students do not possess the foundational  knowledge and skills they need to do proficient work at their grade level.

  • About one-third (33 percent) of U.S. fourth graders scored "below basic" on Main NAEP in 2007. Students within this level are unable to make relatively obvious connections between the text and their own experiences. (Lee, Grigg, Donahue 2007).
  • Just over one-quarter (26 percent) of U.S. eighth graders scored "below basic" on Main NAEP. Students scoring this level are unable to demonstrate a literal understanding of what they read but are able to make some interpretations. (Lee, Grigg, Donahue 2007).
  • Twenty-seven percent of U.S. twelfth graders scored "below basic" on Main NAEP. Students at this level are unable to relate the text to their own experiences and draw conclusions. They also aren’t able to identify elements of an author’s style. (Grigg, Danahue, and Dion 2007).


However, at each grade level white students outperform their black and Hispanic classmates by more than two grade levels. (Every 10 points is approximately one year’s worth of learning.)

U.S. students compare favorably to their peers in other countries.

  • Just seven of 44 countries—including three Canadian provinces—outperformed U.S. fourth graders in 2006. This is due to the fact that U.S. students scored above the international average (PIRLS 2006).
  • Eleven of 38 countries outperformed U.S. fifteen-year olds in 2003. However, U.S. students scored no different than the international average (PISA 2003).

Some adults do not possess even the most basic reading skills.

  • In 2003 five percent of U.S. adults were not literate in English. This amounts to about 11 million adults nationwide.
  • Just about one in ten adults have below basic prose (14 percent) and document (12 percent) literacy skills. This means they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills (NAALS 2003).


Half of college-bound high school graduates aren’t ready for college-level reading. Annual assessments by the college testing program ACT found that the proportion of high school graduates who were reading at college level peaked at 55 percent in 1999 and declined to 51 percent in 2005—the lowest percentage since ACT has done the assessments (ACT 2006).

  • On college entrance exams U.S college-going students from the class of 2008 had an average score of 21.4 on the ACT reading section.
  • Students taking the SAT earned an average score of 502 on the Critical Reading section.

There’s a difference between reading difficulties and reading disabilities. Some students who struggle with reading in the upper grades may not have a disability. For most struggling readers in middle school, the problem is not that they cannot read words accurately but that they do not comprehend what they have read (Biancarosa and Snow 2004). Poor reading instruction in the past or achievement gaps that exist before students enter school can cascade into real struggles later on. Assessing and diagnosing students’ reading skills when they enter and changing teachers’ attitudes towards low-achieving students can help discouraged students start achieving.

Research shows how to help struggling readers. Expanding vocabulary, adapting instruction, enhancing comprehension strategies, and challenging students may sound like simple strategies, but they do work with struggling readers. See the larger paper  for specific, teacher- and parent-friendly handouts on these topics.

Fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension are especially important in middle and high schools. Although students still rely on phonemic awareness and phonics, more advanced skills start coming into play. For instance, the number of complex words increases dramatically, especially subject-specific words; the literary styles become complex and subtle; and key information may be implied rather than explicit. Repeated reading, explicit and indirect vocabulary instruction, and monitoring for comprehension are effective strategies at this level.

Have all teachers teach reading skills. Most middle and high school teachers (including English teachers) are content specialists and not trained for, or willing to do, reading instruction. But students learn comprehension strategies more effectively when they can apply them in real-life situations. Heller and Greenleaf say teachers need to remember what it was like to be a new student in the discipline and articulate the skills necessary to comprehend material. They also suggest schools hire literacy coaches and reading specialists to help those struggling with reading itself.

Find materials that motivate students. At this level, even strong readers may find the more difficult reading assignments challenging, and those who struggle may become demoralized. Although the stereotype of teenagers as nonreaders is widespread, several researchers note that they read a great deal—just not traditional books or textbooks. The trick is to select texts that have a direct connection to students’ experience, and to build a bridge between the “everyday literacies” students use in reading things like movie reviews and the skills they need to complete academic tasks.

This research review was prepared for the Center for Public Education by freelance writer Eileen M. O'Brien with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Much of O'Brien's work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. She has a master of public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: March 6, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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