Education Policy, Principles of Learning, School-wide Literacy
Comments 41

7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read

The scale of the problem of students leaving secondary school unable to read is an unnecessary tragedy. This entirely preventable situation is exacerbated by some common misconceptions:

1  If students haven’t learnt to read by the time they reach secondary school, it is too late.

Secondary schools usually have two responses regarding these students. First, they believe that it is the role of primary schools to teach reading. It most certainly is – ideally students will be well on the way to becoming confident readers by the end of KS1. However, this does not relieve secondary schools of their responsibilities to all their students. The second response is: if students haven’t learnt to read by the end of KS2, there must be something wrong with them, so the school will need to put in place additional supports to compensate for this problem.

Surely, the most fundamental aim of schools is to teach children to read. Blaming the preceding teacher or school (or the home) does not absolve anyone of this requirement. There is enough evidence available to put this excuse to rest. Most of these students are ‘instructional casualties’ – the result of having been taught to guess using Whole Language multi-cueing strategies. Research clearly supports the use of phonics-based programmes. The sooner students are taught using a high-quality reading intervention with proven results, the sooner they can begin to make up the deficit and begin to access the full curriculum.

2  Low reading achievement equates to low intelligence.

Students can be perceived as ‘low ability’ because their lack of reading skills has denied them access to reading materials that would have developed their knowledge of the world. Poor reading is inevitably linked to poor writing and spelling, and so teachers again conclude that the student is ‘less able’. But what if the barriers to reading, writing and spelling were removed through well-designed teaching? All that frustrated potential is unlocked when students have access to the code that we all need to negotiate the world. This classic article by Keith Stanovich explains Matthew Effects – the tendency of lower performers to fall further and further behind.

3  Intelligence is innate and fixed.

If intelligence is defined as the ability to learn, and we have seen previously failing students learn very quickly when given systematic teaching, does this mean that the intervention made them smarter – or had insufficient teaching created reading problems that prevented them from showing their intelligence? In this famous film Siegfried Engelmann demonstrated how children with low IQs, whose older siblings were all in special education programmes, could make dramatic gains with systematic instruction. Shepard Barbash comments: “Confounding the belief that intelligence was hereditary, Engelmann found (and others later confirmed) that the mean IQ for the group jumped from 96 to 121 in one year—the largest IQ gains ever recorded in a group of children.”

4  The student has a processing deficit which prevents them from learning to read.

Julian Elliot has estimated that while around 20% of students have a label of dyslexia, the true percentage of those with a genuine, innate difficulty is about 2%. The students who are suffering from what Engelmann calls ‘dysteachia’ are ‘instructional casualties’. Misattribution of the cause of reading problems leads to a passive attitude that ‘nothing can be done’. In fact, there is an enormous amount that can be done.

Face in Cage (Shutterstock)

5  Some students will always need supports such as overlays or assistance given by a reader-writer.

There is a wealth of research that has shown that the use of overlays and tinted lenses does not work. While it is understandable that teachers seek to use whatever adaptations will help a student, we can easily assume that what we are doing is helping. If it boosts a student’s confidence, it may even help a little. But does it help enough, and does it have long term results? This summary gives an overview of the research on Irlen glasses and overlays.

In Keeping an eye on reading: is difficulty with reading a visual problem? Kerry Hempenstall reviews the research literature on interventions based on adapted materials or equipment, and finds that there is no credible scientific evidence to support such a view. The social and psychological functions of this approach, though, are clear: the ‘condition’ removes the sense of failure from the student: “it’s not their fault, their eyes don’t work right” – while at the same time exonerating teachers from the responsibility for not having addressed reading problems with properly designed instruction.

Finally, the need for a reader-writer is superfluous once the student is taught to read for themselves.

6  We cannot expect weaker students to make rapid progress.

Low expectations are a blight on students who are able, but have encountered difficulty with reading. We need to have high expectations, start believing in them before they do, and not allow them to fail or coast. This is not mere idealism: careful programme design, including careful calibration of next steps, enables us to create the conditions for learning: thorough assessment to individualise the intervention; only teaching what the student needs to know; making incremental steps that are challenging but neither too easy nor too hard. We need to have the skills to determine whether a problem stems from a true lack of knowledge, a lack of fluency or low motivation. We need to give continual feedback and correction, with lots of practice opportunities. We need to teach to fluency, and to provide opportunities to generalise skills. These graphs will give you an idea of how rapidly students can progress when challenged and supported by a strong programme.

7  Introducing students to interesting books will motivate them to read which will lead to them becoming more competent readers.

It would be fair to say that most secondary school literacy co-ordinators and English teachers have a love of books, which is wonderful. We have seen kids get hooked into reading when they find an author or a series of books that they really enjoy. Surely, that is the answer – find the right book? I love the concept of Drop Everything and Read and Sustained Silent Reading as a reader – that precious uninterrupted 20 – 30 minutes to bury one’s head in a book. But imagine for a moment, the student who can’t yet read: being forced to sit in silence, looking at some squiggles on a page. Then consider why he or she always moans or kicks off during DEAR.

Yes, keep creating wonderful, magical reading spaces, inspiring and encouraging kids to read, and introducing them to great books. But please do something about the ones who can’t yet read. Don’t leave them on the outside looking in. Make sure that they are taught – it’s not too late!

You can find out more about working with us to develop a whole-school literacy strategy by visiting our website.

Download a PDF copy of this post here.

You may also be interested in:

Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools?

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One – The Matthew Effect

10-Point Checklist: Literacy at Secondary School

Are all students screened for reading?


  1. This year I have been working with 10 – 11 year old boys who were struggling with their reading. Their problems initially manifested themselves in terms of a lack of knowledge of the alphabetic code, guessing at words and a lack of accuracy.
    I have based our work on decodable books from and progress has generally been excellent with the majority of boys now reading at their class level. However, for two of the boys reading speed and reading flow remain an issue. I insist on accuracy of reading but beyond continued practice I am unsure of what to do next. Any ideas?


  2. Alec says

    I have a few questions regarding the texts used in timed repeated readings.

    1) Are the texts used ones that the children have read previously, and if so how often?

    2) How often do the children read these texts and at what intervals?

    3) As alphabetic code increases I assume I will need to change the text. What level of accuracy/speed should I be aiming at prior to moving on?

    I have recorded the lads reading over the the past few months, but I have had them read unfamiliar test or text they only read once or twice a number of weeks/months before.

    P.S. Is there much difference between timed repeated reading and a running record as used by Reading Recovery teachers?


    • Did you read the article on timed repeated readings on the page that I linked to? There is a section ‘How to Use Timed Repeated Readings’ that explains the procedure.
      1. Yes the passage should have been read before to 95% accuracy. 2. Multiple (3-5) times. Daily if possible.
      3. It is only necessary to do repeated readings until the student is reading at a appropriate rate (it often takes just a few days). See here for targets:

      Click to access Binder_Haughton_Bateman.pdf

      Reading Recovery running records use miscue analysis to analyse a student’s errors, which is a discredited practice. Repeated readings do not use miscue analysis.


  3. mao @cw1537 says

    Sorry, I followed the Reading Rockets link and the watched the attached video. The pdf link is much clearer, my mistake.

    On a positive note I found the piece really exciting and intend using it within the next few weeks.


    • Ah, I hadn’t noticed the video link. Having watched it I can understand your confusion! I would ignore the video as I don’t think that it’s an accurate demonstration of the technique. It was also also concerning to hear talk of sight word recognition and miscue analysis. It’s certainly not how I use timed repeated readings, which is to build fluent decoding.

      First 1 min reading establishes base level. Now you only need to count up the number of additional words the students reads on each subsequent reading of the same passage, which should be faster. They suggest 3-5 repetitions but I have gone up to 6 on occasions (adolescent readers).

      If the rate falls below that of the previous reading – stop. They may have reached the end of their current endurance – this should improve over time. However, you may have to consider motivation issues if it doesn’t. You would normally find that each day the first reading is faster than the first one from the previous day. I haven’t had to use this fluency-building strategy for longer than about 6-8 lessons before reaching target.

      All the best!


  4. Alec says

    I was considering using the Phonicbooks Talisman readers for this. Perhaps use one we have just completed in the hope of reinforcing code knowledge and building fluency. Would you see any difficulties with that?


    • No. Important consideration is that time taken to turn the page reduces the rate. I select a book where there are enough words across a two-page spread.


  5. Pingback: 7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read | thinkingreadingwritings | Learning Curve

  6. Pingback: Combine with precision | thinkingreadingwritings

  7. Pingback: SEND the right message | thinkingreadingwritings

  8. Pingback: The natural home for reading interventions (and it’s not SEN) | thinkingreadingwritings

  9. Pingback: A Call for Accuracy | thinkingreadingwritings

  10. Pingback: Spring Cleaning | thinkingreadingwritings

  11. Pingback: Reflections on Hidden Potential | thinkingreadingwritings

  12. Pingback: Reflections on the Hard Road to Success | thinkingreadingwritings

  13. Pingback: Addicted to Denial? | thinkingreadingwritings

  14. Great article, thank you.

    I will add a further consideration. Although we all agree that lack of good, basic instruction in the nuts and bolts of reading words is not embedded for children who cannot read by the time they reach secondary school, I will also say that of the children that I am trying to help learn to read (upper KS2), there always seems to be a couple who are very babyish and this holds them back severely. In the home, they are babied to the point where the parents are still speaking to them in a faux toddler-language and they seek out much, much younger children to play with in the playground. This is, admittedly, quite rare but does present an additional difficulty because their internal vocabulary and grammar is so limited like a 4 year old, say. Personally, I have no time for this baby act and baby voice thing which a 10 or 11 year old might still be adopting and usually just tell them to snap out of it (which makes me look evil to the SENCO) which does, funnily enough, work quite well. You’d think that parents would help their children by adopting a manner that is appropriate for the age of their child, but it is as if they are in denial about the fact that their child is about to go to secondary school.


    • That’s a very interesting point. I have noticed poor oral language skills in many secondary school students. In fact, had there been time at my last school, my intention was to run small groups to develop these skills.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I think it’s a sort of elephant in the room; nobody wants to admit that children are just not hearing, speaking or engaging in decent conversation any more. They can’t read or write many words because, to them, the words don’t even exist. If we look at what young children do these days for fun, they don’t even play together any more. They’re doing online gaming from a very young age and this involves zero conversation!


  15. Pingback: Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools? | thinkingreadingwritings

  16. tchrgrl2013 says

    You are being asked to login because is used by an account you are not logged into now.

    By logging in you’ll post the following comment to 7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read:
    When students guess, it indicates that they think reading is random with no rules or patterns in words. It confuses me when people say that phonics only works 50% of the time. If you were in Vegas, you would enthusiastically take those odds. If you combine phonics with patterns, you have increased those odds to 95%. Word Study, a developmental way of teaching words, pinpoints where on the continuum of word learning a student is (Yes, there is a ton of research to show that everyone learns words in the same general order) and then teaches that student at their developmental level. I have seen amazing progress teaching phonics and patterns to kids who have been only exposed to whole language. It is like suddenly, words make sense. Thanks for this article. More phonics proponents are needed.


  17. tchrgrl2013 says

    When students guess, it indicates that they think reading is random with no rules or patterns in words. It confuses me when people say that phonics only works 50% of the time. If you were in Vegas, you would enthusiastically take those odds. If you combine phonics with patterns, you have increased those odds to 95%. Word Study, a developmental way of teaching words, pinpoints where on the continuum of word learning a student is (Yes, there is a ton of research to show that everyone learns words in the same general order) and then teaches that student at their developmental level. I have seen amazing progress teaching phonics and patterns to kids who have been only exposed to whole language. It is like suddenly, words make sense. Thanks for this article. More phonics proponents are needed.


  18. Spot on on every point, as usual, Dianne.
    One thing I’d like to add though is that ALL secondary teachers need training in understanding clearly the knowledge and skills required to be a proficient reader and speller. Although many children will already be quite literate by the time they reach secondary school, they will also, as words become more technical, more abstract and less frequently encountered, need guidance in how to cope with the greater complexities of the code. Many teachers have no idea how to teach the words specific to their taught genres, other than to ask pupils to commit them to memory.
    As you are constantly pointing out, for the many who are entering KS3 with still very poor reading ability, proper provision needs to be put in place.
    In both cases, teachers need adequate training.


    • Thanks for your comments, John. Yes, it’s essential to raise general knowledge of language in the teaching profession, as well as instructional expertise for those dealing with students who have literacy difficulties.


  19. Pingback: Read For Your Life | thinkingreadingwritings

  20. Pingback: Looking for Impact? Structure Matters | thinkingreadingwritings

  21. Pingback: Blurred Vision | thinkingreadingwritings

  22. Pingback: Literacy Leadership | thinkingreadingwritings

  23. Pingback: Looking Back – old problems, new challenges | thinkingreadingwritings

  24. Pingback: Reading is Knowledge | thinkingreadingwritings

  25. Pingback: Are grammar schools the best way to address social mobility? | thinkingreadingwritings

  26. Pingback: 12 Qualities of an Effective Reading Teacher | thinkingreadingwritings

  27. Pingback: Recommended Reading for Adolescents: Fiction Series | thinkingreadingwritings

  28. Pingback: Doors to Opportunity | thinkingreadingwritings

  29. Pingback: Removing Barriers to Success – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap (Part 6) | thinkingreadingwritings

  30. Pingback: Promoting a Reading Culture – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 7) | thinkingreadingwritings

  31. Pingback: How to get long-term benefit from your tutoring funding | thinkingreadingwritings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.