Making Every Teacher a Reading Teacher: Putnam City Secondary Educators Work to Help Struggling Readers

by Johanna Franke
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 3, December 2002, Putting Reading First

Introduction | Improving Students' Reading Ability | Developing Capacity for the Future | Related Resources & Products

Low student achievement in reading at the secondary level is widespread across the nation, including the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory's five-state region of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Because of this, SEDL's Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) is working intensively with nearly 20 sites across the region to assess student reading abilities and improve students' reading comprehension. The lack of research on secondary reading makes this a formidable task, says SEDL program specialist Sebastian Wren.

"The lion's share of the research has focused on preventing reading difficulties," he notes. "But that ignores the fact that some kids get to fourth grade or sixth grade or high school before we understand the depth of their reading difficulties. We just pass them along and they slip through the cracks."

SEDL program associate Sebastian Wren discusses secondary reading instruction with a Putnam City teacher.

Millions of dollars fuel early reading research and initiatives in the United States with the hope of catching students before they fall through these reading instruction cracks. Such researchers as Wren and Louisa C. Moats, clinical associate professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, believe the focus on early intervention is warranted, considering the number of studies which show that research-based instruction beginning in kindergarten significantly reduces the number of children who have reading difficulty.

In her report, When Older Kids Can't Read, Moats says the levels at which students read in first grade are good predictors of reading achievement into high school. If students have fallen behind by then, they rarely catch up. Moats says, "Reading failure begins early, takes root quickly, and affects students for life," as evidenced by these two statistics:

  • More than 40 percent of fourth graders score below the basic level in overall reading skill on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.
  • About 25 percent of all adults in the United States are functionally illiterate.

While educators understand the focus on early reading research, they know that this research doesn't always help students who are already beyond third grade and who haven't had consistent access to appropriate reading instruction and resources. Educators have seen statistics that show — even with intense individual intervention for struggling readers beyond fourth grade — only one in seven of these students are brought to grade-level proficiency.

"While I think the cognitive domains are exactly the same for the 4-, 5-, and 6-year-old as they are for the 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old who is struggling to learn to read, there are other instructional issues that become very important for older students," Wren says. Motivation is the most important of these issues for the older struggling reader.

When they begin school, students assume they can learn to read, but by second and third grade many of them do everything possible to avoid reading instruction, according to research conducted by Michael Pressley, director of the Master in Education Program at the University of Notre Dame. These students don't like to read, so they don't practice reading and fall further behind. Then they act out or develop coping skills to mask their reading difficulties.

Early reading research initiatives also don't necessarily help the increasing numbers of older students who speak English as a second language. To help these older struggling readers, many secondary schools are asking their teachers to learn how to teach reading in addition to the content areas for which they are responsible. Administrators at one of these schools, Western Oaks Middle School in Putnam City, Oklahoma, have enlisted the staff — from the history teachers to the orchestra teacher — in the battle to improve reading skills among their students. The school also has partnered with SEDL's REL to provide staff with the skills they need to detect and address reading difficulties.

Working to Improve All Students' Reading Ability in Putnam City

Putnam City schools are much like schools in other growing cities across the country — a changing student population means the district must change, too.

Once a suburban school district, Putnam City is now considered an inner-city district, and school and district staff are facing the challenges that come with this change. An increasingly diverse student population has Putnam City faculty searching for the right professional development to help teachers address these students' needs. And Putnam City's high rate of student mobility makes it difficult for teachers to build student knowledge. District and school staff have watched Putnam City Schools slip in their status as one of the premier districts in Oklahoma. They want to regain that title by focusing on reading through their partnership with the REL.

Reading failure begins early, takes root quickly, and affects students for life. — Louisa C. Moats

At the 640-student Western Oaks Middle School, educators formerly relied on language arts teachers to fill in reading gaps for students. Now Western Oaks principal Don Wentroth is pulling his entire faculty together to "improve all students' reading abilities — not just the poor readers' abilities, but everybody's."

This approach won't be easy because secondary teachers typically have not received extensive training in reading instruction. The challenge is to help them understand how they can teach reading without sacrificing instruction in their regular content areas, Wren says. In secondary settings, "each student may have six or seven teachers, and a teacher may only have an opportunity to work with any one student for 50 minutes a day or less. Coordinating reading instruction across different teachers to support the reading instruction needs of each student is a daunting task," he continues.

Teaching Reading from the Newspaper

 When trying to engage older struggling readers in learning how to read, "you've got to provide content that relates to real life," says SEDL program associate Marsha Loyd. As newspapers began publishing special supplements for the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Loyd began to see content for reading and writing lessons in which older students would be interested. While most of SEDL's intensive reading sites are still determining the best way to proceed with secondary reading instruction, SEDL staff are offering models based on current events to core content teachers to help their students develop comprehension strategies by asking questions, visualizing, drawing inferences, determining important ideas, and synthesizing information. With the statement, "I can teach reading with a daily newspaper," Loyd challenged teachers at SEDL's intensive work sites at high schools in Green Forest and Grady, Arkansas; Hatch, New Mexico; and Kinta, Oklahoma. When those teachers asked Loyd how she was able to do this, Loyd purchased several copies of a five-day newspaper supplement on 9/11, designed five reading and writing lesson models based on the supplement, and sent them to the teachers. The models include reading open-response items and writing prompts similar to those used in state criterion referenced tests. Loyd, who plans to use these lessons with teachers throughout the year, hopes to develop partnerships among history and language arts teachers in addition to student reading skills.

Generating teacher buy-in also is challenging, says Adele Rowland, a Western Oaks reading teacher who provides reading professional development for the staff. "When this subject was first broached a year and a half ago, a lot of teachers thought, "That doesn't have anything to do with me," she continues. "But as we convinced them how important reading is and that they, too, have something to contribute to the student's ability to read, our buy-in rate has grown to about 95 percent."

 Using such SEDL tools as the framework of cognitive elements that underlie learning to read, Wren and other REL reading experts are helping Western Oaks faculty understand their own reading assessment data so they can make informed choices about the most effective reading strategies for each student.

"There isn't a powerful instructional strategy I would use with all students," Wren says. "But there are some good strategies I would use with some students. And helping teachers understand which students, when, and how is the hard part. It's not the strategy that's important, it's how the teacher uses it and with which students."

SEDL models instructional strategies and provides resources during Western Oaks staff development sessions and reading committee meetings. SEDL and school staff then track the effects of reading strategies on student performance using the Accelerated Reading computer assessment system called STAR Reading, which assesses a student's reading comprehension skill and assigns a level for independent reading. SEDL also is working with district staff and faculty at Putnam City West High School, which receives many Western Oaks graduates.

Developing Capacity for the Future

The partnership with SEDL didn't begin quite as expected, Western Oaks Principal Wentroth says. "We thought SEDL's experts would just come in here and fix us. But they showed us that we're the ones who are going to have to design the program and maintain the momentum once the partnership is over. We're the captains of the ship, and SEDL is here to provide support."

The middle school, high school, and district each have assembled leadership teams to make and sustain the changes needed to improve reading skills at Putnam City's secondary schools. Western Oaks also has created a job-embedded professional development model to promote collaborative inquiry. All Western Oaks teachers meet weekly with Wentroth to discuss the effectiveness of the reading strategies they are implementing in the classroom. SEDL staff meet monthly with Western Oaks staff teams to document their thoughts, listen to their needs and concerns, and serve in the critical role of friend and coach.

If secondary schools have "flexible and creative teachers who are willing to develop strong reading instruction skills and who can overcome the obstacles of time and student motivation, I know we can do better than one in seven," Wren concludes.

Putnam City assistant superintendent Gene Parsons, is confident that Western Oaks will be successful. "I think we're going to do OK. We've got good people who are eager to do a better job for kids."

Secondary Reading Resources
Building Reading Proficiency at the Secondary School Level: A Guide to Resources This 2000 Southwest Educational Development Laboratory publication, available online at (product unavailable while it is being revised - 8/2013), reviews the scholarly literature to determine current theoretical perspectives and research findings on building reading proficiency at the secondary level and their implications for classroom instruction. Rather than reporting all the factors that can impact secondary-level reading proficiency, the publication presents those for which a research base establishes essential importance and for which there are pedagogical implications. The book lists programs and strategies that align with those findings. Visit for more SEDL reading resources.

Guidelines for Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well In May 2000, the National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement (CELA) produced Guidelines, which was drawn from the research report, Beating the Odds: Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well. The report, excerpted at (Note: link no longer active 7/2004), was written by Judith A. Langer, chair of the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University at Albany State University of New York, director of CELA, and founder and director of the Albany Institute for Research in Education. The guidelines, available online at, outline six features of effective instruction for middle and high school personnel working to improve their English programs.

Reading Instruction for Older Struggling Readers This May 1999 briefing paper produced by Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) provides an overview of the possible reasons for the high number of older struggling readers and what teachers can do to help. Written by visiting PREL scholar Alfredo Schifini, Ph.D., the briefing paper is available online at

When Older Kids Can't Read This March 2001 Educational Leadership report, available online at't_Read, addresses the following reading strategies regarding reading instruction beyond third grade: phonological awareness and decoding, reading fluency and word recognition, vocabulary and phrase meanings, comprehension instruction, and written response to reading. The report's author, Louisa C. Moats, is a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. With a research team from the center, she is completing analysis of a four-year study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, of reading development and reading instruction in Washington, D.C.'s high-poverty, inner-city schools.

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