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How do you help an older student who can't read?


In recent years, there has been a surge in information regarding the number of students grappling with reading difficulties in elementary classrooms. The Right to Read film and the Sold a Story podcast have increased media coverage of the issue, in addition to previous posts from ANet about supporting struggling older readers and making sure your literacy data isn’t an unintentional roadblock, which brings attention to the alarming fact that a significant portion of students in America are not acquiring essential reading skills. Despite this increased awareness, there remains a critical gap in the conversation. While much attention is devoted to younger students who are just embarking on their reading journey, we must not overlook those students who may have missed out on quality reading instruction earlier in their academic careers.  

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 64% of 12th grade students graduate without achieving proficiency in reading (NCES, 2019). This statistic is particularly concerning when considering that it doesn't account for the approximately 2 million students who drop out of high school annually (NCES, 2023). This issue doesn't simply improve with time. A lack of essential reading skills in adulthood translates to fewer career opportunities, lower wages, and a higher likelihood of unemployment. If our goal is to equip students for success in college, career, and life, it is imperative that they exit school as literate individuals

Is it too late to intervene and support these older struggling readers?

What is the Current State of Reading in America?

When the NAEP released its most recent report in 2022, the results from the reading assessment were alarming on several levels. First, the scores indicated that 67% of the nation’s 4th graders and 69% of the nation’s 8th graders scored below proficient in reading. Another astounding bit of data was that for both 4th and 8th grades, there was no significant difference in average NAEP scores between 1992 and 2022, essentially meaning that levels of reading proficiency have stayed stagnant over the past 30 years.  Finally, the gap between Black and Hispanic students’ scores compared with the scores of their White and Asian peers has also remained stagnant over the past 30 years–indicating that Black and Hispanic students, including multilingual learners who make up 10% of the student population,  are much less likely to receive effective literacy instruction (NCES, 2022). And, as stated above, the latest data for graduating 12th graders is also showing low levels of reading proficiency. So what is causing these reading difficulties?   

For nearly 40 years, it has been widely accepted that two major skills combine to support the development of proficient reading. These two skills are language comprehension and word recognition (Gough & Tumner, 1986). This “Simple View” of reading has evolved some over time (Scarborough, 2001; Duke & Cartwright, 2021), but all updated models still hold language comprehension and word recognition at their core. When a reader is missing one of those pieces, reading is hard. A recent study (Wang,, 2019) demonstrated that the word recognition piece (or decoding) actually serves as a prerequisite for comprehension. There is, what they call, a decoding threshold, meaning students in grades 5 through high school who scored below a specific decoding benchmark on a reading assessment showed no improvements in comprehension no matter the instruction or intervention provided. Word recognition, for these students, needed to be addressed first before comprehension could improve. Students scoring above this threshold could make meaningful progress in comprehension because they had the necessary decoding skills to access texts. This study demonstrates the importance of foundational literacy skills and their effect on overall reading proficiency. If those foundational skills are missing in a reader, struggles ensue.  

Why is this Crisis Unique for Older Readers? 

These incredibly important foundational literacy skills are meant to be taught and mastered in the elementary grades. In fact, the Common Core foundational reading standards only go up to 5th grade. But, as the NAEP results show, there are a majority of 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students in the United States who are not demonstrating proficiency in reading as measured by the NAEP test. These scores indicate that students are not currently receiving the foundational literacy instruction necessary in the early grades that support them to reach proficiency in later grades, and research shows that at least 20% of students have some type of reading disability but only 4% receive any support (Drummond, 2023). And yet, texts continue to increase in complexity year after year, grade after grade, and as students enter middle and high school, they are exposed to discipline-specific classes where they encounter more complex, discipline-specific vocabulary and content.  

These continued struggles have several ramifications for older students. For one, their identity is impacted.  Studies have found that the longer students continue to struggle with reading, the less likely they are to see themselves as readers (Learned, Frankel, & Brooks, 2022). Students who lack this reading identity become increasingly marginalized within their schools and among their peers and lose their sense of agency and motivation. Additionally, we know that the more one reads, the stronger a reader they become. The less one reads, the more difficult it is to increase reading proficiency (Stanovich, 1986). As struggling readers get older, they fail to build an identity as a reader and lose motivation. So, they are less likely to gain that all-important practice in reading and their struggles are further exacerbated.  As alluded to above, these continued struggles with literacy have long-term effects.  Studies show that students who are not reading proficiently by 3rd grade, not only take longer to graduate high school but are more likely to drop out (Casey Foundation, 2011). Research also shows that students who struggle with multiple dimensions of literacy over time are at a higher risk of having a low academic and general self-concept, which can lead to disengagement with school and decreased motivation (McArthur, et.a., 2016). Additionally, literacy is a key factor for college and career readiness.  Research shows that colleges and careers demand skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and clear communication - all of which are impossible without the essential skill of reading proficiency (Mishkind, 2014). 

Addressing the needs of older struggling readers is no easy task. There are a myriad of barriers secondary educators face in assisting struggling older readers. 

  • Most middle and high schools are not equipped to provide adequate support and lack the necessary resources to meet the needs of struggling readers. 
  • Older students' schedules offer little to no time for interventions–a problem exacerbated in high schools where students must attain a specific number of credits for graduation. 
  • The availability of specialized reading programs and assessments tailored to older students is severely limited.
  •  Even with the best resources, middle and high school teachers primarily view themselves as literature teachers and lack specialized training to address reading difficulties. 

This scarcity of resources and training creates substantial roadblocks, making it exceptionally challenging to address foundational reading skills at the secondary level. The urgency to find a solution to this issue cannot be overstated, emphasizing the critical need for immediate action and comprehensive support to help struggling older readers. So, what can support for older readers look like? 

What Can We Do About this Crisis? 

At the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, ANet began a pilot program with a large school district to address the pressing needs of their struggling older readers. The district has over 60 schools and a highly diverse secondary student body in desperate need of reading support. With roughly 4,500 secondary students, over 75% of their middle school students lacked proficiency in reading and over 65% of 10th graders scored below proficiency according to their state assessments. The district’s educational leaders were left searching for effective solutions.

Enter ANet, with an innovative response: district middle and high schools were invited to participate in an unprecedented pilot program, including a partnership with Reading Reimagined supported by AERDF and Stanford, featuring the ROAR assessment–an innovative tool developed at Stanford University. ROAR, short for Rapid Online Assessment of Reading, is a comprehensive online assessment designed to evaluate foundational skills for students in grades K-12. The gamified assessments measure students' phonemic awareness, word-level decoding, and sentence-reading fluency. Remarkably, the fully online process takes 30 minutes or less to complete, providing swift yet invaluable insights into older students’ foundational reading skills. 

The ELA leaders in the pilot district showed great enthusiasm for the ROAR pilot and expressed an urgent need to create long-lasting change for struggling readers within their district. In early September, prior to the inaugural administration of ROAR, ANet conducted an initial training session for the secondary ELA leaders. During this session, leaders shared their thoughts:

  • One leader emphasized the necessity of developing an intensive support plan for students grappling with foundational skills, underscoring the gravity of the situation and highlighting the social justice component involved,
  • Another leader expressed his excitement about administering ROAR and eagerly anticipated the results, showcasing his anticipation for the impact the project could make.
  • A third leader raised a valid point about the curiosity surrounding the ROAR data across different grade levels, highlighting the interest in understanding the reading challenges students face.

Following this meeting, the ELA leaders disseminated this newly acquired learning to their respective ELA teachers. ROAR assessments were conducted in 11 secondary schools across the district, involving more than 3,500 students in grades 6-12. The data collected during this initial assessment provided valuable insights into the specific areas where students are struggling in the reading process.

  • 9% of 6th graders and 7% of 12th graders performed below a 3rd grade level in basic word-level decoding skills.
  • 59% of 6th graders and 31% of 12th graders performed below a 3rd grade level in reading efficiency at the sentence level.
  • These numbers show a clear need for instructional support for these skills.

In response to these findings, the school district is actively adapting instructional practices in their ELA classrooms based on the ROAR data. Looking ahead, ROAR will be administered once more in February to assess the consistency of foundational skills challenges at the secondary level. This follow-up assessment will also gauge the effectiveness of the instructional changes implemented, allowing ELA educational leaders to track progress and ensure that the project continues to effectively address the needs of older struggling readers.

This partnership with ANet marks a significant step forward in addressing the critical reading challenges faced by secondary students. Our team, along with Reading Reimagined and Stanford, will continue to pilot the innovative ROAR assessment and support to school districts across the country. If you are interested in being part of a future ROAR collaboration and would like to learn more, contact us

Explore more on our foundational literacy page!


  • Casey Foundation (2011). (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from

  • Drummond, K. (2023). About reading disabilities, learning disabilities, and reading difficulties. Reading Rockets. Retrieved from

  • Duke, N., & Cartwright, K. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(51), 525-544.

  • Gough, P.B., & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6–10.

  • Learned, J., Frankel, K., & Brooks, M. (2022). Disrupting secondary reading intervention: A review of qualitative research and a call to action. Journal of Adolescent Literacy, 0(0), 1-11. 

  • McArthur, G., Castles, A., Kohnen, S., & Banales, E. (2016). Low self-concept in poor readers: Prevalence, heterogeneity, and risk. PeerJ 4:e2669

  • Mishkind, A. (2014). Overview: State definitions of college and career readiness. College & Career Readiness & Success Center American Institutes for Research.

  • National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). Status Dropout Rates. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved May 11, 2023, from

  • National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Nation’s report card. National Assessment of Educational Progress.

  • National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). Nation’s report card. National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

  • Scarborough, H.S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. 1, pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford.

  • Stanovich, K. (1986). "Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy." Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360-407. 

  • Wang, Z., Sabatini, J., O'Reilly, T., & Weeks, J. (2019). Decoding and reading comprehension: A test of the decoding threshold hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 387–401.


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