By the time students reach ninth grade, we expect them to be proficient readers. But the reality is much different. Not every student entering high school has the literacy skills required to tackle the complex texts they’ll encounter. Without intervention, these students will fall behind.

This literacy issue is just one reason why schools across the U.S. are now advocating for instructional approaches grounded in the science of reading. As we’ve discussed earlier on the blog, the science of reading refers to the body of research that identifies effective, evidence-based methods of learning how to read. Out of that research came the components of literacy—the foundational skills that all good readers possess.

To get struggling high school students back on track, we need to look at five of the components for adolescent readers: advanced word study, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation. Focusing instruction in these areas is not only essential for improving reading skills but also for encouraging critical thinking and an appreciation for learning.

Advanced Word Study

Like the name suggests, word study explores all aspects of words, from pronunciation to meaning. In elementary school, word study focuses heavily on phonics, spelling, and word recognition. As students progress to higher grade levels, word study becomes more complex.

Morphology plays a large role in advanced word study. Here, students go deeper into exploring word parts, including morphemes, prefixes, suffixes, and root words. Knowing these elements makes it easier for students to decode unfamiliar words when reading texts, especially those from subjects with domain-specific vocabulary like science, math, literature, and history.

For instance, a student might come across the word “metamorphosis” when reading about insect life cycles in a biology textbook. Based on their knowledge of word roots, they could break the word into parts:

“meta” - the Greek root meta, meaning “after”
“morph” - the Greek root morph, meaning “shape”
“-osis” - a suffix to denote actions or states

Putting those definitions together, the student can infer that the word has something to do with a change in shape or form. In the context of the article, “metamorphosis” describes an insect’s transformation from an egg to a larva, then a pupa, and finally an adult.


In the context of literacy, fluency is the ability to read text accurately, smoothly, with expression, and at the right speed. Fluent readers don’t get caught up decoding individual words. This means they can spend more time analyzing what they’re reading, a skill needed for the demands of high school.

Improving fluency is a matter of time and practice. Sustained silent reading is a good option for students who get nervous speaking up in class. This strategy provides a structured time for students to independently practice their reading skills. Sustained silent reading is even more effective when students can choose texts that match their interests and reading levels.

Repeated readings help hone fluency skills by increasing familiarity with the content and encouraging smoother reading. As students become better acquainted with the text, they’re likely to read it with improved accuracy and confidence. Repeated readings also provide chances for students to refine their phrasing and intonation, key aspects of fluent reading. Short texts like poems, short stories, novel excerpts, and informational texts are good choices for multiple readings.


A student’s ability to comprehend what they’re reading relies heavily on their vocabulary. Students with strong vocabulary skills can read more fluently, pausing less to decipher single words. In situations where words aren't immediately recognized, these students can rely on the context of the surrounding text and their knowledge of word parts to deduce definitions. Fluent students are likely to read more, giving them more chances to absorb new words naturally.

If students possess a limited vocabulary, understanding texts becomes challenging, leading to frustration and a reluctance to read. This turns into a vicious cycle; not only are these students reading less, they’re also missing out on learning new vocabulary words.

Whether they like reading or not, all students can benefit from direct vocabulary instruction. This method takes a deliberate approach to learning, concentrating on specific words students should know. For more information, check out this post that dives into the different strategies for incorporating direct vocabulary instruction.


Comprehension involves more than just recognizing words and repeating basic facts about a text; it requires students to think critically about what they’re reading. They must analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information, draw inferences, and make connections between different parts of the material. For older students, this literacy component is especially crucial, given the rising complexity of the texts they encounter.

Teaching students about active reading practices is one way to improve comprehension skills. Students can annotate texts as they read, underlining key points, jotting down questions, and making comments in the margins when needed. If they encounter a part of the text they don't understand, they can employ strategies like re-reading, using context clues, or looking up unfamiliar words to determine meaning. This type of interaction enables students to better retain and understand the information presented.


Motivation influences how students approach reading, the effort they invest in it, and the extent to which they develop their literacy skills. Highly-motivated students love reading, no matter if they’re doing it for school purposes or for fun. These kinds of students actively participate in reading discussions, seek out extra reading materials, and persist through challenging texts. Over time, their literacy skills will naturally improve.

On the other hand, struggling students are less likely to read, voluntarily or otherwise, because they’re not confident in their skills. Luckily, there are some instructional methods you can try that will encourage reluctant readers without holding more motivated students back.

Students love autonomy. If you’re doing independent reading or sustained silent reading as mentioned above, letting students pick the books can make a world of difference. When students discover texts related to their hobbies, passions, or issues they care about, reading feels more relevant and meaningful for them.

Student choice can apply to entire literature units, too. For example, if you’re assigning a project on Romeo and Juliet in which students must analyze characterization, give them options on what the final project should look like. They could write a paper, make a podcast, write song lyrics, or give a presentation. Students get the freedom they crave while also reading for a purpose.

Putting It Together

Helping struggling high school students improve their literacy skills may seem like a monumental task. But it can be done if we understand how these five components of literacy are interconnected.

Advanced word study helps students decode words, leading to improved vocabulary and fluency. Fluent reading allows students to focus on comprehension, which, when combined with a strong vocabulary, deepens their understanding of the text. Motivation acts as a driving force, pushing students to improve their skills. When all these elements work together, they create proficient, confident, and enthusiastic readers.

You Might Like: