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Characteristics of High School Learners

Characteristics of High School Students in Reading Intervention

Characteristics of High School Students

High school learners are qualitatively different than younger learners. You certainly can “teach an old dog new tricks” by understanding the cognitive and social characteristics of high school learners. Using the right instructional strategies to maximize the learning advantages and address the learning challenges of high school learners can make all the difference in their success.

I began my teaching career as a high school history and social studies teacher. After a number of years teaching the rich content of world and U.S. history, I grew increasingly interested in students who were not able to access that content independently by reading their textbooks.

I enrolled in the M.A. Reading Specialist program at our state university. In class after class, I was the only secondary teacher in the program. A year into the program, my principal approach me about teaching a remedial freshman and sophomore course “to get these kids to master the reading portion of the high school proficiency exam.” The district was now requiring this proficiency to earn a diploma.

I said, “Yes” and the next fall faced my first group of thirty-some-odd struggling readers. After quickly weeding out a few students who self-admittedly “blew off” the proficiency exam the preceding year, I settled in to apply what I was learning in my master’s program. Big mistake!

The assessments, lessons, accompanying readings, and activities did not translate from primary students to high school students. Yes, several of the high school kids did not have all their phonemic awareness skills. Yes, a few more needed to learn the alphabet. Still more had significant phonics gaps. All had reading fluency issues. However, the “big head” cartoonish and juvenile resources and books that taught these skills were just not going to work on the high schoolers. In fact, whenever I passed out such a resource, the high school kids either completely shut down or began to act out.

It took me six years to finish that masters degree, but during that time I learned a bit about teaching secondary reading intervention.

The RtI (Response to Intervention) Action Network cites the following research-based conclusions regarding reading intervention for older students:

  1. the explicit instruction of reading and writing strategies (See my “Twelve Tips to Teach the Reading-Writing Connection“)
  2. a focus on using reading and writing to support motivation and engagement
  3. a focus on developing student knowledge and understanding of essential content information (Torgesen et al., 2007)
  4. ongoing formative and summative assessment of students (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006) (See my FREE ELA/Reading Assessments)
  5. a comprehensive and coordinated literacy program (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006) http://www.rtinetwork.org/essential/assessment/screening/screening-for-reading-problems-in-grades-4-through-12.

High School Cognitive Development

Most high school students have achieved the formal operational stage, as described by Piaget. These students can think abstractly and need fewer concrete examples to understand complex thought patterns. Generally speaking, most students share the following characteristics:

  1. Need to understand the purpose and relevance of instructional activities
  2. Are both internally and externally motivated
  3. Have self-imposed cognitive barriers due to years of academic failure and lack self-confidence
  4. May have “shut down” in certain cognitive areas and will need to learn how to learn and overcome these barriers to learning
  5. Want to establish immediate and long-term personal goals
  6. Want to assume individual responsibility for learning and progress toward goals

High School Social Development

High school students are experimenting with adult-like relationships. Generally speaking, most students share the following characteristics:

  1. Interested in co-educational activities
  2. Desire adult leadership roles and autonomy in planning
  3. Want adults to assume a chiefly support role in their education
  4. Developing a community consciousness
  5. Need opportunities for self-expression

High School Instructional Strategies

High school students are still concerned about the labeling that takes place, when one is identified as a remedial reader. Labels and stereotypes are both externally imposed (by other students and, sometimes their parents), but are primarily internally imposed (by the students themselves). Years of academic failure, due to lack of reading proficiency, have damaged students’ self-esteem. Many students have lost confidence in their ability to learn. Students have developed coping mechanisms, such as reading survival skills e.g., audio books or peer/parent readers, or behavioral problems, or the “Whatever… I don’t care attitudes” to avoid the tough work of learning how to read well. High school teachers need to be extremely mindful of student self-perceptions. A few talking points with remedial high school students may prove helpful:

“Unfortunately, some of your past reading instruction was poor; it’s not your fault that you have some skills to work on.” a.k.a. “blame someone else”

“You can learn in this class. If you come to class willing to try everyday, you will significantly improve your reading, I promise.”

“I know you have tried before, but this time is different.”

“You will be able to chart your own progress and see what you are learning in this class.”

“Some of my past students were like some of you. For example, ___________ and he passed the high school exit exam after finishing this class. For example, ___________ got caught up to grade level reading and is college right now.” Personal anecdotes provide role models and hope for high school remedial readers. Any former students who have been successful will provide “street credibility” to the teacher and the class.

“You aren’t in this class forever. As soon as you master your missing skills, you are out.”


Check out the two writing programs high school students need to succeed: Teaching Grammar and Mechanics and TEACHING ESSAYS BUNDLEBoth programs include printables and digital options including Google Slides.

Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Printable and Digital Programs

High School Program

Teaching Essays


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