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Characteristics of Middle School Learners

Characteristics of Middle School Students in Reading Intervention

Characteristics of Middle School Students

Middle school learners are qualitatively different than younger learners. Teachers and parents can significantly enhance the learning of students this age by understanding the cognitive and social characteristics of middle school learners. Using the right instructional strategies to maximize the learning advantages and address the learning challenges of middle school learners can make all the difference in their success.

As an M.A. Reading Specialist and ELA teacher, I’ve spent half my career teaching reading intervention and English-language arts to middle schoolers. Previously, I had worked as a district elementary reading specialist. In entering the world of seventh and eighth graders, I had assumed that because the diagnostic reading assessments indicated the same reading deficits as my elementary kids, the same lessons, activities, and practice would produce the same results. Wrong!

Middle schoolers have so much more to bring to the learner table than do elementary students. Prior knowledge, life experience, oral vocabulary, etc. However, these caught in the middle kids have impediments to learning that the elementary students do not face.

I remember passing out practice fluency passages with big head cartoon character kids as part of the headers and reading comprehension strategy worksheets with “Grade 4” in the copyright footer. My seventh and eighth-grade students shut down. They chose not to learn.

Self-concept is of primary importance to middle schoolers who are not reading at grade level. Typically, by seventh grade, struggling readers fall into two camps: Those who have shut down to learning to read and those you act out as behavior problems. Both reactions are self-defense mechanisms to maintain a semblance of self-esteem.

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.

Middle School Cognitive Development

By ages 12, 13, and 14, most students have begun developing the ability to understand symbolic ideas and abstract concepts. According to Piaget’s classifications, students will range in development from the concrete operational stage of development to the ability to the formal operational stage. In fact, studies show that brain growth slows down during these years, so cognitive skills of learners may expand at a slower rate; however, refinement of these skills can certainly be reinforced. Generally speaking, most students share the following characteristics:

  1. Curious and willing to learn things they consider useful
  2. Enjoy solving “real-life” problems
  3. Focused on themselves and how they are perceived by their peers
  4. Resists adult authority and asserts independence
  5. Beginning to think critically

Middle School Social Development

Most middle schoolers experience conflicting values due to their changing roles within their family structure and the increasing influence of peers. Generally speaking, most students share the following characteristics:

  1. Need to feel part of a peer group, consisting of boys and girls, and are influenced by peer pressure and conformity to their group
  2. Prefer active over passive learning activities that involve working with their peers
  3. Need frequent physical activity and movement
  4. Need adult support, guidance, and calm direction

Middle School Instructional Strategies

Middle school students are very 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) and internally imposed (by the students themselves). Lack of reading ability causes more self-defeating damage to students’ self-esteem as students grow older and the academic gap between themselves and good readers widens. Middle school teachers need to be extremely mindful of student self-perceptions and those of their peers. A few talking points to address with middle schoolers may prove helpful:

  • “All students need help in some areas.”
  • “This class is not for dumb students; it’s for students who just missed out on some reading skills.”
  • “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 will learn in this class. If you come to class willing to try everyday, you will significantly improve your reading, I promise.”
  • “You will be able to chart your own progress and see what you are learning in this class.”
  • “You aren’t in this class forever. As soon as you master your missing skills, you are out.”

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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