Only 37 percent of American 12th-grade students are considered “proficient” or better at reading, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress. This finding indicates that the majority of high school seniors have a hard time understanding challenging subject matter. Many of them also struggle with fluency, or the ability to read with speed and accuracy, which leaves them little energy to analyze the text after they have read it.
As David and Meredith Liben of Student Achievement Partners wrote in a 2021 synthesis of fluency research, “Fluent reading is generally thought to account for one-quarter to one-half or more of the differences in reading comprehension [of complex text].” If students proceed haltingly through a passage of complex text, they will be unable to interpret its layers of meaning. For example, in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a complex text that is a staple of high school English curricula, most students will stumble over words like “myriads,” word groupings like “profoundly ignorant,” and the long phrase at the end of the following passage:
I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey.
As a result, students will have a hard time understanding the deeper nuances of Douglass’s discussion of the Underground Railroad. To overcome this fluency barrier and unlock a higher level of comprehension, adolescent students should spend significant time every day reading complex texts.
Based on my 30 years of experience teaching and supporting teachers, I’ve learned that students must first improve their fluency by practicing reading aloud. Middle and high school English teachers do not employ fluency activities often because students find them boring; adolescent fluency programs use early-elementary instructional models that privilege speed and error-free reading. Complex text, however, with its longer sentences and myriad types of clauses expressing complicated emotions and concepts, calls for a different approach. And adolescents demand it. Adolescents want to hear a vibrant reading by a professional actor or even a highly engaged teacher. Students also want to play with language, trying on different emotions as they practice reading passages aloud and sharing their interpretations with classmates.
Students often become invested in the text because they have read it aloud with emotion. As their fluency improves, middle and high school students will grapple with the meaning of a text if they are unafraid of making mistakes and have the chance to argue about their interpretations with classmates. If students see a reading activity as an opportunity to surface misconceptions and share a more accurate understanding, they will go back and reread, something all good readers do.
After students have smoothed their flow through fluency and sharpened their comprehension through rereading, teachers should ask them to read passages more closely. Rather than reducing the hard work of reading to summarizing the meaning of a passage in a single sentence, teachers can ask middle and high school students to rewrite an author’s words in their own words. By making the apples to apples comparison of individual word choices in these paraphrase activities, students have the material for rigorous debate. Then, after having discussed and debated it with classmates, they are ready to write thoughtful arguments about the author’s intentions.
Unfortunately, teachers often push students to identify a thesis statement too early in their reading, encouraging them to spend the rest of their time reading the selected novel looking for evidence to support that thesis. Lost, then, is the all-consuming, spontaneous adventure of reading, such as the stomach churn when a character makes a fateful decision or the shock when the plot takes a twist.
Furthermore, if teachers assign a dense and sophisticated book like Narrative, they often use simplified versions with shorter sentences and less sophisticated vocabulary. In such versions, Douglass’s perspective on the Underground Railroad is reduced to a series of hideouts and escape routes. Students miss discovering the complex set of emotions that runaway slaves felt as they fled north, and they miss Douglass’s insight into the minds of slaveholders. Tragically, because many students cannot access the original text, a number of them conclude that Narrative, one of the greatest literary works in American history, is boring.
To engage students in the pleasure of reading complex text, English teachers should not only use the original versions, but also avoid assigning excerpts. Even if a series of excerpts is grouped around a thought-provoking topic, these do not allow students to develop the empathy that comes from closely examining an entire world that the author has created.
Curriculum developers need to provide high school English teachers with highly engaging grade-level books and accompanying age-appropriate, high-leverage activities so that teachers can focus on eliciting students’ insightful reactions to what they read. By providing lessons and materials that carefully meet the needs of adolescents wishing to play with language and debate their interpretations with peers, curriculum developers can enable teachers to focus on creating spontaneous and joyful middle and high school classrooms in which great works of literature are not merely understood, but celebrated.
Arthur Unobskey is CEO of Riveting Results and former superintendent of Wayland Public Schools in Wayland, Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.