I'm a High School Reading Resource Teacher. What Should I Do?

  • 17 July, 2021

Teacher question:

I’ve been hired as a high school reading resource teacher. The school has a lot of commercially prepared intervention programs. Which ones would you use? Any other advice for me?

Shanahan response:

First things first.

I’d look at my data to find out how far behind my students are.

High school teachers often tell me that they have beginning readers in their classes, but when we look at the kids’ data, we find that just isn’t the case (most of the time).

Not that these students read well.

But most high school teachers aren’t equipped to distinguish a fourth-grade from a first-grade reader. Since both those students would struggle mightily with a high school textbook, the distinction doesn’t matter much to the classroom teacher.

For the resource teacher, however, it is a bigger deal. Those super low students would likely need explicit decoding instruction and they might even qualify for some more intensive special education assistance.

In my experience, super low readers do exist in high schools, but usually in fairly small numbers. Those aren’t the kids who will be your main clients. They do need very basic reading instruction with a heavy focus on decoding and should be placed in a special class for that.

Your caseload will more likely skew towards those with instructional reading levels ranging from 4th-8th grade (the lower achieving your school is, the larger the proportion of students that will be in the lower half of that range).

I don’t make recommendations of commercial programs (conflicts of interest) so can’t help you there. There are a couple of good guides out there (Deshler, 2007; C. Shanahan, 2005), though they are getting a bit long in the tooth. Also, I’d recommend that you evaluate those programs against the What Works Clearinghouse guidance.  

Other advice?

I’d advise that you skip the intervention package.

I’m not against commercial programs in principle, but I don’t think they’ll provide your students with best support.

I was an elementary resource teacher and remember it vividly. The kids struggle with reading in their classes, so a teacher refers them for extra reading help. The resource teacher tests the kids and then teaches reading to them at their supposed reading levels. That may mean that a fifth-grade student works on second and third grade reading passages in the resource room. The resource teacher is happy with the youngster’s performance, but the teacher and student are frustrated because the classroom struggle goes on despite the reading help.

Being perfectly honest, I doubt that you’ll raise many students from a fourth-grade to a ninth-grade reading level this semester!

Studies suggest that reading interventions with high school and college students simply don’t have much of an impact on their learning (Bohr, et al, 1994; Kemple, et al, 2008).  

What would I do?

I’d try to teach reading using the books those students need to read in their other classes.

To make this work, I’d have to coordinate with the content teachers.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve decided to focus on teaching kids to read with their social studies texts this report card marking. I’d need to know which chapters and other texts the students were going to cover over the next 9 weeks. Getting specifics about the planned schedule is important because I’d want to address those texts prior to their introduction in the classroom.

Doing that puts would put these students on a more equal footing in their classes. It also might reduce some of the anxiety these students often feel about their classroom work.

What would I do with these texts?

The same things that I’d do if you were working from a commercial program.

I’d teach vocabulary explicitly, focusing on words from those social studies texts.

I’d teach oral reading fluency, using the texts students will be expected to read in class.

I’d teach reading comprehension with those materials, too – analyzing text structures, practicing summarization strategies, and discussing and writing about the content.

Students with that support from the resource teacher should be more likely to succeed in their content classes – since they’d get a double opportunity to learn the materials from those classes, and there is no reason to believe that this teaching wouldn’t improve their reading levels simultaneously.

Often interventions undermine kids’ self-confidence. Just assigning them to a remedial class may be enough to make them assume that the school thinks they’re stupid. Then, the resource teacher, trying to improve their reading levels, introduces a fifth-grade book (a “baby book” for a 14-year-old) and the students both feel insulted and dumb as dirt (Lupo, et al, 2019).

The approach that I’m recommending doesn’t have that problem. It would simultaneously build reading skills, improve content learning, and increase academic confidence. The use of classroom texts should provide these students both with respect and a double dose of the classroom text coverage.

Yep, in high school, I’d create a class or two for those kids who needed basic decoding instruction. But for the others, my focus would be on enabling them to take on the high school curriculum more successfully through their reading. My program evaluation would look at both the students’ pre- to post-reading levels AND their classroom grades.

Good luck. Have a productive year.


Bohr, L., Pascarella, E., Nora, A., Zusman, B., Jacobs, M., Desler, M., & Bulakowski, C. (1994). Cognitive effects of two-year and four-year colleges: A preliminary study. Community College Review, 22, 4-11.

Deshler, D.D. (2007). Informed choices for struggling adolescent readers: A research-based guide to instructional programs and practices. Newark, DE: International Literacy Association.

Kemple, J. J., Corrin, W., Nelson, E., Salinger, T., Herrmann, S., & Drummond, K. (2008). The enhanced reading opportunities study: Early impact and implementation findings (NCEE report no. 2008-4015). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Lupo, S., Tortorelli, L., Invernizzi, M., Ryoo, J.H., & Strong, J.Z. (2019). An exploration of text difficulty and knowledge support on adolescents’ reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 54(4), 2019.

Shanahan, C. (2005). Adolescent literacy intervention programs and chart. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED490970.pdf


See what others have to say about this topic.

Nancy Duggan
Jul 27, 2021 09:45 PM

Unless the student has severe intellectual impairment- the text of content areas needs to 100 percent accessible to HS struggling readers, with AT if necessary, that is the fact of ADA/504 law: equal access to all the challenging curriculum.
So the specialized reading and writing instruction-that is needed - in all the possibilities from PA to phonics or fluency etc.. - needs to be additional and when appropriate supporting that goal for ELA literature that is at grade level and across content areas.
The struggle for this special Ed teacher is that in many cases they have one period to review all the vocabulary and content of all the courses, scaffold writing and teach missing skills, rarely in HS do we see the scheduling and collaborative work needed to do all this.
Improving reading and writing takes time for direct instruction and collaboration to allow and support transfer of skill practiced across the curriculum as well as skill development in direct instruction, and support with AT to ensure full access to the content not modified reduced content.

Robin McConnell
Jul 17, 2021 05:41 PM

I retired in 2020. My former principal offered me a remedial reading position four days a week at the middle school. Thank you for this article. It has given me great and useful information.

Mark Pennington
Jul 17, 2021 05:42 PM


It's not often that I disagree with the key point of your advice. However, this time I do. Having served as a high school and middle school reading specialist for the bulk of my educational career, I would concur that the doom and gloom research findings are spot on... if teachers follow the "band-aid" strategy of using grade-level textbooks (science, social studies, health, etc.) to teach reading.

What I've found is that assessment should determine instruction for older kids, just as with younger ones. The student composition of a high school intervention class is, indeed, diverse. You are probably right about reading grade-levels for most kids in remedial reading high school classes; however, the successful teacher will be one who differentiates instruction and that includes using text that will target specific skills indicated by the assessments--text that will challenge, but not overwhelm these vulnerable readers.

In any given year, I've found that some high school students will need explicit phonics practice; others have gaps in their phonemic awareness that must be addressed; still more have issues with multi-syllabic words; almost all have fluency issues. All have comprehension challenges because of the former deficits. Unless these needs are specifically addressed, struggling high school readers will be stuck at survival reading ability the rest of their lives. Realistically, these can't be addressed solely by teaching in the context of a textbook from a content class. There are no shortcuts in reading.

I whole-heartedly agree with you that high school teachers need to maintain student self-esteem. But we do have plenty of commercial options (take a look at mine!) that are specifically designed for older students.

Lastly, I agree with you (once again) that most high school students are "beginning readers" and that we can build on more mature oral language and reading skills. In my experience, for a lot of high school students, learning what they specifically need via targeted assessment and practice, it is not atypical to see post-tested multi-grade-level increases. They have some of the tools, but need the rest to get the job done. I believe we can make a difference in older, struggling readers.

Joan Sedita
Jul 17, 2021 07:13 PM

As you point out, each student has his or her unique set of reasons why they they have difficulty with reading (and writing), and the intervention instruction therefore needs to vary based on those needs. In my experience with teaching, administering, and training secondary teachers about effective literacy instruction, I find that for students who have decoding issues (i.e., needing explicit, systematic instruction for phonics/spelling and advanced word study) a well-researched, published program is best. This is primarily because in order to teach phonics the teacher needs materials such as word lists, decodable text, phoneme-grapheme cards, etc. On the other hand, I agree with you that text already being read in content areas is what should be used to provide intervention instruction to address difficulty with vocabulary, and comprehension (including using writing to support reading comprehension). However, for this to work, intervention educators (and content teachers with whom they collaborate to help students apply skills in content settings) need professional development to learn how to provide this instruction. I think one of the reasons support educators ask for intervention programs is that they have not learned how to provide this kind of instruction, so they feel they need a published program that will show them what to do -- i.e., a teacher's guide that spells out each lesson and has workbooks for students to use. It's a lot harder to take a piece of social studies or science text and teach students how to annotate and read closely, take two-column notes, write a summary, use the context or word parts to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word, etc. But that's just what older students need. Also, collaborating with content teachers is another important piece to this. Too often students are taught strategies in a resource setting, but then they go down the hall to their content classes and never apply these strategies. When interventionists work with content teachers who are willing to help students apply the strategies during content instruction, there is a greater chance that the students will implement. The good news is that for over 25 years I have been training content teachers and interventionists to do just that, and I can tell you that it works!

Mark Pennington
Jul 17, 2021 08:09 PM

Joan and Tim,

I support Joan's emphasis on collaboration with content area teachers. However, I still disagree that content area textbooks should be the focus of reading instruction. Although I'm an advocate, along with the Common Core authors, of increasing levels of text complexity, the Appendix A discussion of tiered words is relevant. In content textbooks, much of the domain-specific vocabulary has limited utility.

Far better to use narrative and expository text that emphasizes Tier 2 words with greater applicability. After all, I would rather have my students learn the Tier 2 word "analyze" from an article written at the sixth grade level more so than the domain-specific "ichthyology" from a sophomore biology class.

Furthermore, if high school students are reading at the fourth-grade level, their fluency in a macro-economics text will be prohibitive of meaning-making, no matter how many close readings they do.

I'm not a fan of leveled books, but some Vigotsky ZPD does make sense for building comprehension.

A final thought... none of the bio, chem, econ, or history teachers at my high school use their textbooks regularly, and I understand this to be the case nationwide. If so, using the high school textbooks would be even more of an uphill battle for struggling high school readers. Plus, have you read any high school textbooks recently? Aargh, no wonder content area teachers avoid these paperweights.

Timothy E Shanahan
Jul 17, 2021 08:12 PM


I'd rather try to raise the students' reading levels while simultaneously improving their ability to deal with high school, than to try to do so while ignoring their day to day reading demands. I don't think this is as different from developmental programs aimed at college freshmen.


Kathleen OConnor
Jul 17, 2021 08:53 PM

I work with refugee students, and I am holding a reading-intensive summer camp for my middle schoolers who are struggling with reading. Before school ended, I asked for information about the texts my students would read in fall, but not one teacher was confident they knew what those texts would be.

We are still having a great time reading texts that I guess they will encounter some time soon.

What specifically would you recommend to help students who tent to read part of a word, then guess the rest? For example, reading “disappear” for “disappoint” or “examination” for “explanation”? We are reading out loud, and my mantra is “slow down and sound it out.”

Timothy Shanahan
Jul 17, 2021 10:08 PM


You definitely would want to teach those students about syllabication (I wrote a recent piece about that on my site). Type syllabication into the search key and you should find information on that.

good luck.


Jul 17, 2021 10:55 PM

This recommendation makes sense to me, and I'm wondering whether you would also recommend it for upper elementary. My school district is thinking of purchasing a reading intervention program for grades 4th-6th that does not address gaps in foundational skills, so it seems to me that instead of spending money on a program that ostensibly addresses fluency and comprehension, it makes more sense to use the materials in intervention that the classroom teacher is using for all the reasons you discuss. For the third grade class I teach once a week, I pull my super strugglers separately to help them with multisyllabic words and comprehension strategies applied to the whole class text we are reading so that they do not miss out on grade level text. What are your thoughts about upper elementary. Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan
Jul 17, 2021 11:42 PM

It is certainly possible that approach would work fine with upper elementary kids. However, my concern there is that the statistics start to go the other way... you're much more likely to find a sizable group of kids still struggling with basic decoding issues. I'd still want to do a lot of fluency work with them (at least for the higher achieving), but I suspect I'd find many more kids who simply could not decode sufficiently well and who would likely benefit from phonics and syllabication instruction. If you've tested the kids and found them to in reasonably good decoding shape, then my advice here is very reasonable.



Sarah Hromada
Jul 18, 2021 04:10 AM

Why make assumptions of what level a student is reading? Measure and use data,, figure out what the student needs. If a 9th through 12th grade student is reading at 4th through 8th grade level, something is missing and it's likely the missing skill is very low to pull them down so far. Identify needs and address the needs. Don't just assume the student is lazy and not trying. Just providing grade level books will not teach missing reading skills.

Sofia Fenichell
Jul 18, 2021 05:50 AM

I think this blog post is spot on based on all the research I have read.

Jul 18, 2021 06:31 AM

I was wondering if this same approach would apply to middle schoolers. I saw your response to Harriet about upper elementary and agree with your response. But what about middle schoolers who are beyond the very beginning reading stage but still struggling with grade level content. Thanks so much!!!

Timothy Shanahan
Jul 18, 2021 01:57 PM


Middle schoolers, over time, become increasingly like high school students. The further they go in literacy, the more likely this plan would work for them (but one would expect more of those kids to need explicit decoding/syllabication helps).



Timothy Shanahan
Jul 18, 2021 02:01 PM


No one recommended guessing, in fact, I said pay attention to your data.

However, your notion that these students are missing some well sequenced list of skills that if addressed will allow the students to read at grade level is not justified. It doesn't exist. Increasingly, research is showing that students from grade 2 on can make greater progress when taught (don't miss that word) from grade level texts.



N. Essenpreis
Jul 18, 2021 11:26 PM

I don't have constraints for recommending a program. Anita Archer's Rewards programs are terrific for older students and provides real strategies for decoding multisyllabic words and learning vocabulary in social studies and science. I would seriously consider those.

Scott Geisler
Jul 18, 2021 11:57 PM

Mark, with respect, Tim doesn’t mention textbooks. I think you’ve misunderstood his point. Peace.

Jul 19, 2021 03:33 AM

Having been a reading specialist for students with special needs for many years, I agree with Tim, to "try to raise the students' reading levels while simultaneously improving their ability to deal with high school material." Reading doesn't just have a scientific approach to acquire skills, it also has a social/emotional quality. By high school, the students have been struggling for years and have poor self-confidence and motivation. Helping them by teaching strategies to decipher textbooks (for example, using text features to their advantage) or any other classwork materials, can only help them social/emotionally. Also, if the content area teacher is willing to work with you (unfortunately not always the case), then you can get plans ahead of time to pre-teach some of the vocabulary, read text together, and apply other strategies being taught in the resource room. That is a great motivation booster because all of a sudden, the student can answer some questions about the material in class! More confidence will also build motivation to work on any reading instruction/approach that is planned in resource room. It may be important to do a quick survey in the beginning to learn what interventions have been used with the students in the past. If you're the third teacher to work on beginning syllabication with little growth, it's time to try a different intervention. Use data and student input to determine intervention. Have a wonderful year!

Jul 19, 2021 09:26 AM

Great advice. For many years I taught at the middle and high school year level. It makes so much sense to support kids using curriculum topics and/or reading materials along with the classroom teacher. It worked so well with supporting kids and increasing motivation. I remember the day that a global social studies regents was given. I was checking on a student and making eye contact and we read each other’s mind. We thought, “wow! You will rock this prompt about the Neolithic Age!” Also, with the weakest readers the issue was more of a fluency problem than decoding. It’s often misdiagnosed.

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I'm a High School Reading Resource Teacher. What Should I Do?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.