TAILORING THE FIT: READING INSTRUCTION AND MIDDLE SCHOOL READERS
Teachers can make reading instruction more responsive to the needs and interests of students.
Learning about reading is not something that ends for students after the fourth or fifth grade. Although students are expected to read purposefully in their content area classes by the time they reach the middle grades, teachers contend that many of these students "can't read, won't read, or will read but fail to comprehend most important information from text" (Bintz, 1997, p. 20). Paired with this problem is the reality that many middle school teachers are reluctant to teach reading, either because they feel inadequately trained or because they consider it someone else's responsibility (Bintz, 1997; Gee & Forrester, 1988). This reluctance is exacerbated by teachers' concerns over the lack of variety in instructional materials provided or by their belief that they must use textbooks--unsuitable or uninteresting for many students--as the basis for instruction (Bintz, 1997; Worthy, Turner, & Moorman, 1998). Furthermore, overwhelming pressure on teachers and schools to improve scores on high-stakes tests may subvert any efforts to make long-term, foundational changes in middle school reading programs. In short, students in middle schools still need good reading instruction, but many middle school teachers may be unprepared or unable to provide it.
This article explores ways to alleviate some of these tensions. We will describe what we perceive as a mismatch between the nature of reading instruction in middle schools and young adolescents' reading abilities and dispositions toward reading. We begin by developing a clear picture of who middle school students are as readers. Next, we evaluate current practices in middle school reading instruction in light of these findings. Finally, we propose ways to help middle school teachers conceptualize instruction that is responsive to students' needs.
Sizing up middle school readers
Who are middle school students as readers? For years they have been perceived as readers in transition, and most educators would agree that there is a wide range of abilities and habits among middle school readers. Although this variation exists at every grade level, the academic differences between middle school students may be even more pronounced than in lower grades because of the amount of instruction students have experienced by this time. Differences in time spent reading may also widen the gaps between students both academically (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988) and cognitively (Stanovich, 1986). Consequently, there is a definite need for instruction that is responsive to individual differences.
Large-scale studies (e.g., National Center for Education Statistics, 1994) indicate that students in this age group do not demonstrate higher level comprehension skills. Also, young adolescents' fluency is still developing, and students across reading levels are still learning about word patterns and meanings through the middle grades. Findings on middle school students' reading habits and attitudes towards reading are of equal concern. In general, research shows that young adolescents do not read much for pleasure (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988), read less than they did in earlier years (Ley, Schaer, & Dismukes, 1994), and continue to develop negative feelings about reading as they move through the middle grades (McKenna, Kear, & Ellsworth, 1995). Taken as a whole, the research on reading abilities and dispositions toward reading conducted during the last several decades paints a picture of the young adolescent reader as poorly skilled and apathetic. However, very recent examinations of young adolescents' reading highlight more positive dimensions of their reading habits and abilities, and several themes emerging from these studies help to create a more optimistic perspective on their status as readers.
Middle school readers are complex
The first theme suggests that although middle school students across ability levels are still developing as readers, their reading performance is multidimensional. They may be more strategic in their reading than previous research indicates, depending on the context of the reading (e.g., Lipson & Wixson, 1986). For instance, students whose limited decoding skills hinder reading comprehension may understand clearly and think critically when materials are read to them (Ivey, 1999). Also, middle school readers may use