Why can’t my high school English students read?

Originally written Jan 2020. Updated March 2022

If you’re like me, and teach high school English, you may have noticed that many students are reluctant readers or seem to be struggling with reading. You’ll see students read the text but they can’t remember any details or they can only give a rudimentary retelling. It becomes clear that they have not been thinking through the text in the same way that you do when you read. But why is that?

Common questions I hear other teachers or parents ask:

  • Don’t student already know how to read by grade 9?
  • Shouldn’t they be able to recall the important details? 
  • Are they reluctant to read because they are lazy, distracted, don’t like school, don’t want to do well, or are they just trying to cause trouble?

What does it mean to read?

*For up to date data collected by the Ontario Human Rights Comission, see their “Right to Read” repot, published March 2022.

What is literacy?

According to PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment):

Reading literacy is understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential, and participate in society” (PISA 2012 Assessment and Analytical Framework)

This definition is expanded upon by the Ontario Ministery of Education:

“Literacy continues to evolve as the world changes and its demands shift and become more complex. Literacy is not only used for reading and writing, but also to increase one’s understanding of the world. Adolescents require continual practice over time to refine their skills in thinking, reading, writing and oral communication… [and] Critical Literacy which refers to students critically analyzing and evaluating the meaning of text as it relates to issues of equity, power, and social justice to inform a critical stance, response and/or action” (Adolescent Literacy Guide).

A Vision of Literacy for the Adolescent Learner

Both these definitions indicate that the reader must have a proficient ability to read (decode and understand) the text.

Are Canadian students literate?

Canada’s Data

According to the 2012 PISA results:

“In Canada, 86% of students attained at least Level 2 proficiency in reading, significantly more than on average across OECD countries (OECD average: 77%).

Level 2 proficiency means that at a minimum, these students can identify the main idea in a text of moderate length, find information based on explicit, though sometimes complex criteria, and can reflect on the purpose and form of texts when explicitly directed to do so.

Some 15% of students in Canada were top performers in reading, meaning that they attained Level 5 or 6 in the PISA reading test (OECD average: 9%).

“At these levels, students can comprehend lengthy texts, deal with concepts that are abstract or counterintuitive, and establish distinctions between fact and opinion, based on implicit cues pertaining to the content or source of the information.”

Are my Ontario students literate?

Ontario’s Data

According to the 2012 PISA Ontario’s results:

28.1% of Ontario’s students have inadequate reading skills.

Meaning that the answer to why so many students are not reading is that they can’t read. Students have inadequate reading skills (are functionally illiterate) and simply can’t do what they’re being asked to do.  

Ontario has a world renowned education system, is relatively successful compared to other Canadian provinces and other countries according to the PISA data.

Ontario’s 28% illiteracy rate may seem relatively low however, I teach applied level English classes where the majority of students are in this 28%, it seems exceedingly high to me. More than one out of four students aren’t able to read adequately. That’s too many.

Why does it matter if students have inadequate reading skills?

The Effects of Inadequate Reading Skills

Reducing the share of students who perform poorly in reading is important for both the students and society as a whole, since there are large economic and social costs associated with poor performance in school.8

…levels of reading literacy are more reliable predictors of economic and social well-being than is the quantity of education as measured by years at school or in post-school education.’9

Conference Board of Canada

Inadequate reading skills can have a negative impact beyond education. Some of the effects of low literacy include a higher risk of health problems, lower economic status, higher unemployment, and higher possibility of incarceration (Literacy in Canada, Donald G Jamieson, PhD).

Clearly inadequate reading skill have long lasting and drastic effects on a persons quality of life.

How are so many of our students illiterate?

I have no definitive answer but here are some theories.

Leveled Classes in Ontario

The Ontario high schools include three different course options in English:

Applied – focus on practical applications and concrete
Academic – focus on theory and abstract problems;
Locally Developed: – for students who need more flexibility and support or, in some cases, who are in special education programs;

English 9/10 Curriculum

Although this is the official definition of the levels, I have come to believe that the real difference between academic and applied English students is reading literacy.

The more proficient you are as a reader (the higher your reading ability) the less energy you spend on decoding (sounding out the words), the better your fluency (the speed at which you read and understand information) and the more likely you are to engage in critical thinking while reading.

So according to the definition above, applied students can recall content, while academic students can think critically about it. Academic students are at a more advanced stage of reading development. They have became proficient readers earlier and so are much more likely to have develop critical thinking skills.

See the three stages of the reading cycle for more on the critical thinking skills needed for success in reading.

How is this disparity, between the applied and academic students, in reading attainment occurring?

*The Ontario education ministry’s move to collapse leveled classes which is intended to fix some of the equity issues caused by leveled class-mostly filled with students from marginalized backgrounds and those who have learning disabilities-may not improve literacy rates unless this explicitly addressed.

The 6 Myths About Learning to Read

1. Learning to read is a natural process, like learning to speak (you have to rewire your brain to learn how to read)

2. Kids all learn to read differently (the rewiring is the same but some kids may need more structured support & explicit instruction).

3. Reading to a child teaches them to read (it teaches them many things but does not teach them letter sound correlation).

4. Children should guess if they can’t read the word (doesnt teach them how to read-sound out the word).

5. A child’s reading level is an indicator of their progress (leveled readers are arbitrary, a better to focus on skills attainment).

6. The struggling reader will catch up-the wait and see approach (the longer the child can not read the more detrimental the effects)

Check out the video:

How Children Learn to Read

In order to become literate, you have to have good reading instruction (be that phonics, whole language or a mixed approach) and you have to improve your reading skills through guided practice. Reading is a skill just like any other. You need to learn the basics by doing the activity. You can only get better through trial and error. If you are lucky, you may even be guided by a qualified professional who gives you constructive feedback.

The struggling readers in my applied classes wholeheartedly believe that since they can sound out the words they can “read” and depending on the complexity of the text that may be true, Love You Forever by Robert Munsch is clearly easier to read and understand than Shakespeare. So I explain the difficulties they may have had in learning to read by using the following analogies.

When a child learns to ride a bike they need to do some complicated things, in tandem, to actually accomplish the riding. Many things need to happen before a child can successfully ride. A bike needs to be adjusted to the child’s size. A child needs to get on the bike, balance without touching the ground, pedal, and steer in a straight line. Often they can do one or two of these things, but getting it all right at the same time requires practice, trial and error, and failing. They may fall off and get hurt. But eventually, with practice, support and some guidance, a child can ride their bike without struggling or even thinking about it.

Different children will require different types of guidance, for example some may need oral instruction while others may need physical support (holding onto the bike or training wheels). Some parts of the process that seems intuitive may need to be explicitly explained, my daughters for example needed to be told repeatedly to “look where you want to go” in order to ensure they didn’t bike into people or cars.

The same cycle of guided practice (practice–>feedback–>practice) is necessary when learning to drive or swim. This guided practice is no less important when learning how to read or teaching a class of students at varying reading levels and difficulties. This is in fact how literacy is being taught in elementary schools according to the Ontario curriculum, which is largely based on a guided reading and balanced literacy approach. However, according to the Right to Read report, the current practices are insufficient and some students need structured literacy-more structured and explicit instruction at the letter/sound level.

Isntvreading just sounding out the words and why are they still considered a struggling reader when they can read the words on the page?

How Children Fall Behind

Unfortunately, unlike biking, driving or swimming, reading is an internal process, that can not be seen. In fact everyone “looks” the same when they do it, so reading problems are hard to diagnose. Students are easily left behind in learning to read and practicing the skills required for reading.

They can easily get stuck somewhere along the reading continuum, while the rest of their class goes right on improving, becoming one and more skilled as readers, without them. Once behind it is hard to catch up and as the child continues through the education system more and more of their education is gained through increasingly complex reading tasks.

I can see this struggle to keep up in my own children who, despite having been raised in a reading rich environment (bookcases filled with books, book after book read to and with them), are struggling with reading. 

In the early grades my eldest was unable to read the same sight word from one page to the next and is still struggling with sounding out words in the fifth grade. Turns out she had double vision, but she went through four years of school and countless interventions (by us and the school system) before this was diagnosed, leading to a situation where she is now reading multiple grade levels below her peers. I am hopeful that by the time she hits high school she will be reading at grade level, but it has and will continue to be an uphill battle for her. And had we not understood how the education system works, been able to figure out the problem early, and been able to afford to pay for the necessary interventions (vision therapy), she would definitely still be reading at a beginner level. The struggle is real, for the student, the parent and the teacher.

With my younger daughter we were told she would need tutoring as she was behind in her reading. It was the second month of grade two and she was reading at a mid Grade 1 level. Despite the fact that she was only about six months behind, it was clear she was rapidly falling behind and would struggle without our intervention and additional support.

For a more in-depth understanding of early literacy see AMPReports or the OHRC Right to Read

My point is that there can be any number of reasons, many of which we may never know, why high school students are coming into Grade 9 behind in their reading. 

What does inadequate reading skills in my applied English classes actually mean?

The Data from my Classes

Over the last five years I have given each of my classes (applied, locally developed and academic) the Wechsler reading test.  Over time the test results confirm, what the PISA and OSSLT (Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test) scores have already outlined, that students have inadequate reading skills in applied level classes. These tests have also confirmed that the disparity between applied and academic level is based on reading literacy.

The applied students are struggling with inadequate reading skills.  In 2016-2017, 39.47% of my grade 9 applied students tested as reading below grade level. This increased in 2017-2018 to 75%.

What is surprising about the results is that reading seems to become stagnant at such an early stage in the reading development process.  Many of the students are reading at grade levels as low as Grade 2, 4 and 6 (see chart below).

Test data from applied classes 2016-2018

The academic level students on the other hand, are testing at or above their grade level.

Over time these trends have continued, in both levels.

What effect does inadequate reading skills have on school success?

School Wide Impact

Being a weak reader can have catastrophic effects on a students success in high school and post secondary education.  As a student moves through the grade levels more and more material is obtained through reading textbooks. Students with inadequate reading skills are unable to do well in their classes, may even fail, because they are struggling readers.

As a result of the test results I was asked to run professional development for the staff emphasizing that students with inadequate reading skills would struggle in text heavy courses. Teachers were given strategies to use with their locally developed and applied classes to support the reading of their non-fiction texts.

I also suggested that teachers encourage students to use assistive technology for support when reading texts written above their reading level. All of our students have access to Read & Write.

During the PD many teachers asked how students could end up with such inadequate reading skills. I responded that I didn’t know. In the end it doesn’t really matter. The question should be:

What can I do now to help my struggling students improve their reading skills ?

Impact on my Classroom

Although I do feel sharing this data and reading strategies with other teachers (and eventually the board) was a worthwhile endeavor, I ultimately feel it is more beneficial for these students to help them improve their reading proficiency rather than encourage teachers to teach in a way that will work around inadequate reading skills.

By high school, most students can sound out new words but need to practice reading daily (Instrobly suggest choice reading) to increase fluency & allow the development of high order thinking/reading skills.

As such I have developed a program, that is modeled on balanced literacy & structured literacy to help my students increase their reading skills.

I have continued to give students the Wechsler test and have tracked student results on the OSSLT (see below). The results show that my reading program is very successful with students who have inadequate reading skills.   

Board Wide Impact

I have shared the program with my board’s English Subject Council (the English department heads) and supported its development and roll out in other high schools.


Learn all about the program in my 5 part blog series: How to teach high school students to read:

If your interested in how to teach high school teachers how to read or you have questions or comments please feel free to leave a comment or contact me.


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