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We know that struggling readers don’t stop struggling when they leave elementary school. I often receive messages from middle school teachers, asking what they can do. I’ve not have had much experience above 5th grade. Enter Emily Conlan, the face behind @wordmorphed_ on Instagram. She was kind enough to take the time to answer questions about how the Science of Reading applies to older children.


Tell me a little bit about yourself and your job.

My name is Emily Conlan. I am a middle school reading teacher with a K-12 reading specialist certification. This is an incredibly fulfilling position because there are so many opportunities to make a positive impact in the lives of students in need of intervention. Prior to this role, I worked for seven years as a fifth grade literacy teacher. My pursuit of an additional reading degree was driven by the realization that I wasn’t sufficiently equipped to meet the diverse needs of my fifth grade students. I am passionate about delivering evidence-based instructional practices that lead to improved reading ability in all students. 

What are some challenges that you feel are specific to being a middle school reading specialist?

Scheduling is by far the biggest challenge when working in this setting as a traditional middle school model is not conducive for intervention. Students’ class schedules are very rigid, making it difficult to place students in an appropriate intervention group.

Another challenge is determining the best balance of pre-teaching core content and remediating targeted skills. Equipping students with the foundation they need to access content is the goal, and therefore remediating these foundational literacy skills is critical. However, even with this in place, students still need additional scaffolding of content curriculum to be successful in their classes.

A final challenge is the stigma reading intervention takes on at this level. It’s easy for students to feel like they are being taught rudimentary material when they are in need of those foundational skills. I make it a priority to instill confidence in my students to empower them and make them feel a sense of pride in their work. 

What does an intervention lesson look like at the middle-school level?

Interventions span all pillars of reading and require the use of routines. It’s not uncommon for students to have underlying word identification/word recognition issues at this level, and I’m lucky enough to have systematic programs available to me that make this instruction easier to implement. That being said, the most common areas of need I see in middle schoolers are multisyllabic word reading, background knowledge, vocabulary, and inferential thinking, so the courses of intervention seek to address these following the I do, we do, you do approach.

Looking at the chart below, we can see that a typical intervention lesson is forty-five minutes with anywhere from five to ten students. In this example, it begins with a concept review focused on multisyllabic word reading. After this review, I explicitly teach vocabulary terms pulled from our upcoming text. Students then engage in vocabulary activities to further reinforce their understanding of these words. Once vocabulary work is completed, I introduce the main topic of the text and elicit background knowledge. Before reading, students generate questions based on their text preview that I will ultimately turn into inferential prompts for the following day when teaching inference making.


What kind of assessments do you use?

The universal screener administered to all students is the STAR Reading test. Based on results from that benchmark, I use any combination of the following assessments to gather a clearer picture.


How do you teach comprehension?

If comprehension is an issue, the first thing I do is ensure the student’s foundational literacy skills are solid. Underperformance in word accuracy, rate and/or prosody will contribute to poor comprehension. Additionally, as someone who does not have a set program in place for comprehension, I credit the work of others who have helped me to navigate this area and to find effective, evidence-based routines. I will include these recommendations at the end!

I have found that teaching comprehension is all about providing students with scaffolds that support them in creating accurate mental models of  what they are reading. When students have accurate mental representations, they are able to construct deeper meaning of the text.  

These areas are central to strong comprehension and help me structure my comprehension lessons: vocabulary, background knowledge, text structure, sentence comprehension, and inferential processes including main idea skills. It’s important to note that there is overlap among these areas and so by strengthening one, you are actually strengthening others!

I rely on various instructional strategies to help me address these areas like visual representations (graphic organizers, webs), questioning techniques (including questioning the author), think-alouds and models, sentence and grammar-based activities, summarization, writing and small-group interaction.

Here are some tips to remember when teaching comprehension.

  1. Preparation is very important. Invest the time in finding quality texts that are pertinent to your students and can be used for a variety of purposes. I spend time finding texts that are going to build areas of background knowledge most relevant to my students’ needs. These are texts that may also be used for vocabulary work, sentence structure analysis, or other important comprehension processes. It’s important not to cut corners here since it’s central to the lesson.
  2. As with any area of instruction, teachers should seek to establish research-based routines for each instructional focus and use them consistently.
  3. Comprehension instruction is explicit, scaffolded and includes multiple opportunities for practice and feedback. Keep in mind, more practice of a concept not fully understood is not helpful. For example, prompting struggling students with, “make an inference” is not effective. Instead, explicitly model how to integrate text clues with background knowledge using inferential prompts.
  4. Finally, while it’s easy to overlook this, it’s paramount that students have a solid foundation of the building blocks of language. I recommend going back to the basics of parts of speech, subjects and predicates, sentence clauses, etc. This will benefit students’ reading comprehension greatly.

What is one thing you wish elementary school teachers did more of to prepare students for middle school?

Middle school content is rigorous and demands more of students as readers and writers. Disfluent reading impedes their success, and ultimately their confidence. I wish that teachers utilize their instructional time to ensure foundational reading and language skills are overtly taught, practiced and assessed, and if a student has poor accuracy and/or labored reading, don’t assume they will just catch up.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Remember to collaborate with special educators and SLPs; they are a wealth of knowledge. There are also amazing resources available that help make this work easier to implement. Here are some that have been most influential on my practice:

Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David Kilpatrick

Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan.

The Reading Comprehension Blueprint by Nancy Hennessy

The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, you know that Emily is a gem of a human, and that she is doing INCREDIBLE work at the middle school level. I’m so grateful to her for taking her time to answer all my questions.

You can find Emily below:

Instagram: @wordmorphed_

Teachers Pay Teachers:

Shopify (monthly morphology resources):

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Picture of Savannah Campbell

Savannah Campbell

Savannah Campbell is a K-5 reading specialist. She has taught her entire 12-year teaching career at the school she went to as a child. She holds two master’s degrees in education from the College of William and Mary. Savannah is both Orton-Gillingham and LETRS trained. Her greatest hope in life is to allow all children to live the life they want by helping them to become literate individuals.

Picture of Savannah Campbell

Savannah Campbell

Savannah Campbell is a K-5 reading specialist. She has taught her entire 12-year teaching career at the school she went to as a child. She holds two master’s degrees in education from the College of William and Mary. Savannah is both Orton-Gillingham and LETRS trained. Her greatest hope in life is to allow all children to live the life they want by helping them to become literate individuals.

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