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Improving literacy achievement in middle school: A toolkit for providing evidence-based reading interventions

Southwest | April 18, 2023

A picture containing an adult woman and middle school girl with books inside a library in front of a bookshelf

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the reading skills of middle school students across the United States. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered in 2022, more than one quarter of grade 8 students who took the test failed to demonstrate reading proficiency;1 for grade 8, the scores were the lowest in almost 25 years, since before 1998.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified reading challenges due to school closures and learning interruptions.2 An analysis of Measures of Academic Progress data from 2019 to 2021 reveals that the greatest loss in reading skills is among students now entering grades 6–8.3 As a result, middle school educators face a pressing need for professional learning on building students' foundational literacy skills.

To respond to this need, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest is partnering with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), education service centers, and school districts in Texas to develop a comprehensive toolkit to support grades 6–8 educators and administrators in improving literacy teaching and learning achievement.

Supporting middle school educators in providing reading interventions

The toolkit will draw on the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) practice guide Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4–9 to support teachers and leaders in meeting the needs of students who are reading below grade level, with a focus on supporting students in grades 6–8. By middle school, reading instruction typically shifts from a focus on fundamental literacy skills, such as decoding and phonemic awareness, to genre-specific textual conventions, comprehension strategies, and the acquisition of curricular content from texts.4 Middle school students without the fundamental skills to read fluently, decode accurately, and comprehend text may struggle to learn grade-level content throughout their remaining school years and beyond.5 At the same time, because fundamental literacy skills are typically taught in the early grades, middle school teachers may have less training on explicit literacy instruction, including decoding of multisyllabic words, oral fluency, comprehension, and the use of stretch text and associated strategies.6 Recently there has been a focus on aligning teacher preparation programs with evidence on literacy practices, but current teachers may not have this opportunity to learn. 

The Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Middle School (PRISMS) Toolkit will include resources and professional development activities for teachers and leaders, including administrators and literacy leaders, aimed at strengthening instruction to improve the reading skills of middle school students. The toolkit will consist of three main components to support teachers and leaders in implementing the evidence-based recommendations in the companion WWC practice guide:

  1. Implementation tools will help teachers self-assess the alignment of their instructional practices with the WWC practice guide recommendations and help administrators and literacy leaders assess the readiness of structures to accommodate reading interventions in grades 6–8. In addition, the toolkit will include resources for supporting sustainability. These resources will include a manual with step-by-step instructions for using all the tools to guide implementation and help leaders monitor progress.
  2. Online professional learning modules will build knowledge of the recommended practices and provide practice opportunities. The modules will include videos that model the recommended strategies, knowledge checks to assess understanding, activities to increase engagement, and links to supporting materials. In addition, the module content will be aligned with the professional learning communities to provide opportunities for collaborative learning.
  3. Professional learning communities will deepen understanding of the practice guide content for teachers, administrators, and literacy leaders and facilitate peer collaboration to support teachers in planning, reflecting on, and refining their reading instruction.

The toolkit will support the application of all four recommendations in the companion WWC practice guide to classroom practice. These recommended evidence-based practices include targeted reading interventions that focus on code-based skills, such as decoding words, and meaning-level skills, such as understanding the words and text, to support adolescent readers with underdeveloped foundational reading skills.

Looking ahead

Development and testing of the toolkit will proceed in phases over the next 5 years in collaboration with TEA, education service centers, and school districts in Texas. With the second-largest number of K–12 public school students in the nation, including a growing population of students who are multilingual learners, Texas offers a unique opportunity for developing, testing, and refining the toolkit.7 Through this work, REL Southwest and its partners seek to provide a set of resources that educators across the nation can use to improve middle school students' reading proficiency and engagement.

If you are interested in learning more about this work, please subscribe to our mailing list. We are currently recruiting districts to test the toolkit. If you are a district leader who may be interested in implementing the toolkit, please contact Billie Day ( or Jill Bowdon ( to schedule a time to learn more and ask questions.

Related resources

For more information on effective reading and writing instruction and interventions for middle school students, explore the following resources: 


1 U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2022 Reading Assessment. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from

2, 3 Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Liu, J. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement (EdWorkingPaper No. 20-226). Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

4 Chall, J. S. (1983). Learning to read: The great debate. McGraw-Hill.

5 Torgesen, J. K., Houston, D. D., Rissman, L. M., Decker, S. M., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Francis, D. J., Rivera, M. O., & Lesaux, N. (2007). Academic literacy instruction for adolescents: A guidance document from the Center on Instruction. RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

6 Tomas, C. N., Allen, A. A., Ciullo, S., Lembke, E. S., Billingsley, G., Goodwin, M., & Judd, L. (2022). Exploring the perceptions of middle school teachers regarding response to intervention struggling readers. Exceptionality, 30(4), 261–278.

7 National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). Digest of Education Statistics [Data set]: Table 203.20. Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools, by region, state, and jurisdiction: Selected years, fall 1990 through fall 2023. U.S. Department of Education.


Belema Ibama-Johnson

Belema Ibama-Johnson

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