Listen Up! ‘Good’ Readers May Not Be Effective Readers

Jan 10, 2024 2:05:59 PM


You might assume that I am a “good” reader. I have an M.Ed in reading education and an Ed.D. I taught secondary reading and ELA for over a decade and read daily for work and pleasure. While I can easily speed through a thousand-plus-page fiction novel, I may struggle slowly and methodically through a dense research article filled with statistics. I don’t know if I’m a good reader. I know I’m an effective one.

We sometimes decide whether students are good readers based on assessment data and classroom interactions. However, classifying students as a “good” reader or “not a good” reader misses important nuances and overlooks that reading ability often falls on a spectrum and is knowledge-dependent. Without nuance, we miss critical opportunities to find and build on student reading strengths.

Some may thrive in their English literature classes and eagerly dissect the main points of the stories and the characters. A biology textbook is arduous for the same student because of its abstractions, unfamiliar vocabulary, and dense sentences, requiring intense focus and background knowledge.


A student being a “good” reader in one subject does not mean they’re effective across all subjects, which matters for instruction.

A reader’s effectiveness depends on many factors, including prior knowledge, vocabulary, and content. Indeed, reading requires the reader to execute an array of foundational skills with increasing automaticity: an immediately applied understanding of letter-sound correspondence, decoding, and fluency.

But to prepare students to be nimble and effective readers, we must build up their skills across the diverse texts they will encounter in life—scientific, technical, mathematical, narrative, and literary.

Each type of text has its structures, vocabulary, and organization, and each text requires the reader to activate their background knowledge for comprehension, which is personal, cultural, and situational.

The oft-cited Recht & Leslie 1988 baseball study found that weak readers with prior knowledge of the topic of baseball scored as high as “good” readers who weren’t familiar with baseball. Readers who know about a topic can read increasingly complex texts; readers with weak or inaccurate background knowledge struggle to comprehend unfamiliar topics.

In addition to global knowledge or a topic, like baseball or mitosis, effective readers also have local background knowledge, which they activate at the sentence level (e.g., what noun a pronoun refers to, what a semicolon does in a sentence, nominalization in a science text).

Effective readers use morphemes flexibly to break apart unfamiliar words and determine their meaning. Readers also need motivation, self-efficacy, and engagement. Engaged and motivated readers keep going; disengaged and unmotivated readers stop.

Moving mindsets from “good reader” to “effective reader” is crucial in secondary schools as students encounter more diverse texts with topics and structures that reflect the unique demands of each discipline and require a discipline-specific approach to reading. Instead of asking whether students are good readers, Upper-grade teachers should consider these questions regardless of whether it’s for ELA or chemistry.

  1. Can your students derive accurate and thought-provoking meanings from the text that results in a better understanding?
  2. Can your students identify false information, misinformation, or disinformation?
  3. Can they move from information acquisition to knowledge building?  
  4. Can they determine the accurate meaning of unfamiliar words?
  5. What can students do with the text?  What are their strengths?

Answers to such questions are telling.  

Plus, reframing from “good” to “effective in different contexts” allows students to experience a variety of successes. They can see where they read effectively and where they do not— and then receive appropriate, targeted support. Starting with readers having access, opportunity, and targeted support across content areas to grow their reading abilities continuously.
 It also means providing upper-grade teachers professional learning and support to approach student learning through a reading effectiveness lens.

You may wonder, “How can I have a culture of effective readers in my building?”

For school leaders and coaches:

  • Reading fluency is linked to reading comprehension. Reading fluency won’t solve every reading challenge in your building, but improving fluency may strengthen student reading abilities. Read about the NWEA study on a reading fluency intervention for secondary students and consider ways to include the intervention in your building.
  • Reading in science, social studies, and mathematics requires separate plans, as texts in each discipline are unique to the demands of the discipline, require background knowledge, and have specialized, discipline-specific vocabulary. Check out the work happening in North Carolina, including the Literacy Instruction Standards (LIS)  for teachers and the LIS toolkit. Consider using these resources as a starting place in your professional learning plan for literacy across content areas.
  • Engage in conversations with teachers about what they notice about student reading and writing effectiveness and their plans for addressing literacy.
  • Consider making disciplinary literacy a part of your building’s culture and professional learning goals.  Check ASCD’s article, Disciplinary Literacy: A Shift that Makes Sense, and Content and Disciplinary Literacy: Strategies and Frameworks, a literacy leadership brief from the International Literacy Association.

For teachers and coaches:

Miah Daughtery

Miah Daughtery, Ed.D., is the literacy director of content advocacy and design at NWEA, where she spends her days figuring out how to get kids more excited about reading and writing. Prior to joining NWEA, she was a classroom reading and English teacher for almost 10 years, a district literacy specialist, the state literacy coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Education, the director of literacy for Achieve, and the executive director of professional learning for Odell Education. Miah earned her BA in English at the University of Michigan, her MEd in reading at Wayne State University, and her EdD in public policy and educational administration from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education in 2016. She believes literacy is an ethical and social justice issue, and she prides herself on finding books for reluctant readers.

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