Homeschooling Struggling Readers in the Upper Grades

Falling Through the Cracks

By the upper grades, many special needs students have developed compensation strategies that allow them to ‘get by.’ Often, in schools, these strategies allow the student to be passed to the next grade, though they may not have the basic skills necessary to perform well at this higher level. According to the US Department of Education, 19% of high school graduates are functionally-illiterate, meaning that they can’t read well enough to manage a basic job.

Our hi-lo student was the impetus behind our final decision to pull the kids and homeschool them. My background in education, coupled with my mother’s twenty-plus years of experience working specifically with these students, gave me the confidence needed to know that I could provide an excellent, yet tailored, education for our son. I didn’t want him falling through the cracks!

What is Hi-Lo?

Hi-Lo is a term used to describe high-interest, low-reading-level students. These students have a lower level of reading, but are still interested in age-appropriate topics. It can be difficult to find reading materials for these students. The problem here can be two-fold – they want to read books that are interesting, but you need to them start with books at their level.

Typically, the upper limit of Hi-Lo reading materials is 4th or 5th grade, at which point resources taper off dramatically. Unfortunately, just because students have reached the end of elementary school, however, doesn’t mean that their struggles with reading vanish!

It’s not realistic to believe that everyone will suddenly perform at their level just because they are being passed along from one grade to the next, nor is it realistic to keep them at their grade level until their performance level catches up, yet both of these happen in schools consistently.

Why is it Important?

Students aren’t going to improve their reading comprehension without practice, and they’re not going to plow through a story they’re interested in that is at too high a reading level. By the same token, they need the vocabulary and reading flow practice, without the babyish feel that can come with stories written at their level. They need to find a middle ground – appealing stories, at their levels, with additional learning activities to reinforce what was in the story.

Given how few options there are for struggling readers in the upper grades, we’re taking books that fit into the “high interest-low level” role (but aren’t actually ‘hi-lo’ books), and using them to slowly expand the reading level while teaching history, geography, and science through an engaging story that holds their interest.

One example of this would be the World War 2-themed books in the We Were There series, such as Battle of the Bulge, Battle for Bataan, and Pearl Harbor. These action-adventure novels are written at a 4th to 6th grade reading level, yet are full of history and battle details! The activities and thinking questions help to reinforce reading comprehension, and the vocabulary and reading flow are naturally improved with continued reading.

Free Resources

All of our adapted Hi-Lo units are free and accessible for teachers and homeschooling families. They begin with a book, include some background / introductory material, and have hands-on activities, video clips, critical thinking questions, and writing activities included. You can access them – as well as see what’s upcoming – on our Book Studies page. What book would you adapt for your high schooler?


A big thank you to Yvie Field at Homeschool On the Range for writing this article.

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