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Only 37 percent of American 12th-grade students are considered “proficient” or better at reading, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress. This finding indicates that the majority of high school seniors have a hard time understanding challenging subject matter. Many of them also struggle with fluency, or the ability to read with speed and accuracy, which leaves them little energy to analyze the text after they have read it.

I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey.

As a result, students will have a hard time understanding the deeper nuances of Douglass’s discussion of the Underground Railroad. To overcome this fluency barrier and unlock a higher level of comprehension, adolescent students should spend significant time every day reading complex texts.

Students often become invested in the text because they have read it aloud with emotion. As their fluency improves, middle and high school students will grapple with the meaning of a text if they are unafraid of making mistakes and have the chance to argue about their interpretations with classmates. If students see a reading activity as an opportunity to surface misconceptions and share a more accurate understanding, they will go back and reread, something all good readers do.