Table of Contents
- The Gap between Good and Poor Readers
- What Can Teachers Do to Help?
Reading and writing are complex practices. When we read or write, our brains must process language in terms of semantics (the meaning of language), syntax (organizing words into comprehensible sentences), as well as phonological processing (decoding). Couple those linguistic systems with the context and the purpose for the reading or writing, and it gets very complicated. It seems that the root of reading difficulty for many children who struggle is in the processing of sounds. Many students who struggle with literacy have a very underdeveloped sense of phonemic awareness, that is they have trouble identifying, isolating, and manipulating the smallest units of sound in spoken words. If they struggle with sounds, they will likely struggle with matching letters to sounds as beginning readers too.
Some children have a disability that makes reading difficult to learn. Others come to school without the literacy experiences they need to become readers. Some children struggle because they’ve received poor or inadequate reading instruction. When these and other risk factors are identified early, though, many children’s reading difficulties can be prevented.
The Gap Between Good and Poor Readers
There is a huge (30 million words) gap between low and high SES children in the number of words they are exposed to in the first three years of life (Colker, 2014). The big disparity in vocabulary development puts children from poverty at a disadvantage for literacy learning right from the start of school. Research has indicated time and again that oral language development directly affects the attainment of reading and writing skills. By third grade, the gap between strong readers and poor readers continues to widen as the strong become stronger and the weak even weaker.
We know the gap is wide, but there are research-based early literacy initiatives that seek to educate parents and teachers about the benefits of reading and talking to children and babies to increase their oral vocabularies and lay the foundations for print concepts and literacy.
Dyslexia is a brain-based disorder with language processing. Its cause is not known, but it makes reading and writing difficult and affects academic achievement. According to the International Dyslexia Association, as much as 15-20% of the population as a whole suffer from some degree of dyslexia. About 85 % of the students diagnosed with a specific learning disability in literacy have dyslexia. We know that it runs in families and has a genetic component, and we know there is no cure for the disorder. The brains of dyslexic learners function differently than the brains of capable readers as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
What Can Teachers Do to Help?
According to Allington (2013) there are several research based practices, we can implement in our classrooms to help struggling readers achieve and progress.
- Give strugglers equal time spent reading as their more confident peers
In the average classroom, proficient readers are given more time engaged in reading text, while struggling readers are given more worksheets and skill instruction and less time engaged in reading text. Research says that the best way to help strugglers improve is more time spent reading. In our classrooms, we need to ensure that all students have an extended period of time devoted to reading texts.
It is also important to allow for choice in reading materials in order to allow children to become invested in texts they find interesting. Choice is a huge factor in motivation. Motivation is the key to getting students to want to read at all.
- Help them select texts at a 98% accuracy level to allow them to practice and experience success
We know that when something is hard or difficult we tend to avoid that thing. For children who find reading difficult, the act of reading is less than pleasurable. So it makes sense to place struggling readers in texts that they can easily navigate with 98% or higher accuracy. This means that they will not struggle with word identification and therefore be able to read with greater speed, accuracy, and higher comprehension. We can use running records and lexile scores to quickly determine which texts are just right for struggling readers. When something is easy, it is also enjoyable and likely to be repeated! At Lexile.com, they have a category of books they code as “high interest, low readability” that are well suited for struggling readers who want books that they can read with ease but still appeal to their interests.
The lexile leveling system is helpful for both students and teachers when selecting books that will be just right for the reader’s ability and interest.
The Lexile codes are:
- AD: Adult Directed: Better when read aloud to a student rather than having the student read independently.
- NC: Non-Conforming: Good for high-ability readers who still need age-appropriate content.
- HL: High-Low: Content to engage older students who need materials that are less complex and at a lower reading level.
- IG: Illustrated Guide: Nonfiction materials often used for reference.
- GN: Graphic Novel: Graphic novels or comic books.
- BR: Beginning Reader: Appropriate for emerging readers with a Lexile reader measure below 0L.
- NP: Non-Prose: Poems, plays, songs, recipes and text with non-standard or absent punctuation.
- Avoid allowing para professionals to provide primary instruction
Too often children who struggle with literacy are assisted by paraprofessionals in the classroom. Allington reminds us that primary reading instruction should be at the hands of a highly-trained education professional with the knowledge and skills to provide balanced reading instruction. All readers benefit from time spent in guided reading lessons where they can practice applying reading strategies under the guidance of a skilled teacher.
- Engage them in small group reading experiences and avoid whole group instruction
Guided reading is the ideal setting for strategy-based reading instruction. Struggling readers need one to one instruction that is individualized to their needs. The small reading group is ideal for strategy focused instruction. In small reading groups, successes can be celebrated, and needs can be addressed immediately. Children also benefit from working in pairs where they can share their expertise and assume the role of teacher/mentor sometimes too.
Questions I Can Ask As I Read
To get the gist of what I am reading:
- What is this story about?
- What is the problem?
- What is the solution?
- What do I need to know about?
- What’s going to happen next?
- Is my prediction still a good one?
- Do I need to change my prediction?
- What makes me think so?
- What does this (person, place, or thing) look like?
- What makes me think so?
- What’s happened so far?
- Who did what?
- What makes me think so?
To Think Aloud:
- What am I thinking right now?
To Solve Problems When I don’t Understand:
- Should I…
- Stop and review?
- Reread and look back?
- Ignore and read on?
- Make reading lessons meaning focused rather than skills focused
Encourage students to be thoughtful literacy learners. Allington encourages us to remind students that the point of reading and writing is more than remember what the text said, but rather engaging the ideas, challenging them, and reflecting on them. Encourage students to make connections and engage in thoughtful discussions around the text. Book clubs or literature circles are great instructional programs for facilitating the social aspect of book discussions while encouraging thoughtful literacy practices.
Questions to Ponder
- What are your preferred learning styles and how do they influence your own instruction? How can you use your own strengths in the classroom to reach every learner?
- What resources can you share with families to promote literacy at home?
- How can you get books into your students’ homes? Research shows that kids from low SES homes have very few books they can call their own. What community resources exist to help you attain books?
Teaching Literacy in Grades Pre-K to 2 by Lori Levin and Suzanne Porath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Allington, R.L. (2013). What really matters when working with struggling readers. The Reading Teacher, 66(7): 520–530.
Colker, L. J. (2014). The word gap: The early years make the difference. Teaching Young Children, 7(3): 26–28.
Hiebert, E,H., Pearson, P.D., Taylor, B.M., Richardson, V., & Paris, S.G. (1998). Every child a reader: Applying reading research to the classroom. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, University of Michigan School of Education. Retrieved November 1, 2017, from http://www.ciera.org
Girl photo from Pixabay