How we treat reading problems in the classroom affects student outcomes – and our stress.
There is often an expectation at secondary school that if students haven’t learned to read well by the time they begin Year 7, it’s probably indicative of a lack of ability. This may be related to a hangover from the 11+ exam, or it may simply be prejudice. It’s certainly not based on anything factual. There is plenty of evidence – some of it on this blog and on our website – that students can catch up remarkably quickly when given explicit, systematic teaching.
However, this sort of teaching is closely targeted, has most impact in a one-to-one format, and doesn’t always fit into the organisation of the general secondary classroom. So what do we do about helping struggling readers to cope, and even improve, while grappling with the regular curriculum? Here are six suggestions:
Know who they are
It might sound trivial, but it’s not. This UK study found, for example, that only half the poor readers in the sample had been identified for additional support. Children can also become experts at masking their reading problems in the classroom. They have lots of motivation to do so, for to expose these problems is to invite shame, ridicule and bullying. So the careful teacher finds low-key ways to explore the problem and to see how deep it goes. You can use more than test data for this: a quiet chat, a reading aloud exercise, a comprehension activity, can also yield much information. But certainly, you should have a good idea of how your students stand in relation to national reading norms – regardless of your subject. If your school doesn’t yet provide this data as standard to every teacher, the leadership may need a not-so-subtle nudge.
Have them read aloud to you
Library lessons are a great way to do this, as is simply taking the opportunity while moving around the room. Talking in a quiet voice (while keeping an eye on the rest of the class), invite the student to read a paragraph or more and note the errors they made (are they recurring?), and how quickly they read. Most students love reading to their teacher, even those who are not confident about reading aloud to the class. Giving them a sense of safety to do so is a gift. Always remember to praise what they do well, and give two or three very specific items of feedback. You can’t do this sort of exercise all the time, but if you have two or three students like this whom you check in with every week, it makes a big difference to them. And they will improve, because they are getting specific feedback, and they want to please you.
Check their understanding
Some students seem to decode the words on the page quite well, but on probing a little deeper we may find that they have retained or understood very little. One reason for this may be a lack of fluency: decoding is so effortful that they have little working memory left over to process meaning. Another reason may be related to vocabulary; sometimes there are too many words on the page that they don’t know, or aren’t familiar with in this context. Asking them what a particular word means, or asking them to put a sentence into their own words, can be very helpful in getting them to think more carefully. A critical element that enables students to understand texts is whether they are able to connect pronouns with their referents. Asking the student who ‘he’ or ‘it’ refers to, can reveal quite alarming gaps in their comprehension. So talk about language in a text with the class, and have specific students in mind to question most closely for understanding.
Pair them with an able buddy
This doesn’t mean sitting them next to a clever girl so they can copy the answers. Set up activities where students read to each other in pairs. Get them to take turns, and tell them that they can work out between them which parts each will read, explaining that slower readers should read less text, focusing on accuracy. Even five or ten minutes of such activities will provide not only much-needed practice, but also modelling from an able peer. Modelling is most powerful when it is provided through someone who is close to the learner in age, status, and skill level. Students will generally take more risks with a peer than they would with an adult. At the same time, it is important to teach all students the ground rules for working co-operatively in this way:
- Don’t tell your partner the word if they get stuck. Pause while they work it out.
- Read ‘through’ the word with them, don’t just tell them the word, so that the learner can see the links between spellings and sounds.
- Always be polite when offering feedback. Never laugh or scold.
It may sound simple, but while being explicit about courtesy never does harm, it often achieves much good.
Build up their spoken vocabulary
Reading represents spoken language. If students don’t know the word on the page, they will have trouble decoding it, and even more so understanding how the term is being used. Using robust vocabulary instruction, a la Beck, McKeown and Kucan, will benefit all learners, but especially those furthest behind. Beck and her co-authors suggest that a student needs to encounter a word ten times in different contexts to make it likely that they will integrate it into their own vocabulary. So intensify vocabulary instruction, and consciously plan which words to prioritise for study.
Communicate positive expectations
Lastly, going back to the opening point of this post: if you communicate to students that they can learn, they will. If you communicate to them that they will never learn, they will give up. And then they will do something else, which usually involves making your life more difficult! So, while using strategies like those above are helping the struggling reader, you are also making a difference for yourself and the other students in the class.
At the end of the day, children who learn to read tend to be much happier than when they couldn’t.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing Words to Life. London: Guildford Press.
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