Help for Every Struggling Reader

Experts offer their tips for succeeding with all readers

Sandra Iversen offers the following:

• Find out what students already know by looking, listening, asking, noting, and testing;
• Use short, simple tests that will quickly give you the information you need — for example, a letter-identification test, a phoneme segmenting test, a phoneme-blending test, a pseudoword test, a dictation test, or a high-frequency-word test. Administer the tests at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. Don’t re-test what they already know — it’s too time consuming;
• Check the test results against the reading level of their current text;
• Group together students with similar needs — no one has time for one-on-one help in busy classrooms;
• Begin teaching well below your students’ current reading level. Success from the very beginning is paramount in building confidence;
• Proceed on a broad front rather than a narrow line of instruction. This means attending to phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. Learning just one will be, at the expense of the others;
• Engage in systematic and explicit teaching;
• Design learning experiences to help students go from what they know to what they don’t know;
• Never ask your students a question unless you’re sure they know the answer;
• Choose closely leveled texts;
• Introduce new books carefully to bridge the gap between the students’ prior knowledge and the text;
• Ensure all the students read the text independently after the introduction;
• Encourage your students to read aloud until you are sure of their decoding skills;
• Ask both explicit and implicit comprehension questions;
• Ensure that talking and writing are part of your daily literacy instruction;
• Teach your students how to hear and record sounds in words and how to make orthographic analogies to assist spelling;
• Provide multiple opportunities for learning the same skill in different contexts;
• Once students have mastered a skill, require them to use it by reminding them that they know it rather than by telling them;
• Always provide positive corrective feedback as well as general praise. Striving readers need to know exactly what they are doing correctly and exactly what to do if they encounter a problem or make an error;
• Continually evaluate what students are learning and adjust teaching accordingly.

Dr. Sandra Iversen is president and publisher of Iversen Publishing

Amy Buswell and Bruce Lansky stress choosing the right text:

Pick reading texts that will motivate your students to read better. Poetry is good for that, because:
1. Poems vary in length and degree of difficulty;

2. Reading a poem is satisfying because many poems tell a story or make a point that feels complete when the poem is finished;

3. The children can select the poems they’d like to perform;
Before initiating a practice session:

a) Discuss each poem with the child to make sure they understand what the poem is about, understand all the words in the poem, and understand the dramatic aspects of the poem;

b) Provide an example of the kind of prosody that might work well by performing the poem yourself; and then do an echo, reading with the student to give the student a chance to “follow the leader;”

c) If the poem comes with an illustration, share that with the student. There might be a performance idea suggested by the illustration.

Reading specialist Amy Buswell and children’s poet Bruce Lansky are the authors of the upcoming Giggle Poetry Reading Lessons (Meadowbrook Press), which has been called “the most entertaining remedial reading program.”

Judith Holbrook advises the use of short passages:

Struggling readers of all ages often panic when we assign them long selections to read. Feeling overwhelmed by the volume of the reading, students can miss some important content.

It is easy to remedy this problem by using short passages and having the students read each passage for several consecutive days, focusing on a different skill set each day. With each repeated reading, the students dig more deeply into the meaning of the selection and build confidence with vocabulary and comprehension.

With the first reading, for example, students can identify subject, reader’s and author’s purpose, and genre. Have them engage in word study and other vocabulary tasks with the second reading, and invite them to make inferences and connections with the third reading. Students could use the fourth reading to skim, identify main idea, or make graphic organizers. Finally, have students summarize the selection with the fifth reading.

Summarizing the selection is an important part of the process. Summarizing a story or article is sometimes difficult even for good readers — most students want to write one sentence or recopy the whole passage. By using a “key word” method, the students can easily write a summary. The method involves picking out five or six important key words in the selection and then writing three to four sentences using those key words. This process teaches students to look for the overall idea of the selection and then to be concise in their summaries.

Be sure to allow students to practice this approach with a variety of writing types and styles — newspaper articles, letters, academic texts, persuasive essays, and even technical writing. Include fiction as well, but keep in mind that many students who read and comprehend chapter books or novels without much difficulty still struggle when it comes to nonfiction genres.

By implementing a systematic and organized reading practice, struggling readers will gain the skills needed to become confident readers, and all readers will be more prepared for reading across the curriculum and for high-stakes tests.

Veteran teacher Judith Holbrook has written numerous books including the Daily Reading Practice series (DGP Publishing, Inc.). Available for grades 1-10, Daily Reading Practice provides students with a short reading selection for each week, and different comprehension tasks for each day.

Cathy Puett Miller encourages teachers to remember what reading instruction is about:

Lucy Caulkins once said, “To teach well, we do not need more techniques and strategies as much as we need a vision of what is essential.” I might add, we need not just selections from the latest curriculum but engaging, authentic words that are meaningful to our students, from individuals who know how to write and to capture the imagination. We need to give them a real reason to read, tapping into motivation, creating a culture in the classroom that encourages not only skill development but also the behavior of reading. That is certainly a challenge in today’s fast-paced and assessment-rich classroom environment. To infuse this focus into your classroom, start by being:
Purposeful: Take struggling readers to a place they’ve never been before. Find stories and informational text that will motivate them, make them think about themselves, the world, the “juice of meaning” behind the text. Understand their interests and marry those with a balance of leveled texts or selections (at just the right pace), engaging online or computer-based texts, and read alouds that free 100% of their brains to concentrate on comprehension. Read an excerpt from a book that’s been made into the latest movie craze. Above all, avoid the crime of demotivation (daily, at least some of their reading time must be powerfully personal, a positive and successful experience). Set expectations and environment.

Personal: If you as the teacher don’t get excited about the written word, how can your students? If we do not give them an authentic reason to read, they will not choose to do so. Rekindle the reader in yourself and share it. Tell them every day why you read. Give them the BIG picture.

Periodic and regular: A daily dose of only ten minutes — establish it and protect it. Think beyond what is required to find silly, fun, thoughtful, “beyond their world” and “right in their backyard” titles, short clips from internet articles about their favorite pastime, a current fad, or about other kids like them or very different from them. That investment will take them beyond lessons and practice sheets and, yes, assessments, into a world they will carry with them into the larger world. It may be the missing piece.

Partner inside and outside your school: Some of those “ten minutes a day” times can be spent with special reading buddies from other grade levels, matching strong readers to read with challenged students, or a few “I can read ANYTHING I want” minutes. You don’t have to do it alone; your community is full of resources (mentors, tutors, after-school and summer enrichment programs, and so on). Look at the students who struggle the most and find resources that can give those students the extra exposure and experience with reading that they need. Bring guest readers from your community to share a read aloud. Contact your local literacy council or United Way.

Cathy Puett Miller, the Literacy Ambassador, is a national children’s literacy consultant. For 17 years, she has helped parents and teachers open the doors of literacy and life-long learning. Before They Read, from Maupin/Capstone Professional, contains tips on read alouds, oral language development, and early phonological awareness.

Patti Rommel offers the following tips:

• Help students break long, challenging words into recognizable pieces.

When struggling readers try to decode long and unfamiliar words, they often decode the first syllable but then simply guess the rest of the word. Before your students read a text, pull out a few of the multisyllabic words that readers may have difficulty decoding. Use magnetic letters to build the words and then separate them into recognizable parts. For example, you might break the word skyrocket into sky and rocket. For example, when analyzing the word destruction, a reader might circle de, struc and tion. Then help readers sound out each part that was circled and blend the sounds together.

• To strengthen comprehension, provide a purpose for reading and preview a text prior to reading. Many struggling readers can easily read and decode individual words — but have difficulty getting meaning from a text. To help this type of struggling reader, start by providing a purpose or motivation for reading, such as learning more about a topic they find interesting. Another technique to assist students with comprehension is to provide two or three text-based questions before students begin reading. Tell readers that the answers to these questions can be found in the text. By doing this, students become more aware of what they are reading and begin to interact with the text as they read.

• Use graphic organizers to help students focus on essential information and boost comprehension.
Readers who struggle with comprehension can benefit from filling out graphic organizers as they read Graphic organizers help students break down information, keep track of what they are reading, and separate important information from less-essential information. Graphic organizers also help organize the information presented in a text so that students can make connections easily.

Patti Rommel is director of research and development at Lakeshore Learning Materials. A former elementary educator, Rommel leads Lakeshore’s efforts to create quality, standards-based materials for early childhood programs, elementary classrooms, and homes nationwide.

Kenneth Hodkinson stresses use of repetitve word recognition:

Keep in mind that learning to read is not easy. Look at it this way: the ear is the primary organ receiving the language signal and the medium is vibrations in air. Learning to speak and hear, to send and receive these aerial vibrations comes naturally for children.

Then, at a certain stage, it becomes imperative for the child to learn a whole new way of communication. The medium is now ink marks on paper (or their digital equivalent), and the primary organ for receiving the signal is no longer the ear but the eye. Looked at in this way, learning to read, to successfully make the transition to a totally different medium, is a feat worthy of the highest praise.

They are also deserving of the best tools for the job. My daughter, Erika Bird, and I created The Reading Game. As author of the Wordly Wise vocabulary textbook series used in over 10,000 school systems in the U.S., for more than 40 years, I make the extraordinary claim that I have developed “a vaccine against illiteracy.”

The process is simple, and can teach virtually any child to read. It has been particularly successful teaching struggling readers, dyslexic, and autistic students. It works by feeding the student words in measured doses, five at a time, through game play, in a word-matching “memory” game. For each word, the aerial vibrations received by the ear match a particular set of marks on paper, and this correlation becomes locked into long-term memory. It is rote learning in a new form, through play. That’s why I call my learn-to-read program The Reading Game. Students never get bored or disheartened; the game is over in just a few minutes.

Once the first five words are locked into long-term memory, the process is repeated five more times. Now the student knows 30 words and is able to read the 32-page book that tells the tale of a skunk who is rejected, finds acceptance and ultimately triumphs. The student will read the story without stumbling or hesitation because it is told using only the 30 words hard-wired into long-term memory. By the time the student has finished the series, the student has learned 180 vocabulary words, many of them hard-to-learn Dolch sight words, and will have successfully read six full-length storybooks.

Kenneth Hodkinson has taught English from elementary to college level in the U.S., Canada, and England. He is the author of the educational vocabulary text book series, Wordly Wise. He is also author of the learn-to-read game The Reading Game, now in its second edition.

Sylvia Smith recommends watching for involuntary eye movement:

Teachers frequently encounter readers that skip words, skip lines, or say things like “the words are moving on the page” (i.e., pattern glare). These students are struggling to control their fields of vision. Such situations are typically rooted in physical rather than intellectual capabilities.

The brain visually processes information with the help of the two distinct visual functions, saccade (suh-kahd) and fixation. A saccade is the involuntary eye movement that is part of the brain’s locator mechanism used to direct the eyes to the proper point on the page, and a fixation, the pause between saccades, is when the brain takes in information. Readers who struggle with moving their eyes smoothly from point to point are, in many cases, experiencing what might be termed “overactive” saccades. In these cases, erratic, large-amplitude eye movements instead of controlled, small-amplitude movements occur. This causes readers’ eyes to jump around the page, resulting in word- or line-skipping and pattern glare (words appearing to move on the page). If the eyes land in the wrong places, garbled information is taken in during fixations.

During normal saccade and fixation activities, the brain takes in visual stimuli through the visual processing system and simultaneously attempts to organize the incoming information (i.e., pattern recognition). This process requires smooth eye control to produce a flow of visual stimuli (sequential text) to enable the brain to identify visual patterns.

When patterns are disrupted due to overactive saccades, the brain has difficulty interpreting and organizing input into usable bits of information and subsequently into learning. Poor fluency, in this case impacted by overactive saccades, typically translates into poor comprehension.

When readers are provided with a method to better control their fields of vision, their brains and eye muscles learn the smoother, more tightly modulated left-to-right, top-to-bottom eye movements that are required for improved fluency and comprehension.

Sylvia Smith is the co-creator of See-n-Read’s learning tools designed to help readers focus eye movements for better comprehension.