Strategies to Support Struggling Readers

With March being “National Reading Month,” events are planned across the country as resources being made readily available for reading teachers and parents. However, the Stride PD Center recognizes that most teachers do not consider themselves “reading teachers,” and those teachers need specific strategies to help struggling readers. This blog will offer several specific ideas, focused on the middle school level, that content specialists can adopt for the benefit of their students.

Middle school teachers often wear many hats, and content teachers, in particular, help shape students’ academic success. These educators can significantly impact students’ reading comprehension and overall literacy skills. Here’s how:

  1. Create a Reading-Friendly Environment:

Establishing a classroom culture that values reading can make a substantial difference. The key, here, is to find books that are beyond the textbook, which students often find as boring. Create a comfortable reading space, using things such as colorful rugs, bean bag chairs, and floor lamps. Do not require students to simply sit in an uncomfortable school desk and read. Some students prefer lots of light, where others prefer a dimmer environment. Think outside the reading box.

Display books related to the subject matter, arrange reading corners, and give students time to read something they enjoy every day! Encourage students to share book recommendations with their peers, fostering a sense of community around reading. This can be done through class discussions, journaling (to share with small groups or simply the teacher).

One particular note here – beware of discouraging reading. For instance, if an 8th grade student is reading a book on the 5th grade level – but they are learning – then let them read! That lower level book helps with vocabulary and fluency acquisition and may ignite a passion for that subject area. This is especially important in the area of non-fiction.

  1. Leverage the Available Technology:

Our world has advanced technologically and we should adjust accordingly. Much of what we have today was only in its infancy when I first entered the classroom, so we must take advantage for the benefit of students by enhancing their reading experiences. Do not miss the fact that students can read with their eyes (e.g., holding a physical book or mobile device and reading silently) and with their ears (e.g. holding a book while listening to an audiobook and following along or using a pen reader),and with their fingers (using Braille). Some students comprehend best by actually reading aloud, albeit quietly. Noise cancelling headphones allow students to whisper to themselves and comprehend the text without disturbing those around them. Using interactive e-books, audiobooks, and online resources can cater to different learning preferences and help those struggling readers. Additionally, educational apps often incorporate gamification elements that make reading more enjoyable and motivating because everyone enjoys a little competition.

  1. Pre-Teach and Re-Teach Vocabulary:

As you are moving into a new unit, front-loading key vocabulary before diving into the lesson is vital. You, as the teacher, know your students and can pull them into a small group to ensure they understand the words and definitions. This process allows them to approach the content-heavy reading (e.g., science or history passages) with more confidence. Pre-teaching is a good, first step; however, it does not stop there. You will need to regularly revisit and reinforce these words throughout the unit. For planning purposes, re-teach these at-least weekly but the ideal would be some type of daily contact for ensuring appropriate acquisition. It is essential to not teach these words in isolation, but teach them within the context of what you will be learning. This allows the students to make the necessary connections to prior knowledge, which in turn makes learning easier and more enjoyable.

  1. Implement Reading Comprehension Strategies:

This step is an opportunity for professional growth for you as every course involves reading so every teacher should work to help students improve their reading comprehension. Reach out to reading specialists in your district and ask them to provide you some reading comprehension strategies that you can teach your students. Once you have learned these techniques, you can model them for the class so they know and understand how to use on their own. Some strategies are simple like having students make predictions, ask students to summarize what has just been read, and, of course, asking questions to ensure comprehension. Teaching comprehension skills is not solely for the language arts teachers. Students must comprehend what they are reading in all subject areas, so incorporating reading skills across the content areas not only improves reading, but also the subject matter being taught.

Particularly for struggling readers, teaching them how to “read the pictures” is a step to give them an overview of the text. While this does give them a deep understanding of the text, the visuals do provide valuable clues upon which they can construct meaning. Also, as a teacher, infuse your teaching with plenty of diagrams, graphic organizers, and charts to help those struggling readers. While these may seem simple, they help lower-level readers create order of information for them.

Another important consideration is the use of manipulatives or other tactile resources within the classroom. Allow students to use sticky notes to identify important pieces of information, and the sticky note keeps their identifications brief. When a student completes the reading passage, they can easily go back and review what was important. This strategy helps them to recall facts from the passage quickly. Have students use notecards for chronological assignments. By having them physically arrange the notecards, they can begin to see how events or steps take shape. The more learning modalities that can be used synchronously allows for greater retention and comprehension.

  1. Teach Literacy across Content Areas:

This idea takes plenty of collaboration and planning but can be highly effective as it blends expertise of teachers into a singularly-focused unit or project. This cross-curricular literacy idea works by incorporating reading and writing tasks into various subjects through assignments that require reading and analysis of information from multiple sources. The variety of sources and integration across content areas reinforce literacy in all academic areas and will enhance their comprehension skills.

Maybe an 8th grade science teacher has an idea for students to examine diseases and the hazards that cause – past, present, and future. They can teach the science aspects while the history teacher focuses on the effects of disease during periods of conflict and limited medical technology (e.g., the U.S. Civil War). The ELA teacher can bring in poetry during those times to present the material in non-narrative format (e.g., poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Herman Melville). Math teachers could bring material in as well through beginning of class work for algebraic calculations related to disease spread). Finally, elective teachers could also be involved as music teachers bring in period tunes, health teachers reinforce the daily changes that could have saved lives, and art teachers can study period work for perspective understanding.

  1. Promote (by modeling) a Growth Mindset

Mentioned earlier, most teachers are not reading specialists; however, all of us can learn more about helping students with reading comprehension. If we want to instill a growth mindset in our students, then we have to model that belief for them. My husband, in his Promising Practices session that focused on self-leadership, made an important statement – “We are really good at growth mindset words. We are not so good at growth mindset works.”

Beyond modeling, you can instill a growth mindset in your students by emphasizing the idea that skills can be developed through effort and perseverance. Offer constructive feedback when needed by highlighting strengths, offering 1 area of improvement, and sharing guidance on next steps to grow their skills. If you help them with goal-setting and the process of reflection on their reading, they see improvement over time and that reinforces efforts to continue moving forward. Make sure that you celebrate with them and encourage them to continue focusing on their reading skills – one day and one session at a time. Do not be afraid to set a goal for yourself and share with your students. Learning should be never-ending. Often students learn more by what you do and show than by what you say.

In conclusion, content teachers in middle school play a vital role in nurturing students’ reading comprehension skills. Do not overlook the powerful opportunity you have to prepare them for success in high school and beyond. These simple strategies can make a big different for struggling learners. Slow down and add professional skills into your repertoire – students need you to grow. Through these efforts, content teachers like you become champions not only of their subject matter but also of the lifelong skill of effective reading.

If you want to continue study on your own, here are some great books for you to consult to expand your literacy skills:

  1. The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller.
  2. The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo.

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