6 Ways to Help Students Struggling with Reading Close the Gap

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Raising proficiency and graduation rates for all students regardless of their background or identity has long been a focus of education policy in the United States. As a result, teachers are tasked with closing opportunity and academic gaps.

To help struggling students make the critical reading gains they need, consider incorporating the following 6 tips into your everyday instructional plans.

1. Personalize their learning path

With today’s large class sizes, it can be difficult for teachers to provide individualized attention when students struggle. One way to help teachers personalize learning for these students is to use adaptive technology. Adaptive technology enables students to work at their own pace and on their own learning path. As they work, data is gathered in the background and can be used to inform all phases of in-person instruction, identify those students who need additional support, and provide enrichment strategies for advanced learners.

According to an ongoing study released by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, when teachers personalize learning experiences based on students’ unique needs, great things can happen. The study found that students whose teachers used assessment data to customize their learning significantly improved in reading and math over similar schools not employing personalized instructional approaches.


2. Offer the right level of scaffolding at the right time

In education, scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and greater independence in the learning process. Incorporating educational scaffolding helps teachers provide successive levels of temporary support and, according to Northern Illinois University’s Faculty Development & Instructional Design Center, scaffolding frees up students to ask questions, explore knowledge, and participate in their learning.

These supportive strategies are incrementally removed when they are no longer needed, and the teacher gradually shifts more responsibility of the learning process to the student. For struggling readers, scaffolding provides an extra layer of support that can help reduce frustration or discouragement when students attempt a difficult task without the understanding they need.

3. Provide systematic and cumulative instruction

Formulating an appropriate learning goal is only the first step in effective instruction. A systematic learning plan—one in which students can readily understand—can increase learner engagement because the student always knows their progress. Struggling readers must have instruction that is systematic and cumulative. Systematic instruction is carefully thought out, builds upon prior learning, strategically builds from simple to complex, and is designed before activities and lessons are planned. Cumulative instruction provides multiple opportunities to practice both previously and newly acquired skills, addressing issues of retention and automaticity.


4. Engage in multisensory activities

Multisensory teaching is effective for all learners, but it is especially beneficial for struggling readers. The goal is to find each student's learning strengths and engage those strengths to introduce new information. Instead of telling a student about a particular concept, multisensory activities allow a student to experience the concept. Engaging in strategies and activities that incorporate all of the senses can help students understand new information in ways that work best for them.


5. Supply at-home resources for parents

The involvement of parents in a struggling child’s education can make a world of difference. One way to involve parents and keep them informed of their child’s literacy development is to offer ways to reinforce newly learned skills at home. Many parents can feel intimidated by extending their child’s learning, so think about providing parents with reading strategies that can make at-home reading fun, such as the child retelling passages in their own words as the parent reads a book aloud.


6. Motivate and reward success

It is no surprise to any educator that when students struggle, their motivation and engagement levels can dwindle. To keep students motivated, it is important to positively reinforce progress and celebrate success. You can use simple progress charts and certificates that highlight what the student "can do" or add external motivators such as elements of gamification, like badges. With the appropriate scaffolding, learners can start to track their progress themselves, offering an “always on” intrinsic reinforcement of positive development. That development becomes cyclical; students want to see themselves doing well, so they keep trying. Students are much more willing to keep trying when they feel successful and can see the progress they are making.

Strong reading skills are critical for success across the curriculum, so it is imperative we help students who struggle with reading to close the gap as quickly as possible. Every student learns differently, so try incorporating a few of the above ideas into your classroom routines and make sure to subscribe to the blog for more actionable classroom tips. 
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