Six Strategies to Help Struggling Readers Succeed
The United States education system prioritizes raising graduation rates and proficiency for all students—regardless of background or identity. Now more than ever, teachers are feeling the pressure to accelerate student learning and make up for the learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While it’s true every student has their own unique strengths and weaknesses when it comes to literacy acquisition, it is imperative educators implement techniques backed by the science of reading. The science of reading is a large body of gold-standard research that explains how the human brain learns to read. We’ve compiled a list of six of the best strategies to help struggling readers find success in reading, all of which are backed by the science of reading.
1. Personalize Their Learning Plan
Recently, we’ve been seeing an increase in class sizes and a shortage of teachers. This combination can make it incredibly difficult for teachers to find the time and resources to provide individualized instruction to their students. Thankfully, there are plenty of resources available to make life a little bit easier for educators.
Adaptive & Assistive Technology
According to the University of Missouri’s ACT Center, adaptive technology refers to “special versions of already existing technologies or tools that provide enhancements or different ways of interacting with the 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 the students who need additional support, and provide enrichment strategies for advanced learners.
Some examples of adaptive technology are:
- Accessibility tools built into popular OS, browsers, and software
- Word prediction software
- Computers with voice output
- Computers with visual output
Adaptive technology also includes “assistive technology,” which is any tech tool or device that helps students perform tasks with greater ease or independence. Some examples might be:
- Touch screens
- Screen readers
- Magnification applications
- Text-to-speech synthesizers
- Along with others
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 (NIU) Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, scaffolding frees up students to ask questions, explore knowledge, and participate in their learning.
NIU outlines the basic steps to scaffolding instruction:
- First, the instructor models the new task or concept for their student.
- Second, the whole class works with the instructor to explore the new task or concept.
- Third, students work together in pairs or small groups to practice the new task or concept.
- Finally, students practice the new task or concept individually.
As each supportive scaffolding is incrementally removed, the teacher begins shifting the responsibility of learning onto 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.
Each of these steps will vary from classroom to classroom, and even student to student. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to introducing students to new concepts, but the science behind learning to read emphasizes the effectiveness of taking a scaffolded approach when teaching literacy.
3. Provide Systematic and Cumulative Instruction
Similar to scaffolding, systematic and cumulative instruction is an integral part of teaching students how to read. Together, these three elements serve as foundational components of what is called a “Structured Literacy” approach to teaching. Structured Literacy emphasizes the importance of explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction when it comes to literacy acquisition.
A systematic learning plan—one which students can readily understand—can increase learner engagement because the student always knows their progress. Struggling readers must be provided with 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 Students in Multisensory Activities
Similar to the previous point, the International Dyslexia Association® recommends providing students with “hands-on, engaging, and multimodal” activities to further their literacy instruction. 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 them while introducing new information.
Instead of just telling a student about a particular concept, multisensory activities allow them to experience the concept. Engaging in strategies and activities that incorporate listening, speaking, reading, and writing can help students understand new information in ways that work best for them.
5. Supply Parents with At-Home Resources
Involving parents in a struggling child’s education can make a whole world of difference. One way to get parents involved and keep them informed of their child’s literacy development is to offer ways to reinforce newly learned skills at home.
Here are some examples of ways parents can get involved in their child’s reading education:
- Reading to them before bed
- Point out things in their environment to talk about, which helps the child build a strong vocabulary
- Make spelling and grammar fun and interactive by keeping word or letter magnets on the fridge
Children who are struggling with learning how to read aren’t necessarily excited to sit down and practice, but by finding ways to incorporate literacy into everyday life, it becomes less of a chore and more automatic for them.
6. Motivate Students by Celebrating Their Wins
It is no surprise that when students are struggling, their motivation and engagement levels tend to dwindle. To counteract this, it is important to use positive reinforcement and celebrate the student’s successes—big and small. Teachers can implement simple progress charts and certificates that highlight what the student “can do.” They can also gamify the learning process through badges or stickers.
With 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’re making.
Closing the Reading Gap for Struggling Readers
Data shows the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the reading gap and contributed to learning loss across all subjects. Much of the burden for accelerating student learning is placed on teachers’ shoulders, and the responsibility can be overwhelming.
Making sure educators are using evidence-based teaching methods is the best way to ensure students find joy and success in reading—regardless of their background or identity. There are a multitude of ways to support struggling or reluctant readers, and a great place to start is by determining where those students are on their reading journey. You can learn more about the benefits of assessment without testing for struggling readers here.
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