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Helping Struggling Readers

by Crystal Kelly, MA.Ed. and Linda Campbell, Ph.D.


Many teachers are concerned about the numbers of elementary children who struggle with reading. Such concerns are warranted. Studies indicate that when students get off to a poor start in reading, they rarely catch up. Struggling readers encounter negative consequences: grade retention, assignment to special education classrooms, or participation in long-term remedial services. Further, as they progress through the grade levels, the academic distance from those who read well grows more pronounced (The Learning First Alliance, 1998; Rashotte, Toregesen, & Wagner, 1997; National Reading Panel, 1999; Torgesen, 1998).

Why do some students struggle with reading and what can be done to increase their success? These questions plague teachers and parents and are ones that compelled us to search for answers. To do so, we reviewed six programs developed specifically for struggling readers. They included Success For All, Reading Recovery, the Spalding Method, Early Intervention Reading, the Boulder Project, and the Winston-Salem Project. We also interviewed six experienced elementary teachers and four district level reading specialists about what they consider essential instruction for at-risk readers.

Based on the literature review and discussions with knowledgeable colleagues, commonalties emerged for both the causes and potential cures of weak reading skills. In what follows, we first explore common reasons why some students struggle with reading and suggest antidotes for enhancing their achievement. Next, we identify the five essential components of reading programs that help students acquire literacy skills.

Why Do Some Students Struggle with Reading?

Unfortunately, there are several causes of underachievement in reading. The four most common ones we found include 1) reading role models and life experiences, 2) the acquisition of reading skills, specifically phonics and comprehension, 3) visual processing, and 4) learning disabilities. When teachers proactively address these underdeveloped skills in the classroom, struggling readers can make progress.

1. Role Models and Prior Life Experience
At-risk readers often lack role models who use the same Standard English as that taught in schools. Effective role models for children are those who can explain the purposes for reading and can model fluency, expression, and inflection with Standard English. Without such role models, students typically receive limited exposure to literature, vocabulary, and figures of speech or common everyday phrases. To antidote a lack of role models, struggling readers should be saturated with language in the classroom. To increase the amount of language a child hears and uses, teachers can play books on tape, conduct read alouds, and use a variety of oral activities. Parent involvement is also important. Home environments that are "print-rich" familiarize children with language and reinforce its importance. For teachers, supporting children at school often means encouraging support at home.

Struggling readers sometimes lack background experiences that classwork assumes they have had. For example, if children are reading a story about making cookies, but have only experienced store-bought varieties, they might not understand the excitement of a character who enjoys the smell of baking cookies. Educators can build commonly shared background knowledge through real-world experiences, simulations, visuals, or storytelling.

2. Lack of Reading Skills, Specifically Phonics and Comprehension
A second reason children often struggle is because they lack two critical reading skills: phonics and comprehension. Direct phonics instruction is vital for struggling readers. The teachers and experts we interviewed agreed with the Report of the National Reading Panel (1999) that stated "systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and for children who are having difficulty learning to read." Phonemic awareness instruction asks children to focus on and manipulate phonemes, the smallest units, in spoken syllables and words. Explicit phonics instruction helps children understand that spoken words are composed of identifiable sounds and that sounds are represented in print by symbols. The teachers and experts also mentioned the Spalding Method as effective in helping children recognize phonograms and letter patterns in words.

Explicit phonics instruction must also teach blending sounds and word patterns. There are simple ways to help children strengthen their blending skills. Examples are classroom reviews, games that change one letter to make a new word, and audiotapes that focus on specific sounds and blends.

Teachers can also point out little words contained within bigger words when a struggling reader gets stuck. This important decoding skill can be taught by posting words on classroom walls or by having students keep word banks of unfamiliar terms. When tutoring one-on-one, students can be asked to build compound words from word cards. As they construct the words, they learn new vocabulary and how to search for the little words within larger ones. When finished, students can be asked to read all of the words out loud and to discuss the meaning of the words they don't know. Another simple decoding technique is to make a chart in the classroom for children to use as for guidance in learning to decode. Such a chart might read:

Decoding
1. Sight Words
2. Phonograms
3. Word Parts
4. Sentence-Context
5. Pictures

Another main skill struggling readers lack is the ability to quickly recognize sight words. Due to the slower than normal development of "sight vocabulary," that many can read fluently and automatically, the lack of rapid word recognition limits comprehension for at-risk readers. It is therefore important to teach common words. One approach, Dolch sight words, rank words for the frequency of their appearance in print and can be used to teach word recognition.

The educators we interviewed strengthen struggling readers' sight word knowledge in a variety of ways. Some had their students read a list of sight words everyday for speed and accuracy. Others used sight words on flash cards, in matching games, word searches, silly sentences, and computer games such as "Word Munchers."

Comprehension is a crucial aspect of reading. Unfortunately, some readers often struggle in this area due to lack of familiarity with the content. For example, children who are unfamiliar with an airplane may find it challenging to understand a story about airplanes. Providing real-life experiences for children is helpful in building shared background knowledge.

There are other areas that limit comprehension for struggling readers. These are lack of fluency, inability to transfer information to new settings, finding the main idea in a story, and using context clues while reading. When children stumble on words, the amount of information they can comprehend is limited. As mentioned above, the development of sight word vocabulary allows children to construct meaning from their reading rather than simply trying to identify the words. Asking students to engage in a variety of listening activities is one way to model fluency, inflection, and correct expression as well. Many teachers also ask higher level questions related to the stories the children hear so that students can slowly apply these questioning skills to their independent reading.

Struggling readers often have a difficult time transferring old knowledge to new situations. One strategy to remedy this problem is to teach students word families. This helps them use their knowledge of a known word to decode an unfamiliar word with the same letter pattern.

Finding the main idea can also prove challenging. Teachers can model self-questioning during listening activities to focus students' attention on the main idea of the text. Students can also be asked about a selection before, during, and after reading. For example, before reading, teachers can preview the selection and activate students' background knowledge. During reading, students can be asked to monitor for meaning and pose questions of themselves about their reading. After a selection, students can summarize the content and relate it to themselves or something that they already know.

Comprehension can be further enhanced with the intentional use of context clues. While they are reading, students can be asked questions such as "Does that make sense? How can we make it make sense?" If the passage did not make sense request that students 1) read it again, 2) read to their partners, 3) stop and think, or 4) talk to their partners. Monitoring for meaning is a skill that struggling readers need in order to strengthen their comprehension of text.

3. Vision Problems
Children who struggle with reading may be experiencing difficulty with visual tracking, eye teaming, double vision, and the ability to communicate what they see or don't see. One elementary school recently had the lowest first and second grade readers screened for such vision problems and found that the majority of students had at least one vision difficulty. One way to strengthen visual processing is to use eye exercises. Students can be asked to color in all sections of a drawing or a design that contain two dots. Although this may sound like a simple task, those who experience vision difficulty can find it challenging.

Vision alphabet timing can strengthen visual perception as well. In this exercise, a teacher reads the letters of an alphabet in order. The students circle the letter the first time they see it while reading through a passage. They can be timed during this exercise and later with other selections to see if their speed and accuracy improve.

4. Learning Disabilities
Some children have difficulty processing and memorizing information. Frequently, some will learn words in one context and not transfer them to the next. By activating prior knowledge, teachers can help students make connections between past and current life experiences.

Memorization can also prove challenging. Teachers may want to emphasize the importance of memorizing sight words since they will be encountered frequently in text. Sight words can be reinforced by posting them on a "word wall" in the classroom or by having students make individualized booklets of words to know.

Struggling readers, like all children, learn in different ways. Reading classrooms that include kinesthetic, musical, or other modalities can enhance learning. Students can listen to books on tape, act out a part from a play they are reading, or retell a story on a flannel board. Not only can students benefit from learning in different ways, they also benefit from different groupings. Some suggestions include having partner/peer activities, buddy reading/cross grade, independent, and teamwork. No matter how struggling readers are grouped or what modalities are used to teach, as one reading specialist asserted, "Struggling readers need to hear it, see it, say it, and write it before they can learn it."

What are the Essential Components of Effective Programs for Struggling Readers?

To answer this question, we analyzed the components of six programs for underachieving readers. The programs included Success For All, Reading Recovery, The Spalding Method, Early Intervention Reading, The Boulder Project, and The Winston-Salem Project. We also interviewed six teachers and four reading specialists about what they believed to be essential when teaching struggling readers. There were significant areas of agreement. According to the educators and the established programs, the necessary components of effective reading programs include 1) phonics instruction, 2) listening comprehension , 3) reading comprehension, 4) tutoring opportunities, and 5) extending reading from the classroom to the home. Each component is described below.

1) Explicit Phonics Instruction
There were three key reading strategies that all six programs and the ten educators cited as essential. The three skills included phonics, listening, and reading comprehension. All ten educators agreed that phonics was the number one skill that struggling readers lacked. Likewise, it was interesting to observe that the majority of instructional time in the six programs is dedicated to word recognition and fluency through explicit phonics instruction. The programs typically use prescribed texts in which stories contain letters and words that children have been introduced to.

2) Listening Comprehension
Listening comprehension was also identified by the educators as an essential skill to be taught. They suggested that teachers intentionally teach listening. They also said that teachers can serve as role models by showing students how to figure out unknown words, monitor comprehension, and use self-questioning.

Similarly, the Success For All (SFA) program asserts that listening comprehension is vital. In the SFA model, the teaching of listening comprehension includes: presentation of the objective by the teacher, relating the objective to previous learning, reading the story aloud with rich expression, modeling self-questioning, discussing the selection, connecting it to other literature or content areas, and extension or enrichment activities.

3) Reading Comprehension Skills
While the educators and the structured programs may approach teaching reading comprehension skills differently, common themes were evident. Reading comprehension could be improved through teacher modeling, providing students with real or simulated experiences to establish commonly shared prior knowledge, reading for a variety of purposes, teaching the specific behaviors that good readers use before, during, and after reading, and repeatedly exposing students to a story and giving them immediate feedback on their comprehension of its elements.

4) Tutoring Opportunities
All six programs value tutoring for at-risk readers. An evident assumption is that children who are experiencing difficulty with reading should spend more time reading in a one-on-one setting than those who are fluent. Similarly, the educators emphasized the importance of at-risk readers reading something everyday. Providing individualized tutoring, whether for 20 minutes daily or three times weekly, was considered essential. Effective reading programs incorporate a certain amount of instruction time that is concentrated and often individualized.

5) Extending Reading from the Classroom to the Home
The six programs also emphasize a critical component of a child's reading success, the home connection. While the frequency of the required at-home reading varies from 20 minutes nightly to 20 minutes three times a week, each program sends materials home that the children should use. This enables families with limited resources to complete homework assignments.

According to the experienced educators, reading at home reinforces the skills and concepts students must acquire. Additionally, when parents support their children by taking the time to listen and help them read, it signals that reading is important. In many schools, 20 minutes of reading is required every night, and if students do not bring a signature back, they go to the Reading Opportunity Room to make up missed reading from the evening before.

Conclusion
As noted above, there are five components that the six teachers, four experts, and six reading programs agree need to be in place for students to progress in reading. They are phonics instruction, listening comprehension, reading comprehension, tutoring, and an at-home component. These program components are consistent with those identified by other researchers (Carson, 1999; Gaskins, Ehri, Cress, O'Hara, & Donnelly, 1996; Learning First Alliance, 1998; Torgesen, 1998; Snow et al., 1998).

It should be stated that there are many worthwhile reading programs available and in use in schools. Others beyond the scope of this article are Language Experience, Total Reading, ReadWell, EdMark, Spalding, Explode the Code, Steck Vaughn Reading Comprehension Series, and The Multiple Skills Program. It should also be noted that while any one program may help struggling readers, none is a "cure-all" solution. As a reading expert in this study observed, "It's not just the method, it's the teacher." Teacher knowledge, training, and skill are essential to implementing any program that focuses on struggling readers. It appears likely, however, that teachers will have more success when they use programs that incorporate phonics, reading for meaning, tutoring, and an at-home component. Struggling readers can and will make progress in their reading abilities when taught by informed and committed educators.

References

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About the authors

This article was a collaborative project among a teacher practitioner and a university professor.

Crystal Kelly holds a Masters of Arts in Education. She has been teaching in the primary grades for three years. Crystal can be contacted at crystal_kelly@msvl.wednet.edu.

Linda Campbell, Ph.D. is a Professor of Graduate Education at Antioch University Seattle. She is the author of numerous books, chapters and articles addressing ways to improve the education of children, adults, and marginalized populations. She may be reached at lcampbell@antiochsea.edu.

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