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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Literacy

How to Teach "Hard to Teach" Students Arlyne LeSchack

Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop are joyous ways to learn to read and write. Essentially, the child is learning to read by reading and learning to write by writing. Of course, as the teacher you're providing strategies and skills through mini-lessons, but mostly the children are learning by doing.

We all know that there are some children for whom this methodology is not going to work. It may become frustrating to teach these students, but you can't stop trying. Presenting the material over and over in the same way is probably not going to work. Here are some ideas about how to work with these hard to reach students.

Change the Way You Communicate
You're going to need to develop your own skills and knowledge further and change the way you communicate with the student as well. Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, will have an impact on these "hard to teach" students. Try talking about something the child is interested in before starting the lesson. If you know the students are interested in cars or dinosaurs say something about that just to put the student(s) at ease before the lesson begins. Also, when you do start the lesson, don't assume anything-- carefully assess if the student knows what you are talking about, but don't be negative if they don't. It's especially important to stay calm and consistent. These children need to know you're listening to them and they need to know what you expect.

Adopt a Can-do Attitude
It's important to have a can-do attitude and to show excitement and pride when children learn something that they previously found challenging. Keep in mind that “can-do” does not mean know-it-all. As a teacher of these students you need to think of your teaching practice as a continual work-in-progress.

Get to Know Them
It is important to continuously learn about your students, to discover how they learn and to see things from their perspective. The more you know about how your students learn, the more readily you’ll be able to offer effective strategies that will help them learn to read and write. For some tips on getting to know your students, see Judi Fenton's Knowing Your Students and Letting Your Students Know You.

Be Flexible
Flexibility in your teaching approach helps you devise a plan that reduces the students’ anxiety. If sounding out starting with the first letter doesn't work, ask the student to look for a word they know that is inside a bigger word. Many students learn the word families like at, bat, cat, etc., but still need a prompt every time they come to one of those words. Continue to give the prompt--without comment or judgment. Hopefully someday they won't need prompting.

Accentuate the Positive
It's especially important to recognize what your students do right, even if they are partially wrong in their responses. When children begin to speak we recognize their speech approximations; this needs to be done with reading and writing, particularly with hard to teach students. Since these students discourage easily, it's important to offer help- don't let them keep struggling. Try not to convey that they can't do it, find another way to teach them. Demonstrate exactly what you want them to do and praise them for their hard work.

Provide Opportunities
Finally, provide these hard to teach students opportunities to learn while reassuring them that it's your job to take care of them and teach them. This keeps the intricate balance between the emotional and cognitive sides of learning and teaching intact.

As a teacher of "hard to teach" students, you will engage in a process of continuous learning yourself, always studying your students and how they learn. In so doing you will be able help the students find problem-solving strategies and devise their own plan of action. This is a challenge, but one that pays off with your own developing expertise and your students' success.

Lyons, Carol A. (2003), Teaching Struggling Readers, Heinemann

If you have comments or questions, please contact me at aleschack@aol.com.


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