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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach Early Childhood Literacy
Helping Struggling Readers
Miriam Bissu

Struggling readers present a different set of challenges to teachers. It is important to recognize that children learn at different rates and that the environmental factors can play a role in readiness for reading. Teacher-directed instruction is especially useful if we notice a child is falling behind the others, isn't getting it on his/her own, or is losing confidence. Fortunately, we can address these problems in a variety of ways that have been shown to be successful. Here are some ideas you might want to try out in your classroom.

One of the most important ways you can get started is to assess the student's needs. Early identification of reading and language difficulties can be accomplished through listening to children talk and read. Individual conferences centering around a shared piece of literature, running records, and guided reading groups can help you identify the students who are lagging as well as the specific areas of need (see Grouping for Guided Reading).

Key components of a successful program include:

  • weekly or monthly anecdotal records of progress
  • frequent running records
  • supervised practice on a daily basis
  • re-reading of familiar text
  • charts reminding students of strategies to figure out words
  • prompts to attend to semantic, syntactic and grapho-phonic cues
  • use of leveled text
  • careful matching of student to text.

Struggling readers in particular need daily instruction that is direct and focuses on specific reading strategies. Direct, focused instruction in individual or small group situations should be followed by opportunities to practice the strategy.

Children who are having problems decoding and using cueing systems would benefit from instruction and practice in using the following strategies:

  • Using pictures, syntax, and grammar for support in figuring out words.
  • Cross-checking the words and letters to see that they match.
  • Cross-checking for meaning.
  • Asking if the text is making sense.
  • Asking if it sounds right.
  • Asking if it's all right to say it that way.
  • Re-reading to correct errors.
  • Skipping an unknown word and coming back to it.
  • Using known spelling patterns and chunks to figure out new words.
  • Taking off inflected endings.
  • Re-reading to increase fluency.

Young children who are just learning to read and are sharpening their skills as readers often learn a good deal about reading from writing. Many teachers use writing as a means of getting to phonics, pausing to ask children to help stretch out words and attach letters to sounds  (see Using Shared Writing to Teach Writing Skills). They might also ask children to help them compose a piece of writing based on a shared experience using their own language. These kinds of shared writing approaches provide phonics instruction and repetitive, predictable text children can use to practice reading. Such text can also be re-written on sentence strips and put in proper sequence on a pocket chart by students to further build decoding skills.

Many early childhood classrooms use word walls with high frequency words so children will learn to write them correctly. Children can also spend some time "reading the wall" to learn to read these high frequency words. They also can make a booklet of the words and use word lists when they are writing. Mini-lessons on how to use onset and rime, or word families, teach children to read as well as to write words and to build on their knowledge and skills in an authentic setting. Such a mini-lesson might require the initial consonant to change (ring, sting), or the ending to change (sling, slap, slip).

As children become more fluent readers, comprehension becomes the focus of instruction. Individual reading conferences and small group instruction enable teachers to determine whether students are reading for meaning and comprehending the text. The information gathered in this way can be used to model reading strategies during read aloud and shared reading. Struggling readers need to see demonstrations of how to read for meaning:

  • How to stop and think at certain points in the text.
  • How and when to re-read confusing parts.
  • How to attend to text.
  • To ask questions as they read.
  • To listen to their own reading both to monitor their accuracy and to gain meaning from text.
  • To make predictions based on their knowledge of story, plot, and characters.
  • To use prior knowledge in gaining meaning from text.

Struggling readers need instruction in reading comprehension on a daily basis. They need to be matched to text that will support them and that will present few comprehension challenges. Selection of material is very important if they are to be successful in developing as independent readers. Teachers use guided reading, shared reading, and individual reading conferences to teach children to choose appropriate reading material, to think about the elements of story and characters, and to return to the text to substantiate ideas. Graphic organizers provide a useful framework for struggling readers to keep track of text, analyze literature, appreciate author's style, and understand the elements of story. It is very helpful for children to be able to talk about books with their teacher, a reading buddy, a peer, or someone in their reading group. Writing about the text enables children to reflect on their reading and build on their comprehension and enjoyment of reading.

As a teacher I found there are three components to being successful with struggling readers:

  1. On-going assessment of student needs;
  2. Match children to text;
  3. Provide daily, on-going, direct instruction in reading based on student needs.


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