helping struggling readers

Schools can do better than retaining struggling readers

A school psychologist explains alternatives to retaining students who aren’t reading at grade level

Educators have known for more than 20 years that there is an effective way to teach reading based on how the brain learns. The collective scientific research and recommended practices based on them are known as the science of reading. And yet many students don’t receive instruction based on this proven method.

Giving Students Consistent Curricula

In addition to adopting curricula based on the science of reading, schools need to make sure those curricula are taught consistently. I was at a school recently where they told me they just love their Tier I curriculum, but it’s no good for Tier II or III. As a result, not only are some students not receiving the literacy support grounded in methods scientifically proven to help them read better, but they are actually being taught in two or three different ways.

Students need a Tier I curriculum that can scale to Tier II and III so that they aren’t receiving 45 minutes of instruction in one place and then a completely different kind of instruction for 45 minutes in another place. It’s confusing and only compounds the problem.

Preparing Teachers to Teach the Science of Reading

When I earned my bachelor’s degree in 2001, there were very few science of reading-based curricula available, though now there are dozens. Unfortunately, teacher prep programs are lagging behind and not training teachers to deliver those curricula for their students. A 2020 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 51 percent of teacher prep programs were using the science of reading. That percentage is trending up, but that means that half of teachers are still graduating without an understanding of high-quality reading instruction.

Those teachers can learn the science of reading after they graduate, but in my home state of Utah, the average career of a special education teacher is two-and-a-half to three years. If they are learning how to teach their students to read for the first year, that becomes a pretty meager return on investment. The right curriculum can help, but the career cycle of a teacher is so short that schools don’t have time to teach them how to teach reading after they come out of college. Students need their teachers to come out of teacher prep ready to teach them how to read.

Finding Students’ Genius

While a science of reading-based curriculum and properly trained teachers may help struggling readers make progress, the pain and frustration of falling behind can become its own barrier to progress.

The first thing I try to do with a struggling reader is to help them find their genius so they don’t hate school. Teachers are so hyperfocused on having students read at a certain level by grade 3 that it can become very uncomfortable for students to go to school—and it eventually impacts their school life far beyond reading.

When I talk to their parents, I ask them if they’ve ever had a job they didn’t like. How much worse would that job have been if they were reminded throughout their eight-hour shift that they were bad at it? It would start to impact their personal life and even affect the way people at home interact with them.

These kids need to know that the adults in their lives see their struggle. They’ve been through a lot.

They also need to know they are smart. Dyslexia, for example, has nothing to do with intelligence. Some students who struggle to read are great at math, theater, sports, music, art, or any number of other things. It doesn’t matter what it is. The important thing is to help them find something other than reading to hang their self-esteem on.

Once they have that, it becomes much easier to focus on reading.

Turning Down the Emotional Response

All of the negative consequences of struggling to read create a powerful emotional response in students, which makes it that much more difficult to learn. Teachers have to turn down the emotional response associated with reading challenges.

Once teachers have reassured students that they’re smart and have adults on their side, they need to make sure they are offering students a developmentally appropriate curriculum. A student who is reading years behind their current grade level doesn’t want to read about Sally going to the store or Spot running. They want to read about the same things other students their age enjoy. Fifth graders want to read about sports or science or dirt bikes, and giving them a curriculum that allows them to learn to read as they enjoy those kinds of developmentally appropriate topics helps them to maintain their dignity.

When students struggle with reading, high-quality reading instruction is essential. But to make sure the student is able to focus on reading, the adults around them also have to focus on what they are good at and build from there. Whatever their strength is, we can leverage that to build up their reading competencies instead of tearing down what they’re good at by making them repeat a grade.

I believe that when you know better, you have to do better, and the research on the science of reading has been clear for 20 years. We know better, and now is the time for everyone associated with reading instruction to do better for students.

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