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Literacy scores have plummeted, and many struggling readers don’t qualify for special services, but supports can improve reading skills.

How to support reluctant readers with literacy strategies

Literacy scores have plummeted, and many students don’t qualify for special services, but simple supports can improve reading skills for everyone

Literacy is the foundation upon which all learning is built. Without strong reading skills, students will struggle as they progress through their education. This need is non-negotiable and becomes even more urgent in light of the nation’s latest–and first post-pandemic–reading scores, which have seen their biggest drop since 1990.

Nearly two-thirds of students from grades four through 12 aren’t considered proficient readers for their grade level, and these numbers are trending in the wrong direction. As troubling as this news is, more alarming is the fact that a certain group of students is consistently left out of efforts to support targeted literacy instruction.

Students who have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), as well as those from Title I schools, typically receive special attention and services. However, many students from schools that aren’t designated for Title I support and who haven’t been diagnosed with a learning disability struggle with reading as well.

These students are on the cusp of grasping essential literacy skills—decoding, fluency, reading comprehension and vocabulary growth—but they need an extra boost to get them over the hump. Yet, because their skills gaps aren’t significant enough to stand out, and because under-resourced educators are busy focusing so much attention on those students with the most severe needs, they often fly under the radar.

The students who don’t qualify for special services but who still need additional support because they’re barely scraping by belong to a group we call the “forgotten children” of literacy. The parents of these students want them to succeed, but they don’t always know how to navigate the educational system and advocate effectively for their children.

The long-term impact of reading struggles

If students don’t establish strong reading skills early on, it’s extremely difficult for them to catch up, and they will often remain poor readers. Because so much of the curriculum depends on their ability to read and understand complex text, they’re likely to fall behind in other subjects as well and develop negative attitudes toward learning.

Research suggests that students who aren’t proficient in reading by the end of third grade are more likely to drop out of high school, so literacy skills are a huge area of focus in grades K-3. However, reading instruction usually tails off after that, and there are often few supports in place for students who aren’t strong readers by middle school unless they already receive special services.

This is particularly concerning as students encounter more compact text, fewer cues, smaller font sizes and an expectation that they can decode. As students move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” there is an assumption that their comprehension is where it needs to be–and this is where we lose those kids even more.

Poor reading skills have a cumulative effect that can be devastating, following students throughout school and affecting their job and career choices.

If students can’t read effectively, they can’t understand content. They’re getting poor grades on every test they take, but they see their peers doing well.

As these students continue to struggle, they feel frustrated, misunderstood, and overwhelmed. Those feelings compound over time, resulting in not only poor academic performance but low self-esteem as well. Students come to doubt their abilities, and this carries over into other aspects of their lives.

How can schools help?

Educators can cross one major hurdle simply by acknowledging the problem. K-12 teachers and administrators should recognize that many students struggle with literacy, share best practices, and strive to be open–not defensive–about this issue.

Teachers also need easy-to-use resources they can put in front of students who are struggling to read but haven’t qualified for more targeted interventions. One way to help these forgotten students immediately is to give them the option of reading large print books.

The features offered in large print books–a 16-point font size, fewer words per page, more spacing in margins and between lines of text, and a clearer contrast between the letters and page color–are all important in helping struggling readers.

Research from the nonprofit organization Project Tomorrow shows that students report less anxiety about reading when using large print books. More than half (57 percent) of middle school students said they could focus more effectively and weren’t as susceptible to distractions. More than half of students (54 percent) said they would enjoy reading in school more if all books were available to them in large print formats.

What’s more, three-quarters of teachers in schools that made large print text available to students said those who were reading below their grade level improved their reading comprehension and retention while using large print books—and an overwhelming majority of teachers (95 percent) said they’re likely to use large print books with their students.

As an added bonus, schools can use ESSER funding for purchasing large print books because the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act identifies them as an evidence-based intervention supported by Tier 2 research.

My daughter, Danielle, struggled with reading from an early age. I worked with her teachers to implement any and every new strategy with little success. In fourth grade, we discovered that she has two learning disabilities, both processing and memory, and an ADD diagnosis.

Danielle’s teachers and I discussed supplemental resources that could help support her reading efforts in the classroom and at home. It was at that moment that large print books became an option. Danielle started using large print in class; at home, we’d read various large print titles together. Whether reading aloud or listening, Danielle could easily follow across the lines without losing her place. Danielle is a college graduate today, and I believe large print helped make that happen.

Large print books are a simple way to address the needs of the forgotten student with respect to literacy. As more students struggle to read, finding solutions that help everyone succeed—and not just those with the most significant needs—will be critical.

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