Twelve years ago, in stark terms, the American Educator underlined the importance of reading: "If a child in a modern society like ours does not learn to read, he doesn’t make it in life" (p. 3). For struggling readers, poor reading achievement is disastrous: failure to pass high-stakes tests for promotion or high school graduation, emotional distress or emotional illness, low paying service jobs or unemployment, no health insurance, homelessness, prison. The list goes on; the costs are legion and disastrous.
To help struggling readers become proficient readers, teachers and schools must abandon strict, blind adherence to any particular reading program. The reason is simple: What works for some teachers and students doesn’t work for others. There is no one best reading program:
Results of research do not indicate that any particular literacy method or material is best for all children; rather, the teacher is one of the major variables that determine the effectiveness of reading instruction. (Heilman, Blair, & Rupley, 2002, p. 23)
But most teachers are not reading specialists. If a particular program is not working for some struggling readers, what can teachers do to help them become proficient readers?
Fortunately, as a teacher, you can do a great deal. It begins with asking.
You Can Ask
You can ask reading specialists to conduct comprehensive evaluations of the struggling readers in your classes, you can ask specialists for appropriate instructional and independent level materials for these readers, you can ask specialists to help you develop strategies for motivating struggling readers to read, you can ask specialists to frequently observe you teach reading to your struggling readers, you can ask specialists to demonstrate recommended practices, and you can ask specialists to develop plans to monitor the struggling readers’ progress. Of course, this is a lot of asking, but it’s necessary for you to get whatever help you need. It follows the old axiom: If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Ask for comprehensive evaluations.
Comprehensive evaluations should answer many of the questions listed in my first column (What Questions Need Answers?). Because difficulty in any one area of reading can start a "‘cascade’ of failures and motivational problems" (Chapman & Tunmer, 2003, p. 19), evaluations should assess all suspected areas of difficulty, including expressive and receptive language, phonemic awareness, sight word recognition, word analysis (phonics, structural analysis, context clues), passage fluency, listening and reading vocabulary, and comprehension of different kinds of texts. Evaluations should also offer recommendations compatible with the nature of your class.
Ask for reading materials that match each struggling reader’s instructional and independent levels.
Materials that are too difficult for struggling readers create problems. Giving them appropriate materials improves learning and behavior:
Giving struggling readers tasks on which success is likely improves their academic prospects... It also influences behavior. [Researchers] found that when students with emotional and behavioral disorders had the skills and knowledge needed to succeed on a task, correct responses increased and disruptive behavior decreased. Similarly, [other researchers] found that when students read assignments with minimal errors—assignments that were not frustrating—off-task behavior decreased. (Margolis & McCabe, 2006, p. 441)
Conversely, materials that are too easy bore or insult them.
At times, you may be unsure about the level of materials. Here are some guidelines from Sandra McCormick (2003). For materials to be at a struggling reader’s instructional level, he should quickly and accurately read aloud 90% to 95% of words in context and understand 70% to 89% of the text, before he receives instruction on the materials. Instructional level assumes that teachers will work with the reader, teaching him vocabulary, skills, and strategies; guiding and monitoring practice; and structuring independent practice. For independent level materials, which the struggling reader should find easier than instructional level materials, he should quickly and accurately read aloud 96% or more of the words in context and understand 90% or more of the text. Whenever the struggling reader works alone, in class or at home, materials should be at his independent level. Otherwise, he’ll become frustrated.
It’s important to remember that guidelines, like Sandra McCormick’s, are not absolute. For some struggling readers, they should be eased. If, for example, at McCormick’s independent level, struggling readers show signs of anxiety, resist reading, produce work that’s incomplete, sloppy, or full of errors, they may need easier materials and assignments.
Ask for strategies to motivate struggling readers to read.
Strategies—the steps to strengthen motivation—should emphasize how to (a) convince struggling readers that reading will help them achieve personally important goals; (b) make reading materials and activities personally interesting and relevant; (c) structure new activities so they’re similar to older ones on which struggling readers succeeded; (d) gradually and systematically introduce different kinds of activities; (e) encourage struggling readers to try new activities; (f) give feedback that emphasizes effort and the correct use of strategies; (g) use coping models similar to the struggling readers; (h) teach and encourage coping models to use think-alouds to explain how they’re learning to succeed on specific reading tasks; (i) involve struggling readers in personally-enjoyable group activities that promote reading achievement (e.g. peer-tutoring); (j) give and gradually phase-out extrinsic reinforcers.
Ask specialists to frequently observe you teach reading.
Although this takes great courage, it can produce great results. By learning what you’re doing right, what you can improve, and how to improve, you—like all of us—can become a better teacher. A specialist might look at how you implement strategies, organize your room, group students, encourage discussion, provide practice, give feedback, and promote vocabulary development. Discussing monthly observations gives you and the specialist opportunities to adjust your instructional strategies, chart your progress, and refine and extend your abilities.
Ask specialists to demonstrate recommended practices.
Although explanations from textbooks and specialists can provide valuable information about using a teaching procedure, explanations alone will not help you as much as also seeing and discussing how a specialist uses a procedure. Watching how a specialist uses K-W-L with a group of struggling readers will raise issues and create impressions that go beyond words. After all, teaching is not just telling; it’s explaining, showing, asking, discussing, monitoring, adjusting, and so much more. Your students deserve it; so do you.
Ask specialists to develop plans to monitor struggling readers’ progress.
To maximize the achievement of struggling readers, it’s critical to systematically monitor their progress and, if progress is flagging or exceeding expectations, adjust instruction accordingly. Moreover, if struggling readers are students in special education, their IEPs require such monitoring.
Many strategies for monitoring reading progress, such as counting and charting the number of words struggling readers’ pronounce correctly in one-minute of oral reading, can be effective. Of course, the nature of monitoring depends on each struggling reader’s level of achievement and reading problems. Usually, reading specialists can suggest valid ways of monitoring progress. For a comprehensive discussion of monitoring, see my article below (Margolis & Alber-Morgan, 2007). It’s available from Learning Disabilities Worldwide (www.ldworldwide.org).
Asking is Critical
Asking takes courage, especially in schools that frown on it. But if you don’t ask, you may not develop the knowledge and abilities needed to adequately help the struggling readers in your classes. If so, if you lack sufficient knowledge and ability to meet their needs, teaching them will be a "hit-or-miss" struggle. You’ll suffer. But they’ll suffer even more, as their chances for success in life diminish drastically. So ask.
These references provide valuable information on the topics in this column. They’re worth studying.
American Educator (Summer, 1995). Editorial. Learning to read: Schooling’s first mission, 19(2), 3–6.
Chapman, J. W., & Tunmer, W. E. (2003). Reading difficulties, reading-related self-perceptions, and strategies for overcoming negative self-beliefs. Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 19(1), 5–24.
Heilman, A. W., Blair, T. R., & Rupley, W. H. (2002). Principles and practices of teaching reading (10th ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.
Margolis, H. (2004). Struggling readers: What consultants need to know. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 15(2), 191-204.
Margolis, H., & Alber-Morgan, S. (2007). Monitoring your child’s IEP: A focus on reading. Insights on Learning Disabilities, 4(2), 1-26.
Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2006). Motivating struggling readers in an era of mandated instructional practices. Reading Psychology, 27(5), 435-455.
McCormick, S. (2003). Instructing students who have literacy problems (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.
Howard Margolis, Ed.D. is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 17 years has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. He and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, a Chancellor's Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, present a far more detailed discussion of this topic in their forthcoming book, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.