Building Strong and Capable Readers

Helping Students Become Strong and Capable Readers

Reading is a participation sport!  If we want children to become strong and capable readers, they have to actually READ to become a better reader. It is that plain and simple.  Think about it.  If you wanted to get better at your favorite sport, how would you do it? 

First, you would ensure that you had any equipment needed (books and reading materials). Then, you would make sure that you had many opportunities to practice (actually applying your reading skills).  Just as with becoming more proficient in a sport, it is logical that the more someone practices reading, the better they become at using their skills (reading.)

If you wanted to get really good at your sport, you would probably also find someone who was good at this sport to keep you company (friends to talk about books with). Finally, you might also hire a coach (a knowledgeable reading teacher) to help you improve your abilities. 

Classroom Practices May Not Align with Student Needs

Unfortunately, what seems logical is not always what happens in classrooms across the country. This means that we are not always using what we know to create strong and capable readers in the classroom.

The research (Allington, 2013) indicates that students perceived as “low” or struggling readers in many classrooms actually spent LESS time reading than did their better performing peers. They may be given skill worksheets rather than having the time to apply the skills they are learning.

What’s that all about?  The greater the need, the more it stands to reason that those with the greatest need should be doing MORE reading taking place in the classroom – not less.

Focused Practice to Create Strong and Capable Readers

According to reading professor, Dr. Timothy Shanahan, “Effective practice…is purposeful, intentional, or deliberate. It doesn’t include just aimless engagement in an activity. Effective practice focuses on what it is the student is trying to improve.”

In other words, an insightful reading teacher needs to identify the skills that students still need to learn to become more comprehensive and successful readers.

Like the great sports coach, the effective reading teacher assesses what students already know and then designs purposeful reading experiences that help them learn the skills they need to improve their performance.

Take the time to assess how much actual reading goes on in your class and find ways to refine instruction and increase the time students spend deliberately practicing their skills on authentic text.  

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Struggling Readers Learn to Read

Reading Support for Struggling Readers in Reading

Although learning to read with proficiency is a fundamental skill that is essential for success in many areas of life, some older students struggle with reading. This makes it difficult for them to succeed in school and beyond.

While the pandemic was certainly a disrupter for academic success in many content areas student skills in reading proficiency have been less than stellar even before the pandemic.

Average reading scores on the 2022 NAEP test of reading performance fell for both 4th and 8th grade students by 3 points as compared to NAEP scores for 2019.

This has resulted in widening gaps between readers who can read fluently and those who struggle with reading performance.

Decoding Problems for Struggling Readers

Many reading specialists have wondered how best to help these struggling readers. Should they be taught to decode by using phonics programs developed for primary children?

We all know that when students have to spend too much mental energy on decoding, there is little mental energy left for making sense of what has been read. For this reason, comprehension suffers. While students may be able to read simple, one syllable words, they may struggle with multi syllabic words.

As a result, it is vital that older struggling readers learn to read more fluently so that they can spend their mental energy on understanding what they are reading rather than decoding the words they see on the page.

Does Phonics Still Apply for Older Struggling Readers?

Phonics instruction teaches the sounds that letters make and how these sounds combine to form words.

While phonics programs are vital for young readers, there has been much controversy over whether or not these programs are the best way to help older, struggling readers.

Most phonics programs are designed for K-2 students. Since the programs are designed for beginning readers, the emphasis is mostly on decoding basic one syllable words.

The materials may also be more geared to lower elementary students. Older readers may resist this work as”baby work”

Frustrated student saying "to heck with it" in front of a book

Strategies to Help Struggling Readers Learn to Read

Researchers have found that adults use patterning extensively when they read. For example, if you know the word “beak,” you can easily identify the pattern words “leak,” “teak,” and “peak.”

Wylie and Durrell (1970) identified 37 common rime patterns that make up over 500 common words. By teaching struggling readers these patterns, they can use this knowledge to decode new words they encounter while reading.

Additionally, helping older students break words into known word parts can also be a helpful strategy for older readers. Using a knowledge of morphology, or word parts such as prefix, root words and suffixes to decode unknown words is the most common strategy that adult readers use to decode new words while reading.

By teaching struggling readers to break words into parts, they can better understand the structure of words and how they are formed. When students understand root words and the meanings of prefixes and suffixes, they skip fewer words while reading.

These effective practices include:

1: building vocabulary,

2: increasing comprehension through repeated readings of interesting passages

3: paraphrasing what they have understood from the passage

4: constructing and deconstructing word stems, prefixes and suffixes to identify word meaning.

As a result of these findings, some experts argue that phonics instruction is not necessary for older struggling readers. They suggest that struggling readers should instead focus on four key reading skills that include vocabulary expansion, repeated readings, paraphrasing to clarify comprehension, and using morphology to break words into comprehensible parts.

If you liked this article, you may also like: Teaching Word Families and Rime Patterns or Why Students Struggle and What to Do About It