Improving Reading Skills in Students with Reading Difficulties

Improving reading skills in students with reading difficulties is an essential task for classroom teachers.

Reading is a participation sport!  It can’t be emphasized enough that if we want children to become strong and capable readers, they must READ – plain and simple. 

Think about it.  How would you do it if you wanted to improve at your favorite sport?  First, you would ensure that you had any equipment needed (books), and then you would ensure you had time to practice (reading).  If you wanted to get really good, you would probably find someone good at this sport to keep you company (friends to talk about books with). Finally, you might also hire a coach (a good reading teacher) to help you improve your abilities. 

What Does the Research Say About Improving Reading Skills?

Researcher Anderson and colleagues reported that students in basal-dominated classrooms spent up to 70% of their reading instructional time completing worksheets instead of actively reading. Researchers found that time actually spent reading is what correlates with higher reading competency. The more students read, the more capable readers students become.

It seems logical that the more someone practices, the better they become at doing what they have been practicing. Unfortunately, what seems logical is not always what happens in classrooms nationwide. The research indicates that students perceived as “low” or struggling readers in many classrooms spent less time reading than their better-performing peers. What’s that about? 

Teenage girl relaxing on a bed with a book.

The greater the need, the more it stands to reason that those with the greatest need should be doing more reading – not less. Take the time to assess how much actual reading goes on in your class and find ways to increase it. Remember, reading is a participation sport which gets better with practice.

Reading is a fundamental skill that serves as the cornerstone of academic success. However, not all students develop the skills they need to become successful readers. Some students struggle with word identification, while others can speak the words but cannot make meaning out of the words they have read.

To address this issue, teachers must employ effective strategies that cater to the diverse needs of these students. This report outlines eight essential ideas that help students who struggle with reading become more effective readers.

Idea 1: Build Background Knowledge

Background knowledge plays a pivotal role in comprehension. The more students know about a topic, the better they can understand what they read. To build background knowledge, educators can leverage nonfiction texts and articles written at an appropriate reading level. Teachers should encourage students to explore multiple sources related to the subjects they are studying. This knowledge can reinforce their background knowledge and help them grasp challenging concepts more quickly.

Idea 2: Providing Feedback

Provide Regular Feedback: Offer constructive feedback to help students identify areas for improvement. Please encourage them to set goals for their reading skills and monitor their progress. Collaborate with Specialists: Work closely with special education teachers, speech therapists, and literacy specialists to create individualized plans for struggling readers.

Idea 3: Allow for Student Choice

Empowering students with choices in their reading materials is a powerful motivator. By offering a diverse range books and materials, including those on the grade level, teachers can provide equitable access to content that suits individual preferences and learning needs. This approach reduces stress and emotional frustration and encourages students to take ownership of their learning. Allowing students to choose what they read fosters a sense of independence. It encourages them to engage more deeply with the material.

Idea 5: Offer Multi-sensory Reading Techniques

Multi-sensory reading techniques are helpful for students struggling with reading. Some examples are using manipulatives, gestures, speaking, and auditory cues, which can provide the scaffolds students need to learn letters and sounds. Elementary children can use techniques like “say the word, touch the word, and spell it” to increase their awareness of how letters and sounds go together to make words we know and use regularly. Combining visual, auditory, and tactile neural pathways strengthens written language learning.

Techniques like using a marker to highlight the text as it’s read can visually connect the ideas and spoken words. This synchrony between written and spoken language enhances comprehension and bridges the gap when fluency is still developing. Human-read audiobooks with students following along in printed text are powerful tools to improve reading comprehension, as they support auditory and visual learning preferences. These audiobooks expose students to new words and phrases and provide explicit modeling of word reading and fluency. As students listen to these audiobooks, they naturally encounter a more comprehensive range of vocabulary, which positively affects their overall reading proficiency.

Idea 6: Differentiated Instructional Strategies

Use differentiated instructional strategies that meet the needs of each student.  Tailor your teaching approach to meet the unique needs of each student. Recognize that struggling readers may require additional support and modifications to reach their full potential.

Idea 7: Strengthen and Expand Vocabulary

Vocabulary acquisition is a crucial aspect of reading comprehension. Researchers have reported that the size of a student’s vocabulary significantly predicts reading success. To strengthen students’ vocabulary, educators can expose students to new words by playing word games in the classroom, highlighting new words, and using them frequently in classroom conversation. Exposing students to morphology helps them learn new words in smaller chunks. How many of us passed those achievement tests we had to take in high school to get into college by tearing words apart into their prefixes, suffixes, and root words? Using word parts to determine word meaning is a life skill that most adults use regularly when they come to words they don’t know.

Idea 8: Open the Door to Discussion Between Students

Discussion and dialogue about what students read are essential for enhancing comprehension. When students are engaged in discussion about the content of what they are reading, talking about their insights and understandings is a meaningful way to connect with their peers and the school community. Access to the same materials their peers use builds students’ confidence and self-belief. This leads to a stronger sense of belonging. Discussions allow students to clarify their understanding, ask questions about any areas of confusion, and gain insights from their peers.

Young girl with classes reading a book.

Building and Supporting Strong Readers

Teaching students who struggle with reading requires a multifaceted approach that incorporates building background knowledge, offering student choice, providing multi-sensory reading experiences, strengthening vocabulary, and fostering meaningful discussion about what students learn from their reading. By implementing these strategies and best practices, teachers can empower struggling readers to improve their reading skills and succeed academically.

You Might Also Enjoy Karen’s Book: Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading

Or These Articles:

How to Enhance Student Reading with Audio Books

Struggling Readers Learn to Read

The Threads of Reading – Karen Tankersley

On my blog, you will find many new reading strategies, ideas and suggestions for becoming a masterful “weaver” of the threads of reading in your own classroom.

Nothing is more important for a teacher than to know how to use good reading strategies and practices. Making a difference with our students is why we all became educators. Becoming strong and proficient readers and writers is critical for our students.

The goal of my website is to help you create strong and effective readers in your classroom. I have gathered hundreds of tips, tricks, and reading strategies that will help you meet the literacy needs of your students.

Many of these ideas featured here come from my own work as a reading specialist, literacy coach and professional developer.

Other tips and reading strategies are from the successful instructional strategies of great reading teachers I have known over the years.  Other ideas are from important research being done in the field that translates into effective instruction.

I will also pass along good ideas from other literacy experts in the field that you might find helpful for your own classroom instruction.

Share Your Own Effective Reading Strategies and Tips

Feel free to leave suggestions on great reading tips you use with your own students as you read. Also, feel free to ask questions or comment on the ideas and suggestions found here.

Please be an active participant when you visit here.  Return again and again for ideas, teaching strategies, and inspiration. 

Teaching students to read well is not an easy job. The more we share great ideas and identify what works to improve student proficiency, the better readers our students become.

Thank you for the work that you do every day!  You are valued and appreciated!

Karen’s Books on Teaching Reading

In addition to the information presented here, you may enjoy reading some of my books on teaching reading and working with struggling readers:

The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development

Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12:  Reinforcing the Threads of Reading

Tests that Teach: Using Standardized Tests to Improve Instruction

How to Help Your Child Become a Great Reader: Easy Literacy Games and Activities to Do at Home

Instructional Coaching Impacts Teacher Performance

My Book on Literacy Coaching for Reading Effectiveness

If you are a relatively new Instructional Coach or Reading coach in your school, then you may also enjoy reading my book on literacy coaching:

Coaching the Threads of Reading: Helping Teachers Build Reading Success

You may also enjoy these posts on Literacy coaching on my blog:

Coaching the Threads of Reading for Literacy Coaches

Instructional Coaching That Gets Results

New Class for Literacy Coaches

Check out my new Literacy Coaching course, Coaching Heroes and Champions.

In this course, you will be able to improve your ability to inspire and coach the teachers in your school. You will be able to:

1: cultivate success as a literacy coach who facilitates adult learning that changes practice.

2: understand how to build trusting and caring coaching relationships that enable teacher success.

3: use coaching strategies to increase student academic performance and facilitate student-centered practices that instill joy in the classroom.

4: use data to hone instructional performance and improve student engagement and mastery of state standards.

Here is a list of what you will learn in Bringing Out the Heroes and Champions in Teachers: Instructional Coaching that Gets Results

Module 1: Clarifying the Coaching Role, Purpose and Vision for Success

Module 2: How to Differentiate Support to Meet Individual Teacher Needs

Module 3: Adult Learning, Mental Models and Teacher Career Stages

Module 4: Using Formative and Summative Assessment to Maximize Student Achievement

Module 5: Planning and Teaching for Maximizing Achievement

Module 6: Powerful Communications

I would love to hear your feedback on what you like and how the course might be improved for future students!

Qualitative Measures of Text Complexity

It is important to understand how to use qualitative measures to evaluate how well reader needs match a specific text.

When we want to determine if a text is a “good fit” for our students, there are three measures that teachers need to consider.   These measures are: “qualitative measures,” “quantitative measures,” and “reader and task.” This post will examine the Qualitative Measures of text.

Qualitative measures focus specifically on the inherent complexity of the text itself. In this post, we will learn more about what to look for when using qualitative measures.

Qualitative measures include analyzing the levels of meaning found in the text, the structure of the text, the complexity and clarity of the language and the overall amount of background knowledge that a reader would need to understand this text.

One element to consider when reviewing the text complexity of a book is the richness of the plot and the levels of meaning found in the text.

Teen girl in a velvet hoodie reading a book.
Matching readers to Qualitative Measures improves comprehension

Judging the Match of a Text to Reader Needs

Texts that have a single level of meaning and purpose are easier to understand than texts that have multiple layers of meaning. A text containing a high level of satire would expect many assumptions and would be much more complex for readers to understand.

The presence of charts and/or graphs in the text may improve a readers ability to understand the text.

Texts that are written in a straightforward, chronological manner are easier to understand than texts that contain many flashbacks or unconventional structures such as stream of consciousness narration.

When texts are written using a clear, literal, conversational style, they are much easier to read. Texts that use figurative language, irony, unusual dialect, domain-specific language or archaic language are much more difficult to understand.

Some texts make assumptions about the reader’s background knowledge, cultural understandings, or content knowledge. When these elements are present in a text, it raises the level of reading difficulty.

Analyzing the Complexity of a Text Using Qualitative Measures

For example, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels could read at a simplistic level as a story about the travels of a guy who visited a strange land called Lilliput. 

However, Gulliver’s Travels – as it was originally written by Swift -rates as a complex text because of the parody and satire that it contains. Most unsophisticated readers would not understand the deeper meaning presented in these genres.

Since Gulliver’s Travels as an adult political satire, we would generally consider the content complex and reserve this book for high school students.

In order to fully understand the nuances in this book, students would need to know that the author’s intent of the story was to satirize English politics of the 1720s.

Students would most likely need the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher to grasp the complex content. This is the reason most teachers would reserve this novel for high school students.

The Lexile Level of Gulliver’s Travels would be 1300 or an ATOS reading level of 13.5. This book is advanced and is more appropriate for advanced high school students or even college students.

Analyzing Qualitative Measures of Text Complexity

An easy way to determine the qualitative measure match between a text and your readers is to create a simple rubric for each of the 4 main categories: Text Structure; Language Features; Purpose; and Knowledge Demands.

Rank each section on a 1-5 scale with 1 being basic to 5 being highly complex. Under text structure, consider the organization of the text, the features of the text itself and whether there are any graphics that could help the text be more clear.

When evaluating language features, consider the level of complexity ranging from 1- explicit and easy to understand, to 5 – dense and complex with a substantial amount of abstractness, irony or figurative language. Examine not only the writing and sentence structure but also the level of vocabulary used in the text for this element.

Evaluate the purpose of the text as well as the knowledge demands the text requires. Rank these elements with a 1 being minimally complicated to 5 being highly complex and demanding.

Achieve the Core has a good discussion of how to evaluate the qualitative elements of various texts that you can review. They also have a downloadable rubric that you might want to use to evaluate the 4 critical features of qualitative complexity. You can find their rubrics for informational text and literary texts here.

Learn more about Quantitative Measures of Text Complexity

Learn more about the impact of Reader and the Task on Text Complexity