How to Help Struggling Readers Understand Difficult Text

Students are Expected to Read Complex Text in Grades 4-12

Teachers in grades 4-12 often ask how they can help struggling readers understand difficult texts used in content classrooms. They complain that students cannot read the material in the print resources that districts have given them for content learning.

While teachers know that they need to improve the reading comprehension skills of their students, many have no idea how to help readers understand difficult texts. They say that while they were well trained in their content, they were not trained in how to be reading teachers. To address this problem, teachers want ideas on how they can help their students improve their ability to read complex text in higher grades.

As children move through the grades, content reading becomes more difficult. While students may have passed their eyes over the assigned text, they finished their task with little understanding of the concepts covered in the text they have been asked to read.

4 students sitting at a table discussing and writing in notebooks.
Students from Sutton Middle School – Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education

Connecting to Background Knowledge Improves Comprehension

First, students may lack understanding of what they have read due to limited background knowledge, To help students succeed in content instruction, we must activate what students already know about a subject and help them make connections between new knowledge and what they already know about a topic.

When students make connections between what they already know about a topic to the text they are reading, their comprehension increases. Effective readers continually try to make sense out of what they are reading. They also try to connect what they already know about a topic to the new information that they are learning.

Previewing Helps Reading Comprehension Skills

Before students begin reading, students should understand how to preview the text and know how to set a purpose for their reading. Readers know what they will be expected to do with the text when the purpose is clear. When students know what they are expected to accomplish by the end of their reading, they are more successful.

By helping students make predictions about what they will learn from the text, we can also increase motivation and foster interest. By spending a significant amount of time “front-loading” our units, we can help students make better connections with the new information they will learn.

Anticipation guides, study guides, or graphic organizers (concept maps, flow charts, KWL charts, etc.) are a great way of helping students think about what they already know about a topic. These tools can also help students verify their predictions and connections as a reading follow-up.

Teaching Vocabulary Helps Struggling Readers Understand Text

Reading comprehension difficulties are connected to the size of a person’s vocabulary. Poor readers often have smaller vocabularies than more proficient readers. This means that they can become overwhelmed by unknown words in the text and lose understanding. Readers cannot understand what they are reading if they do not understand what the words in the text mean.

Explicitly teach new words as these words arise in text. They should then provide students with numerous opportunities to see and use these words not only while reading but also during classroom discussions and in various writing activities.

Help students add new words to their active vocabularies by creating a student-friendly definition, by creating visual cues to help students connect to the new word, then by seeing and using the word on multiple occasions. Marzano has provided a six-step process that teachers can use to introduce new vocabulary words to their students.

The six steps are as follows; 1) Explain – Explain the word by providing a student-friendly definition; 2) Restate – Ask students to create a definition in their own words; 3) Show – Ask students to draw a picture, symbol, or graphic representation of the new word; 4) Discuss – Discuss the new word and help students add to their knowledge about the word; 5) Refine and Reflect – Refine word definitions with connections to other uses or similar words; 6) Apply – Play with words in games that allow students to review the meaning of words previously learned.

Increase Opportunities for Collaborative Reading in the Classroom

While many content teachers have used Round Robin reading in the classroom, there is no evidence that Round Robin reading helps students improve their reading comprehension. Round Robin reading, also known as “popcorn reading,” or “popsicle stick reading,” involves students reading orally from a common text, one child after another. During this time, the rest of the class is directed to follow along in their own copies of the text.

Round Robin reading and similar strategies force poor readers to endure embarrassment and humiliation by reading in front of the entire class. It weakens comprehension for other students in the class. This is because some students read too fast while others read too slowly. Some read in an interrupted manner that does not allow for listeners to follow along.

Most proficient readers counted ahead to see which passage we would be required to read. Then we would silently practice our assigned passage until we were confident. No one wanted to look dumb in front of their peers. While practicing, the content being read was ignored so no learning took place. Round Robin reading promotes nither improved reading skills nor improved comprehension.

There are many collaborative ways besides Round Robin reading. Students can share in the reading and presentation of information within the class with the following methods: Choral reading; partner reading, echo reading, and buddy reading to name just a few.

Teachers can break up chapters by topic and have groups read a section and clarify their understandings about the content. Students then make a presentation either in jigsaw “expert” groups or as a whole class presentation. Struggling students are engaged when they are allowed to read more of the text themselves. They develop more fluency with practice and have a deeper level of understanding when these methods are used.

Games are also a good way to practice new vocabulary and key concepts. Game formats such as Kahoot Quizzes, Jeopardy, or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are fun. Many versions can be found on the internet and used on a classroom Smartboard or computer.

Increasing Reading Comprehension

A good way to help students think about what they read and increase their comprehension of the text is to use a method called Questions into Paragraphs. Developed by McLaughlin (1987) the QuIP procedure helps students think about text both before they read as well as after reading. Students develop or are given 3 related questions on the topic. They then respond to each question using at least two sources of text using an appropriate graphic organizer. Once information for each question has been gathered, students then synthesize the information and write one coherent paragraph summarizing the information. Once students are used to gathering, synthesizing and summarizing information to questions that the teacher provides, they should then be encouraged to identify their own related questions and complete the research, synthesis and summarization processes on their own. This is a great higher order activity that promotes not only deep understanding but higher level thinking as well.