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

Helping Struggling Students Meet Reading Standards

Using Scaffolding to Help Struggling Students

Teachers ask how to help struggling students meet rigorous reading standards when they lack the foundational skills in reading.

Trying to learn when you have gaps that prevent you from doing what other students can do is frustrating for many students.

You can reduce frustration and help your students learn the skills you need them to have by using scaffolds and learning supports during your instruction.

What are scaffolds?

Scaffolds are supportive practices that you use to help students close the gap between where they currently perform and where you need them to perform.

Smiling teen girl reading a book while sitting outside.
Scaffolds Help Students be more Successful Readers

You might provide a tool or strategy to help students organize their learning. For example, one tool that could be used is a graphic organizer to outline the steps or process to be used during learning.

A strategy that might be helpful is to break learning into more manageable chunks for the student.

By organizing learning into smaller bites, the student is able to see success and stair-step his or her way to accomplish the task. This helps reduce the overwhelm that some students feel when faced with a complex or multi-part assignment.

Using Scaffolding Ideas to Bridge Learning Gaps

When the going gets tough for your students, here are a examples of scaffolds that you might use to help your students meet the standard that you are working on:

  1. Create and provide a flow chart to help the student identify next steps in a process such as multiplying fractions or editing something they have written. Use models or exemplars and show students what the finished product should look like.
  2. Provide a concrete manipulative that students can use to see relationships or connections. For example, have them create a strong paragraph by putting each sentence on a strip of paper and then moving them around and using transition words to build meaning.
  3. Graphic organizers of all types help struggling students plan and think through a problem. Graphic organizers can identify foundational thought processes  such as making connections or seeing cause and effect relationships. This helps students understand the concept you want them to learn more easily. 
  4. Proving pictures and charts can also help scaffold learning for students.
  5. Providing time for students to talk and share their thoughts and ideas is also a powerful scaffold. Blend some structured talking time into your lessons. Use techniques like: turn and talk, think-pair-share to discuss topics or concepts being presented. Use partner sharing time to help focus student thoughts and understandings.

Scaffolds are a good way to help struggling students improve their likelihood of reaching the grade level target. 

Think about what your students struggle with in the classroom. Then put into place scaffolds to might support your students in reaching the goals you want them to accomplish.

Helping Struggling Students With Alternative Assignments

Another way to help students improve their mastery of state standards is by providing learning choices or alternative assignment choices to students.

Often there are several ways that students might be able to demonstrate mastery of a concept. This might include creating an info-graphic, making a detailed drawing, created a narrated PowerPoint or writing a report.

Giving students some choice in how they demonstrate their learning is motivational and fun.

Choice Adds Interest and Increases Motivation

Bored struggling reader female with book in front of a chalkboard with math symbols.
Choice Strengthens Motivation

 For example, you have an ELA standard requiring students to demonstrate narrative technique such as using dialogue and a solid plot line.

You find that some students have trouble meeting this standard.

Instead of developing a written story as some students might do, allow students to have a choice of the product they will work on to show their mastery.

For example, some choices might be to develop a cartoon or a short, written radio script to show their mastery of these standards.

Another option might be to create a short, graphic novel using internet tools that are free and easily available showing characters using dialog in an appropriate manner. 

As the student develops proficiency with the required skills, their ability to demonstrate the required standard will continue to improve.

When children are more motivated to do the work and strive to learn, their levels of competency also increases and moves them toward being able to demonstrate the skills they need to be successful with your grade level standards.

Learn more about helping struggling students learn to read in my ASCD book, Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading.

You May Also Like:

How to Enhance Student Reading with Audio Books

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Why Students Struggle and What to Do About It

Why Do Some Students Struggle With Reading?

Why do some students struggle with learning to read while others easily master the art of reading?

While our brains are hard-wired for language, they were never designed for reading or writing. Those are behaviors that we have added to the tasks that we ask the human brain to do in our society.

As a result, there are many reasons one child make not make as much progress in learning to read as another child may make.

How Does Reading Take Place?

Learning to read begins at birth or according to some experts, even while the child is still in the womb.

The background knowledge that a child brings to the schoolhouse door does make a difference  and has a direct correlation to how successful that child will be in school.

Researchers say that the two strongest predictors of school success are a child’s proficiency in phonemic awareness and the size of the child’s vocabulary.

We know that the gap between good readers and struggling readers develops as early as by the end of first grade.

Without effective and timely intervention, this gap will continue to grow until there may be a gap of 4-5 years or more by the child’s high school years.

Without targeted help, struggling readers will most likely never catch up with their peers. In many cases, they will either “tune out” or “act out” in classrooms all across the country.

Smiling female toddler with a book in her lap.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

All young readers must have a solid grasp of phonemic awareness to understand the “lilt” of the language. Phonemic awareness helps students recognize the sounds that various letters and letter combinations make.

Secondly, beginning readers must be able to decode the words they encounter by understanding how to apply the English phonetic system to words.

English is not an easy language to learn because there are many exceptions to the normal rules in our language.

Beginning readers commonly learn to identify initial sounds first, final sounds second and then learn to distinguish how medial sounds change the meaning of the word.

For example, the medial sounds in “book,” “back” and “beak” change the entire meaning of the word.

Children must quickly recognize the meaning of the word and then be able to make sense of the context in which the word appears.

Reading is about meaning out of the symbols on the page. If a child gets no meaning from the words, then reading has not taken place.

In the same way that math skills are cumulative, so too are reading skills. A child who has poor phonemic awareness skills will struggle with developing strong phonics skills.

A child who has poor decoding skills, will find it difficult to become a fluent reader with good comprehension skills.

The threads of reading must be woven around each child if they are to become capable readers. Teachers must use good assessment techniques to find the “holes” in a reader’s tapestry and then work to fill those holes with appropriate and targeted instruction.

When this does not happen, it is why students struggle with reading.

Until the holes preventing the student from mastering the level where they are “stuck” are filled, little progress will be made moving to the next level of reading mastery.

Young female toddler laying on a bed with her mother reading a book.
Exposure to books and the sounds of the language are important for beginning readers.

What Can Teachers Do to Help Struggling Readers?

Reading is a participation sport!

Like the tennis player or the golfer, students only become better readers when they practice reading. The more students practice reading, the more proficient they become.

Students learn to read by being read to regularly. Take time to model reading by reading orally to students whenever you can.

Capitalize on student interests to help them find books they want to read. By learning what interests our students, we can help them find text that is at the appropriate level of difficulty and motivating to read.

Without meaning and joy in reading, students will continue to struggle and fight attempts to help them become better readers.

Helping students develop strong vocabularies and good background knowledge is also essential so students can relate to the material they read.

Preschool children on a soccer field practicing kicking soccer balls.
Like learning to play a sport, readers must practice their reading to improve.

Reading is a Social Activity

Reading is a social activity.

As adult readers, we talk to our friends about books we have read or articles in our favorite magazines to reflect upon ideas or clarify meaning for ourselves.

Give students opportunities to talk about, think about and ask questions about the meaning of the text they read.

When we understand why students struggle with reading, we can help our students close gaps that prevent them from becoming proficient readers. By asking our students to read on a regular basis, our students will have the opportunity to become strong and proficient readers.

A young male child sitting on a parents lap looking at a picture book with the parent.
Children enjoy listening to a parent read to them from a young age.

If you would like more information on strengthening adolescent readers, see the article that I wrote called: How a concerted district approach with coherent strategies can strengthen adolescent readers

To read more on this topic see: Phases of Early Literacy Development for K-3 Students and 30 million Word Gap by Age 3