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

Helping Struggling Readers Understand Difficult Text

Older Students Need Fluency in Complex Text

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.

We must also help students 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. For this reason, helping students build their vocabulary storehouse is also critical.

Explicitly teach new words as these words arise in text. Then, provide students with numerous opportunities to see and use these words.

Help students see and use their new vocabulary 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.

Reinforce their learning by helping students see and use their new vocabulary on multiple occasions so the words become more familiar to them.

Frustrated student saying "to heck with it" in front of a book
Without Help Students Often Give Up

Marzano’s Six Steps of Vocabulary Learning

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.

Round Robin reading weakens comprehension for other students in the class. This is because some students read too fast while others read too slowly. Some read in a halting or interrupted manner that does not allow listeners to follow along. This causes them to lose meaning.

As a student, you probably had a strategy for this when you were in school. You probably counted ahead to see which passage you would be required to read. Then, since no one wanted to look “dumb” in front of peers, you silently practiced the passage until you were confident that you could read it fluently in front of your peers.

While practicing your own passage, the content that another student was reading at the time was ignored. So, no learning was taking place on your part.

Round Robin reading creates stress in the classroom. It neither promotes improved reading skills nor does it deepen comprehension.

Collaborative Reading Practices to Help Struggling Readers

There are many collaborative ways besides Round Robin reading to help students deepen their reading skills.

Students can share in the reading and presentation of information within the class. Some ways to do that include the following methods: Choral reading; partner reading, echo reading, and buddy reading to name just a few.

These methods are not only more engaging, but they also do not evoke the level of stress in the classroom that we see with Round Robin reading methods.

Students can make a presentation either in jigsaw “expert” groups or as a whole class presentation about their section of text. Others can ask questions to make sure that they have understood the section of text.

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 they are allowed to interact with the text on a more extended level.

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, on the Smartboard or on a computer.

Think about the reading skills you want your students to learn in the upcoming months, what might be some ways that you can deepen student motivation as well as enjoyment in what they will be reading?

Learn more ways to enhance your students skills in reading. See Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading.

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