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Virginia Journal of Education

Your Classroom

A Heads-Up on Helping Struggling Adolescent Readers

By Carol Nicholson

Life without well-developed literacy skills is a grim prospect, as more and more of our social and work lives play out in environments that require such skills. If you’ve got literacy deficits, you’ll likely be at least underemployed, if not out of work altogether.

That makes our mission to help students coming out of elementary school as low or non-readers all the more imperative.

The first step is motivation, motivation! If you’ve reached middle school as a struggling reader, odds are reading is not your favorite subject and you have a long history of academic failure. So, get that hard fact out there right away. Let your students know that learning to read well is going to be challenging, but if they work they will see progress—then deliver.

For them, reading is a chore and so the more motivational videos, rewards (both edible and not), and recognition they can get, the better. I start with an interest survey, so I can gear the work toward something that will hold their interest (one student who adamantly refused to read was reading aloud to the class not too long after I let him read material about his favorite subject—horror movies). You can actually see the turnaround the first time they start seeing results. If they come in and give me 80 minutes of working on something hard, I give back with a reward. We celebrate success by recognizing great progress and we have mini-celebrations as the class as a whole moves forward.

Success comes when we can match a student’s problem with the appropriate intervention, so first I need to determine if the primary issue has to do with decoding, vocabulary or comprehension. A flu shot won’t help if you have a broken leg; neither will a good literacy intervention incorrectly applied. Once I’ve identified the problem, I match it with best practice and gear mini-lessons to address it, either individually or in small groups. I also try to pair readers in teams, with one having strengths in the other’s area of weakness to peer model the skills they’re working on. For example, I’ll often pair a student weak in decoding and strong in comprehension with one strong in decoding and weak in comprehension. It’s surprising how many complementary pairs exist in a remediation group.

Next, students need to own their work. I make it keenly understood we all have something to work on, and we all have to not only take responsibility for ourselves but help each other, as well. Student-generated composition books called “learning logs” help students log their data, reflect and record lessons geared toward their individual reading issues. Initial assessment is crucial but equally important are bi-weekly probes. One week we test Oral Reading Fluency (ORF); the next we test comprehension through three-minute mazes. Sprinkle in some phonetic spelling assessments and be sure to include brief conferences to discuss results. 

Students set goals and assess success through reflective journaling and min-conferences.   During conferences, I may say something like, “You dropped pretty significantly over Christmas break, what happened?” Usually, they’re pretty honest in saying, “I didn’t read anything for two weeks.”  I actually like when that happens, because then they can see the connection between their work and their success. I’m not overly focused on weekly numbers, however, because small issues like being tired or having a fight with parents can affect outcomes, so we look at trend data rather than any specific number. I stole a saying from a professor: “There is no failure, only feedback.” There should be a lot of reflection going on. The important numbers are the beginning diagnostic, mid-year and final. 

We rise and fall as a team. Very early on, we are team reading. One student reads and one reflects. Every reading has a purpose and we use reading strategies such as K-W-L charts, text features, SQR3 squares and word maps to help build comprehension and reading skills. This shared activity not only helps build reading confidence—as it turns out, middle-schoolers love to work in pairs. We read from Scope and/or Action magazines, and students love picking their own article. We also read reader’s theatre or scripts together and choral-read material. Near the end of the year, every student completes a chapter book at their independent reading level and makes a presentation. There’s a huge sense of accomplishment, as this is often the first book they’ve completed in a very long time.

Independent work is also essential! I’m on a constant search for programs that build excitement and help literacy skills. The one I’ve come to rely on most heavily is called Failure Free Reading. It’s an amazing vocabulary builder and is done independently in class. It also provides reports that let me assess students’ independent growth. I use the online tool in Scholastic, which lets me set reading at a student’s independent level and can even read to them if they’re struggling with the material. Reading silently is great, but my students are masters at pretending to read, so I always make sure there is some way to monitor that they are actually utilizing the independent time wisely.

It may seem like a lot, but this approach really just calls for using a variety of tools and pulling them out to address different issues. Students work in three 30-minute sections. One group works independently on Failure Free Reading, and another pairs up to team read, while I provide a mini-lesson. The ORF probes are the most problematic. If I have a good class, I will often take a day in the library and let them read, while I test individually. I always say it’s like conducting an orchestra. There is a gentle dance to get to each student and assess, support and give skills. However, after the first two or three weeks, when they see their numbers go up and are assured they can succeed, it’s astonishing how the class tenor changes. It is often very difficult work, but it’s vital and that in itself makes for its own reward.

Nicholson, a member of the Spotsylvania Education Association, is an English and special education teacher at Battlefield Middle School.



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