Getting my Struggling Readers to Thrive in the Content Areas

How do you get your struggling reader to succeed in the content areas? This was my dilemma as a fourth-grade teacher. I was frustrated for my struggling students. They experienced failure in almost every class because they struggled in literacy.
I worked hard over the years to get every student to meet my objectives. With text rich classes, they viewed the content area as an insurmountable challenge. I felt their pain as a teacher watching literacy bleed into the content areas. I tried various strategies and I can confidently say my struggling students felt success after using these strategies. I saw this success reflected on the unit tests. I also saw success written across their smiling faces. I did go through many failing strategies along the way.
Strategies that Did Not Work
Doing nothing to support the student does not work. At first, this was a temptation of mine. This is the easiest solution but the student would not show the progress they needed. When this happened, the students created their own strategies to cope with their struggles. Some learned not to care. Some stayed quiet and pretended to understand. Some sought help from friends. This was not a real solution. We want our students to thrive. We can make this happen as teachers.
Cooperative groups alone did not help my struggling students.
This strategy is fun and a change of pace for all the students. Students learn the invaluable art of working as a team, but this strategy did not help my struggling readers. They got lost in the group and did not learn the information. While there is a time and a place for cooperative groups. Cooperative groups alone will not help struggling readers.
Cooperative groups alone will not help struggling readers. Click To Tweet
One-on-one coaching the exact same lesson.
It’s so easy to pull over a child and ask them about the lesson. As they struggle to recall the information, I would prompt them with portions of the lesson. We’d do a review of exactly what I just taught. This seemed good and there was some success, but it was spotty at best. I needed to make this into a routine embedded into the school day and I needed another way to connect to the student. This might have been better if I would have set aside time using different supports. Different supports also meant more time and investment on my part.
Test corrections didn’t do the trick.
The truth is that this activity could be beneficial for some students, but it wasn’t for my struggling students. A last minute attempt to go over concepts that weren’t grasped the first time did not help them develop the literacy skills they needed. Most of the time, I found that my struggling reader would peek at a friend’s test or some other coping mechanism.
Strategies that Did Work
Make the lesson visual, auditory and kinesthetic.
When I made my content area lessons doused in senses, my students grasped the material better. Students still did their reading using the literacy strategies. While the students still had the same reading ability, the difference was that I made the lesson more into an experience. The vocabulary words became easier to understand. One way that I did this was by introducing the vocabulary in a call and response format. The students were expected to respond orally and kinesthetically with a visual. These call and responses were great for review throughout the school day. It helped the students get the information into their long-term memory.
Intentional partners while using a graphic organizer to read the content text worked wonders.
Unlike cooperative groups, this activity provided the students with one-one attention from a student who would help them. There was no hiding within a group and the students both practiced a literacy skill that they needed to master. I found that my struggling students did not feel as intimidated when they got to work with one person. That one person was someone patient who knew how to use the graphic organizer. That partner would encourage the other student. That other student also got a boost in confidence when they were a leader in the group. The paired student was someone who needed the boost in confidence.
See-say-do notes work to create meaning and provide a medium for practice.
These notes are done by having the student draw a concept or vocabulary word. The drawing is done with no more than three colors plus black. It is small, no larger than 2 inches square. When they draw this picture, they are considering what they could say about what they are drawing. After they are done, they write the vocabulary word at the bottom of the drawing. There is no more writing for the drawing, instead, they will trace the drawing with their finger as they talk about the concept or vocabulary word. Then, the student will move on to the next drawing.
They will do the same thing for the second concept. Once they are done with the second drawing, they will go back to the first drawing to trace it with their fingers and talk about that concept. This will continue on and on. The student will draw their new concept then trace and talk about the previous drawings. Taking notes like this helps the students to process the concept with their visual, auditory and motor cortices of the brain. The repetitiveness helps the students to take that concept and store it in their long-term memory. It’s a good idea to chunk the drawings into groups of 10 so that students are only repeating 10 concepts in one sitting.
Pre-teaching the lessons works to set-up struggling readers for success.
Unlike the check-in at the end of a lesson strategy, pre-teaching lessons work every time. Pre-teaching can happen any time before the lesson during a calmer moment in the day. I would introduce the vocabulary words with a visual. Then I’d have the student either read a shorter article about the same concepts or I would have the student read an excerpt from the text. Afterwards, I showed them how I would use the reading strategy to fill in the graphic organizer. Then, I would have students use the text to fill in the missing pieces of my partially filled out graphic organizer. The graphic organizer was missing words. I could also have the graphic organizer cut like a puzzle to put together. We would talk through why our answers work using text evidence. This added an extra intervention in the day and helped the students get a boost in confidence.
Make your student curious.
This is something we do as a whole class and gets students excited about Science or Social Studies. One way I’ve done this is by telling a story with a cliffhanger. The students would desperately want to know how the story ended. They would dig into the text trying to figure out the ending. Another way would be to make the students into investigators with a problem to solve. This works great for problem and solution structured text.
Inquiry lessons also make students curious.
Every time students need to answer a question in an experiment in science, this gets students engaged. Our struggling reader will also get involved and get an experience that will help them read the text with a greater understanding. One key was to make sure our inquiry lessons easily lead into the text book reading. If it doesn’t, it is a good idea to make sure there is a good transition between the two. A way to do that is by saying something like this, “Now we discovered what happens when…In the text we are going to search for why this happens.” This sort of lead gets students diving into the text with a question in mind and keeps them curious.
Last Words
Some content lessons seem like a lot of extra work or worse they may seem like just another objective to check off the list. However, to reach struggling readers we should not get complacent in our teaching. Complacency means that struggling students that will lose the most. The way we feel about our lessons will transfer to our students. Be diligent in making our lessons important, fun, or something they can connect to on a personal level. These types of lessons will help students who struggle thrive in the content lesson and even in literacy. Engaging lessons also prevent us from having to do a lot of extra one-on-one interventions outside of our content area. We have plenty to do already. When we prepare a lesson to reach all students, all our students benefit.
DePorter, Bobbi; Reardon, Mark; Singer-Nourie, Sarah. (1998). Quantum Teaching: Orchestrating Student Success. Pearson.
Richards, R. G. (2008). Retrieved from LD Online: http://www.ldonline.org/article/5602

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