TRT Podcast#13: 5 Tips for teaching struggling readers
Teaching struggling readers is immensely rewarding. But it’s not without its challenges!
In this episode I share five must-use strategies for teaching struggling readers.
Full episode transcript
You are listening to episode 13: Five Strategies for Teaching Struggling Readers. This episode is sponsored by Teaching Every Reader, the online course for teaching reading in K-2. I created this course with my colleague, Becky Spence. You may know her from her amazing blog This Reading Mama. Becky, like me, is a former classroom teacher with a master's degree in education. She has a special heart for teaching struggling readers and much of what I'm sharing today in this episode is directly from her struggling readers bonus module inside Teaching Every Reader. To learn more about our course, Teaching Every Reader, you can visit teachingeveryreader.com or visit the show notes for this episode at themeasuredmom.com/Episode 13.
Before we dive into the five strategies, let's talk about what we mean by struggling readers. These are students who struggle with reading in some way for a variety of reasons. It may be because English is not their first language. It may be that there are holes in their phonemic awareness or phonics skills. They may lack background knowledge, which hurts their comprehension. Or they have difficulties processing language or even a diagnosis like dyslexia. No matter the reason that a child is struggling in reading, we can use some effective strategies to help.
The first teaching strategy is using multi-sensory activities. This means that we want our learners actively participating in their learning. They could be using manipulatives, talking through strategies with us, or spelling words out loud. I love this quote from Becky in Teaching Every Reader. She says, "We want you to think of the brain as a highway system with lots of on and off ramps. There can be multiple ways to get to one location. If there's heavy traffic on the interstate you can grab your phone and find an alternate route. Learning happens in much the same way but for most of our struggling readers, their brain has a traffic jam and they've left their phone at home. If we continue to teach into the traffic jam, we aren't going to get to the other side. We want to find alternate routes. Multi-sensory teaching can help us find other routes in the brain so that learners can make meaningful connections with information."
For example, if you're teaching your learners phonemic awareness, you want them to hear the individual sounds in words. Elkonin boxes are a great multi-sensory way to do this. You give children a picture of a three-letter word and then you show them how to use manipulatives to push one forward for each sound. For example, if they see the picture of a cat, they would move one counter forward for each sound. C-a-t. In the show notes for this episode, you will find a link to a free set of Elkonin boxes. Another time multi-sensory teaching comes is handy is when you're teaching kids who are struggling with letter recognition. You can provide actual magnetic letters to students that have the shapes of the letters. I'm talking magnetic letters, not letter tiles. The nice thing about the letters being magnetic is that they can feel the shape of the letter. And this can be helpful, for example, when they're sorting letters. You might have them sort them by letters that have a long side and letters that are completely curved. Eventually, they'll use these letters to build words.
Strategy number two is systematic teaching. This means that we teach in a logical and organized way. We want to keep our routines consistent and mix in older concepts with newer skills. This is often called spiral teaching; when you mix in new concepts with old ones. And it's really important to help prevent gaps in learning. For example, you could have a systematic way for teaching letter sounds. There is not one perfect order for teaching letter sounds, but we like to recommend one particular order that is great for struggling learners and other learners, too. In this order, you're going to make sure you introduce vowel sounds early on, but you're going to separate the vowel sounds so children aren't easily confused. You'll start by teaching M, A, S, P, T, N, I. You see there was a big set of consonants before we got to the second vowel. And those letters at the beginning that we taught can be used to make many different words. Go ahead and head to the show notes, themeasuredmom.com/Episode13 for that full order of teaching letters.
Another place systematic teaching is important is when we teach students to blend sounds to make words. There are different ways to teach blending. One way that's often used is by teaching kids to recognize word families at the end of the word and then adding that ending to the beginning sound. For example, if you're teaching the word family ap, children can read cap, map, tap and so on. You can also teach blending by individual letter. So, in the word cap, /k/ /a/ /p/. Cap. But a really great way to teach blending that comes in especially handy when you're teaching struggling learners is called successive blending, and this is really good for kids who try to sound out words but then forget the sounds they've already said and then come up with a totally unrelated word at the end.
For example, if you're teaching someone to sound out map, instead of doing /m/ /a/ /p/, you teach them to put those first two sounds together and then add the ending. So, mmmm-a. Mmmaa-p. Map. Map. I have a video which comes with a free printable for teaching successive blending. Again, you'll find a link to that in the show notes for this episode.
Strategy number three is explicit teaching, and that's when we clearly show a skill or strategy. This is so important when teaching reading because so much of what we do when we read isn't seen. Processing is done silently in our heads, and it's up to us as the teacher to make this visible for our students. For example, if you're talking about the strategy of asking questions as you read, you could create a T-chart. On the left side of the chart, you could list the qualities of good questions that make us want to read more. On the right side, you could list the qualities of not so good questions. These might be questions that may be too specific or even off-topic that don't compel us to keep reading. And then you can use passages to help your students practice whatever reading strategy it is that you're teaching. You're going to want to start with short passages that very obviously lend themselves to this strategy.
For example, if you're teaching visualizing you could start with a short poem that very clearly helps students make a picture in their mind. Or if you're teaching main idea, you could start with a very short paragraph that states the main idea in the very first sentence. Then you're going to move on to longer passages that clearly help them use the strategy. Finally, move on to shorter and then longer passages that aren't so clear. If you're teaching main idea, you might use a short passage that has a main idea, but it's not stated in a direct sentence so students are going to have to infer it.
A great way to do explicit teaching is through a think-aloud. Talk aloud about your thinking as you comprehend text. This works really well in a whole class read-aloud or in a small group setting. Ahead of time, pick a text and focus in on what you're thinking as you read. Take notes on sticky notes. And then, when you read the book to your students, pause to talk about the what you're thinking as you read it, referring to those sticky notes that you wrote earlier. Explicit teaching also comes in handy when teaching sight words to struggling readers. Talk about the easy and hard parts of the word. Listen in as I show you an example of teaching students the word was.
Let's look at this word. Was. Listen as I say the word slowly. Was. I can hear the /w/ in the word. Can you? /w/, /w/, was. I'm going to highlight the W with green because it makes the sound I would expect to hear. /w/. Green means go with the sound it makes. The W is highlighted. Now let's listen to the rest of the word. W-aaas. There's something tricky about the A and the S. They don't make the sounds I expect to hear. I hear /u/ and /z/. I don't hear /a/ and /s/. The word doesn't say wahss; it says was. I'm going to highlight the A and S in yellow. Yellow warns me that these sounds are tricky.
Explicitly teaching can feel like over-explaining, but it's not. And you'll get more comfortable with it in time.
Let's move on to strategy number four, a strategy that is often skipped. And it is guided practice. After we've given instruction using multiple senses and in an explicit, easy to understand way, our learners need to practice the skill or strategy. But it's easy to skip this step. We like to put an activity at a learning center or give a worksheet for independent practice and expect our students to do it independently without guided practice first. They need this important step. During guided practice, you review what you've already explicitly modeled and then you serve as a coach as your students try it. You help them get back on track when they need it, and you provide cues or remodel a skill or strategy again.
Let's say you're teaching your students about beginning, middle and end, and you want them to fill out a graphic organizer for a book they've read. Don't just give them the graphic organizer and expect them to be able to do it. Instead, model its use during whole class read-aloud over several days. The first day, you might do it all by yourself as they watch. On the later days, you're going to have your students offer suggestions as you fill in the chart for different books. And then finally, before you expect them to do it all on their own, they're going to take over most of the work during your whole class or small group lesson.
Finally, strategy number five is monitor and adjust. As Becky states in our struggling leaders module, "sometimes it feels like one step up and two steps back with our struggling readers. We think they've mastered a concept and then we realize they're still struggling with it." That's why this final step is so important. We've got to monitor their learning and adjust our teaching and then support them as needed. Ask yourself, what concept has this learner completely mastered? Where does this learner have partial understanding? Answers to those questions will help you know where to go next.
Today we've talked about five effective teaching strategies. Those strategies are using multi-sensory activities, systematic teaching,, explicit teaching, guided practice and monitoring and adjusting. These effective teaching strategies will benefit all your struggling learners but you may have some that quickly catch on and move way ahead to be some of your best readers. It's like the missing puzzle piece is found and the picture becomes clear. These are the great moments of teaching. But there's also the flip side of the coin. You will have some struggling readers who seem to move slower than a snail even when you're using effective teaching strategies. And we know this because we've received many emails from you as your heart goes out to these kids who just don't seem to be moving forward. This can be disheartening, but we have to remember that teaching reading is a marathon, not a sprint. We are working towards lifelong reading skills, not just reading for the next assessment.
Teaching struggling readers can be a very rewarding job. Today, in this podcast episode, I've just given you the top level of the bonus module inside the course. Inside the full bonus module, you get lots of specific teaching tips for teaching phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, phonics, comprehension and fluency to struggling readers. But that's not all. Teaching Every Reader is designed to help you teach every reader in your K-2 classroom: your struggling readers, your on-level readers, and your advanced readers.
One of our students who teaches first grade had this to say. "I absolutely love this course and have recommended it our entire district. For the first time ever, I feel confident knowing that I have the tools I need to teach reading well."
Teaching Every Reader will help you pinpoint what your students need to learn with easy-to-use assessments so you know exactly what to do next. You'll become a pro at giving small group lessons that accelerate student learning. You'll master one-on-one reading conferences that help you meet students exactly where they are. You'll learn to create year-long, easily differentiated centers that keep the rest of the class learning and don't take all weekend to prepare. You'll discover new tips and tricks for teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, sight words and comprehension and you will save hours of time with a huge variety of low-prep activities so you can get your life back while doing the very best for your students.
As of this recording in April of 2020, we are offering a free sample course of Teaching Every Reader and you can find that in the show notes for this episode, themeasuredmom.com/episode13. I hope this episode has been helpful and given you some things to think about as you teach your struggling readers. And I also hope you'll sign up for that free sample of Teaching Every Reader. I'll talk to you again soon.
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Other resources mentioned in this episode
- Free Elkonin boxes
- A recommended order for teaching letters and sounds: m, a, s, p, t, n, i, d, r, c, f, b, o, h, g, e, l, k, w, u, j, x, v, y, q, z
- Video and free printables for teaching successive blending
Other helpful blog posts
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