5 Ways to Help Struggling Readers (While Keeping the Whole Student in Mind)

Reading is only one part of the learning experience.

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It’s easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on a student’s reading struggles, but we cannot leave the rest of the student behind. When we fail to engage other aspects of the whole child, we also fail to help them connect learning experiences. This increases the likelihood that they will question the value of school, tune out, or worse, feel like they’ve failed and give up. Finding the way in to help struggling readers is about looking at the whole student. Here are five ways to refocus the time you’re already spending. When you refocus your time, you can increase reading skills with the whole student in mind.

1. Choose an RTI Program and Follow it Precisely

You already plan lessons for your RTI time that are laser focused on one or two particular skills. But, for some students, this isn’t working. When students aren’t responding to common intervention strategies, they need something different. Implementing a program your district may already own to help students learn how to read such as LLI, Reading Recovery, Wilson Reading System or Orton-Gillingham may help children learn better. When you use a program with struggling readers, the goal is to use it with fidelity.  A research-based program or tool must be consistently used anywhere from 3 to 10 times before both student and teacher are comfortable and confident with the process.  After that, the program must be implemented at least three times a week in order to help readers gain the more than one year of growth they need in order to catch up.

When literacy learning is difficult for children, they also suffer anguish and trauma. They may mistakenly feel inferior to their peers because they have a learning difference. Successfully implementing your program can help students feel comfortable and develop the confidence and self-esteem they need to increase their reading skills.

2. Offer developmentally appropriate reading through audiobooks

When children aren’t reading at grade level, they often become discouraged, withdraw and may act out in class.  Providing human-read audiobooks allows struggling readers to focus, visualize and get engaged in the story.  Students can get access to the grade-level content they need so they can participate in class and work alongside their  peers.

Human-read audiobooks help students build vocabulary, comprehension and critical thinking skills. This leads to more confident and engaged learners.  Students benefit academically, socially, and emotionally when they listen to audiobooks. By taking away the mechanics of reading and allowing students to work at their ability, stress is lowered allowing them to succeed.

3. Use technology to balance students’ struggles with strengths

You probably already “flip” some of your learning by having children watch video or listen to audio directions. Using technology helps you incorporate the 10-2 rule where teachers teach for 10 minutes and then give students two minutes to reflect on their learning. Try having your struggling readers  use apps like Haikudeck, Explain Everything, and Link to explain their thinking. This puts them in the driver’s seat and gives them the thinking time and tools necessary to shine.

When children use apps that make their thinking transparent, they stop feeling like they’ll never be able to do it. More often than not, children who have trouble reading do not lack in other skills. Giving them a path for growing their strengths empowers them.

4. Incorporate multi-sensory strategies

You already know that the senses affect your students’ learning. You ask them to listen to read-alouds, to look for letter combinations in text, and to act out stories. Now consider using a more complete multi-sensory approach. When a student learns using a combination of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic strategies, it improves their memory and learning of decoding skills.

Consider trying these different modes of learning: engaging in a debate (auditory), taking pictures of work (visual), using a game format (tactile), working in flexible groups (affective), and creating a video (technology). Often when students have to use reading in authentic and multi-sensory ways, their inhibitions disappear and they can learn better.

5. Set achievable goals together

Your students know they will be tested on the information they learn each day. Why not show them how to set their own goals and put the control back in the hands of the learner? The children in your classroom are learning to be citizens in their community. Learning to set personal goals will benefit them long after the current academic year. You can be the supportive adult they need to feel successful in life. Here’s a link to a free simple goal worksheet you can use right now.

Don’t let too much time go by without a check-in. Students need to feel good about their achievements regularly in order to build the stamina it takes to master a difficult task. Offer up several categories to each student: academics, screen time, physical activity, wonder, etc. Have each student choose three categories and find one goal per category for the week. This helps promote a balanced person and increases the chances that the student will successfully reach at least one goal. Celebrate successes at the end of each week. Ask students to share what strategies worked for them.

For more ideas on helping your developing readers, watch this free webinar recording Support Struggling Readers Alongside Their Peers.

Regardless of your academic setting, children deserve to have all of these new strategies offered to them. The more opportunities for learning they have, the more likely they are to have learning stick. The priority is to build up confidence in students. Students who feel like they can learn (and they all can) will believe in the process. This means that all teachers and all students must believe that the full spectrum of literacy growth is possible for everyone. It is this overarching growth mindset that will transform your literacy practice.