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Seeking Help for a Struggling Reader: Seven Steps for Teachers

By: Joanne Meier and Karen Freck (2005)

As Mrs. Templeton's first graders come to the carpet for a shared reading experience, she notices once again what a diverse group of children she has in her class this year. They are diverse in every way: cultural background, height, gregariousness, cognitive abilities, and experiences with literacy.

Six of her children come from homes where English is not the first language; these children are all learning English at varying rates. Four of her children read so well that they are ready for a Frog and Toad book discussion group. Seven of them do not know all of the letters of the alphabet yet.

Mrs. Templeton is particularly concerned about three of the children, and she wonders about having them tested for special education services. Jacob seems to know how to decode words, but is unable to understand anything he has read. Carla still needs a great deal of work with letters and sounds, and Kim has trouble recognizing rhymes and beginning sounds.

She believes that it is a wonderful class and she cannot wait to get started with each and every one of them.

What should you or Mrs. Templeton do to help the struggling readers in your class? The following are seven suggested steps to take:

1. Get to know the student

Find out the interests of your struggling readers and incorporate those into your teaching strategies and the materials you select. For example, a child who loves outer space will be more interested in a book about astronauts than a book about butterflies. A child who loves basketball may be motivated to read the kids sports section of the newspaper.

Using past records or the student's cumulative folder, find out more about the student's history of school success. Has the student struggled all along, or is this a sudden change? Has the child's vision and hearing been assessed? Has the student ever been found eligible to receive special education or early intervention services?

2. Get to know the family

Helping a child learn to read is a community effort, and sometimes it requires sensitivity on the part of the teacher. Reaching families whose first language is not English may require some special accommodations, like a translator present at meetings and materials sent home in their first language.

In addition to home language, consider the families' work schedule. When trying to arrange a meeting, be sensitive to busy schedules of working parents. Consider holding conferences and meetings at various times – before school, in the afternoon, and on weekends.

3. Encourage good literacy habits at home

Support family reading time by allowing students to borrow books overnight or for a few days. Be sure to send home books that the student can be successful with. During your meetings with the parents of a struggling reader, remind them that daily shared reading is a critical part of literacy growth.

Point out that when students see that reading and writing is part of everyone's life, they will become more motivated to join in the fun. Offer suggestions to parents for fun, easy things they can do at home that support literacy development. For example, encourage playing with magnetic letters or big letters cut out from a magazine. Remind them to talk to their child all the time. For example, they could start a dinner time routine of telling stories about their family, their favorite teacher, or something from their childhood.

4. Tap into the specialists and resources in your own building

Schools are loaded with resources; make sure to use them to help you! Schedule some time to discuss your struggling student with the speech/language pathologist. Find out what suggestions this colleague can offer you.

Meet with your reading specialist. Does your school offer any early intervention programs for struggling readers or support programs for older striving readers? What sort of assessment tools does your reading specialist have that might shed some light on why the child is having difficulty with reading?

Special education teachers have a wealth of knowledge regarding teaching, dyslexia, learning disabilities, and the special education process. Not only can this individual provide appropriate materials and share ideas and methods, but he or she can also enlighten you regarding your school's referral process, student rights, and your own rights and responsibilities.

Chances are other teachers in your building are working with struggling readers, too. Find out what resources have been successful for them. For example, is the book you're using for reading groups on tape? Can this tape be sent home with the student? Have other teachers already created graphic organizers for the content you are now teaching?

5. Reflect on your own research-based teaching

Good beginning reading instruction teaches children how to identify words, to understand what they read, to achieve fluency, and to develop a love of reading that will motivate them and stay with them for the rest of their lives. It is systematic and it integrates instruction in both comprehension and decoding (the ability to sound out words) to provide children the experiences they need.

Most importantly, good reading instruction is tailored to the individual needs of students. If you are concerned about your level of training in an area of teaching reading, seek out some professional development. Talk to your team leader and principal about workshops and classes that could help you understand how to integrate the five components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension) into your daily instruction.

6. Advocate for the student through school-based and outside resources

Many schools have a tutoring program in place for struggling readers. Tutoring often takes place before or after school and can involve teachers, assistants, or community volunteers. Find out what is available within your building and get involved. If nothing exists within your building, encourage the family to seek out outside resources at a research university, for example, or private tutoring clinics or private reading specialists.

7. Stay informed

Whether you're new to the profession or an expert teacher, it's important to keep current with what's going on in the fields of reading and special education. There are several excellent web sites and professional resources that will help you meet the needs of your students, including the following:

Karen Freck is a learning disabilities advisor for Reading Rockets. Joanne Meier, Ph.D. is Reading Rockets' research consultant.

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