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Read About Best Practices in Supporting Struggling Readers


This module explores struggling readers. Examine many aspects of struggling readers, including characteristics, the importance of small-group instruction, and instructional practices.

Struggling Readers

To identify who the struggling readers are, we must first identify what we know about successful readers. Successful readers:

  • Use context clues
  • Make connections
  • Ask questions
  • Look for inferred information while they read
  • Predict
  • Make notes in the margins of the text
  • Distinguish between important information and unimportant or interesting information
  • Summarize or paraphrase as they read to get the gist
  • Use descriptive words to make mental pictures in their heads (visualize)
  • Reread for specific information
  • Know when understanding has broken down
  • Know what to do to correct misunderstandings
  • Draw graphic organizers in the margins

We also must identify what is known about young students who are at a risk because many of these students are potential struggling readers. The following are indicators of students who might require intervention at a very early age (Strickland, Ganske, and Monroe, 2002). Consider children who:

  • Struggle with early language development
  • Have parents who struggled with reading when they were young
  • Have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Lack motivation to read
  • Live in poor neighborhoods
  • Have dyslexia
  • Are students in classrooms with ineffective best practices

From the second list, we can identify that struggling readers might have learning disability or learning impairment, such as dyslexia or ADHD. They might have grown up in homes where they were talked at, not to. In homes where meeting basic survival needs are overwhelming, literacy might not play an important role. Many readers who struggle do not like to read on their own, much less at school. They do not see themselves as readers; they see themselves as students who cannot read.Finally, struggling readers might have never been taught how to read. If instructional practices have centered on whole-group instruction and worksheets, and the student already has any one of the other mentioned problems, reading is likely to be a difficult task.

Common Areas of Weakness

Though it is difficult to place all students who struggle with reading into one category, many of them do labor with similar components of literacy. These include:

  • Comprehension
  • Higher-level-thinking questions
  • Vocabulary
  • Listening
  • Formal speaking (presentations, etc.)
  • Informal speaking (explaining their own thinking in small- and whole-group)
  • Communicating through written forms
  • Fluency and phrasing (Note: This is not always a problem with intermediate students. Many are good “word callers”. They might score well in informal reading but not understand what they read.)

Students might struggle with all these components or just a few. Since the connection between reading and writing is strong and intertwined, it is common for a struggling reader to also be a struggling writer.

Best Practices for Readers Who Struggle

Comprehensive literacy, including small-group instruction, is a best practice for all students. However, many intermediate classrooms continue to use whole-group instruction via the basal story as a basis for reading instruction. Think about the students in your classroom. How many of them can actually read and understand most of the text (on-grade-level students)? How many of them can read and understand all of the text (above-grade-level students)? How many of them cannot read and/or understand most of the text (below-grade-level students)? How can identical instruction meet all their needs? The answer is, of course, that it can’t!

What are best practices for readers who struggle? Best practices include (Allington, 2001):

  • Provide scaffolded instruction
  • Have more time during the day to read appropriate materials
  • Increase instructional time during the school day

Let’s look at these one by one.

1. Provide Scaffolded Instruction

This instruction is three-fold. First, the teacher clearly models a comprehension strategy during read-aloud and shared reading during whole-group instruction. She might decide to use the basal story as the read-aloud or the shared reading text. Next, students move into flexible small groups where they, together with the teacher, practice using the strategy with texts on their instructional levels. Finally, students are provided opportunities to use the strategy with independent texts.

View the following schedule to see how this type of scaffolded instruction assists readers who struggle.

Strategy Visualize
Read-Aloud 9:00–9:10 Select a trade book, such as Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. As you read, think aloud and model a particular comprehension strategy.
Shared Reading 9:10–9:30 Read a basal story together (which might take more than one day), continuing to model and think aloud.
Small Group 9:30–10:30 Meet with two groups a day. Each group has a different book that is on their instructional level. Meet with struggling readers 3–4 times a week, focusing on the selected reading comprehension strategy.
Independent Reading As groups meet with teacher, other students can do independent reading or additional literacy-based activities, such as writing or completing a graphic organizer for the comprehension strategy focus.

This schedule allows time for one strategy to be modeled twice, practiced with teacher assistance, and practiced independently.

How, specifically do we scaffold flexible small-group instruction? To understand this process, create a visual image of two ladders side by side and read the following scenario.

Ladder #1

I'm a 5th grader reading below grade level. You're my teacher. You're at the top of the ladder with the on-grade-level basal while I'm at the bottom. You want me to read the basal, or other on-grade-level materials. What do I have to do to reach you and those grade-level materials? (climb all of the rungs) What might you do to facilitate my learning? (read the text to me, put me in a group, and read it to all of us) What have I learned about the craft of reading? (Nothing. I might understand the story, but I still can't read any better now than I could before.)

Ladder #2

I'm that same 5th grader reading below grade level. You're my teacher. I'm at the bottom of the ladder and you know that, so you are going to choose a text which is on my instructional level so that I can practice what good readers do. I can access most of the text by myself, which leaves time for you to teach me good reading strategies. Instead of standing at the top of the ladder, you're going to stand in the middle of the ladder closer to where my needs are. Now what do I have to do to reach you? (climb only a few rungs at a time) What will you do to help me? (offer assistance as needed to understand and use the good reading strategies you are teaching me) What have I learned? (how to be a better reader) I notice that as I climb the ladder, you climb the ladder until one day I'm at the top of the ladder with other on-grade-level students in my class.

2. Have More Time During the Day to Read Appropriate Materials

If students are to become better readers, they must have the time to practice what good readers do with text. Unfortunately, school schedules and teachers’ views on reading instruction do not always allow for this best practice. Think about your classroom. How many minutes do students read during the day on their appropriate levels? Many classrooms have 30 minutes a day of reading from a basal or novel. Struggling readers might or might not be able to actually access this text for themselves, so they don’t even have 30 minutes a day. Students should be reading on their independent and instructional levels multiple times a day.

Materials on struggling readers’ frustration levels do not help them become better readers. Classrooms should be full of a variety of genres on multiple levels so all students have access to quality print.These books can come from the library, classroom libraries, donations, school bookrooms, and textbooks. They should include fiction and nonfiction. For classroom libraries, teachers should have a general idea about each book’s instructional reading level. Most publishing companies state the range of levels in their catalogs or will send the levels to schools or teachers. In order to be sensitive to students’ feelings, teachers can put a colored self-stick dot on each book, which correlates to a certain level. This method assures that students don’t know the book’s actual level.

Think about the reading material available for students in your classroom. Do you have materials for all reading levels represented in your classroom? If not, what can you do about it?

3. Increase Instructional Time During the Day

For most readers who struggle, one reading lesson per day is simply not enough. Incorporating a second reading lesson, either from the homeroom teacher or a reading specialist, might be in order for the students who struggle. Students who are pulled from the classroom should not miss instruction in other core content areas, nor should this extra lesson hinder the amount of reading time they actually have during the school day. These lessons work well for students who refuse to read independently or who struggle so much that independent reading is frustrating. Choral reading and reader’s theater are excellent lessons to conduct during this time.

Quality instruction can also occur before and after the regular school day. Often called “extended day,” these lessons should be very explicit and focused. Lesson components include reading, responding to what is read, and reading strategies mini-lessons. For students who take standardized tests, extended-day lessons can teach test-taking skills. Though important, these skills should not be the focus of a year’s worth of extended-day lessons. Students succeed on standardized tests when they are taught how to be better readers, not better test-takers.

Instructional Practices

The use of best practices is only as good as the instruction that follows. The following are instructional practices that enhance best practices:

  • Developing Fluency
  • Word Study
  • Developing Comprehension with Nonfiction

Developing Fluency

Reading fluency (Harris and Hodges, 1995) is “freedom from word identification problems that might hinder comprehension in silent reading or the expression of ideas in oral reading.” Many readers struggle with decoding to the point at which comprehension breaks down. Along with decoding, phrasing can also be an issue for struggling readers. They tend to skip punctuation marks, read with a monotone voice, and read too quickly. One sentence simply blends into another sentence. Students who read in this manner do not see themselves as good readers. To them, reading is a chore, not an enjoyable learning event.

The chart below identifies desired words per minute for oral reading fluency.

Grade Level Fall Winter Spring
1     60
2 53 78 94
3 79 93 114
4 99 112 118
5 105 118 128

*Adapted from Hasbrouck, J. E. and Pindal, G. “Curriculum-Based Oral Reading Fluency Norms for Students in Grades 2–5.” Teaching Exceptional Children, 24, 41–44.

Teachers can help students develop fluency:

  • Model how good readers sound using read-alouds.
  • Use appropriate leveled text for choral readings.
  • Reread texts, and after practice, read the selection aloud to a small group or the whole class.
  • Use reader’s theater or scripts/plays.
  • Use repeated readings with pairs of students timing each other’s repeated readings. This activity allows students to see improvement over time. Each child has his own chart that shows words per minute for each reading. Teachers can assess fluency by using a fluency rubric.

Below is a sample of a quality reader's theater script for struggling readers in third and fourth grades (from Cesar Chavez Comes to Visit by Candice Kramer; published by Benchmark Education Company, 2003). Notice that this script has five characters within a second grade range of early second (18) to middle second grade (24). This text allows for a variety of students on different reading levels.

Players and corresponding reading levels:

Mrs. Nickels level 24/L

Cesar Chavez level 24/L

Jimmy level 20/L

Beth level 18/L

Emily level 18/L

Mrs. Nickels: Class, let’s all say hello to Mr. Chavez.

All: Good morning, Mr. Chavez.

Cesar Chavez: Good morning, children! I am very happy to be here today. You know, being the child of migrant workers is not easy. My family lost our farm when I was 10 years old. Then we had to work for other people.

Jimmy: You used to own your own farm? Like my family does?

Cesar Chavez: That’s right. My family farmed in Arizona for more than 50 years. But times got very hard for us when I was a boy. We lost our land. That’s when we moved to California.

Beth: Why were things so hard?

Cesar Chavez: During the 1920s and 1930s, jobs were very hard to find. Many people were poor and hungry. Many people lost their homes and farms. Many children like me had to work to help their families.

Emily: Did you go to school?

Notice Beth and Emily’s lines. They are a little easier and shorter compared to the other parts. However, their lines play an important role in the storyline. Cesar Chavez’s lines, on the other hand, are on a level 24 and are longer and more difficult. Some of his sentences are short and others are longer. This is a perfect place to teach phrasing and intonation.

Remember, fluency is not always a problem for struggling readers. Many students read with great fluency and accuracy. However, they do not comprehend what they read. To determine if fluency is a problem for a struggling reader, complete an oral reading record. Ask yourself: Is he reading with phrasing and intonation? Is he automatically decoding most words? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then comprehension is an issue, not fluency. If the answer to both questions is “no,” then fluency is a concern. However, if fluency is an issue, it is safe to say that comprehension will be, too.

Instructional Practices

Word Study

When teaching word study, teachers help students learn to recognize and spell words and learn how to identify what words mean in context.

Recognize and Spell Words

Good readers understand how words work—how they are put together. Struggling readers do not understand how words work. They probably do not see connections between words such as make and take. They also might not understand the various forms of vowel sounds and how these might be spelled. Traditional spelling programs study one pattern a week or a unit. A more constructive way to approach this problem with struggling readers is to compare and contrast two or more vowel sounds such as long a and short a. To help struggling readers with these problem, teachers might choose to work on riming patterns and comparing words through word sorts.

The list below contains 10 common rimes.

  • -ake
  • -ame
  • -eam
  • -ink
  • -ight
  • -ock
  • -oke
  • -op
  • -ump
  • -unk

Teachers can choose a rime a week and use the following lesson plan. The lesson is based on the rime –ight.

  1. Write –ight on a piece of chart paper and say the sound several times. Have students repeat it as well.
  2. Have students think of other words that end in –ight and write them on the chart paper.
  3. Next, identify the meanings of each word and have students read the list with you.
  4. Use a new rime on the next day.

Word Sorts

The following lesson identifies one way to sort long and short a words. Prepare index cards with six words that have a long a sound and six words that have a short a sound. The words do not have to follow the same spelling pattern, but they can if the teacher chooses. Sample words include:

Long a Short a
weight black
make gnat
flake back
mail class
they fast
  1. Make sure the students can sound out the words and identify their meanings.
  2. Tell the students they are going to sort the words by sound.
  3. Lay down one of the long a words on one side of the table and a short a word on the other side of the table. These words will be the anchor words which students will use to sort the remaining words. Read these 2 words again.
  4. Show one card at a time and ask students under which anchor word they think the words go.
  5. Sort the words.
  6. Finally, have students try to identify the sound pattern and spelling pattern if applicable.

Identify What Words Mean in Context

Struggling readers might also struggle with determining the meanings of unfamiliar words in context. There are several activities that can build word meaning, including word maps, pedestal words, and list-group-label.

Word Maps

A word map is an interactive way to help students understand vocabulary. Mapping applies to both fiction and nonfiction texts and works best when completed in small or whole group. Word maps can be used before, during, and after reading.

Sample lesson

  1. Draw a blank word map on chart paper or the blackboard. Fill in the center rectangle with the unknown word.
  2. Discuss the questions that a definition should answer:
    What is it?
    What is it like?
    What are some examples of it?
  3. Model how to use the map by selecting a vocabulary word you have already defined (such as raptor).
  4. Select another familiar vocabulary word and help students as they volunteer information for the map. Don’t hesitate to use a dictionary or glossary for information to complete the map.
  5. For more in-depth study with students in grades 4 and 5, help students identify antonyms for the word to define what a word is by what it is not.


From “Learning to Learn: Vocabulary in Context Area Textbooks” by Robert Schwartz, Journal of Reading, November 1988, IRA.

Instructional Practices

Pedestal Words

Pedestal words are best used before reading to help students become more familiar with a topic chosen for a small-group reading book or content area unit. However, information learned from pedestal words can be used after reading for a writing activity. This is a good way to teach vocabulary and the difference between what is important versus what is interesting.

1. Choose a concept, theme, or word to be studied.

2. Place the concept, theme, or word in the top box.

3. List 3 examples of the word in the boxes below the top box.

4. Underneath the examples, identify three characteristics of each example.

For example, your class is going to study earthquakes. You choose the phrase natural disasters to place in the top box. Help students identify the meaning of disasters by first having them tell what they know about them. Then identify a definition. Next analyze the word natural. Determine that natural is from the base word nature. Discuss nature and what they know about nature. The original term, then, must have to do with disasters that occur in nature. Ask: What natural disasters can you think of? Since you are discussing earthquakes in the unit, make sure that an earthquake is one of the natural disasters identified. From the natural disasters which students identify, choose three (including earthquakes) and place them in the three boxes below natural disasters. Finally, create small heterogeneous groups of 3 to 4 students. Instruct the students to complete the chart by writing at least three things that they know about the three identified natural disasters. Students should use a variety of texts that they can access. Then have them transfer their work onto a large piece of chart paper. When students have completed the assignment, have one person from each group share his group's work with the rest of the class.



This activity can also be used before reading to build vocabulary and categorize words. This activity can be difficult for readers who struggle, so it should be completed in small groups with much teacher support.

1. Ask students to list all the words they can think of related to ____ (major concept or theme of the text). Words are written on chart paper.

2. Group the words by looking for things they have in common.

3. Once words are grouped, decide on a label for each group.

The first several times this activity is completed, alter the steps:

1. Ask students to list all the words they can think of related to ____ (major concept or theme of the text). Words are written on chart paper.

2. Model how to look through the words and decide on a label for each group. Write labels on a separate piece of chart paper.

3. Have students decide which words fall under which label.

(Adapted from Words, Words, Words by Janet Allen, 1999.)

Sample: You are a fifth grade teacher and have chosen a small-group reader, fourth grade leveled text entitled The Solar System. Ask the group to think of words which have something to do the solar system. Write the list on chart paper. Using these words, help students see commonalities and group the words accordingly. From this list, groups might be all planets, all planets and other things that float in outer space, traveling through space, and TV shows. Once groups have been created, help students identify a label for each group. Labels might be Planet Names, Space Bodies, Space Travel, and Media.

Solar System Words











Space travel

Star Trek


Deep Space Nine

Developing Comprehension with Nonfiction

Nonfiction texts typically present more of a challenge to readers who struggle than fiction texts. Nonfiction requires students to take text apart (analyze) and then put it back together in some meaningful way (synthesize). Using graphic organizers is one way to help struggling readers develop a sense of confidence when reading nonfiction texts.

Graphic Organizers

Below is a lesson on making inferences using a graphic organizer. Notice the teacher think aloud as she decides what should happen within the lesson.

I knew my students were having trouble with making inferences. I had modeled it several times during read-aloud and shared reading, and we had worked on it during small-group instruction. However, they were not able to transfer this strategy to independent reading. I decided I wasn't being explicit enough during small-group instruction. I created a graphic organizer and anticipated doing more modeling. (This lesson is from Conquering Mount Everest by Jackie Glassman; published by Benchmark Education Company, 2002.)

Chapter Inferences Clues/Evidence
2 Climbing Mount Everest is
a dangerous hobby.
1. Deep crevasses in the ice
open and close.
2. At top of mountain, there
is 1/3 as much oxygen as
at sea level. It is harder to
3 The Sherpas are a people of
strong religious beliefs.
1. Sherpas thought that the
mountain was holy.
2. Stones with Buddhist
prayers written on them
line Everest’s trail.
5 Events that happen while
climbing a mountain can be


I modeled how to make inferences using a think-aloud for chapters 2 and 3. To see how well my students could make inferences, I had them find the evidence/clues to support the inference I identified in chapter 5. They did this part of the small-group lesson in pairs. We discussed their thinking when they completed the lesson. I asked them questions, such as "Does your evidence match the inference? How can you tell? If your evidence doesn't match the inference, what made you decide it was a clue?" From this lesson, I can then decide what to do with these students the next time we meet. If they do well, I might have them practice more of the same type of inference where I indicate the inference, and they provide the evidence/clues. Or if I feel very strongly that they understand, I might provide evidence/clues and have students determine an inference.Finally, students would receive a blank graphic organizer with only the chapters or page numbers indicated. They are responsible for identifying the inferences and evidence/clues to support them.

By asking students these questions, we probe deeper into their thinking. With this information, we can correct misunderstandings or misinterpretations.