10 Ways to Help Struggling Readers in the Upper Elementary Classroom Part 1

bow tie guy and wife how to help struggling readers

Take a moment to think about reading from your struggling student's perspective. You have entered the age of "reading to learn". You are expected to be more independent. You feel more like a big kid and school is getting more difficult. You teacher is likely no longer teaching word patterns, phonics skills, and sight words. The days of coloring, crafts, and "fun activities" may even be dwindling. School is starting to feel less fun and you can't sound out your content vocabulary words. You can't read your science textbook. Your history timeline has words on it that you can't pronounce. Your friends are starting to make fun of you for not being able to read books as quickly as them and you are afraid of further exposing your inadequacy. School is getting harder by the day and your confidence is plummeting. 

At this point, it is our job as teachers to watch for students "telling on themselves". You know the looks and behaviors by now- eyes drifting, body language different from other children, acting out, being silly, sleeping, avoiding tasks, signs of apathy, frustration, and the list continues--this is their way of asking for help with nonverbal cues what their mouth doesn't know how to ask for (or was too ashamed to). 

Once a child is showing these symptoms and/or is identified as at-risk, I like to declare all out WAR on the problem. I make it my personal mission to pinpoint the issue, relate to the student, discover ways to encourage them, and then "prescribe" an action plan that I believe will work.

struggling readers

It is so frustrating to be in third, fourth, or fifth grade and not be able to read....and it gets even harder as the years go by. Once I've determined what they can't do, I have to work fast to figure out what they can do. After evaluating their strengths, I can use what they are good at to strengthen our trust. This gives them a confidence boost and helps them not fall into a mindset of learned helplessness. This is my covert way of letting them know that all problems have a solution and I'm going to help them with theirs. So, here are my top 10 ways to help struggling readers!

1-Test in a variety of ways to detect the problem/deficit and ensure that is exactly what is going on and it is not something else. I always used the Renaissance Place STAR reading test (purchased by our district to use quarterly), running records, fluency assessments, sight word inventories, and phonics checks. Often times the issue actually isn't a reading problem at all but a motivation or even instructional issue. Determining the gaps early on will save you time later. Repairing the holes and then beginning instruction where they need it is key.

2- Get busy encouraging and motivating that student on what they can do well, and really emphasize that. It goes without saying that the biggest mistake we can make is identifying a child for services too early. We never want to condemn a child to a permanent ceiling. No conclusions need to be drawn by the first quarter. By the upper grades, you need to figure out how coachable the child is, how motivated they are, and then have dialogue with the family. Ask them to give you tips, tricks, insight into why they believe the child is struggling, seek out what has worked in the past (and not), and then gather how involved the family will be in helping the child get over this hump.

3. Get the kid interested in books of ANY KIND! So what if they are "baby books"-brag on them for reading! Be on the lookout for other students comparing book levels, sizes of chapter books, and causing drama. Be sure to have classroom meetings about how all students learn differently and at different paces. The last thing this student needs is to feel shame when they are actually trying to read something. Do you have Rookie Readers in your classroom library? I've been using them for YEARS and they are amazing for students in upper grades who are struggling and reluctant readers. Many are out of print now, but you can find some on Amazon and be on the lookout at your local thrift stores. I love Rookie Readers because they have pictures and larger text for readability, short chunks of information on each page, and come in a HUGE range of nonfiction topics. You will be gently exposing them to a wide variety of information that they can appropriately digest- without the risk of them feeling threatened, overwhelmed, or confused. 

4. Make connections on a very basic human level with this child. Make the time to gain street credit with them. It will gain you time and efficiency later on, I promise, and besides, isn't that why we got into this profession anyway? This struggling student is already sensitive. Do what you can to share a weakness from your school career or childhood, or share about "someone you know who had trouble reading" and how they solved their problems and overcame their challenges. Direct them to someone like author Dav Pilkey who struggled learning to read and being diagnosed with ADHD as a young boy. 

5. Sight words, sight words, sight words-they are a must! With students who are already behind, giving them small victories each day is important. Remember that sight words make up at least half of any general text. If the struggling reader can get a handle on sight words and begin to feel comfortable with some of the words in books, this will motivate them to work harder to read all of the words! In my classroom, we would have our grade level no excuse sight words in an automated powerpoint that we would chant, cheer, dance, shout, and practice during small open gaps of time. I would typically have the entire class doing this so no one feels singled out and everyone can participate.

Check back next week to read the second half of this post with 5 additional suggestions for reaching your struggling readers in the upper grades classroom!