Every middle school teacher realizes this within the first few days of their very first classroom. They have lots of great readers, and a few expert readers. And then they have a few struggling readers.
There could be several reasons for this, but at the end of the day, the teacher needs to figure out the best, most meaningful ways to reach those struggling readers. And that teacher also needs to remember that every child is different, so each struggling reader could use different tools than the others to get on track.
In this article, I will show you the best of the many techniques that teachers use to help their struggling readers find their footing and discover a love for reading. We will cover these points:
- Choose their favorite topics.
- Dig deeper to find their learning styles.
- Speak to their parents about what they have learned works well.
- Implement some new concepts once you know what does work well.
- Have extra methods to back up the points you really want to communicate.
- Find out what their strengths are and add snippets of them to your reading program.
- Back up just a little bit in their reading level to find their comfort zone.
- Once you find their comfort zone, read more instead of less.
- Compliment every step they make in the right direction.
- Ask them, "If you could do anything in your reading class, what would it be?"
So now that we have the bare bones tackled, let's take a look at how each one actually works to help your struggling readers.
Table of Contents
1. Choose Their Favorite Topics
I do realize that we can't choose one or two students' topic choices above the rest of the class. But especially as the year goes on, you will be able to find several ideas that work well for the majority of your students that will also work especially well for the interests of the students that need a bit more reading encouragement.
What you can do first is find a topic that you know will work with the vast majority of your class. Then choose a few books that you know they will really latch onto. I actually wrote a list of ten of the most well-loved books for middle schoolers. In that list I also included a good size description of each book. You can access that article by clicking here.
I know that for the vast majority of middle schoolers I taught, their two favorite topics were fantasy novels (especially if a movie had been made) and books that allowed them to relate to the characters on their level (struggles, strengths, weaknesses, family issues, culture, etc.). There is no shortage of those kinds of books to choose from!
One thought regarding this step is to choose a book that has plenty of program material available to draw from unless you plan to formulate your curriculum from the ground up. Of course, the most popular books are going to have the most resources online and in stores to build your reading program with.
2. Dig Deeper to Find Their Learning Styles
This step actually doesn't take too much digging to figure out. A couple of casual conversations with them and a couple of classroom sessions using several different learning styles should be just about all you need to discover their primary learning styles. The vast majority of students that struggle in reading find more help in visual and tactile areas. The biggest reason for this is because those two styles use multiple senses at a time. That allows them to multiply their ability to take in the information.
There is an article here on Complete Literature that goes into more detail about the Seven Styles of Learning. It also includes a great printable chart that you can use to record the strengths of each of your students. This will make it easier to decide which types of learning styles you should use most in your current classroom. You can access that article by clicking here.
3. Speak to Their Parents About What Can Work Well
In the vast majority of cases, nobody knows more about your students than their parents. Add to that the fact that the issues your struggling readers are currently having did not just spring up in time for them to be in your class. So chances are the parents have already had this discussion before. There may also be some medical or other issues that they can shed light on for you. And they will most likely be able to give you some tried and true ways to work with their children.
They will most likely also be able to tell you how far their child has come along with the help they have received thus far. And that can help you formulate how you can help those students continue to improve. Thus, hopefully by the end of the year, you could be able to help your struggling readers to actually be just about caught up with the rest of the class. At the very least, they will be caught up to where their own best reading ability will be.
I do want to note here that we can never expect all students to be all things. There may be some students that for whatever reason never get to the level of the other students. And we must be careful to not do anything that could discourage them and cause them to give up. I will have more on that in point 9 below!
Anyway, to conclude this point, just keep in mind that the parents can almost always be a wealth of information to you in lots of ways.
4. Implement Some New Concepts Once You Know What Works Well
Once you start to see your struggling readers' eyes light up at certain activities that you do, it will be much easier to implement those types of things into your program. This works with all of your subjects, and not just reading.
Let's say your students need more visuals to drive a point home. Just google and print up a few extra papers with concrete examples of the lesson for them. Then allow them to actually hold the papers and talk about the connections they are making. With just that one exercise (which works for every subject you teach), you just used most of their senses: sight of what was on the paper, sound of discussion regarding how they apply it, touch with the paper and possibly whatever was on it, maybe even the smell of the paper or ink. Believe it or not, there will be some students whose sense of smell is that strong. I was actually one of those kids. And it still drives my own kids crazy to this day!
If you have struggling readers that are more activity driven, you could do some hand motion activities that drive some points home. And then you could follow up with a P.E. class that emphasizes some of the activities in the book, but through a game, race, or other physical activity.
This is if you actually teach P.E. to your middle schoolers. I realize many schools have dedicated P.E. teachers as well. And in that case, maybe you can talk to them about somehow collaborating their program with yours to tie in perfectly!
There are endless possibilities for adding concepts to your classes. And that is actually a wonderful thing! (Now if we could figure out how to make enough time to fit everything!)
5. Have Extra Methods to Back Up the Points You Really Want to Communicate
This works exactly the same way as catering to the five senses at once. Except that now it is exponential. For each of the methods you use, you can be using multiple senses. Thus you can end up with dozens of little trails back to the point you are trying to make!
Putting This to the Test
For example, you could start your reading class with a snack that is somehow related to the chapter(s) you are going to read in class. It could be a specific food that was mentioned, or something related to the culture or time period. So in this case, you have already catered to the senses of sight, smell, taste, and probably touch.
Next, you may have a dramatic reading of the passage you are using. That will appeal to their sense of sight (reading) and sound (recording). You could also have the students do the dramatic reading, depending on their level of reading proficiently. Obviously, the older the grade, the better the ability to really make the drama stand out.
Next you could do a related game. That can use most of the senses as well, depending on the game. In order to keep in step with the theme, it can be a game that was played in the chapter, or a game that would be appropriate for the setting/time period of the book.
And for one final project of the day, your art class can be a related theme to their reading as well as the art concept you are teaching. This uses most of the senses as well (but make sure they aren't tasting the paint!).
How It All Stacks Up
So for the examples I just gave, there were up to 18 senses used. That is a whole lot of application that can drive home your points. And because you were able to tie some of the activities in with other subjects, it wasn't expanding on class time that you are already short on to start with.
And it is this constant reinforcement that allows you to help your struggling readers to make the connections that they need to that will allow them to progress. Because most of these activities are things that middle schoolers love, you're not only growing their knowledge base, you are satisfying their need to be reached in multiple ways simultaneously.
6. Find Out What Their Strengths Are and Add Snippets to Your Reading Program
This was sort of covered in the fifth point. You chose the activities above based on the senses that appeal to your students the best.
But this step goes a little bit farther in that it allows you to choose specifics in your themes or projects based on your students' preferences or experience.
To be more specific, you could choose certain books to read based on the strengths or weaknesses of your students. You would also choose specific crafts, foods, games, or whatever other flexible details you can change based on the needs of your class.
I do want to emphasize at this point, that while you are choosing activities that you know will be more helpful to your struggling readers, you also want to make sure you are covering the needs and interests of the majority of your class at the same time. Sometimes that looks like circles. Or you could have an assistant come in to help the students that need a bit more attention.
If you do not have the resources for an assistant, I know of schools that have parents that are able to volunteer for a couple of hours weekly. The kids generally love having one of their parents come in to see what is going on in school. And you can usually easily find enough parents to enjoy doing this a couple or few times a year, which allows you to have some help just about weekly.
7. Find Their Reading Comfort Zone
It is generally best, especially at the beginning of the year, to back up enough to help struggling readers to be in a comfortable reading zone.
If they aren't afraid that the level is too much for them, they will be more willing to read in class or to contribute to discussion or other parts of class that encourage their participation.
Making them feel confident enough to participate actively in class will do wonders for how far they are comfortable pushing themselves when the concepts become harder.
Between this confidence and the fun they are having with projects that reinforce what they are learning, you are already miles ahead of exclusively academic reading projects. It may seem like you are foregoing academics for play. But as the year progresses, you'll see the difference it made in how much more the whole class has retained.
8. Read More Instead of Less
Once you have been able to help your struggling readers find their comfort zone in reading, you can encourage them to read more instead of less. Generally speaking, as they gain their confidence, they will be eager to read more. You can start by having them read in small groups. Be careful not to make an obvious group of struggling readers that get pulled aside from the rest of the class. You will undo any encouragement that you had given them if they feel like they are being set aside.
One of the ways I was able to do this with my students was to remind everyone that they all have strengths and they all have weaknesses. And one of the main points of school is to grow stronger in the things we are learning.
Once the kids see this in action, they will feel comfortable working on those things that they find hard in classroom life.
And that is where reading more comes into play. The more the read, the more confident they will become in reading. And they will get better by default. Win win for all!
9. Compliment Every Step They Make in the Right Direction
This may be the biggest way you can help your struggling reader to succeed! If they constantly feel overwhelmed by what they are trying to learn and never feel like they can master the material, they will have absolutely no desire to continue to try. So it is our job as teachers to motivate them. And the best way to motivate them is to notice every time they make a step in the right direction.
The tiniest steps are probably even more important than the bigger ones. That is because they will never want to try to make those bigger steps without the victory seen in the smaller steps. And your confirmation of those little daily victories will play a huge part in their motivation to keep on moving along.
Before too long, you will be able to give them a pretty long list of what they have been able to get through. And when you help them to look back and see how far they have come, you will get the pleasure of watching their faces light up as they realize they can keep on going to bigger and better victories!
It is these moments that we get to savor as teachers and realize why we have chosen to work in this most demanding profession.
10. Ask Them What One Thing They Would Do
So, of course, be prepared for their initial answer to be something ridiculously crazy. You can have a great time dreaming about that with your struggling reader. Then you can ask them to seriously tell you what one "do-able" thing they would do if they could.
It could be something you have already done in class that they enjoyed so much they want to do it again. Or it could be something similar that they want to tweak. Or it could be something totally different. Maybe it is something that they did with their family. Or it could be something they did in a previous class. Finally it could be just something random that they came up with all by themselves.
And because of their creativity, you just got a totally awesome new idea for free without a whole bunch of research!
I realize this looks like a whole lot of information and very complicated to implement and keep abreast of. But once you start working with a lot of these concepts, you will find that they progress very naturally. And that will encourage and enable you to continue to implement them as you help your struggling readers to be the best readers they can be!
Please feel free to comment and tell me what concepts worked well that you have used to help your struggling readers.