11 Tips for Teachers Helping Struggling Readers

by Lori Zaino

32 percent of fourth-grade students aren’t able to read at a basic level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This means that three out of every 10 students conservatively may struggle with reading in the US. Many of these students may also have a language-based learning disability or difficulty such as dyslexia which can make things even more complicated when it comes to literacy.

If you’re a teacher, it’s likely you have at least a few struggling readers in your class. Or maybe you’re a tutor that specializes in helping individuals with dyslexia. Either way, using the right approach can help these students master the science of reading. In this article, we’ll offer up some key tips for best instructing not only struggling readers or those with language-based learning difficulties but also help any student master the science of reading.

1. Utilize multisensory learning

The best way to drive literacy skills home is through instruction appealing to all the senses. Using movement, touch, sound, and sight to teach reading can assist students who learn in different ways, as well as reinforce skills for dyslexic learners. For example, instead of just reading a letter sound aloud, students can trace the letter in the air, in sand, use letter magnets, cut out the shape of a letter, all while seeing the letter and hearing and repeating the sound it makes. This is one of the key elements behind the Orton-Gillingham Approach, known as the Gold Standard for teaching reading to any student, struggling or not.

2. Be a prescriptive-diagnostic teacher

While this is best done during tutoring sessions, it’s still possible to apply a prescriptive-diagnostic approach when teaching a group of students, too. Basically, this means you need to identify what the students are struggling with during a lesson, and plan to implement reinforcement or address any weaknesses in the next lesson. 

Moving on to the next topic before the current one is fully understood will cause issues down the line, and students can easily fall behind, become discouraged, and end up struggling further. 

Implementing this approach may mean that your students need to read aloud, and you need to track errors, set accuracy goals, and complement and praise strengths or achievements. If students aren’t fully grasping or mastering a specific skill/part of a skill, you’ll need to make sure to address and fix that during your next lesson before moving on.

3. Create assessment-driving instruction methods

Frequent assessment (both formal and informal) goes hand-in-hand with prescriptive-diagnostic instruction. It’s important to constantly evaluate and focus future instruction on what students struggle with. Using the right kinds of assessment methods will help you determine what future lessons should look like.

Assessments should be frequent and thorough in order to stay on top of what your students may be having trouble with. This way, you can target the problem head on. One way to assess your students’ levels and gauge progress is with phonemic awareness testing which includes both blending together and separating words into segments. Another is testing on high frequency words that may be trickier for your students. Make sure to incorporate any missed words or concepts in future lessons, of course.

4.  Spelling assessment

Spelling supports reading. Always have spelling and dictation as part of your lesson in order to assess if students can manipulate the skills that you have taught them.   

5. Start phonics early

When teaching phonics, don’t wait. Start off in kindergarten. Studies show that teaching reading, spelling, and general word recognition early on offers learners the most benefits. 

6. Use cloze activities

These fill-in-the-blank activities help learners decode words and write them. Make sure that the passage related to the activity is appropriate for your students’ reading levels and reflects the skills you have taught. Using phonics, prediction skills, and visual clues, your students will get used to this type of exercise and begin to master it.

7. Practice shared reading

Students can join in as they feel ready while you read a text and guide them through it. This won’t put kids on the spot, and they’ll feel comfortable and safe following your lead.

8. Reinforce sight words 

Sight words are words commonly found in children’s books that students can learn to recognize at first sight. Working to memorize these words will help learners recognize them in text, as well as build confidence and understanding in their reading.

9. Take a structured approach

All new information should sit on already learned concepts. Using this building block approach to reading allows students to constantly spiral back and review previously learned concepts while learning new ones at the same time.

10. Use categorization for vocabulary learning

Classifying and categorizing words can help learners with language-based learning disabilities or difficulties group words together and remember them based on their category. For young students, this may be as simple as colors or animals. For older learners, using more complicated categorization related to science or even words with prefixes, like ‘in’ or ‘de’ can help with retention. 

11. Individual/small group classroom instruction

We understand this can be difficult if you have a full class of students. But if you are able to take on breakout groups with the help of other instructors, do so. Many struggling readers feel safer and more confident within a small group, and this type of instruction is more effective as students often retain and benefit from hearing their classmates’ responses. They also may learn from teacher feedback, even when directed at other students. Small group instruction can be especially effective when teaching phonemic awareness.

For example, Orton-Gillingham was originally used in one-on-one instruction but has proved to work equally well with small groups as well as whole classroom learning. Well-trained OG practitioners can modify their lessons to accommodate all modes of instruction,  including within the virtual world that we are living in today.

What to help your students learn to read? The Orton-Gillingham Approach is a highly structured approach used to teach reading, spelling, and writing to all students. The approach uses many of the aforementioned tips and styles to help learners, specifically those with dyslexia learn to read. 

Training is the first piece of the Orton-Gillingham certification puzzle. Start with training, then apply for certification. For more information or to sign up for an Edwards Orton-Gillingham training course, click here

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