Sunday, September 23, 2012

Starting off with struggling readers

One of the hardest things about working with struggling intermediate readers is knowing where to begin. Listening to one running record may suggest five different issues to attack--each separate from the regular curriculum that still must continue to be taught. Students who might be reading at the same level still have very different strengths and needs. But all of them have to be able to cope with grade level text.

It can all seem very overwhelming at times. And it is! Here are some things that I've learned that are helping me to structure my time with these readers.

Mental models
What is the purpose of reading? By the time they reach fourth grade, some students still haven't been able to synthesize decoding the words with building a mental model. It's important to remind students that this is what we're here to do. But mental models can fail for a number of reasons--lack of attention, lack of vocabulary, lack of working memory capacity.

This week, I've started each lesson with some practice in building a mental model. I do this with a quick little imagination game. "Imagine that you are walking down a long aisle," I said. "You are pushing a metal cart. You are taking boxes off a shelf and putting them into the cart. Where are you?"

Of course this is a familiar scene, and most of them told their partners that they were imagining a supermarket or Walmart. I focused them back on their mental models and their use of background knowledge. "Now think about taking that box off the shelf," I said. "Look at the box. What is in it?" Some said cereal--which, of course is what I was thinking of. But listening to their responses was interesting. One student told his partner shoes, while another said chicken nuggets. When they shared, we talked about what words were in the scene that excluded these choices. (Chicken nuggets on a shelf? I'm not shopping there!)

Throughout the week, we did more little scenes, talking about the role that our background knowledge plays in each one. I also used the visualizing assessment texts that you can find here as instructional pieces.

Clicks and clunks
Once students understand building a working model, it's easy to introduce clicks and clunks. In the past, I've started with reviewing reading strategies like inferring, summarizing, synthesizing, and connecting. But the problem with these reading strategies is that they are just more words for the kids to remember. It works fine with on and above-grade level readers. For struggling readers, though, too much terminology can clog up the process.

This is why I love clicks and clunks. A "click" is something that a reader understands. A "clunk" is something that they don't understand.  It takes only two minutes for kids to understand the words, and they start using them immediately. I introduced the concept with this graphic organizer and these two sentences:

I have tall yellow flowers growing in my garden.

This was a click for the students. They could imagine it. (In fact, some of them have even seen my garden, as I live next to the middle school!)

I have green basil growing in my garden.

This was a clunk for almost all of the students. When I asked why it was a clunk, they were able to report immediately--they don't know the word basil. But I chose this sentence because I have basil in my garden outside and on the windowsill in my classroom. I directed their attention to look at the basil, and then said the sentence again. This time, the sentence was a click! We talked about how readers can solve problems in many different ways.

Fluency in small groups
Our school has an intervention period. Based on our benchmark assessment data, we have organized the students into small groups for fluency interventions. We have five people working with about 50 kids, which makes our groups a wonderful size. Repeated reading is a proven technique for improving fluency. However, repeated reading in a large class can get very loud. Having smaller groups makes best practices like choral reading, repeated reading, and retelling much easier to manage. And I can listen to kids read frequently without worrying about what the other 25 students are doing.

Carefully selected grade level text in manageable quantities
I have always worked on grade level text with readers of all abilities. (In fact, there is a section about it in the chapter about text-based inferencing in my book, The Forest and the Trees.) With struggling readers, I like to approach grade level text in smaller quantities, and on photocopied pages that students can write on. Even though I have enough copies of this book for my entire group, I've found that struggling readers just do better when they don't see the entire book at once.

After our work with clicks and clunks, we applied the strategy to the first chapter from Toys Go Out. I love this book for early fourth graders. It is a DRA 40, and it has a high inference load, but it is very forgiving. Readers have multiple chances to make an inference, and the story is so concrete that they can build mental models easily. Several students quickly made the connection to Toy Story. As we read the first two pages, we discussed our clicks and clunks

It's important for intermediate readers to know that there are some parts of a story that are meant to be mysterious. The students grew increasingly impatient with the character of Plastic. "What is Plastic?" one boy asked, taking the book from my desk to look at the cover. What's neat about this question is that the author meant for this to be a mystery, and Plastic's identity is revealed in the next chapter.

Have someone to talk you off the ledge
Working with struggling readers is hard. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. We all want our students to improve quickly. But struggling readers often have unexpected growth patterns. They may improve in one area, but worsen in another. They may flatline for several months. They may do beautifully on a skill with teacher direction, but fail to apply the strategies on their own. It's important to find someone who can talk you through these ups and downs and help you to find the bright spots. At my school, I'm lucky to co-teach with a special educator.

And the brightest of bright spots are often the students themselves. When working with struggling readers, it's most important to get to know the readers themselves. I use the data to help me make plans for my students...but then I try to forget about the data while I'm working with the students. We had so much fun reading the first chapter of Toys Go Out together and laughing about StingRay's mistaken ideas about a vet. Yes, it's hard, but it's also rewarding.


  1. Hi Emily,
    I teach fourth grade too and am always searching to find ways to reach the struggling reader. I question myself constantly: Is it decoding? Is it vocabulary? Prior knowledge? There is so much involved with reading that the first step must be to excite these students to read. Your choice of books must do that for your students. I'm excited to take a look at Toys Go Out! I really enjoyed this post.

    1. Isn't it fascinating how every struggling reader is so different? Do check out Toys Go Out..we read Chapter 2 today and the kids loved it!

  2. Emily-
    This post is so helpful on so many levels. :) I teach an intervention class for high schoolers with a reading level anywhere from 1st-8th grade and it is important for me to have that support system when working with struggling readers. So many people don't understand that these readers are not going to suddenly be on grade level after only a year of intervention if they are reading at a 2nd grade level! Thanks for your candor. :)

  3. I love the clicks and the clunks idea and how you set the stage for readers to determine on their own what a click and clunk is! I'm going to tweet and share this on the Scientific Learning website (Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant).

    Hallie Smith, SLP

  4. This post really helped me. More than half of my class is below grade level this year (no idea why I have so many.) So I was worried about this. I'm going to use your suggestions to help get me started with them.

    1. Nikki, good luck with your struggling readers. Write to me at elkissn at if you need anything!