Over and over in my educational experience I have had to sigh over some student who is now well into school but who is still struggling with reading. I am sure if you have taught for long, this has happened to you as well. This reality produces several problems for a class: pacing, discussion (the struggler will not open his mouth), assigning independent work, and other issues can be frustrating to the teacher and the struggling student. Many teachers thus ask, “How can I help a kid like this?”
Identifying the problem comes before the solution. There can be a number of possible issues at work that must be discerned and then dealt with according to the best wisdom available for each. The student may have had poor teaching prior to entering your class. He may have physiological or psychosomatic issues that need diagnosis and treatment, but I believe these are rarer than statistics might indicate. The student, especially if he is pubescent, may simply have an attitude that needs work. Teachers can definitely help with this, but it takes differing strategies than other issues. And lastly, the student may just not have enough training in reading and be falling behind due to lack of work. This last issue is the one I will deal with here. I will address others as I am able.
First, let’s cover what I don’t think you need:
We don’t need to start thinking that…
…reading is in need of machinery – man is not a machine, and neither is the process of thinking, which is why reading does not need to become a mechanistic endeavor. Many modern approaches seek to quantify reading ability when I believe a good teacher is a much better “measure” of good reading than any “objective” form of quantification.
…”new techniques” will solve reading problems. If anything, usually all that is needed is time, patience, and the few basic strategies one would use to teach a new reader to read.
…there is some magic program that will work wonders. There are great programs (read on) but most of them show a preference for what I just mentioned, giving plenty of time and patience toward proven exercises that teach a student to read fluently and well.
…what we need are specialists. I am not against folks specializing in the knowledge of teaching reading and reading remediation, but the average person can teach a child to read and can, with patience, help a struggling reader gain more ability.
Okay, with the negatives out of way, what do we need to do with a student who is struggling? Reading has three distinct acts, according to Aristotle, though he applied it to all of thinking and I chose to bring it down the level of simply reading:
1. Apprehension of terms – here the student is taught how to form words from symbols that have meaning. The more distinct and unambiguous those terms, the more clearly they will apprehend a thought from the letter symbols.
2. Judgment – this comes when the student begins to put together words into sentences and then judge the idea convey by that sentence’s subject and predicate.
3. Reasoning – finally the student begins combining sentences into a thought process that is comparing various sentences to each other to grasp new ideas.
Many theorists today put these forth in different and distinct terms: decoding, fluency, and comprehension. I believe this is a focus on means rather than the ends of the acts of reading. It is much easier to approach Aristotle’s view of reading and seek to provide the student who is struggling with work in phonics and vocabulary, practice hearing and producing the music of fluently read sentences, and developing the necessary questions reasoning demands.
If your struggling student just cannot sound the letters that make up the words, then he needs to go all the way back to square one and learn phonics or at least greatly sharpen weak skills in such. I will not at this time bite off the big bite of comparing all the many programs available for such. But the point would be that there are a large number of resources to teach phonics in the context of reading. Research bears out the old notion that all language acquisition should be “in context” rather than separated into lists and meaningless drills. One great study is Cantrell, S.C. (1999). Effective teaching and literacy learning: A look inside primary classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 52, 4, 370-378. Cantrell showed the following results between in context and out of context language instruction:
Stanford 9 Skills taught in context Skills taught out of context
Comprehension 67 41
Word analysis 47 37
Spelling 66 38
Language 76 36
This implies that reading “works” rather than disconnected sentences is going to bear better fruit more consistently. It also brings up questions about a lot of the “efficient” means we use in schools today: vocab lists, spelling lists, word lists, etc. I believe reading complete stories and ideas are much better than “reader basals.” Dare I mention that kids much prefer to read such as well?
Once you have your student able to “decode” or apprehend the terms, you must work on his ability to string those bad boys together into sentences. I cannot overstate the role played here by listening to good reading, and practicing reading by the student. Teacher must read to student well, for manageable stretches, from a variety of sources, most of which are well beyond their ability. The teacher must gently coach the student through his own reading, making him read rightly, no matter how slowly. Most kids will want to rush forward to get done and need someone slowing them down.
But you are not done after hours and hours of getting them to read fluently, you must move ahead, or continue to make them ask questions of their text. I am convinced that many teens have been trained only in the first two acts and then the third gets left behind and they will read a paragraph, look you right in the eye, and say, “I don’t get it.” At this point many teachers mistakenly start trying to fill up the student’s head with information to get them to get it. That is not the problem. The issue has been they don’t know what questions to ask to get the information out of what they were reading. I think Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book, is far and away the best work to help with this.
To summarize, a struggling student needs to gain ability in reading words, which then become sentences, and finally thoughts. The best means to these ends is one on one, deliberate, impassioned, patient reading with the student by a teacher who loves to read. I think it really is that simple.
Even though I believe a quiet spot by a fire with a strong reader helping coach a weaker one is the best means, many folks will want to find help/resources. The following are some that I know have good reputations:
Give me a heads up if you know of other programs, or if one of these has not been up to its billing.