*This post contains affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy for more information.
Welcome back to 10 Things Struggling Readers Need, a 10-week series! If you’re joining me for the first time today, please click HERE or on the image above for more posts in this series.
The students I tutored read texts that I provided during our tutoring sessions, but many times I’d use their “independent”/homework texts from school as a read aloud (to the student). Most of the time this was done because their “independent” texts were not on their independent level. Usually they were borderline frustration level.
I remember clearly in one session, a student handed me the book he was to read independently (a.k.a. all by himself) from school called A Door In the Wall. As I began reading this Newberry Award winning book, I was quickly made aware of the fact that this book was hard for even me to understand (lots of vocabulary from the middle ages). I stopped after the first paragraph and asked the student,
Me: How are you reading this at school? With your teacher or by yourself? I was utterly astonished by his answer.
Student: I’m supposed to read a chapter each night for homework and then I’m given a little quiz the next day on what I’ve read.
Me: Hmmm, how are you doing on your quizzes?
Student: Not too good. I haven’t passed one, yet. And my parents aren’t too happy with me either.
I went on to ask if he understood what he was reading or had teacher given him any help with the text, hoping he’d had at least a lesson or two on the middle ages or the history of the Christian church. Nothing. WHAT?!? This child was already a struggling reader and lacked motivation! Why was he given a book that his own mother had trouble comprehending (when I read a paragraph out loud to her) as his “independent” book? Motivation…trampled.
Struggling Readers Need Support Before Reading
This was such a good reminder for me that struggling readers need to be scaffolded (supported) in order to be able to read and comprehend with confidence.
While there are many areas in which readers need to be supported, I want to focus on two; which are VERY much related: 1) building background or prior knowledge and 2) vocabulary. While struggling students of all ages need support, I’d like to zero in on students in the upper elementary grades; because sometimes even the students who do well in the lower grades hit a reading “slump” in the upper grades (I’ve heard it called “the fourth grade slump”). I think there’s a reason for this.
Building Prior Knowledge
As a child reaches the 3rd and 4th grades, the focus of reading begins to shift from learning to read to reading to learn. This can throw some kids, especially those already struggling to read, into a tizzy! Students are introduced to unfamiliar topics and content and the problem isn’t necessarily a decoding issue.
I LOVE what Allington says about this: “What many content teachers view as “reading/writing problems” are actually content learning problems. When students have inadequate prior knowledge of a topic under study…they cannot make much sense of a text on that topic.” (What Really Matters for Struggling Readers)
What can we can do about the problem? Build the child’s knowledge about that subject BEFORE reading. This can be done in fun and interesting ways. If you’re a teacher, some of your own students might be a good resource; or their parents. A field trip, a book read aloud, a youtube video (that you’ve viewed first), a picture from Google (again, that you’ve viewed first), integrate a unit study about that topic, or it could be as simple as a discussion beforehand. But building background knowledge is necessary for comprehension!
Going back to A Door in the Wall, a librarian commented on the book (Amazon review) and, in my opinion, hit a home run in her comments. I’d like to include a snippet here-hopefully she doesn’t mind :). “I think a student’s interest level would increase if they had some sense of the language, as well as an understanding of this fascinating historical period. A quick search on the Internet reveals an interesting array of lesson plans and background materials…There are also some excellent–and easy–books that provide helpful background information…” You can read more of her comments under the customer reviews.
One of the comments that this librarian leaves is, “It would be beneficial if teachers would pre-read this book and make a list of the unfamiliar terms and the older forms of speech used throughout.” This relates directly to building readers’ vocabularies because part of building background knowledge is understanding the language and word meanings. What exactly does diverge or inclement mean?
Allington does have something to say about this one, too. He explains why older students go off-track with words. “Word reading is one reason, but failure to be able to pronounce new, big words may less to do with decoding skills than with prior knowledge…the truth is, decoding words works better if [you’re already familiar with the word]. (What Really Matters for Struggling Readers)
What can we do about the problem?
Spend time investing and building vocabulary BEFORE the child reads the text. Introduce words and vocabulary concepts to them. This can be done at the same time that you build background knowledge. Allington not only suggests introducing the meaning of the word, but also how to pronounce the word.
Another suggestion I have is to begin teaching word meanings by learning some very common prefixes (such as in-, dis-, pre- or ex-). While the word sorts I do with ALuv (he’s currently almost 6) are very basic, word sorts go well beyond phonics!
When the older students I tutored had a good grasp of the vowel patterns in one-syllable words and began showing me that they could take those patterns and apply them to multi-syllabic words, I would skip ahead just a little and work on prefix meanings. Why prefixes? They are very common, are found in every content area, and help students to focus on word meanings.
So, am I saying that the teacher who asked my student to read A Door in the Wall was crazy? Absolutely not. Maybe she’s read it a million times herself and just didn’t think it would cause a student to stumble. Whatever the reason, it was such a good reminder to me that if we don’t spend time building the prior knowledge and vocabulary of our kids, they are going to have more than a door in their wall of comprehension. There will be quite a few gaping holes as well.
Want MORE Free Teaching Resources?
Join thousands of other subscribers to get hands-on activities and printables delivered right to your inbox!