As a special education teacher in Baltimore, I recently finished a middle of the year diagnostic assessment with my students. While many of my students are struggling with virtual learning and the pandemic for obvious reasons, other students have risen from multiple grade levels.
In particular, I had one student who went from a third-grade reading level to a ninth-grade level, and another student who went from the kindergarten level to a third-grade reading level.
To be clear, I can’t take much of the credit. My students’ success is all theirs, and I’m especially proud of my students who have achieved even more and succeeded to catch up to their general education peers despite seemingly insurmountable barriers. Every student deserves a fair and equal education despite their disability, and I’m proud to have bridged a gap to help them access the same education as their general education peers.
I have helped my students with accessing general education texts on grade level. So far, I have taught three books — Persepolis, A Raisin in the Sun, and To Kill a Mockingbird. All three are at a ninth-grade level and have been, at times, difficult for my students to follow since many of them struggle with reading in their disabilities. However, we have gotten through each with great levels of understanding.
Virtual learning, for a very successful minority of students, has actually been more beneficial to some students’ learning. Without the normal distractions and disruptions of the normal classroom, some students get more out of being able to listen and concentrate.
One of my students who was constantly distracted and played the class clown is now a star student in virtual learning. My students who have made multi-grade level jumps in their reading level certainly seem to benefit from virtual learning.
For parents and teachers, these tools will be useful if a student has trouble understanding complex texts. But these are also tools and strategies we can use to understand texts that go far beyond our level. These are the steps I take:
- Know your student’s strengths and weaknesses
- Use check for understanding questions
- Gradual release (I do, we do, you do)
- Use accessibility tools
And here is what I’ve done in my class to better accommodate my students’ unique needs and give them equal access to a grade-level text.
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Know Your Students’ Strengths and Weaknesses
Not all struggling readers have the same strengths and weaknesses. Some struggle with phonics and phonological awareness, so for those students, I make sure to teach word sounds and make a particularly concerted attempt to teach prefixes, suffixes, and affixes.
Other students struggle with vocabulary, so I may either pre-teach vocabulary or do a lesson on context clues for how to learn the meaning of an unknown word in a sentence.
For context clues instruction, I like to use a technique called the Cloze test. The Cloze test is when you remove a word from a passage and then ask a student to fill in a synonym that makes sense. Using Zoom annotation tools, I just cross the word out and ask my kids what fits in there.
To find a student’s reading strengths and weaknesses, your personal observations are reliable data. But you also need assessments to find those strengths and weaknesses, to begin with. My students get tired of being overwhelmed with testing, but the main purpose of an assessment early on is to determine the skills that need review.
My district uses the i-Ready Diagnostic Test as an assessment, which is an adaptive test that adapts to a kid’s skill level as they take it. In reading, it measures their abilities in reading comprehension of literature, reading comprehension of informational texts, phonics, and vocabulary.
It is a very useful tool, but I don’t like it sometimes because it’s very long, and I can tell that some of my students score lower than their actual level because it’s just an exhausting test to take.
Other popular literacy assessments are the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) and AIM-Sweb, which are more fluency assessments. In special education, I have a variety of assessments to choose from, but the gold standard is one that takes all day to complete. It’s important for diagnostic assessments to just be used sporadically to tell what to teach and what skills to target, nothing more.
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I used to read just for completion. I’d force my way through an entire chapter even if I understood absolutely nothing.
However, the best way to teach a complex text is to chunk. Chunking is when you only read a small section of the book, and then stop. Maybe you read it again. Maybe you read it very deeply and do more analysis.
But the point stands that students comprehend a short section of text better. I don’t read more than a paragraph at a time without stopping. I know when I’m losing my students, and when they’re not given the opportunity to participate or engage with the whole class, I can tell many are tuning out.
This has been difficult with our new book since it is much longer than what we’ve taught before. To read the whole chapter within a class, we would often have to spend the whole time reading. That isn’t how the most engaging lessons go — it’s better to understand one page very deeply and discuss it than skim through a whole chapter.
The more complex a text, the more frequently I will chunk. I usually read the room in the physical setting and see how engaged my students are — if they aren’t, I’ll stop more frequently.
According to Timothy Shanahan, a literacy expert at Reading Rockets, chunking should be let go of gradually. While you may have to initially chunk with one sentence or one paragraph at a time, the struggling reader should eventually be able to handle larger chunks.
Chunking is not only a technique that improves reading — it improves memory too. In psychology, chunking is a way to optimize our memory. Dr. Ryan Anderson at Psychology Today states that the reason why our short-term memory can only remember seven-digit phone numbers, normally, is because it can only store about seven pieces of information at a time. And so, we would be able to remember larger numbers by breaking up large streams of information into chunks.
To make a difficult text easier, make sure to separate it into manageable chunks. It’ll be easier to handle, and the kids will remember more.
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Check for Understanding Questions
With chunking, it’s important not to just stop and give kids a chance to take notes. It’s important to check for understanding questions — they’re exactly what they sound like. If I’m making a worksheet, I prefer to include a check for understanding questions separating the chunks of text. I’ve always hated the inconvenience of readings where you had to flip to the end of the reading to answer the questions.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a set of hierarchies that determines the complexity of questions. Starting out, check for understanding questions should be at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy, meaning they are simple knowledge questions. These include questions like:
- Who is…?
- Which is true or false…?
- What happened after…?
Even if someone gets the question wrong, use scaffolding techniques and ask them how they thought through their answer. I don’t usually take any response in my class — I ask students “why?” or “where did you find that answer?”
C.R. Adler at Reading Rockets calls check for understanding a form of metacognition, or “thinking about thinking.” By using check for understanding questions, we are teaching students metacognitive strategies to take control of their reading. Naturally, students will monitor their understanding themselves to take control and monitor their own comprehension using check for understanding questions as they learn the skills from a teacher.
As a rule of thumb, give students adequate wait time to respond. I was not good at this my first year, but now, I frequently give ten seconds or more until a kid breaks the silence. If the silence lasts longer than an awkward 20 seconds, I’ll just move on. But students need enough time to think through check for understanding questions, especially more complex ones that require more complex responses.
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Modeling is an instructional strategy where an adult shows fluent reading and comprehension skills for a student or child to know how the adult thinks. The most common modeling strategy is a “think aloud,” where an adult literally thinks their process aloud whenever they have a question or whenever answering a question.
After a passage, I’ll often stop and model. I will use an example modeling a think-aloud through an important section of chapter 1 of To Kill a Mockingbird. First, I will attach the text:
Then, I will stop and ask the whole class to listen to my think-aloud:
To effectively model, you have to show your thinking and process in front of students. During my first formal observation in my first year of teaching, I didn’t actually show my thought process in front of my students. I presented a sample of an answer I already made before the class and had my students copy it down. I got a score of “developing” on the modeling component since it wasn’t a real-time process I was showing my kids, which was very fair.
Heather Marie Moriarity at SUNY Brockport describes modeling fluent reading strategies as very important to student fluency in her Master’s thesis. She describes modeling as a strategy that targets different learning styles, including visual and auditory learners.
Visual learners saw what fluent reading looked like, while auditory learners heard what fluent reading sounded like. Through modeling, a student also understands an instructor’s expectations. In addition, modeling is skills-focused, while much of teaching can be content-focused, and that’s an important distinction between teaching and lecturing:
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Gradual release is a very common term in the world of education. It is what it sounds like — you gradually release the legwork from yourself to the person you’re trying to teach. First, the “I do” part of modeling comes into play. Then, a whole class practice, or collective practice called the “we do” comes next.
And lastly, a child should have the ability to do the work and learn the skill by themselves — a part of the gradual release called “you do.” The responsibility goes from the teacher, to the class, to the individual student.
One way I use gradual release in my class is through a graphic organizer, which, in the words of Adler, “illustrate concepts and relationships between concepts in a text or using diagrams.” Here is a photo of the graphic organizer I used for a ninth-grade text, A Raisin in the Sun, for my students who averaged a second-grade reading level:
As you can see, more is blank as we go down the organizer. I do most of the legwork for the top portions of it and the characters mentioned, but my students will be more and more involved when they see what I expect. To be clear, the filled-in section for character analysis was filled in in real-time in front of my students.
The textual evidence portion for the final section is left for students to choose themselves. This is a lesson that worked out really well, but I’m constantly making adjustments — for most of my students, sentence starters like “I notice…” and “I wonder…” are very beneficial accommodations, but I would rather have them not super reliant on them.
Graphic organizers have a ton of advantages. According to Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy, the graphic organizer helps students process information both visually and verbally. What I do is personally demonstrate how I do the first couple of questions on the graphic organizer. I do this in front of students, modeling how I annotate and find the answer.
Then, we enter the “you do” portion, where I select an exemplar response from a student who wants to show the rest of the class. A lot of my students are shy about displaying their work, so sometimes, I ask if I can share their response to the rest of the class, and then display that response for the rest of the kids to copy.
It’s always hard releasing struggling readers to work on their own, but after reading a certain section, I make sure to do so. I monitor the kids’ independent work through Google Chrome extensions like GoGuardian to make sure they’re all on track and so I can address gaps in understanding.
The final assessment is where a student shows their learning. Personally, I use exit tickets at the end of class, where a student answers a main idea or big picture question in writing, using the resources they gained from their graphic organizer and work they have already done.
When a child or student is struggling, there is a lot of temptation as a parent or a teacher to make them stop struggling, but what that often results in is us giving the kid the answers and them not learning anything.
In the virtual setting, it’s also very important to plan out how much time you spend on each activity. I still have a tendency to talk too much, so I’ll spend way too much time on my own modeling, and not enough time on my students’ independent practice. Instead, it should be the other way around since the student is the learner, not you.
There are a lot of questions Shanahan grapples with in Reading Rockets. In the “we do,” a teacher or a parent has to ask themselves how much guidance they should give the kid, as well as how gradual the gradual release should be. Instead of thinking of it as a linear process where everything works to perfection, to understand a complex text, the instructor and the student have to go back and forth over and over that sounds like:
At the end of the day, Shanahan also urges us to get students to see a complex text as a problem to be solved instead of the “you get it or you don’t,” all or nothing attitude that often comes with reading comprehension. Yes, struggling readers might not get a complex text at first read, but they might need more tools and above all, they have to be motivated to keep trying and not give up.
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Use Accessibility Tools
Let’s be real — even if you’re a teacher, you won’t be around to hold a kid or student’s hand all the time. Teachers have a lot of students and different obligations, and parents may have to work, help other kids, or do a million other tasks. As such, it’s important to leave struggling readers with tools they can use on their own, so a struggling reader can not only survive, but thrive on their own.
The tool I have taught all my students is the Read&Write Toolbar for Google Chrome. It is very useful for struggling readers across a variety of domains, including English language learnings and students with disabilities. It is not only useful for reading, but for writing.
One tool in the Read&Write Toolbar, Talk&Type, allows students to talk into the computer and have it type for them. The Talk&Type tool has made it much easier for my students who prefer expressing themselves verbally to show their comprehension on written assignments.
For readers, the most useful tool is usually the Text to Speech tool, which reads words, passages, or whole documents. For the Text to Speech tool, all my students have to do is highlight a part of the text and it’ll read the whole passage to them. They can control where they want it to stop or pause.
If the Text to Speech tool doesn’t work for a given reading, struggling readers can use the Screenshot Reader, which is somewhat of a last resort since it tends to be very slow.
For readers who are easily distracted, Simplify removes ads on the screen that might be distracting. It also has translators and dictionaries, and the dictionary can be in the form of a generic dictionary or picture dictionary.
It is only a Google Chrome extension, so you need Google Chrome to use it. On Google Chrome, the Read&Write toolbar is free, so it’s just fun to play around with it. Even as an adult, I love playing around with the Talk&Type tool when the excessive typing I do every day feels like a chore. Here’s what the Read&Write toolbar looks like for me, and I don’t even know what all the functions on it do:
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Teaching struggling readers how to comprehend grade-level texts is a very tall order. You’re trying to make a hard text, which can sometimes seem like a foreign language, be more accommodating and accessible to a student or child. But even though it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
I find it very challenging that I have ninth graders reading on the kindergarten or first-grade level. I’ve gotten very frustrated with myself not being able to work miracles and not getting those students automatically to grade level, but now I’m more accepting of what can be done within only one school year when you have a lot of kids to teach.
But in my second year, I have a lot of the skills and techniques to adapt readings to my students and help them access them. The gist of the tactics and strategies is that teaching for struggling readers has to be very proactive and hands-on.
I can’t lecture and talk for more than a minute at a time. I’ve assigned independent readings for homework and gotten two out of 40 students to complete them. What my students have learned skills-wise in my class is mainly within the 60-minute class periods I have them.
To help struggling readers understand a complex task, the following are very important:
- Know your student’s strengths and weaknesses
- Check for understanding questions
- Gradual release (I do, we do, you do)
- Using accessibility tools
In-person, much of this would be a lot easier than the virtual setting. And what works for my students and my personal teaching style might not work best for you — and that’s fine because each parent or teacher has their own style. And each child learns in a different way.
I hope this piece can help you, whether you’re a teacher or a parent, during this difficult time.
This post was previously published on Better Humans.
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Photo credit: iStock