Giving a Voice to Struggling Readers

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Frederick Douglass

As the new school year begins and teachers get to know their new students, many discover a diverse range of reading abilities. Many teachers, especially in subject areas other than language arts, find it difficult to include struggling readers in conversation about grade-level appropriate text. In her recent article, Moving out of silence: Helping struggling readers find their voices in text-based discussions (2012), Dr. Leigh Hall explores how middle school teachers can motivate and include struggling readers in such conversations while taking into consideration the readers’ perceptions of their own abilities.

The study
The study focused on two questions:
1. How do struggling readers participate in small groups when they work together with students who share similar perceptions of themselves as readers?
2. How do experiences differ across groups for struggling readers who have different perceptions?

The study examined 52 students in three sixth grade social studies classrooms, at two middle schools in the rural south. The Reader Self-Perception Scale and a reading assessment showed that while 52% of the students felt that they were average readers, only 20% were actually on grade level.

Within the classrooms, teachers taught explicit comprehension strategies, asked students to read text independently, documented the students’ use of the strategies, and then held small-group discussions about the text and the use of the new approach. Students then used the same comprehension strategy to read a second text and met again in small groups to discuss the text and strategy usage.

Hall found that “struggling readers can benefit when they have regular opportunities to observe how their peers engage with texts and use strategies to improve their comprehension” (Hall, 2012). Hall explains that by including struggling readers in the conversation, teachers send the message that these students have a lot to offer to the group. Even if students are unable to discus the text in an in-depth manner, they still have the opportunity to participate by discussing their use of the strategy.

Taking it to the classroom
Here are some tips for motivating struggling readers:
• Demonstrate explicit comprehension strategies such as making predictions, activating prior knowledge, and summarizing. Hall explains that not all teachers will feel comfortable developing these strategies, but a literacy specialist within your school or district may be able to help you.
• Use tools such as edHelper to select appropriate texts. The site groups texts by topic, providing a suggested grade range and Flesch-Kincaid reading level.
• Create a classroom environment where struggling readers believe that their voices will be heard and respected. All students struggle with something. Make these struggles, and talking about these struggles, a classroom norm. “This will remove the stereotype that only poor readers have difficulties” (Hall, 2012).
• Use verbal interactions with all students to help struggling students develop broader ideas about what it means to be a reader (Hall, 2012). Model the behavior of good readers, provide positive feedback, and ask questions that you feel students can answer easily before moving on to more challenging questions.

Hall, L.A. “Moving Out of Silence: Helping Struggling Readers Find Their Voices in Text-Based Discussions.” Reading & Writing Quarterly. no. 4 (2012): 307-322.

Researcher bio

Currently, Hall teaches literacy courses in the Elementary Education program, the M.Ed. for Experienced Teachers program and for students preparing to be scholars in the field of literacy at the University of NC at Chapel Hill. Hall’s research addresses issues relevant to literacy, middle school and teacher education. Her work considers if and how students’ identities as readers influence the decisions they make when reading, and if how teachers can use information about students’ identities to inform their practice and improve students’ reading comprehension.