By Katherine York, Reading Specialist, Walt Whitman Middle School, Fairfax, VA
For students who struggle with reading, everything about school is hard. I’ve lost track of the number of times my seventh and eighth graders have told me they hate to read. By the time these students reach middle school, they’ve been failing for years. Their reading scores are low, and so are their confidence and self-esteem.
Changing minds. Changing lives.
Every day I see students who have lost faith in themselves, but I also let them know that I believe in them. That is where their journey begins.
As soon as students walk through my door, we have tough conversations about their reading barriers. I start by addressing the elephant in the room. That’s how I keep it real with my students. Rebuilding their confidence isn’t easy, but it is possible—by creating a safe, supportive environment and by building positive, trusting relationships.
Keeping it 100 with Students
One of the first things I tell my students is that, “It’s okay if you don’t always understand everything you read. You’re going to become better readers, but it’s going to take time, and you’re going to have to work at it.” These aren’t easy conversations, but I’ve found that students appreciate my openness, and they are glad to know that I’m on their side. They call this “Keeping it 100,” which is slang for keeping it real or being completely honest.
It makes me sad when I think about all the students who would rather do just about anything other than reading. Many of these students have never shared their feelings about their reading differences with a friend, a teacher or a family member. It’s a terrible cycle. They can’t read. They don’t want to read. They can’t succeed without reading. Why are so many students failing to read well? Here are just a few reasons:
- They come from lower socioeconomic status families and typically have less access to books and reading role models.
- Students don’t think it’s cool to carry books and are often bullied for doing so.
- Teachers don’t teach reading fundamentals, or students don’t absorb them.
- A learning difference, such as dyslexia, impedes a student’s ability to process information in print.
- English isn’t their first language.
- Students don’t understand how to navigate the maze of books in the school library.
- Students aren’t given many opportunities to select books that interest them.
- Academic conversations about books aren’t part of the curriculum.
- Students don’t know what kind of books they like to read.
- Teachers don’t give access to resources that could help more students be successful.
- Students don’t have class time to delve into a book for independent reading practice.
Creating an Atmosphere for Struggling Readers to Thrive
Class time for independent reading is a frequent challenge for schools that do not have block scheduling. Fairfax County School District, Virginia, allots 90 minutes of reading time three times a week. I believe this in-class reading is beneficial for the more than eighty struggling readers who attend my classes. Knowing that they have time to read, students rarely show up late. Their commitment to read is strong. Thanks to the many devices donated by generous parents and our school, students don’t have to sit at their desks to read.
A Different Kind of Classroom
If students are relaxed and comfortable, it is much easier for them to focus on reading. They also like choices. In my classroom, students have choices when it comes to seating. We have comfy beanbag chairs, swivel chairs and rockers. We have exercise bikes. One student was so caught up in a story, he rode three miles!
For the first half hour of my class, students put on their headsets and dive into an audiobook from Learning Ally. They pair with a classmate to discuss the story and decide how to demonstrate their comprehension. This could be a book report, an oral report, acting out a scene, designing a poster, a fun guessing game of “who am I,” or a Q&A with me. Multiple ways of learning resonate with struggling readers. This strategy is UDL or universal design for learning.
Motivation and Assessment
Part of keeping it 100 is making sure that each student understands their Lexile level at the beginning of class. They take quarterly assessments to measure their reading progress. They read independently – a critical part of becoming a good reader. They commit to read for 30 minutes a day in school and at home.
Through probing discussions, my students explore topics that interest them. They learn about various genres and authors. They read diverse literature and books about celebrities like LeBron James and Henry Winkler who struggled to read. Small rewards keep them motivated—from a simple hug or a sympathetic ear, to reading certificates and class recognition. My students light up when I say, “Hey, you’re doing it!”
Pages Fly by with Learning Ally
Learning Ally’s Great Reading Games are a homerun reading activity for my students. Last year, we came in fifth in the nation. My students were thrilled! One student said he didn’t like to read anything. I gave him Kwame Alexander’s book Swing. He couldn’t put the book down. He hugged me and told me how much he enjoyed it. He related to the story and the characters. He felt enormous pride that he read the book cover to cover. I saw a change in his demeanor – a tangible result of giving him the right book at the right time. There’s no better feeling than the joy that comes from seeing your students succeed, especially those with reading barriers.
Reading, Learning and Growing
From time to time, my students, who are in high school now, come back and visit. They say, “Ms. York, I’m keeping it 100.” I smile when I think about how far they have come. They still have reading barriers, but they also have the strategies, the resources and the motivation to break through them and thrive in school and life.