Three of my grandchildren spent several weeks with me this summer. We decided to drive to a local mountain resort during their visit. While we were driving, the old song, “One is the Loneliest Number” started playing on the radio. After a few minutes, my eight-year-old granddaughter said, “That can’t be right. One can’t be the loneliest number. What about zero? It’s got nothing.”
I was reminded of this story when I was in one of my student teacher’s classrooms this week. She expressed her concern about a boy who was below reading level and was continually isolated and targeted for support services. The teacher was concerned that all of that isolation had to be lonely, and he had no reading role models or reading friends during the instructional time. Being by yourself, or being one, can be a lonely number.
Recently, I read some research about reading specialists who were discovering that using only instructional level texts (the level at which the child is reading) with a child, especially a child who is reading below level, doesn't seem to support the child in making progress toward a higher level. Experts believe that, when a child is only exposed to on-level texts, it can isolate her and make it difficult for her to progress. In fact, some of those same experts are convinced that children learn many things from books on their frustrational level (print too difficult for their skills). The Common Core State Standards also encourage teachers to use frustrational level texts with students to help them dissect new words and vocabulary.
I have always believed this to be true. During the years that I taught school, I tried to teach as many reading skills during whole-group instruction. Of course I took children in small groups to work with books on their instructional level, but I didn't limit their exposure to other texts outside that small group instruction. The entire group participated in shared reading experiences appropriate for their grade level and the interests of the group. My goal was to give every child a positive attitude toward reading and a feeling that each one could navigate that “tricky” world of reading.
Although each child is an individual with specific needs, I think there are suggestions I can make that will generally help struggling readers in a classroom setting.
- Even when extra support is available for children reading below level, be sure the child does not feel isolated and is allowed to participate in reading activities with the entire class.
- Use challenging texts with the entire group on a regular basis. The best way to do this is to read the book to the class, not requiring individual students to try to decode the difficult text.
- The reading block is usually divided into four instructional activities. Here are suggestions for each of the activities:
a. Read-Aloud: The teacher does all the print work. The teacher and students discuss the meanings together.
b. Shared Reading: The teacher and the students do the print and meaning together.
c. Guided Reading (small group): The student does most of the print and meaning work.
d. Independent Reading: The student does all of the print and meaning work, with varied texts-easy/challenging.
Independent texts are critical for the activities in c and d. However, frustrational texts can be used in a, b, and occasionally d.
Finding a balance is the answer to good reading support, especially when helping struggling readers. We can shift some of the attention away from leveled materials and move toward creating what researchers call a productive effort. Productive effort provides challenge to children, and even struggling readers must be challenged to keep their heads in the game. When a child begins school, he is usually excited to learn to read. Most struggling readers have lost that excitement when they get behind and know they are struggling. Providing some challenge and excitement, allowing the child to participate with everyone in some reading activities, can help him redevelop the interest he once had in learning to read books.
When a child is continually isolated for reading instruction, he becomes a ‘one,’ which can be the loneliest number. Our goal should be to move him toward feeling part of the group of many, and not move backwards to actually become that ‘zero,’ who’s “got nothing.”
Burkins, J. & Yarris, K., break through the frustration: balance vs. all-or-nothing thinking. Reading Today, Vol. 32, Number 2. 2014. International Reading Association.
Croft, M. & Burkins, J. Preventing Misguided Reading. The Reading Teacher. 2010. International Reading Association.