Updated: Mar 15, 2019
DISCLAIMER: The ideas discussed below are rooted in my experiences. Every student is unique, as are classroom environments, school expectations, and teacher personalities. The approaches that worked for me and my students may not be best practice for you and your students.
She was the tiniest in the class, with thick glasses resting on the bridge of her nose and a smile that would wake up her dimples (thus earning her the nickname “Smiles”).
He was the tallest in the class, with glasses that always found themselves in the trash (via his lunch tray) and eyes that shone the kindness of his heart.
These two students, along with 24 of their classmates, were 2nd graders reading well below the 15th percentile.
In the beginning, that little girl’s dimples always seemed to be asleep, and the little boy’s glasses shielded his timid eyes.
When it was time for reading, the class was an unusual blend of quiet, cautious, and distracted. Many of them did not see themselves as readers, so they developed coping mechanisms to help get them through. Our room was an orchestra of bobbing feet, fiddling fingers, hair twisting and tucking, eye rubbing, and quiet hums.
For six years, I taught classrooms with high percentages of students reading below grade level. In the beginning, happy hearts and hugs in the morning would often turn to trouble and tears by afternoon. When I began to see this in my first class of struggling readers, something caught my attention. Despite the frustration and lack of motivation, there was hope. They still came to school happy. It’s no secret that classrooms require a strong and positive culture to maintain emotional safety and engagement. That realization sparked another realization – for many struggling readers, a positive classroom culture may be all they have. If they don’t see themselves as readers, than they’ll struggle to see themselves as learners. If they don’t see themselves as learners, then they’ll be more prone to checking out during instruction. If they check out during instruction, then all they’re left with may be relationships. They often crave them because they need them. So, if I was going to reach my struggling readers, I was going to have to do it from the heart.
Year after year, I poured my heart into my kids, trialing and erroring my way through struggles and successes. With the help of my teacher tribe and a paraprofessional who was the flap to my jack, we watched our students become readers. It was emotional, and it was exhilarating.
What I found worked best for us, from 2nd to 4th graders, in both homogeneous groups and diverse, were the following approaches. It was only by coincidence that they could be classified by “The 3 C’s”, I promise!
1. Establish Community
Students need to trust us, trust one another, and trust themselves. It’s not enough to build what we think is a safe environment. They need to feel safe and loved, and it’s our job to ensure this is happening.
…Through a Social Contract
At the beginning of each school year, we would designate a significant amount of time to forming our social contract. The schools I taught at required this, much to my gratitude. The students and I would discuss how we wanted to be treated and how we thought others wanted to be treated. They would agree upon a series of words, all positive actions, and sign their names. This contract would become the heart of the classroom, for it held us all responsible for treating one another the way we determined we wanted to be treated. Our contract building in 2nd grade always coincided with a reading of “Chrysanthemum” by Kevin Henkes. I would take a paper heart and slowly crinkle it as the story progressed, then attempt to flatten it out towards the end. The remaining crinkles on which we wrote our final contract and signed our names stood as a metaphoric symbol for our own hearts, and the power of our actions to potentially leave marks that may never fade. A social contract works, if modeled and embraced.
This may not be a technique appreciated by all, especially if you’re more of an authoritarian. However, they worked for me. Nicknames would come naturally and would sometimes be as easy as an alternate version of the student’s name (B for Ben, Tay for Ataya). The students themselves would also unintentionally offer up a suggestion – a little boy called himself “dude”, so I did too. Another little girl once called me “lady”, so I called her lady back. I had one class that I referred to cumulatively as “The Cheesers”, each student bearing the “Cheeser” name proudly (it’s a long story). These nicknames, as simple as they may be, were a powerful tool in building connection and trust. They established familiarity.
Super simple, yet so powerful. Smiling lightens your face and softens your eyes, eases tension, and exudes reassurance. A simple smile, seen while struggling to sound out a word or turning to the first page of a picture-book, can silently offer the encouragement needed to push through a doubt or struggle.
Celebrate often and celebrate well. No celebration is too small. We celebrated a word read phonetically, a comma used appropriately, and a kind word given freely. Positive classroom cultures function as a team – winning as a team, losing as a team, and celebrating as a team. For us, it was as simple as classroom cheers designed by the students, sharing good news in the mornings, stopping instruction to affirm a student modeling a social contract element, or having an air-popper on hand for impromptu popcorn parties. The smaller the celebration, the more frequent it should be.
…Through Kindness and Affirmations
This approach relates to social contract building, but it stands strongly on its own as one of the most important components of community formation. Through modeling and pre-established structures, I routinely communicated my expectations for how students were to treat one another. We made kindness the standard, from our words and manners to random acts. When students caught other students in an act of kindness, they were encouraged to affirm publicly (either aloud or written on an affirmations board we kept). We had conversations frequently about how people who are the least kind sometimes need it the most (I may have even led an impromptu mini-lesson on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs once to my 4th graders…). I’m sure you know from experience just how powerful a bit of kindness can be.
2. Build Confidence
Along with feeling safe in their environment, students need to feel secure in who they are and trust themselves to learn through mistakes. They require both cognitive and emotional confidence, as well as confidence in their materials. A daunting task, but essential in building motivated readers.
…By Praising Loud and Correcting Soft
Again, this is no surprise, as it’s fundamental to behaving with care and respect as a leader. Once students are secure in their environment and feel unconditionally loved and supported, then their confidence is sure to rise. The problem, however, is that a single snap or lapse in patience on our part can unravel weeks of carefully woven trust, in you and in their safe space. It all goes back to kindness. If I’m modeling kindness because it’s the expectation I set for the community, which I am a part of, then I need to monitor how and when I correct mistakes and redirect misbehavior. In the same respect, praise should be just as intentional, with the depth of praise extending beyond the classroom – parents, principals, specials teachers, and former teachers all have a vested interest in student achievement. Praising loud can also mean what’s “loud” to the student. Do they appreciate hand-written notes hidden in their desks, seeing their names written with washable marker on a window, or wearing special “brag tags” or “brain beads”? Who are we kidding, they like it all!
…By Believing in the Power of Private Conferences
Some of my most precious time with my students occurred when speaking to them one-on-one. I’d bring them close and speak to them as though they’re the only one in the room. Common practice, I know, and for good reason. This was my chance to really praise and scaffold strategically. For students, hearing their teacher tell them “You’ve got this” privately with a reassuring smile and strong, positive inflection can send them back to their seats with a lighter heart and more focused mind.
…By Not Stealing Their Struggles
My daughter, Mirei, loves puzzles. She loves the pieces and she loves the boards, but she hasn’t quite figured out how to connect the two. I could easily continue to model the placement of puzzle pieces on the board, taking it from her hands every time she’s wrong. As we know, however, that would be doing her such a disservice. She needs to try and fail and try again. With my students, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to simply correct them and move on, especially if running out of time (Time. Haha), but their struggles are theirs to be thought about, wrestled with, explored, and conquered. Each struggle conquered is another boost in confidence.
…By Offering Choice Followed by Praise
In helping to facilitate the growth of confidence in my kids, specifically in their materials, I always tried to give them opportunities to “flex their muscles” with free choice. The library, for example, was a perfect time to praise students for their choice in book, regardless of whether or not I thought it to be appropriate. When they chose a book, I wanted to see it so I could affirm their choice with specific feedback – complexity, topic, illustrations, etc. Letting them know that their choice impressed me was a quick and easy way to build them up as discerning readers.
…By Focusing on Pride
I learned to never underestimate a simple, “I’m so proud of you!” Powerful words, right there.
3. TransfeR Control
As students began to grow in confidence, we need to become more intentional with the opportunities we give them to read.
…With Tools for Engagement
To help ease unmotivated readers into independent reading, I gathered as many manipulative tools as I could. We’d use them a variety of ways depending on the tool, activity, and student behavior (whole group, small group, as incentives, etc.). Oriental Trading and I became close friends (over the course of many years, that is! A teacher’s salary is a teacher’s salary, after all). Below are some of our favorites (NOT an ad, just love):
- HARD HATS for hard work.
- FOAM FINGERS for word tracking.
- MAGNIFYING GLASSES for "close examination" during close reading.
- FLASHLIGHTS for fun (and Fridays)
- STAR SUNGLASSES for when students were "coming in hot" or "on fire".
- GOLDEN BEADS for golden thoughts.
- WHISPER PHONES for phonemic awareness.
…With Diverse Opportunities to Read
To get books in their hands, we would read in as many unique situations as we could. With high structure, we would carry books with us to specials, whole group bathroom breaks, and assemblies (remember, HIGH structure!).
Additionally, students were always aware of their reading level, and were taught to embrace it. Letters and colors were displayed with desk stickers, and students kept goal sheets and tracking graphs to document their progress. Moving up a letter or color involved the students placing their new stickers on top of their old (a moment we always celebrated with a cheer and note home), and shading in a new graph bar. Moving up in reading level also meant students got to pick from a new set of books for independent reading, which we worked into our schedule daily. Independent reading was separate from free choice reading – it was highly structured with differentiated reading activities and involved students reading books on their A-Z level while I worked with small groups and conferenced individually. I would even say that this daily activity, from goal setting and tracking to the actual reading and conferencing, was one of the most powerful in terms of building confidence, motivation, and skill.
Students were also encouraged to read to one another on their free time. One of my favorite moments was coming back from my lunch during an indoor recess day to find Smiles, the student I spoke of earlier, siting in my chair reading aloud to half the class on the floor in front of her. One student cheered, “It’s story time with Smiles!” Immediately getting her mother on the phone and hearing her reaction was another moment that lives with me. My heart.
…With Exposure to Quality Literature
Students should know when they’re reading something special. Books are awarded for a variety of things, from content and theme to illustrations. If a student was reading a book with high complexity, I made sure they knew it! We often discussed book awards, noting the difference between a New York Times Bestseller and the Newbery Medal, for example. There are books that were written to be entertaining, and there are books that were written to be enlightening. We tried to encourage a balance whenever possible, for while one is a huge motivator, the other is a potential skill builder. If a student picked up a book that has very little literary value yet is highly popular, I praised them for their choice. However, we frequently discussed what quality literature looks like through our own analyses of both illustrated text and novels (regardless of whether or not it won an award). Through this exposure (and my own giddiness at encountering a thick, juicy text), students often became intrigued by the challenge and grew as engaged, discerning readers.
…With Multi-Disciplinary Infusion
In addition to reading “deep”, students should be given opportunities to read “wide”. We know that there are a variety of partner texts for every subject and every topic – from fiction, non-fiction, reader’s theater, and short stories to magazine and news articles. Additionally, weekly curriculum texts and novel units provide opportunities to expose students to other literary and non-fiction connections. Why not bring them in to intensify the depth and complexity of our lessons? Students will go in the direction we guide them. If the goal is to develop independent readers, then we need to model the components of independent reading, including welcoming a variety of texts.
…With a Culminating Activity
Lastly, towards the end of the year, (as with most classrooms), we designed, promoted, prepared for, and hosted a “culminating activity”. For us, it was typically a Poetry Slam or a Literature Café. Students would spearhead the event by brainstorming how they wanted it scheduled, special touches for guests, who to invite and how to advertise, and the ambiance from decorations to music and treats. Each year’s Slam or Café usually featured a student-designed stage, twinkle lights, programs, soft music, special invitations, a microphone, and the ability to dress the part. Students would either write their own poetry or choose a literary piece (a poem or excerpt) to present. This is a fairly common practice in classrooms; however, giving the students the reigns really seems to give them a sense of ownership and pride in their public readings (a task that is potentially quite difficult for the struggling reader). Instead of it being a teacher-designed and highly structured activity that is forced upon them, it becomes an event that showcases their ideas (that just happens to be centered around reading!).
There are so many approaches out there, each having different impacts. The approaches I used and how I used them tended to change from year to year depending on the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of my students. Having some perspective, a plan, and some intentional tools in my back pocket definitely helped! What approaches have you used to establish community, build confidence, and transfer control to struggling readers? I’d love to hear them!