Helping the Struggling Reader Succeed in the Upper Grades


Many people think that reading comes naturally and easily to all people, however, while the brain is hard-wired for speaking, it is not designed for reading. Instead, the brain must be taught to read and during this process, many things can go wrong. Many children, including very bright ones, can have problems learning to read.

Despite all of the work that has been done in the last few years targeting early readers in grades K-3 using researched effective instructional practices for teaching reading, teachers continue to have students who struggle with reading in their classrooms.

Sometimes students who make adequate progress in the early grades begin to struggle around the beginning of 4th grade – what teachers refer to as “the 4th grader slump“. The researchers suggest that reasons for this could include the appearance of fewer picture clues in 4th-grade texts, the abundance of new vocabulary words, and an expectation that students absorb information from the text rather than simply read for plot.

They also point out that around the 4th grade, teachers shift their focus from “learning to read‘ to “reading to learn‘ in the different content areas.

The research supports several causes for underachievement in reading, however here we point to three critical aspects to consider.

The first is an impoverished background and limited exposure to Standard English and oral language. Students who come from high poverty homes or families whose native language is not English often do not have a broad and expansive knowledge of oral language.

The second reason that students may struggle with reading is poorly developed decoding skills. To read new words, students must be able to segment the words into their component parts and then blend them together into recognizable words they know.

The third common cause of reading struggles is learning disabilities. Some children have difficulty processing and memorizing information. Some children will learn words in one context but be unable to transfer these same words to another context.

It is certainly no surprise when observing older struggling readers that years of frustration has had an impact on their behaviors as well. They tend not to be very motivated, and often lack self-confidence regarding their ability to read. Many give up trying to improve all together, believing that it is hopeless for them. In turn, teachers attribute the reluctance of these students to participate in activities as either defiance or lack of motivation.

Older struggling readers, who have experienced many years of frustration and failure, are often skilled evaders who try to either “hideout or act out” so they can avoid reading.

Helping Struggling Readers

To help motivate these children teachers should consider activities that include kinesthetic, musical or other modalities that can enhance learning for struggling readers of all types. Teachers should try to include real-world connections and ask students to engage in tactile activities whenever possible.

Children Reading TogetherActivities like: acting out parts of the reading, turning a narrative into a play or reader’s theater piece, retelling the main points by drawing or cartooning, creating books for younger readers, online reading and similar activities are all ways to engage struggling readers in meaningful and fun ways to read and process what they are reading. Struggling readers also benefit from being involved in different grouping patterns as well.

Teachers should involve them in partner/peer activities, buddy or partner reading activities, cross-grade level partnerships, teamwork as well as independent reading activities. Struggling readers need to “hear it, see it, say it, and write it” before they will learn it. No matter what grade level, struggling readers have these same 4 instructional needs.

If this is an area of continued interest for you, we hope you will consider our online course titled “Helping the Struggling Reader Succeed in Grades 4-12“.

In this course, we will address helping to identify what causes readers to struggle and what they can be done to help struggling readers be more successful using practical instructional strategies. We will work together in helping struggling readers develop fluent reading patterns, expand their vocabulary and learn to self-monitor their own reading comprehension. We will also work together to find ways to promote effective reading techniques such as text annotation, mental imagery, synthesis and summarization, and peer-supported reading practices. We also explore how linking reading and writing supports developing and struggling readers to become strategic and focused readers.