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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Helping struggling readers experience success

In the last post I mentioned an article by Dyck and Pemberton (2002) that provides a good discussion of the different ways you can adapt texts so that children with literacy difficulties can more successfully interact with them. In this post I want to outline some of those key strategies.

Functional Reading

When supporting children who have literacy difficulties, especially if they are older and moving into high school, we should challenge ourselves to think differently about teaching literacy. Instead of focusing primarily on teaching literacy for literacy's sake, we should focus on teaching literacy skills that will help the child or youth learn and succeed in any literacy-based task that they come across - in the classroom and outside the classroom.

This is called functional literacy (Mercer & Mercer, 2001).

Why we read

Reading is usually done for a purpose. You may read to entertain yourself, to find out information or to find out how to make something. Knowing this purpose is an important first step in reading. This means that the emotional experience of reading is usually defined by the reader's ability to achieve that purpose.

So if you sit down in a restaurant and pick up the menu for the purpose of ordering your meal, and you find you can't read it due to unfamiliar words or poor presentation, you are likely to find it a very frustrating experience - and one which you will not be in a hurry to repeat.

Choosing and adapting texts

To ensure that we don't put children or youth into the position of feeling this frustration, and doing everything they can to avoid the reading experience, we need to make sure they know why they are reading and that they can achieve this purpose. As Dyck and Pemberton (2002) suggest, when giving a student a text to read - whether it is a novel, a text book or anything else they will need to read on their own in order to succeed with a task - the first thing we should ask ourselves is whether the student can read the text with enough speed and understanding to use it. We should be aiming to ensure that they have an equal opportunity to achieve in the task they have been given.

To get a sense of whether the student will be able to read the text, you could do one of two things:
  1. Circle every word you think they may find difficult. If this indicates that they cannot read the majority of the text without your help, then you need to adapt the text.
  2. Get them to read a small section of the text. Again, if this indicates that they cannot read the majority of the text without your help, then you need to adapt the text.

Ways we can adapt any tasks involving reading and writing

Dyck and Pemberton (2002) discuss a range of ways we can adapt literacy tasks. These are discussed below:
  1. Using alternative texts: Support groups such as SPELD NSW can help provide information and catalogues of books that are described as "high interest, low ability." These books are written with simpler language, and use age appropriate images and content especially for older primary school students.
  2. By-passing reading: In some cases it is more important for students to be able to learn content and display their knowledge than struggling to read and/or write. For this reason, students with significant literacy difficulties are eligible for readers and scribes in formal exam situations. By-passing reading in class can be done through buddy reading, using audio books and text to speech technology which is becoming more and more freely available in schools.
  3. Decreasing reading: In other cases students can achieve the purpose of a task through the reduction of reading/writing demands. For example, copying notes off the board can be one of the most demoralising and meaningless experiences for a student struggling with literacy. Instead, the student could have a fill-in-the-blank worksheet which helps them become familiar with key terms. Using mind maps, cartoon strips and a whole range of other advanced organisers can also be of great help for a student to learn rather than struggle through trying to read.
  4. Supporting reading: The use of glossaries, personal dictionaries, notes in margins, colour-coding, images, diagrams and so on are great ways to help struggling readers focus on the key points of a text and achieve the purpose of an activity rather than being bogged down in decoding words on a page.
  5. Organise reading: Organising the information on the page differently can help students who are struggling to read. For example, using dot points instead of lengthy paragraphs. Enlarging the font, using numbering or a flow chart to clarify a sequence, and adding any images will help the student again focus on the content of the text.
  6. Guided reading: Reading a text together is a good way of helping a student focus on meaning. This can be done at home, or through small group reading in class. It could also involve choral reading, where everyone in a class reads along with the teacher.


Dyck, N. & Pemberton, J.B. (2002). A model for making decisions about text adaptations. Intervention in School and Clinic, 38(1), pp28-35.

Mercer, C.D., Mercer, A.R. (2001). Teaching Students with Learning Problems. Ohio: Prentice Hall.


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