How to engage struggling students in reading and writing

How to engage struggling students in reading and writing

Struggling or ‘striving’ readers and writers can be better supported by teachers using a range of strategies to promote higher engagement.

On Episode 60 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy, literacy expert Sharon Callen talked about the methods for supporting struggling (or as we prefer, ‘striving’) students in their literacy journeys found in the article Principles for working with struggling readers and writers – advice for teachers across primary and secondary schools (August 2020).

This article was sourced from Foundation For Learning and Literacy – a reliable and trusted professional resource according to both literacy experts.

Sharon said the first principle is to learn what these students CAN do and build on those strengths, which works to build a greater confidence and mindset from the student.

“Even down to a word, what can they do in a word already. What letters have they got? Where’s the troublesome spot? So build on what they know. Isn’t it much easier when we can work from what they know and build on that? And we might find out, ‘oh they know this’, but this is where the misconception is,” Sharon said.

“And so this then is a difference model rather than a deficit model. So we focus on what they know rather than on what they don’t know, because that would make any of us feel better about our learning. And in that, then we are having high expectations because we keep building, rather than going ‘ok you haven’t got that right, now we’ve got to go back to scratch and start from here because you don’t know this bit’. We must always find out what they know and absolutely acknowledge and work from there.”

The next important step is to intentionally promote high levels of student engagement, which allows for discussion, sharing and reflection on reading and writing.

“Every child every day should have opportunities to talk with peers about reading and writing. And research demonstrates that this improves comprehension and engagement with texts … so increasing engagement means higher success,” Sharon explained.

“And if we want engagement, we actually need to physically bring our students together at times. In my mini lessons I always want everyone right there with me, because if they’re not there physically with me or if they’re sitting at the back, how can they fully engage in this? How can I fully engage with those students if they’re back there? And I don’t know what they’ve got their eyes on.

“So I do this in primary and secondary. I bring everybody in and let everybody engage together. And as that community, everybody’s included. I can be strategic about who I put where, some I need close to me. And we have to work at that. We’ve got to be intentional about that. It isn’t just the child’s job to be engaged because we’re doing our whizzbang lesson. We have to promote it. We have to expect it. We have to enable it.

“And share or reflection is also another way to promote high student engagement because we’re reflecting on our own learning and how successful we were at that. So these are all very intentional things that we do.”

struggling students reading writing literacy

Another strategy to engage and empower striving students is to invite them to make their own choices.

“They must have the opportunity to make choices as much as our students who are thriving. They should never be exempt from or excluded from choice. Making choices is living a reader’s and writer’s life, and there is nothing about living a writer’s or a reader’s life that says ‘oh you can go to the library and only borrow that one, that one or that one, or only from this section’,” Sharon said.

When providing these choices, Sharon also said it’s crucial that teachers ensure students know how to engage in successful reading practice.

“Every child every day chooses something to read with accuracy and understanding. It’s our job to help them learn and be shown and modeled what accurate reading looks like and sounds like, and how we get there. So this means looking at all the strategies that we use to get that accurate reading and understanding, and that we are doing that every day otherwise it’s lost opportunities,” she said.

“And when we say, ‘ok, I’ve got children who just sit there they’re not actually reading during that reading time’ – it’s our job. It’s our job to ensure that they are engaging in successful reading practice. That’s what our Mini Lessons are for. And they’ve all got a strategy that they’re using, and that doesn’t matter what level of texts they’re reading.”

A key part of implementing these Mini Lessons and strategies is also about having routine and predictability for striving students.

“By doing this, they know every day they get the opportunity to see their teacher model the reader and writer actions, to practice that with the teacher, to do it for themselves and to reflect on how well they did it and how that worked. So that predictability and routine is important for students who are striving,” Sharon said.

“If we don’t have routine, and if every day is so much different from the other day, then it’s so hard for them to know where their entry points are to ‘how does this connect to what I’m learning? And what is it I’m learning?’

“And more importantly, they’ll know how they engage with the learning every day. That’s the point, is that they know ‘I am here this minute, I’m going to see something a good reader or writer does, so right if I’m tuning in with that, then I’ll know that’s the very thing to be doing’,” Sharon explained.

Find out more on Episode 60 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy below or subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Google Podcasts.

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