Back to School: How to Help Struggling Readers Move Forward

By: DFB Staff Writer

Back to school is approaching and we’ve been arguing over here (in a good way). Everyone on team DFB is an educator and we’re sharing the debate we’ve been having with you because we think it’s great food for thought, and the outcome of the discussions around this topic, we believe, will only benefit our children inshaallaah. So what have we been discussing so stridently over here?

Struggling readers.

They are now common place in many elementary and middle school classrooms subhanaallaah, and we’ve been discussing the ‘why’ of this problem and of course, possible solutions. Each year, we’ve had students that arrive in our classroom unprepared for the literacy challenges that await them, and the problems they are faced with are myriad and disturbing. Very often, these students can’t:

  • make inferences from texts they read
  • make accurate predictions based on the text they’ve read
  • draw conclusions from texts
  • recall what they’ve read
  • comprehend – truly comprehend – what they’ve read
  • ask meaningful questions about texts (e.g., they don’t wonder why something happened or failed to happen in a story or they don’t question why one thing happened instead of something else)
  • write meaningfully about texts they’ve read
  • understand or identify the author’s purpose
  • understand the issues presented in the text and the implications of those issues
  • discuss issues presented in text meaningfully
  • connect to texts and relate to the situations encountered in the text or articulate why they don’t/can’t relate to the situations encountered in the text
  • identify what they felt about the text/story and what happened in the story (“Ummm...I don’t know” is a common answer or “Nothing really.”)

And the list kept growing as the discussion progressed. But as we discussed and debated, challenged and contended, and presented evidence for and against the reasons readers struggle, one teacher said something that brought the conversation to a halt – at least for a few seconds.

“Maybe we’re so focused on teaching literacy ‘skills’ we’ve failed to recognise the underlying problem: there’s an absence of knowledge about a wide variety of subjects. What use is it teaching a child to decode and infer if they have no background knowledge - you know, content knowledge – to help them understand what they’re trying to decode and infer about? There’s a gap we need to fill – a knowledge gap.

What? Where did she get this notion?

After the silence departed, another educator put forth the idea that “being able to read well is the answer. In other words, we need to teach children – especially struggling readers – literacy skills such as decoding and inferring, making predictions and so on because children learn when they read. That’s how we acquire knowledge is by reading. So that’s the direction we need to take; we need to teach literacy skills that will enable children to acquire the knowledge they’re missing.”

Well, educator A disagreed, educator B pushed home their point, the room got warmer and here we are.

“It’s true that we learn when we read,” educator A said, “but maybe the way we teach reading is wrong. You know, using manufactured texts that are designed to teach, say, inferring, but have no real or relevant connection to anything else the students are learning. That’s just reading to say the students can read. That’s not teaching content; that’s teaching ‘skills’.”

“Yes, but they’ll use those skills to read other texts and they’ll begin to acquire new knowledge!”

“But why don’t we just teach them the content knowledge they need? Why expect and hope that one day, somewhere, they’ll pick up a book that will teach the knowledge they’re missing?”

And then a teacher contributed this comment:

“Even when you learn something totally new and unfamiliar to you, you still have to have knowledge of the words being used in the new topic or even some other knowledge to help you understand the new knowledge, right? Imagine, a child encounters the word ‘Kazakhstan’ in a piece of non-fiction text. Maybe they can sound the word out, but if they have never heard of Kazakhstan, have no idea where it is, and know absolutely nothing about it, how are they going to make realistic or accurate predictions about the text or infer anything about the text? Maybe it’s true; maybe the knowledge gap is the main problem struggling readers have.”

The discussion continued in this vein, each person asserting their opinion about the importance of teaching literacy skills or the need to prioritise filling in missing content knowledge as we teach literacy skills. And as you’ve probably already figured out, in the end we didn’t reach a consensus about the question that educator A’s comment provoked: Are we placing too much emphasis on literacy ‘skills’ and not enough emphasis on filling in the knowledge gaps that would allow our students to acquire, comprehend and grasp new knowledge?

Maybe our struggling readers move on from our classroom and into the classroom of the next grade teacher still being struggling readers because we have failed to provide knowledge of many and varied topics that will help children interact meaningful with the texts they encounter?

We’re still debating.

And by the way, that teacher who stopped us in our tracks with her comment about a knowledge gap read “Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong”, an article that appeared in The Atlantic.

As you prepare to return your classroom this year, we invite you to consider the question raised about prioritising teaching content knowledge vs. focusing on teaching literacy skills. Inshaaallaah the answer will make one less child a ‘struggling reader’.


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