Strategies to start supporting below-grade level readers
The Debrief

Growing Readers: Strategies to start supporting below grade-level readers

Dr. Brian Furgione
May 20, 2022

Having spent a decade in the classroom, I recognize just how hard it is to support our readers performing below grade-level - and that was before the pandemic. How do we support a seventh-grader reading at a third-grade level, while still teaching content? What do we do to ensure we tap into our student's interests but still tackle what's in our required standards? Layer in the lingering impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges compound. As educators, we must leverage research-based strategies and practices to provide students with the best conditions for growth - especially for below grade-level readers. Growing readers requires fostering skills grounded in the Science of Reading and focusing on techniques and methods that support literacy development and reading comprehension.

Here are a few strategies and quick tips you can integrate into your planning, this week, to support below-level readers. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a sampling of things to get you started (and don’t worry, the folks at Newsela are working on future posts to continue to support you!). 

Use multi-level readings to help students level up 

Research shows that using texts that can be read with at least 95% accuracy produces more significant gains than using more complex texts. However, research also shows that consistently teaching students reading below grade-level with text and lessons that match their reading level can result in a scenario where they never really catch up. So how do you bridge that dichotomy?

Leveraging multi-level readings and text sets of varying complexity gradually pushes students to grow within a structured setting, while meeting students where they are.

Newsela levels the complexity of texts so teachers have the capability to use texts that are at students' “independent reading level” (defined as 99% word recognition accuracy and 90% comprehension) and texts that are at “frustration level reading” (defined as word recognition of 90% or less and comprehension of 50% or below) to help readers genuinely grow.  Below-level readers can explore a text written at their Lexile level, where they can concentrate on processing the text’s main ideas and enhance their background knowledge without having to apply many skills all at once. After a first strong read, they may be ready to level up and try a more advanced Lexile level with the confidence they can succeed. With each reading, students can become more confident and stronger readers. 

Use explicit instruction for targeted literacy skills

Explicit instruction centers around systematically proceeding through a series of small steps and built-in checks for understanding while working through target skills - ensuring that students receive timely feedback on the accuracy of their independent work. This form of instruction includes modeling and think-aloud tasks where teachers demonstrate target skills, gradually removing instructional scaffolds until students are working independently. Fifty years of interdisciplinary research illustrates the value of explicit instruction and the inherent value of a teacher’s role in supporting learners in the classroom. After all, no computer program can effectively deliver instruction or promote learning as well as a dedicated and prepared teacher!

Utilizing this approach, teachers can identify and support students where their biggest gains can be made, and the Newsela platform includes numerous ways to do this. For example, teachers can model comprehension strategies while reading Newsela texts aloud in whole class or small group settings by projecting an article using Presentation Mode. Later, the class may practice the same literacy skill on a different Newsela article in pairs to complete a graphic organizer as a scaffold. Finally, students could read a third article independently and complete a comprehension quiz assessing the same targeted skills. Newsela’s ELA quizzes automatically indicate the correctness of students’ responses, and teachers can review responses as a class. The quizzes can also help identify skill areas where students need further instruction and scaffolded practice!

Bolster inference-making skills

Inference-making is the ability for students to go beyond what is explicitly stated in the text in order to gain a deeper understanding of what they are reading. For example, if a student reads a story that starts with, “Sarah grabbed her umbrella. The sky was dark and menacing,” the student can infer that rain is likely in Sarah’s neighborhood. Inference-making is a complex skill necessary for a reader to achieve complete comprehension of a passage. It requires students to retrieve background knowledge (the sky darkens when it rains) and connect it to textual information to build an understanding of what they are reading. Children who struggle with reading comprehension tend to struggle with making inferences

Newsela is an excellent tool to help teachers bolster inference-making skills. For example, teachers can use an event of global significance, such as the attack on Ukraine, and have students read and review multiple articles or primary sources about different aspects of the conflict, from various perspectives. Then we can ask students to make inferences based on what they read - prompting them to infer on the actions and ramifications of the invasion and its impact on the citizens of Ukraine, for example. Together, explicit instruction on inference-making has the potential to improve students’ reading comprehension skills.

Helping our learners develop their literacy skills is an essential component of their academic growth. We can push all learners to achieve their educational goals by targeting specific skills and leveraging research-grounded practices. 

What strategies and techniques do you leverage to grow your readers? Get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.

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