How do I help students reading below grade level?

If my second graders can't understand the grade-level texts in the reading program we use, much less the words, how can I help them access increasingly complex texts?

Many teachers are facing a challenge like yours. Here, Dr. Maria Walther, a first grade teacher and author who has been honored as the Illinois Reading Educator of the Year, offers some advice:

Dear Colleague,

Clearly, you are a teacher who knows your learners and cares about their success. From what you’ve written, it sounds like your reading program is not meeting the needs of your young readers. I’m guessing that your daily schedule is already jam-packed, and it's challenging to add one more thing. Here are three ideas that won’t take a lot of extra time and will support your striving readers as they move toward reading independently and comprehending increasingly complex texts.

1. Read aloud texts that may be challenging, providing all students the opportunity to boost their comprehension and engage in collaborative conversations.

Reading aloud is such an integral part of my daily instruction that my students and I keep a read-aloud tally (pictured below), using one tally mark for each read-aloud experience. The essential literacy practice of reading aloud is also endorsed by the authors of the Common Core's ELA Standards in Appendix A (p. 27): “By reading a story or nonfiction selection aloud, teachers allow children to experience written language without the burden of decoding, granting them access to content that they may not be able to read and understand by themselves. Children are then free to focus their mental energy on the words and ideas presented in the text, and they will eventually be better prepared to tackle rich written content on their own."


Select read-aloud titles that extend the themes found in your reading program and focus on the Standards. For example, when studying characters, read books like Dex: The Heart of a Hero (Buehner, 2007) and Cloudette (Lichtenheld, 2011) to spark a discussion about how Dex and Cloudette respond to the challenges they each face (Standard 3). Ask students to use key details from the text (Standard 1) to support their thinking. Then compare and contrast (Standard 9) the two stories. Don’t forget to read aloud informational texts too!

2. Guide readers individually and in small groups. To make the most of the time you will spend guiding readers one-on-one or in small groups, it is wise to pinpoint their strengths and areas of need. The best way to do this is by using a reading assessment that includes a running record. This will enable you to know your students' instructional level and, as important, whether your readers are struggling with decoding, fluency, vocabulary or comprehension. Armed with this information, meet with students as often as possible to prompt and coach them to apply decoding strategies for figuring out unknown words and comprehension strategies to better understand the text. If your reading program provides leveled texts, these will work well for guiding readers in small group. A professional resource to help you teach targeted, powerful guided reading lessons is Jan Richardson’s The Next Step in Guided Reading.

3. Provide your students with ample time for “high-success” independent reading. Reading researcher Dick Allington tells us that children are engaged in high-success reading when they can read the text with 98 percent accuracy or better (2013). Some sure-fire hits for your students reading at a first grade level are Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books. If you partner kids and have them take turns reading Elephant and Piggie’s hilarious dialogue, you will also be helping them work on recognizing different points of view (Standard 6). Another series that kids can't resist is Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy books. Voluminous, high-success reading builds fluency (Foundational Standard 4) and, more important, confidence and enjoyment!

Let me assure you that these research-proven strategies will make a difference for your readers. Be patient, and trust your professional decisions. After all, our goal as primary grade teachers is to cultivate avid readers not teach a reading program.

Best wishes,