Lions for Lambs





Further Reflections on Literacy and the Struggling Reader



The winds of responsibility, as they relate to the teaching of literacy to struggling readers are blowing from a different direction these days.  Current educational thinking has shifted the emphasis from the out-of-classroom support system, with the resource teacher developing his/her own lesson plans, to a more collaborative format (Strickland, Ganske & Monroe, 2002). In this new iteration, the regular classroom teacher has assumed the role of primary educator for the at-risk readers. The supportive instruction offered by reading, bilingual and special education teachers is now designed around the regular classroom’s “lesson du jour” to improve the reading performance of the child on that day (Cunningham & Allington, 2007). However, it is important to note that the role of the specialist has not been marginalized. Rather, the fine-tuned adroitness of these experts is now used to compliment the regular classroom lessons. By working in tandem, the teacher and resource room personnel develop synergistic approaches that clarify, extend and enrich the skills and content being presented in the classroom. Incidentally, a traveling notebook, transported back and forth by the students, between the regular classroom and resource instructor, is an excellent method of keeping the cooperative efforts coordinated and timely (Laureate Education, 2007 a). As a result of these efforts, intense, coordinated, and expert instruction is now offered at each child’s specific developmental level (Strickland, Ganske & Monroe, 2002).

Along with the shift from isolated resource room instruction, to whole day classroom intervention there are other changes that must be reconciled by today’s educator.  These include the new, elevated interpretation of what constitutes a “good reader.” These revised requirements mandate that every child demonstrates the ability to read on grade level (Laureate Education, 2007 a).  This is no small task. New benchmarks also indicate that in order to be defined as a good reader, the learner needs to master the concept and skills of “thoughtful literacy” (Laureate Education, 2007 a). Here, longer passages are offered for the students’ consideration. Answers are required to be rendered in extended written form. Justification for their thinking is also required (Laureate Education, 2007 a). This summons the youngster to not just locate information, but to utilize higher order thinking aptitudes such as summarizing, analyzing, and synthesizing, in order to write about and later discuss what they have read. As a result  of mastering these abilities, students will not only be able to answer questions regarding the reading matter, but will be able to offer deeper responses as they take part in literary conversations (Laureate Education, 2007 a).  As such, these new requirements place extra stress on struggling readers and classroom teachers alike. Accordingly, the implementation of these new standards has resulted in cutting-edge approaches to the teaching of reading.

As the primary teacher of literacy I am grateful for the professional growth I have experienced as a result of this course. To begin, my philosophical tree now bears more fruit. I have become convinced that quality active reading and writing instruction can be based on the same principles for both struggling, as well as grade-level readers (Duffy-Hester, 1999). Accordingly, challenged readers should not engage in low-level activities. Rather, they should participate in multi-faceted, authentic learning tasks along with their on-level classmates. As such, ample opportunities should be provided for the below-level readers to discuss and further explore their instructional level reading and writing experiences with the rest of the class (Tompkins, 2006).   Literate conversations, with the attending higher order skills, rather than short answers, seems the best avenue to higher order thinking.

Further, I believe that an effective reading program requires the provision of well stocked, inviting classroom libraries, which include “just right” books in a variety of genres. In this manner, all students will have access to books that address their interests on miscellaneous levels. These should include offerings on both their instructional level, as well as their independent level. The choices offered should be informed by the teacher’s personal knowledge of what constitutes good reading. The selection process should also be amplified by the informed input of colleagues and librarians, as well as by student surveys (Strickland, Ganske & Monroe, 2002).  As a result of this preponderance of sources, many relevant and interesting trade books, magazines, literature (prose, poetry and plays), comic book collections, as well as content materials, can be integrated into the core literacy venue (Strickland, Ganske & Monroe, 2002).

I have also learned of the importance of documenting student progress  in a systematic manner.  These informal evaluations will not only allow me to discern the students’ abilities on a given day, but will also help to fashion the development of future lessons. These assessments can include informal reading inventories and portfolio artifacts and be supplemented with rubrics, checklists, observations and running records. The Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP) benchmarks are particularly helpful in that they document the student’s demonstrated reading skills, as well as those needing focused attention (Duffy-Hester, 1999). These methodical assessments should be used to first monitor the individual’s progress and subsequently, to compare each student to the group’s overall achievement rate (Duffy-Hester, 1999). Lastly, the assessments should be authentic, i.e., based on everyday classroom performance, and with real world applications (Valencia, 1997).

As a result of these daily observations I can offer explicit, timely instruction to meet the developmental needs of all my students. The intense small group instruction can take place in conjunction with an activity, or spontaneously in the context of the lesson required (Laureate Education, 2007 e). These intimate settings can be used to address comprehension skills (surveying, predicting, connecting, visualizing, questioning, inferring, summarizing, and identifying big ideas) (Laureate Education, 2007 d).  The educator might also focus on fix - up strategies to guide the struggling reader over some rough spots. These abilities include, but are not limited to, rereading the sentence or paragraph, self-monitoring, pace reduction, and utilizing context clues (Bear, Invernizzi et al 2004).

Word study must also be an active player in any small group or whole class literacy instruction (Cunningham & Allington, 2007).  In this dynamic, students learn how to read and spell high frequency words and decode and spell other words. They learn how to utilize common spelling patterns, identify word families, recognize beginning and ending sounds, etc. Word Walls, with about five new additions each week, are a permanent, focal resource for the study of words (Cunningham & Allington, 2007).   

 The acquisition of word knowledge as consisting of letters sounds and spelling patterns have several salient rewards (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).  The reason for this is enlightening. The more children know about letter-sound relationships, the sharper their visualizations are and the easier it is for them to read and write words (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002). Since their reading and writing abilities depend on the quality of these visualizations in their memory bank, this dynamic is an integral part of literacy instruction (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).

On other occasions active vocabulary exercises may be stressed in a whole-part-whole class format. Word sorts, concept circles and graphic organizers can be utilized (Laureate Education, 2007 c). Grouping words by attributes under super ordinate concepts are also productive options. These activities will impress upon the children the interconnectedness of the words (Vacca, & Vacca, 2002).  A variety of semantic maps are also useful for higher level word knowledge where children study words for depth, rather than breadth. Vocabulary timelines, another interactive approach, can be utilized to highlight the finer shadings of words, so the students can develop the habit of nuancing when choosing just the right word (Tompkins, 2006). Once a week I would also include a “Words Are Wonderful Day”, in which words are celebrated with different activities. I would also read books about words to the students, including works by Andrew Clements and Fred Gwynne (Tompkins, 2006). 

  Writing exercise are great ways to extend and heighten the students’ understanding of what they have read (Laureate Education, 2007).  It often leads to new discoveries and fresh interpretations of the narrative, as well as preparing students for the discussion portion of the activity (Duffy-Hester, 1999).
As part of this subsequent dialogue, the learners can offer story critiques as they express opinions on what they have read. This activity involves higher order thinking and, given the personal ownership constituent, should provide motivation to the struggling reader. Learners can also make these personal responses to the text through art, music, and cooking and drama media. These literary products can then be shared, class-wise, grade-wise, or with the entire school. In this manner the students, besides activating their multiple intelligences and learner choice, develop a sense of audience in reading, writing and the dramatic arts (Duffy-Hester, 1999).
Finally to extend all learning, and to increase parental involvement, I would also expect all youngsters to check out books from the classroom or school libraries, and then read and discuss them with the parents at home.

I have also learned many innovative ideas that help the struggling reader gain access to and learn from challenging texts. One such scaffolding devise is the bookmark which will support the strugglers as they negotiate material that is slightly above their instructional level (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002). Bookmarks are great for student note taking, and help improve comprehension. The bookmark is quite simple to construct. A piece of white, lined paper is folded, hamburger style, into four sections. Each face of the bookmark is labeled with a phrase related to one of the reading objectives(Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).  These may include words that confuse or prompts to connect the text to self, the world or other books. Other faces can include questions the students may have or questions the teacher might ask. During a subsequent lesson, the bookmark may call for inferences, visualizations, or summarizations. For fictionalized material, the learners can use the bookmarks to list and explain the settings, characters, problems, events, and resolution of the story. For expository texts, students can scan the material and list main ideas, headings, sub-headings and supporting details on their handy scaffolding devise (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).

Literature circles are another fruitful strategy to help below level readers achieve a degree of parity with their classmates. Literature circles are small, temporary, heterogeneous discussion groups whose members have chosen to read the same poem, story, article or book (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002). They feature the following attributes that are especially helpful for at-risk readers. These include small groups, choice, individual responsibility, and the development of an understanding of the text through peer discussions (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).

Students first use rotating roles to help them conduct in-depth discussions. These tasks provide each student with a different reading purpose. Struggling readers can slide into less demanding roles, and with the help of more skillful classmates, can achieve the success they need to increase their confidence in their burgeoning literary abilities (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002). As the struggling students rotate through their duties they will have many opportunities to apply a variety of comprehension strategies with particular care. Once they become facile in taking part in the discussion, they will no longer need these tasks to support them (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).  

Modeling teacher “think alouds” is another constructive proficiency (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).  The teacher simply verbalizes his/her thought processes as the “problem of the moment” in the lesson is considered. The story I have chosen to demonstrate this strategy is the fairy-tale “Prince Prigio” (Lang, 1889), an eighteenth century work by the author Andrew Lang. This story will be useful to my English language Learners (ELL) students, as well as my other struggling readers, for it was illustrated by the noted artist, Gordon Browne. The more visual clues they can access, the clearer will be their comprehension. This think-aloud will aptly serve as a lesson about the advantages offered by a quick perusal of a book's drawings.

My think-aloud “transcript” follows.

“The first drawing shows us a baby leaning away from his mother with a look of displeasure, or dislike on his face. I wonder if this is Prince Prigio? I bet it is. The author seems to be telling me that the prince will be a person with strong feelings about things. People will know right away what he likes and dislikes."
"Don’t you love the next illustration? It shows the prince as a teenager reading a huge book. It looks like this boy is a big reader and probably knows a lot of stuff about a lot of things."
" Chapter Three is entitled “About the Firedrake.’ I have no idea what that is. Perhaps if I quickly skip ahead, the author may have included a drawing of the Firedrake. Sure enough, here it is. This Firedrake is definitely a monster. It is huge and I see smoke coming from its body. It looks dangerous! I’m glad the author included this drawing. I would have been lost without it."
" Let’s go back to where we left off. The next drawing shows the prince stretched out on a sofa reading another big book. But the caption – that’s the writing under the drawing- has the king telling him ‘Put on your armor and be off with you.’ My guess is that Prince Prigio and the Firedrake are going to meet, later in the book, on a field of battle.”

The value of think alouds is that it affords teachers the opportunity to offer explicit instruction on the art of thinking as we are reading (Cunningham & Allington, 2007).  Taking the strategic form of modeling, these exercises can be combined with a great literature in such a manner that makes the reading comprehensible, but highly enjoyable, as well.

Another accommodation that is especially helpful for English Language Learners is an audiotape of a teacher “read aloud” (Cunningham & Allington, 2007).  The procedure is as follows. After the story has been read, the tape is placed in a learning center and the students are allowed to listen to it as many times as they wish, as they follow along with the book.  This allows the non-English speakers the opportunity to better understand the text, as well as practice unfamiliar words. They will also experience the modeling of correct pace, intonation, expressiveness, attention to punctuation and, importantly, pronunciation (Cunningham & Allington, 2007)

Book Baskets is yet another motivational idea (Laureate Education, 2007 b). This approach offers the children not only a choice from among a number of appropriate books, but serves as a canvas for the teachers to demonstrate their enthusiasm for reading in general, and three special titles in particular  (Laureate Education, 2007 b). Briefly, the instructor selects three “can’t fail” books and then summons his/her advocacy skills, enthusing over them, reading samples, pointing out pictures and igniting and discussing student responses to the texts. As a result, the instructor may have to “get out of the way” as the children eagerly head for the books (Laureate Education, 2007 b). 

As far as the learning schedule goes, formal education should not end at dismissal. Homes are extensions of school. As such, the parents are extremely important players in the development of the student’s learning.  One way to cultivate the parents’ cooperation is to invite them to the classroom early in the term and stress the fact that the teacher, the caregiver(s) and the child are going to be working as a team (Laureate Education, 2007 a). The guardian’s interest in helping the child is generally strong. It merely needs to be nurtured and supported. Reassuring them of my genuine interest in the child’s educational success, while expressing my desire to work in tandem with his/her family, will go a long way in eliciting their cooperation (Laureate Education, 2007 a).

Technology seemingly improves every day. Consequently, we, as educators, must keep abreast of the current innovations. One such program seems to be a leading player in helping the struggling readers interact with interesting, relevant and challenging texts. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides flexible, digital textbooks and curricular materials, thereby giving all students access to the general curriculum (Gordon, 2002). The UDL was established under the guidance of the following premise. Since the abilities of struggling learners vary so greatly in every classroom, technology might be utilized to accommodate these differences (Gordon, 2002).

The UDL program  addresses three learning regions of the brain: first, recognition (letters, decoding sound, words, and objects), next, strategies (spelling, playing a musical instrument, using sequential steps to solve a problem, comprehending the text, etc.), and finally the affective system which produces a feeling in response to engaging in those patterns (Gordon, 2002). The software produced by the UDL also addresses multiple learning styles and these inherent modalities help not only the learning disadvantaged in general, but dyslexic students, as well as those with low vision, poor auditory skills and other challenge (Gordon, 2002).

One digital text in particular, the Thinking Reader, allows students the opportunity to
engage interesting texts that are relevant to their lives. As such, it offers a new environment in which struggling students can experience success (Gordon, 2002). Specifically, as the software program unfolds, and the child begins to read the text, the computer highlights each word on a screen as it simultaneously reads it aloud (Gordon, 2002). The definition of each word is only a click of the mouse away (Gordon, 2002). Interactive prompts urge the learners to summarize, predict, question and clarify. An electronic journal, located at the bottom of the screen, will help the teacher to assess the learning that has taken place. As the students progress through the program the teacher circulates, lending support to their endeavors. Afterwards, the students will meet with the teacher off-line and take turns leading the group in a discussion of the book (Gordon, 2002).

Studying the evolution of my Portfolio Artifacts has demonstrated, to me, the progress I have made in the master’s program. Similar to a palimpsest, I can detect in my thoughts and through my writing, the many layers of knowledge that are incrementally added, course by course. My ideas reflect this enrichment. The sentences I present reflect concepts that are more concise. As a result my applications seem more condensed as, paradoxically, my understanding of attending skills and strategies expand. As I continue in my educational quests, I am also humbled by the amount of knowledge I have yet to achieve. This, however, only adds to my enthusiasm to seek yet another day to peek over the approaching hill, and to turn the next page.

In conclusion, in order to meet each student where they are at, academically, literacy program should be based and paced on students’ needs, rather than on a prescribed scope and sequence of reading materials, as dictated by curriculum guides or commercial reading programs (Duffy-Hester, 1999). Embedded in this perspective and informing all facets of my literary regimen is the planned redundancy of rereading, as well as revisiting, reviewing, and reteaching the various attending skills, until they are mastered (Duffy-Hester, 1999).

 I also welcome the added responsibility of improving the reading skills of struggling readers. Keeping these children in the classroom for the whole day offers numerous benefits. Since children learn from each other, the heterogeneous mix found in the regular classroom provides a perfect canvas for all students. Above average students reinforce and extend skills as they help their lower- achieving classmates. The ambivalent readers, in turn, have role models to emulate and stars to “fasten their wagons to.” Finally, this revitalized system adds a seamless quality to the school day that is sorely missing when children are routinely pulled in and out of the classroom.

Conclusively, my goal is to meet all readers where they are at, and, in the course of their learning, produce engaged students who are skillful, strategic, socially interactive, motivated and knowledgeable (Duffy-Hester, 1999). Other aspects to this goal-making include increased student time on task, high expectations on the part of the instructor, treating each student as an individual,  offering lots of positive reinforcement,  nurturing a risk- free environment and mandating fewer classroom interruptions (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).  
Ultimately, the preponderance of reading concepts, strategies and skills that I have been exposed to and explored as a result of this course, will help me to fully meet the responsibilities in my new role as the primary teacher of literacy.




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