Making Reading Accessible for Struggling Readers

Dawan Coombs and Nancy Edwards

Recently tennis aficionados learned that tailoring the game of tennis to the unique needs of young players fostered children's engagement and long-term interest in the sport. For years these experts had watched children fruitlessly chase fast-moving balls around full-sized tennis courts with rackets disproportionately large for their bodies. The experts realized these difficulties discouraged, rather than encouraged, children to continue playing tennis, so they began rethinking the game for young children. This process of rethinking led to the creation of a new vision for youth tennis called "Ten and Under Tennis" (United States Tennis Association, 2012).

Ten and Under Tennis looks different from the traditional game in three main respects. First, shrinking the size of the court made it easier for children to get to the ball in time. Although this change doesn't guarantee success, the new size has made moving back and forth across the court more manageable and increased the likelihood of young players actually hitting the ball. Next, shrinking the size of the rackets to be proportionate to children's bodies helped young players to use their racket as a tool for achieving the ultimate purpose of hitting the ball. Finally, adding mass to the ball slowed the ball down and increased the child's likelihood of hitting it. Rather than feeling discouraged after repeated failed attempts to connect, children hit the ball more often and experienced increased success with the game.

Although seemingly simple, these alterations literally and figuratively changed the game for young players. Modifying just a few elements helped reduce frustration with the game, boosted children's confidence, and encouraged them to stick with the sport long enough to eventually develop the skills to play tennis on a regulation-sized court using an adult-sized racket to hit a real tennis ball.

As literacy teachers and researchers, we advocate adopting a similar approach when working with struggling readers. Just as tennis experts found making a few small changes to the game increased the confidence and motivation of young tennis players, changing the contexts of the reading experience increases confidence and motivation of struggling and reluctant readers. Increasing confidence and motivation is key because these affective factors often determine whether or not children will continue reading in the future.

This article begins with a brief discussion of the role of affective factors in reading achievement. We then spotlight specific strategies that offer the scaffolding and support necessary for struggling readers to achieve success. Drawing on our own experiences as classroom teachers and facilitators of a university-based reading clinic, we share how using strategies to help students overcome frustration and build their confidence as readers can help teachers make temporary adjustments that help struggling readers become proficient readers.

Affective Factors Associated with Reading Achievement

Young tennis players became overwhelmed with aspects of the sport designed for people with bodies taller, faster, and stronger than theirs. They became frustrated with the game and lost confidence in their abilities to be successful. Students in our classrooms experience the same frustration and lack of confidence in their abilities as young athletes do. From our experiences, we found beginning and struggling readers may lack confidence that they will be able to read texts they perceive as created for more capable readers. We watched some young readers immediately turn for assistance when asked to read texts and others shy away from reading experiences in general. We saw struggling readers become easily frustrated with reading challenges and then shut down, refusing to continue. We could tell that their resistant behaviors were efforts to avoid engaging in reading activities (Hall, 2006; McTigue, Washburn, & Liew, 2009).

These affective factors—frustration and lack of confidence—make reading instruction challenging to plan. As teachers work to implement the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (CCSS Initiative, 2010), they are exposing readers to more difficult texts than they have had to deal with in the past. With increased text complexity, exacerbated by frustration and lack of confidence, teachers must rethink reading in their classrooms, much like tennis experts had to rethink their sport.

Rethinking reading means rethinking the instructional procedures we use when scaffolding student reading experiences in our classrooms and rethinking teacher behaviors that might influence these affective factors. By beginning with a strong understanding of our students' social and emotional confidences and then using research-based strategies that work in developing students' cognitive and text confidence as readers, teachers can help students become proficient readers.

Self-Efficacy and Risk Taking

Students who struggle with reading often have a weak sense of self-efficacy (personal belief in their own capabilities) and resist taking the kinds of risks required to practice and develop reading skills (Galbraith & Alexander, 2005). Therefore, fostering a classroom environment that offers a safe place to take risks can be key in helping build students' confidence and supporting their development of self-efficacy.

Scaffolding Experiences With Texts

A central component of a supportive classroom includes a variety of scaffolded experiences as students attempt to read texts. Fluency research shows teacher-assisted readings are more beneficial than rereading alone (Rasinski, Homan, & Biggs, 2009). Although the amount of scaffolding necessary to support student learning varies among individuals, those students with the least confidence and the highest frustration often require the most scaffolding. In our experience, the following sequence of scaffolded instruction has offered enough support to give even the most struggling readers the support they needed to be successful.

First, we began with modeled reading, with the teacher reading the text aloud and the students listening to the fluent reading of the passage (Tompkins, 2010). Beginning with this step also gave the students an opportunity to become familiar with the vocabulary in the text before reading it on their own. Next, the teacher and students did a choral reading of the text (McKenna & Stahl, 2009). Although the students and teacher read the text simultaneously, the students could still rely on the support of the teacher if they encountered an unknown word. After choral reading, the teacher and students would participate in an echo reading of the text (Tompkins, 2010). During this step the teacher would read chunks of the text aloud, then pause and listen as the students read the same chunks aloud, echoing the teacher modeling. Finally, the students would offer an independent reading of the same text, for the first time reading the text entirely on their own (Tompkins, 2010).

Engaging in this set of scaffolded practices for an authentic purpose motivated students in our clinic to participate in these re-readings. In many instances the opportunity to perform in readers theatre provided a sufficient incentive (Black & Stave, 2007). Each semester two or three tutoring teams would get together to select a script, assign parts, and prepare for their performance. The bulk of their preparations involved students reading and re-reading their parts. Each student would first listen to the tutor read the part, modeling a fluent reading of the lines and providing opportunities to ask questions about unfamiliar words and pronunciations. Newkirk (2012) discussed the importance of letting students see others grapple with understanding complex texts in an effort to reassure them that the task of reading really is complex and requires working through confusion to be successful. As the students listened to their tutors read and discussed potentially challenging parts, they engaged in some of the conversations to which Newkirk was referring.

Next, the student and the tutor engaged in choral reading as they read the lines together. In between these re-readings, the tutor and the student often paused to discuss emphasis placed on particular words and expressions or deal with challenges the student encountered with specific words and phrases. After gaining confidence reading the lines with the tutor, the student practiced reading the lines independently. As the culminating celebration of their practice, the students came together to perform their individual parts in a readers theater performance for the other students in the clinic, reading with confidence the lines they had practiced. Some teams even produced audio recordings of their performances so parents and family members could share in the celebration (Vasinda & McLeod, 2011).

Whether using a section of a novel, a content area textbook, a short and engaging poem, or a readers theatre script, teachers offer support sufficient to help increase the risks readers willingly take with texts. In addition, positioning students as collaborators instead of competitors with their peers in reading tasks can increase their sense of self-efficacy (Guthrie & Davis, 2003). In the readers theatre experience, because students worked together to create a successful final performance, they encouraged and supported rather than criticizing one another. Providing these various levels of scaffolding for students gives them opportunities to practice reading texts they might not have tried on their own and helps them build confidence in their own reading skills.

Involving Students in Paired Reading

Many tennis duos enjoy playing doubles because it allows them to work with someone else, with one person's strengths supporting the other's weaknesses. Together as a team the two athletes work towards a common goal. Similarly, positioning students as collaborators with their peers instead of as competitors on reading tasks can increase students' sense of self-efficacy (Guthrie & Davis, 2003). One strategy that encourages this kind of collaboration between readers is paired reading (MacDonald, 2010; Topping, 1987).

To begin the paired reading activity, the teacher pairs a struggling student with a more proficient reader, and they begin to read the passage together. When the struggling reader feels confident enough to read alone, he or she gives a signal and the more proficient reader stops reading. The struggling reader continues to read aloud, but on a difficult word, he or she can signal to the partner to resume choral reading until the cycle begins again. Paired reading shows struggling readers that it is acceptable to struggle with a word or phrase and that help will be provided as long as they know how and when to ask for it. It also shows them that they are capable readers in a supportive environment, which helps foster a greater sense of self-efficacy in terms of their reading ability.

In Dawan's work with struggling adolescent readers, she found designing paired reading activities between her high school students and younger readers to be mutually beneficial for both. Her high school students, initially apprehensive to read out loud (even to younger students), began by reading and re-reading a picture book they selected independently. Then once they had practiced and felt comfortable with the text, the high school students partnered up with struggling students from a nearby elementary school. Together each pair began reading the book, with the younger student signaling when he or she felt confident enough to read independently. The high school student continued to read along silently, jumping in when signaled by the younger child, and the two ultimately finished the book.

Like the readers in Elliott and Paterson's study (2006), this exercise offered benefits for all the readers involved. First, the struggling elementary students experienced increased self-efficacy by reading with someone in a supportive environment and successfully conquering a text. But the high school students also benefited from the experience with increased confidence as they provided necessary support for another student, working through a text for an authentic purpose. Like the doubles team in tennis, two readers worked together to support one another's weaknesses and build on their strengths.

Student Ownership in Reading Experiences

Readers need to feel ownership in their reading experiences. Struggling readers can gain confidence and reduce frustration when they feel personally vested in reading experiences at school. Teachers can help students feel ownership over their reading by basing instruction on students' needs and interests (Tatum, 2008; Miller, 2000). Simple ways to identify students' interests include the use of interest inventories (McKenna & Stahl, 2009; Atwell, 2007) and informal conversations with students. Results from these inventories and conversations can help teachers plan units of instruction based on topics students want to learn more about. Teachers should seek opportunities to fill their shelves with books students are interested in and find ways to allow for student choice in reading selections throughout the day.           

In the reading clinic we worked with several students who would not engage in reading, even when the texts were specifically selected based on their interests and they had choice in what they read. For those students, we found it useful to drastically alter the reading materials we presented to them. These students had experienced repeated failures when reading traditional texts, so we altered the experience by creating alternative texts for reading.

Rethinking Texts for Small Group or Individual Instruction

One way to alter the reading experience is to allow the students to write the texts being utilized for instruction. Language Experience Approach (LEA) offers a structure for allowing students to create texts that are meaningful and relevant to their lives. LEA occurs after the students and teachers engage in a shared experience (going for a walk outside, for example). After the shared experience, the students dictate text to the teacher as he or she writes the students' words on large chart paper or types them for displaying with a projector. This text is then utilized for instruction.

LEA was used successfully with a student who had attended the reading clinic for multiple sessions yet was still having difficulty overcoming frustration to engage meaningfully with texts. His teacher determined the student's need for a whole new reading experience and decided to use the student's interest in science as a basis for reading instruction. Each day the teacher brought in a simple science experiment for the child to conduct and observe (Wellnitz, 2000). After the child completed the experiment and discussed it with the teacher, they engaged in LEA. After the text was created, the teacher used a gradual release of responsibility for the reading to ensure the student had enough confidence to accomplish the task. The process consisted of multiple steps:

  1. The teacher read the text aloud multiple times.
  2. The teacher read the text aloud as the student tracked the text with his finger.
  3. Teacher and student choral read the text as the student continued tracking.
  4. When the teacher perceived the student's confidence in his ability to read the text alone, the student took over the responsibility for reading it aloud.
  5. The text was then sent home with the student so he could read it to his family with the goal of teaching them the experiment.

This extensive scaffolding, along with the sense of autonomy developed through the creation of the text, provided a beneficial reading experience for the child. Strategies for identifying unknown words were taught during this process, giving the student tools for success in other reading experiences. Increased word recognition allowed the teacher to continue focusing on comprehension instruction, as the student was less frustrated with the actual reading of the text.

Adding a Digital Component

A variation of LEA, Digital Language Experience Approach (DLEA) (Labbo, Eakle, & Montero, 2002), is also a viable method for altering the texts students are asked to read. DLEA allows for the creation of student-dictated texts using technology. Nancy used DLEA with a fifth-grade student who was reading on a first-grade level. The project began by encouraging the student to use a digital camera to take pictures of things that were important to him. Nancy then used those photos to create a slide show in PowerPoint, uploading one photo per slide. The student became interested in the slide show and was willing to dictate text for the photos. This text became an instructional tool for word identification and comprehension strategy lessons.

Through DLEA, the student had full autonomy for the published work, developed a sense of confidence through scaffolding, and was finally able (and willing) to engage with written text without frustration. Finding the right text to use was pivotal for providing instruction, as was developing a relationship based on taking an interest in the student's outside life.

As demonstrated by these examples, DLEA and LEA offer teachers ways to drastically change the experience in terms of reading instruction. Just as tennis experts took drastic measures and reduced the court size to increase a child's ability to play, teachers can take similar measures to make reading look and feel different for resistant readers. DLEA and LEA are not the traditional books struggling readers have experienced multiple failures with in the past. DLEA and LEA offer a format for creating a new reading experience that leads to successful reading instructional opportunities.


After her victory in the 2011 US Open, Australian tennis star Sam Stosur explained,

You've just got to get over that mental hurdle and those battles in your own head during matches when things aren't going so well. It takes time. It's probably all things I already knew, but for someone to talk about it maybe in a different way makes you realise things. (as qtd. in Tan, 2011) 

Her words apply to her tennis victory, but in the context of this analogy they offer insight concerning the needs of struggling readers. Becoming a reader involves overcoming not just cognitive hurdles, but motivation and confidence hurdles as well. However, when the reading experience is framed in terms that feel manageable for struggling readers, they too realize their potential for success.

Customizing reading instruction in our class to foster a sense of self-efficacy, increase student autonomy, and promote willingness to take risks involves game-changing moves that scaffold the reading experience to meet students' unique needs. Strategies such as scaffolding reading opportunities with levels of support provide students with the practice they need to ultimately read independently. Similarly, strategies such as LEA and DLEA incorporate student interests into reading activities. As teachers work to include these kinds of strategies into their curriculum, they help struggling readers engage in practices that build autonomy, self-efficacy, and reading skills.

Dawan Coombs, a former high school English and reading teacher, currently works as an assistant professor of English at Brigham Young University with the English teaching program.

Nancy Edwards is an assistant professor of teacher education at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. Her research interests include early literacy, struggling readers, and teacher education.


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