How to Help Older Students Learn to Read

teacher helping an older student learn to read.

With far too much frequency, older students often need intensive instruction to learn to read with competence. You may have heard of the ‘third grade wall’, or the ‘fourth grade slump’. Both terms refer to students who managed to get by in Kindergarten, First, and Second Grade, but when they reach third or fourth grade they ‘hit a wall’ and stop progressing. These students, for any number of reasons, may have missed the foundational skills in reading. Perhaps the curriculum didn’t adhere to Science of Reading, or follow a structured literacy format. Perhaps the student had attentional issues that impacted his or her ability to focus on instruction. If you teach third grade or beyond, you’ve probably met these struggling readers and you’ve wondered how to help them.

My older student struggles with reading. Where do I start?

It’s important to know what is impeding your student’s ability to read, so it’s best to begin with assessment. A word of caution – assessment must be purposeful. Meaning, it is important to give assessments that will provide you with the necessary information to guide your instruction. You can refer to McKenna’s Cognitive Model as a framework for targeting assessment.

Can you explain McKenna’s Cognitive Model?

As McKenna’s Cognitive Model illustrates, true reading comprehension is made up of three distinct pathways leading to subcategories:

  • Pathway 1Automatic Word Recognition (print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency)
  • Pathway 2Oral Language (vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge, knowledge of text and sentence structure)
  • Pathway 3Strategic Knowledge (general purposes for reading, specific purposes for reading, knowledge of strategies for reading)

If you are working with an older struggling reader, assessing one or more of these areas can help pinpoint the area of weakness.

How do I determine what is interfering with my student’s reading ability?

Don’t be afraid to take an appraising look at the reading program that was in use as these third and fourth grade readers were learning to read. Did the program address each of the areas or did the program overemphasize one pathway to the detriment of the others? During the age of Balanced Literacy many programs over focused on comprehension while instruction of foundational skills were minimized or haphazard. The approach to reading instruction is moving toward a structured literacy format that adheres to the science of reading. It is quite possible that older readers missed this opportunity.

Oftentimes, we find that older students, who appeared to be average readers in K-2, but struggle in grades 3 and beyond, have a distinct weakness in pathway 1. These students frequently have lots of background knowledge and a strong oral vocabulary (pathway 2). These skills may have helped them ‘fly under the radar’ in grades K-2.

They may have a weakness in a strategic knowledge (pathway 3) mainly because they struggle to read, so they read less and less. This cycle of struggling to read, thus avoiding reading, is known as the Matthew Effect. This can only be rectified by addressing pathway 1.

As students reach Grade 3 and beyond, background knowledge and a strong oral vocabulary is no longer sufficient for reading in the content areas. Students must have mastery of the phonetic patterns for word solving of content words. That ‘old chestnut’ of guessing and checking only works about 10% of the time (Gough, 1983). Again, the way to address this is through pathway 1.

Based on this model, where should assessment begin?

If you are finding that your older students are struggling with comprehension, take a look at pathway 1 first because students cannot comprehend what they can’t read.

Decoding + Language Comprehension=reading to gain meaning

Ask yourself:

  • What is the fluency rate? Give a timed reading assessment and be sure to record correct words per minute. Read our blog on How to Calculate Fluency Rate and why correct words per minutes matters for more information. Then refer to DIBELS 8 for a criterion referenced chart or to Hasbrouck-Tindal for a norm-referenced chart. Both of these resources provide information regarding appropriate reading rates based on grade level.
  • Does my student have strong foundational knowledge of phonics patterns? If fluency is a concern, then it’s important to determine the student’s foundational skills. If a student is disfluent, it is often because he or she lacks automaticity at the word level. Our Overview of the Six Syllable Types (click on the image below) includes pre and post-assessments that can be used to determine a student’s understanding of the six syllable types.
This resource is designed with the teacher in mind. It contains detailed lesson plans, pre and post-assessments and guidelines for analyzing the assessments.
  • If your student demonstrates difficulty decoding single syllable words (especially nonsense words), then ask, “Did the student’s previous instruction lack a systematic, sequential approach to phonics OR does he or she have a weakness in phonological awareness?” Our Phonological Skills Assessment (click on the image below) can help you determine a baseline of your student’s abilities.
You may be surprised to learn that sometimes older students struggle with the foundational skill of phonemic awareness. This resource can help identify those students.

I’ve completed the assessments, now what?

It is important to understand that students can be taught to read, but the older they are, the longer instruction may take. There are no short cuts!

The results of each assessment will give you a roadmap for instruction. Your approach to remediation will need to be systematic, sequential and cumulative, and should adhere to the Science of Reading. That means lessons must address each area of reading: phonemic awareness (when needed), phonics (direct instruction on each syllable type until mastery is reached and practice in decodable texts), fluency (opportunities for repeated readings), vocabulary and comprehension.

How can my students access the curriculum if they can’t read?

That is one of the biggest problems older, struggling readers face. Don’t put your student’s content learning on hold during remediation. It is crucial to give students access to information by means other than written texts. There are three ways that students can access information.

  • First, teacher read alouds are a powerful tool. Reading aloud in the content areas, modeling thinking, and providing opportunities for class discussions can level the playing field for students in the classroom.
  • Second, we cannot say enough about the power of audio books. Listening to books assists students in acquiring knowledge and vocabulary at their grade level and beyond.
  • Third, front load background knowledge with videos. As educators, we have no way of knowing what knowledge our students come to school with. Providing students opportunities to watch videos and discuss the content prior to reading builds background knowledge and helps to ensure that all students are able to access the curriculum.

The above mentioned teaching tools are helpful to all, harmful to none, and critical for some students.

Did you miss foundational skills in your teacher prep course?

You are not alone. Legislation is just catching up with this and many states are requiring colleges and universities to include coursework for aspiring teachers that aligns with the Science of Reading. In the meantime, you don’t have to wait for that. Every one of our blog posts addresses the Science of Reading and Structured Literacy. We are happy to respond to any questions you may have. And, we have a Teacher Resource Guide to get you started. Click on the image below to learn more. If you subscribe to our email list, you can get this resource for FREE!

It’s never too late. Remember, if not you – who? If not now-when? These students are relying on us. We’re here to help support you. Please reach out to us with any questions you may have.


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