What Really Matters When Thinking About Text Difficulty: The Dual Needs of Struggling Readers

by Eva Konstantellou, Reading Recovery Trainer

coverIn his recent article in The Reading Teacher, “What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers” (click on “Get PDF” under “Article Tools” to read the full article), Richard Allington makes the important point that “struggling readers just participate in too little high-success reading activity every day” (p. 525) and blames this common practice for the failure of struggling readers to become achieving readers.   He argues that if struggling readers are asked to read texts that are too difficult for them, they will continue to flounder with very little chance of becoming engaged readers who learn from their own efforts.  He proceeds to suggest that the reading development of primary-grade struggling readers will be fostered if they have opportunities to read texts at a high level of accuracy between 98% and 100%, just like the better readers in the classroom.

Reading Recovery teachers understand the importance of having their students access texts they can read independently.  Reading Recovery students need to make accelerated progress so that they catch up with their classmates.  One kind of learning that contributes to acceleration is performing with success on familiar materials.  “Acceleration is achieved as the child takes over the learning process and works independently, discovering new things for himself inside and outside the lessons” (Clay 2005, p. 23).  Indeed in the 30-minute daily Reading Recovery lesson, students have the opportunity to read two or more familiar texts which provides for volume of reading practice, orchestration and practice of a range of complex behaviors as well as the understanding and enjoyment of stories.

In addition to choosing texts that allow their students to practice independent reading of familiar texts, Reading Recovery teachers also choose texts that allow their students to engage in independent problem-solving on new and interesting texts.  The teacher’s supportive teaching and prompting extend the student’s ability to problem-solve in texts that are just right—neither too easy that they do not offer opportunities for problem-solving nor too hard that they create frustration to the reader because he has to work on a large percentage of words which renders the reading dis-fluent and interferes with comprehension.

Fountas and Pinnell have also stressed the importance of having struggling readers access texts that allow them to perform like proficient readers:   “It is important for students to read a great many independent level books—texts they can read with an accuracy rate of 95 percent or higher (Levels A through K) or 98 percent or higher (Levels L through Z)”  (Fountas and Pinnell, 2009, p. 126).  They have also commented on the importance of selecting text for differentiated reading instruction that allow their students the opportunity to grow as readers:

“Students do need to take on more texts that are more difficult than those they can presently read independently.  But the gap cannot be so great that the reader has no access to most of the words and the meaning of the text”  (Fountas and Pinnell 2012, p. 2).  Texts that are a bit harder than their independent reading level have high instructional value because they help build the students’ network of strategic activities that will allow them to operate successfully in increasingly more challenging text.  These new, instructional texts become easy for students with successive readings and the processing system is strengthened as fluency and comprehension are also improved.

Struggling readers need to have opportunities to read a large quantity of engaging, delightful texts independently.  At the same time they need to extend and deepen their competencies through “reading work” in texts that offer them opportunities for problem-solving—searching for and using information from many different sources, self-monitoring and taking initiative to correct their mistakes, confirming what they’ve read, and solving new words by using a range of strategic actions.

Allington, R.L. (2013) “What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers,”The Reading Teacher, 66, 7, 520-530.

Clay M.M. 2005.  Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals:  Part One, Why?   When?   And How?  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Fountas I.C. and G.S. Pinnell.  2012.  “The critical role of text complexity in teaching children to read,”  Heinemann. http://www.heinemann.com/fountasandpinnell/supportingMaterials/fountasAndPinnellTextComplexityWhitePaper.pdf

Fountas I.C. and G.S. Pinnell.  2009.  When Readers Struggle:  Teaching That Works. Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

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