Thinking about Text Choices for Readers Who Struggle

by Cindy Downend, Assistant Director of Primary Programs and Helen Sisk, Intermediate/Middle Grades Faculty Member, Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

We’re busy in the Center right now preparing for our Summer Institute on Teaching Struggling Readers: Elevating Teacher Expertise in Grades K–6 and we have been pondering all that we need to consider when selecting texts for our students who are finding it difficult to read. Fortunately, Gay and Irene have provided us with some guidance in When Readers Struggle that is (as always) sage advice:

  1. Readers need to be engaged with delightful texts. Often, the most struggling students are given the least appealing texts that would be off-putting to any reader. Select texts about interesting topics in nonfiction or appealing characters in fiction. Also be sure to provide visually interesting books with compelling illustrations or photographs.
  1. Next, think about how the child will understand the text. Struggling readers need something they can relate to their own experiences and understandings. When selecting a text ask yourself, “Does the text have enough support to allow them to predict, to make inferences, to learn something new?” (Page 402)
  1. Consider if the print features of the text will support comprehension. Beginning readers need simple font with clear spaces between lines and words. Print layout becomes more complex along the gradient of text, but you will want to ensure that the text layout is not confusing. Students need to learn to deal with complex text features, but be sure that there is not too much for the reader to handle.   
  1. Use books with language that is accessible to the reader. Written language will always be different than what is spoken. However, you will want to think about the match between a child’s oral language and the language structures in the text. At the earlier reading levels the match needs to be close so children can use what they know about language to help them read. As readers move into higher text levels, the language becomes more complex. This gradual increase then expands the reader’s processing system. 
  1. Analyze the text structure to ensure that the reader will be able to understand the meaning. Think about how the book is organized and the reader’s current ability to follow a story or manage different kinds of organization. Stories with a repeating pattern are much easier to comprehend then a text with a more challenging structure of multiple episodes, flashbacks, etc. With nonfiction, consider how the text “works” and support the reader by explaining any unfamiliar structures. The ultimate goal is to enable readers to figure out how texts are organized.
  1. Evaluate the illustrations to ensure that they support meaning and do not confuse the reader. Beginning readers need a well-defined story and the illustrations at the earliest text levels carry most of the meaning. Look for pictures that are clear with no distracting information. At higher text levels, the illustrations will extend understanding and are meant to enhance the meaning of the book.

If you would like to think more about the role of text selection as well as all of the other facets in supporting readers who struggle, come to Cambridge this summer and join us for Lesley University’s summer institute on readers who struggle being held July 13–16.

During this four-day institute, you will join educational leaders Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, and university faculty in exploring the characteristics of students who struggle with reading and examine the teaching practices that support their reading growth. Students who struggle with reading require instruction that builds on their strengths and scaffolds their next steps.

This institute is available for noncredit or credit. To register go to: http://www.lesley.edu/summer-literacy-institute/

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