How to Design Lessons When the Student Can't Read

Teachers can prepare lessons to support students who cannot access the text. GETTY Images

In many districts, students with reading difficulties are identified in the primary grades so that remediation and support can be given as early as possible. But there are struggling students who may need support in reading throughout their academic careers. There may be struggling readers who have entered a district in the later grades when the texts are more complex and the support services less available.

Extended remediation for these groups of struggling readers can be less effective if the strategies that are chosen limit a student's creativity or choice. Remediation with structured lessons that repeat the same material will result in less content covered by the students.

So what strategies can the classroom teacher use to teach these struggling students who cannot read to access the content?

When a text is critically important, teachers need to be purposeful in selecting literacy strategies for a content lesson that prepares struggling readers for success. They need to weigh what they know about the students with the most important ideas in the text or content. For example, a teacher may determine that students need to make inferences from a fiction text to understand a character or that students need to understand how a map illustrates how rivers are important to settlement. The teacher needs to consider what all students in the class could use in order to be successful and then balance that decision with the needs of the struggling reader. The first step could be to use an opening activity where all students can be engaged successfully.

Successful Starters 

An anticipation guide is a lesson opening strategy meant to activate the students' prior knowledge. Struggling students, however, may lack prior knowledge, particularly in the area of vocabulary. The anticipation guide as a starter for struggling readers is also meant to build interest and excitement about a topic and give all students an opportunity for success.

Another literacy strategy starter could be a text that all students, regardless of ability, can access. The text must be related to the topic or objective and can be a picture, an audio recording or a video clip. For example, if inferences are the objective of a lesson, students may fill in thought bubbles on photos of people in response to "What is this person thinking?" Allowing all students access to a common text that has been selected for equal use by all students for the lesson's objective is not a remediation activity or a modification. 

Prepare Vocabulary 

In designing any lesson, a teacher must select the vocabulary that is necessary for all students to meet the goal for the lesson's objective rather than attempt to try to fill in all the gaps in prior knowledge or ability. For example, if the objective of a lesson is to have all students understand that a river's location is important in developing a settlement, then all students will need to become familiar with content-specific terms such as port, mouth, and bank. As each of these words has multiple meanings, a teacher can develop pre-reading activities to familiarize all students before reading. Activities can be developed for vocabulary such as these three different definitions for bank:

  • The land alongside or sloping down to a river or lake
  • An institution for receiving, lending
  • To tip or incline an airplane

Another literacy strategy comes from the research that suggests that older struggling readers can be more successful if high-frequency words are combined in phrases rather than isolated words. The struggling readers can practice words from Fry's high-frequency words if they are purposefully placed for meaning placed into the phrases, such as a hundred ships pulled (from Fry's 4th 100-word list). Such phrases can be read aloud for accuracy and fluency as part of a vocabulary activity that is based on a discipline's content.

In addition, a literacy strategy for struggling readers comes from Suzy Pepper Rollins book Learning in the Fast Lane. She introduces the idea of TIP charts, used to introduce a lesson's vocabulary. Students may have access to these charts that are set up in three columns: Terms (T) Information (I) and Pictures (P). Students can use these TIP charts to increase their ability to engage in an accountable talk in expressing their understanding or summarizing the reading. Such talk can help develop the speaking and listening skills of struggling readers. 

Read Aloud

A text can be read aloud to students at any grade level. The sound of a human voice reading a text may be one of the best ways to help struggling readers develop an ear for language. Reading aloud is modeling, and students can make meaning from someone's phrasing and intonation when reading a text. Modeling good reading helps all students while it provides access to the text being used.

Reading aloud to students should also include think-aloud or interactive elements. Teachers should focus intentionally on the meaning “within the text,” “about the text,” and “beyond the text” as they read. This kind of interactive read aloud means stopping to ask questions to check for understanding and allowing students to discuss meaning with partners. After listening to a read aloud, struggling readers can contribute the same as their peers in a read-aloud or use subvocalizing to build confidence.

Illustrate Understanding

When possible, all students should have the opportunity to draw their understanding. Teachers can ask all students to summarize the lesson's “big idea” or a major concept that can be summarized. Struggling students can share and explain their image with a partner, in a small group, or in a gallery walk. They may draw in different ways:

  • To add to a picture
  • To create an original picture
  • To draw and label a picture
  • To draw and to annotate a picture

Literacy Strategy Matches Objective

Strategies used to support struggling readers should be tied to the lesson's objective. If the lesson objective making inferences from a fiction text, then a repeated read-aloud of the text or selection of the text can help struggling readers to determine the best evidence to support their understanding. If the lesson objective is explaining the impact of rivers on developing a settlement, then vocabulary strategies will provide struggling readers with the terms needed to explain their understanding. 

Rather than try to address all of the needs of a struggling reader through modification of remediation, teachers can be purposeful in lesson design and selective in their choice of strategy, using them individually or in a sequence: starter activity, vocabulary prep, read-aloud, illustrate. Teachers can plan each content lesson to offer access to a common text for all students. When struggling readers are given the chance to participate, their engagement and their motivation will increase, perhaps even more than when traditional remediation is used.

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Your Citation
Bennett, Colette. "How to Design Lessons When the Student Can't Read." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bennett, Colette. (2020, August 27). How to Design Lessons When the Student Can't Read. Retrieved from Bennett, Colette. "How to Design Lessons When the Student Can't Read." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).