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Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners

Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners

Author: Esther Minskoff Ph.D.

ISBN: 978-1-55766-669-7
Pages: 304
Copyright: 2005
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Identifying the best way to help students who struggle with reading — whether they have learning disabilities, are English language learners, or just need extra support — is a challenge for any teacher. Schools can make that task easier with this indispensable resource, a complete guide to addressing each student's specific instructional needs and teaching reading skills side-by-side with critical language and thinking skills. Approaching literacy development as a complex process that unfolds over time, this book gives educators the guidance they need to help students continuously advance and deepen their reading skills — not just in the early grades, but into the upper grades as well. Readers will learn how to

  • teach the skills identified in the Reading First initiative: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension

  • teach comprehension skills along with key language skills in vocabulary and syntax

  • guide students in learning literal, inferential, and evaluative comprehension skills along with thinking skills

  • teach comprehension skills for narrative, expository, and electronic text

  • facilitate mastery of reading skills by using strategic, explicit teaching

  • make teaching more effective and engaging through practical suggestions, model lessons, and sample activities for both younger and older students

  • monitor the effectiveness of instruction

All the suggested ideas and approaches are evidence-based or identified as best practices in reading, so educators can use them with confidence in their classrooms. Equally effective as a text for preservice educators, a manual for in-service teachers, and a resource for administrators wrestling with different approaches to reading instruction, this in-depth, accessible book will lead to sharper skills and better outcomes for a wide range of struggling learners.

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Review by: Stephanie Schunder, School of Continuing Studies, University of Richmond
"I have decided to use [Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners] for my summer course . . .the book was well written!"
Review by: Melinda Rice, Elon University
"A valuable resource . . . will help teachers with the challenging task of designing a "balanced" reading program that includes instruction in decoding, fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension. I look forward to using [this] book in my undergraduate classes."
Review by: Sally Smith, Founder and Executive Director, The Lab School of Washington
"At last, teachers have an extremely comprehensive, helpful book on how to teach reading. . . . Dr. Minskoff has made it easy for teachers to be successful!"
Review by: Donald Deshler, Center for Research on Learning, The University of Kansas
"Will be embraced by any teacher who works with struggling readers . . . a must-have resource for improving outcomes for these students."
Review by: Noel Gregg, Distinguished Research Professor, University of Georgia
"Teachers will find this text filled with ideas and activities they can immediately apply in the classroom."
About the Author
Nancy Mather


  1. A Three-Legged Instructional Model for Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners

  2. S.E.T. : Strategic, Explicit Teaching

  3. Building a Solid Foundation: Teaching Pre-Reading Skills

  4. Breaking the Code : Teaching Phonics Skills

  5. Reading the Big Words: Teaching Structural Analysis Skills

  6. Teaching Words by Using Visual Cues

  7. Developing Speed and Accuracy: Teaching Fluency Skills

  8. Teaching Reading Comprehension: The Basic Approach

  9. Teaching Reading Comprehension and Language Skills

  10. Teaching Reading Comprehension and Cognitive Processing

  11. Teaching Reading Comprehension with Different Types of Text Structures

  12. Assessment for Planning and Monitoring Reading Instruction
Appendix A Glossary
Appendix B Tests for Assessing Reading
Appendix C Proficiency Tests for Phonological awareness, Phonics, and Structural Analysis
Appendix D Programs for Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners
Appendix E Reading Record Form
Appendix F Games for Making Reading Instruction Fun
Appendix G Fry Readability Graph for Estimating Readability--Extended


Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners, by Esther Minskoff, Ph.D.

Copyright©2005 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


There are two unique aspects of the instructional reading approach advocated in this book. One involves the use of an underlying instructional model as the basis for designing and delivering reading instruction to struggling learners. The second involves the integration of reading instruction with instruction in language and cognitive processes (or thinking).

The instructional model for teaching struggling students rests on three legs: 1) the skill areas of reading instruction that must be taught; 2) the stages of reading that students must pass through on their way to attaining adult literacy; and 3) strategic, explicit teaching methods that must be used to develop these skill areas. A graphic showing this instructional model is in Figure 1.

Students must master different reading skills at each of the six stages of learning to read, and the skills mastered at one stage are prerequisites for learning the skills at the next stage. This model helps teachers design and provide instruction to develop these skills at each of the six stages using strategic, explicit teaching methods. The model enables teachers to identify when to teach what reading skills to struggling students and how to do so.

As noted, a second unique aspect of this book is the assumption that reading is a complex skill that does not develop in isolation. Rather, mastery of reading is intertwined with the development of skills in language and cognitive processing or cognition (i.e., thinking). Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners presents an integrated plan for teaching reading, language, and cognition together. To learn to read, students must first master certain language and cognitive skills. As children become good readers, their reading abilities lead to growth of their language and cognitive abilities. Therefore, not only is reading important for its own sake, but it is also important for enhancing students'; language and cognitive abilities.

Students who are not struggling may learn readily by whatever teaching methods are used in general education, even holistic methods that do not systematically teach specific reading skills (e.g., whole language methods). Struggling learners do not learn to read on their own. They need carefully orchestrated guidance by competent teachers, which is possible with use of the strategic, explicit teaching methods described in this book.

Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners is not designed to teach only beginning reading, but rather to help struggling students attain competency in reading at all levels, culminating at the adult literacy level. Some think that reading is mastered by third grade and that no special instruction is needed after this level, but this viewpoint ignores the higher level comprehension skills that are necessary for attaining adult competence in reading (Stevens & Bean, 2001).The challenges of instructing struggling students to understand their high school textbooks are as overwhelming as teaching students to master primary level word identification skills.


In response to a Congressional mandate to improve the teaching of reading in America, the National Reading Panel issued a report recommending that reading instruction be focused on five skill areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Based on this report, the document Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read was produced to assist teachers in designing instruction for these five skill areas (The Partnership for Reading, 2001).

These five areas are critically important and constitute a starting point for reading instruction, but they do not include all areas necessary for a comprehensive reading program that will make struggling learners proficient readers. The instructional model presented in this book expands the skill areas to be taught to meet the different instructional needs of struggling students.

One of the reasons for the narrowness of the skill areas included in Put Reading First, often called the Reading First initiative, is the focus on teaching reading from kindergarten to third grade. This book focuses on teaching reading from kindergarten through the secondary level because only then can students attain mastery of the reading process. The goal of reading instruction must be the attainment of adult competency in reading (i.e., the ability to read all types of material in one's environment). Reading cannot be narrowly defined as the ability to identify words or sound out words; rather, reading must be defined as a process for getting meaning from the printed page. With this definition, it becomes apparent that students must be taught many different skills so that they can understand all types of print materials that they have to read.

Another reason for the narrowness of the skills included in the Reading First Initiative is the swing that takes place in the field of reading instruction. Periodically, the emphasis in the field of reading moves from a code-breaking, or phonics, approach to a meaning-based, or literacy, approach. In the 1970s and 1980s, the meaning-based approach, typified by whole language with no systematic teaching of specific reading skills, was popular. In the 1990s, emphasis in the field of reading shifted to a code-breaking approach. This shift is reflected in the stress placed on phonics in the National Reading Panel report. Both code breaking and phonics are necessary, but not sufficient, for teaching reading to struggling students.

One of the legs of the instructional model for struggling learners includes the four skill areas of reading instruction: pre-reading, word identification, fluency, and comprehension. Phonemic awareness is included as one of a number of important skills needed before learning to read. Vocabulary is subsumed under the broader category of comprehension. Each of the four major skill areas of reading and the specific skills included in each are shown in Table 1.


Before students can learn to read, they need to develop prerequisite skills involving language, visual processes, cognitive processes, experience, and motivation.


Reading is best viewed as one level of a four-level verbal communication system that all children master.

  • Receptive oral language (understanding oral language)
  • Expressive oral language (talking)
  • Receptive written language (reading)
  • Expressive written language (written expression)

At the first level of communication, children understand language that they hear, which usually starts before age 1 in typically developing children. They then learn to use language to express their ideas, usually beginning between ages 1 and 2. After children have a strong foundation of receptive and expressive oral language (usually by age 5 or 6), they are ready to apply these skills to written language. At the third level of the communication system, children learn to understand language in written form (reading), which generally starts at age 6 in typically developing children. They learn to associate the words that they hear or speak with the words that are represented by print symbols. Finally, they reach the fourth level of the communication system in which they express their ideas through writing, which starts at about age 6 or 7.

It becomes apparent, through the use of the four-level communication system, that reading is a form of verbal communication built on a foundation of oral language and that effective reading instruction must link to this foundation. This communication system makes clear the need to tie reading and writing instruction together. For example, after students can read words with a particular sound, they need to learn to spell words with the sound. This communication system shows a basic principle of child development — that is, that learning at the receptive level precedes learning at the expressive level. Teaching receptive and then expressive mastery is one of the basic principles incorporated into the strategic, explicit teaching methodology in the instructional model.

The methods of reading instruction in general education are based on the assumption that children have mastered prerequisite receptive and expressive oral language skills. Children lacking the prerequisite language skills (e.g., students with language learning disabilities, students who are English language learners [ELLs]) do not learn to read by general education methods and may become hard to teach. Instruction for such children must include consideration of the development of both language and reading skills.

It is necessary to consider the five areas that compose oral language — phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics — in order to build reading instruction on a strong foundation of oral language. These areas of oral language, their definitions, and relationships to reading are presented in Table 2.

Phonology deals with the sounds, or phonemes, of language. Children first master discrimination of different sounds followed by the production of words with different sounds. By school age, they can produce all of the sounds in English. The skill of discriminating and analyzing sounds in spoken words is called phonological awareness.1 There is strong research support showing that phonological awareness skills are exceedingly important for learning to read (Torgesen, 1999). However, phonological awareness is necessary for learning to read primarily through phonics. Children must first attend to sounds they hear in words before they can attend to sounds they read in words. Therefore, it is necessary to teach phonological awareness skills so that students can break the code of the relationship between sounds that they hear (phonemes) and sounds represented by written letters they see (graphemes).

It is especially important to teach phonological awareness skills to students with learning disabilities who may not have mastered such skills like typically developing children (Torgesen, 1999). It may also be necessary to teach phonological awareness to ELLs because they have learned the sounds of their native language, which are often different from the sounds in English. For example, in Spanish, j is pronounced /h/, as in the word jalapeño (Phonetics: The Sounds of Spanish and English, n.d.).2 In addition, students who speak different dialects may need phonological awareness instruction because their dialect may have sounds different from Standard American English, the dialect that is used in the schools. For example, children who speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE) may use the /f/ sound instead of the /th/ sound and say the word teef for the word teeth (Salient Features of African American Vernacular English, n.d.).

A second area of language that is a prerequisite for learning to read is morphology, which has to do with morphemes, or the smallest unit of meaning in language. Morphology is a prerequisite for learning to read using structural analysis methods in which students are taught to read multisyllabic words by analyzing the parts of words. Phonics help students read one-syllable words, but structural analysis is needed to learn to read multisyllabic words. For example, to learn to read the word unlock, students must understand the meaning of the two morphemes in the word (the base word lock and the prefix un) when they are spoken so they can apply this understanding when they read them. Three groups of children may have difficulty with morphology and may not be able to make the leap to reading larger, complex words: children with language learning disabilities, ELLs, and speakers of dialects other than Standard American English. For example, ELLs whose first language is Spanish may use mas (more) to show comparison rather than adding er onto a word (e.g., more fast versus faster).

1Phonological awareness is a broad term encompassing different ways of analyzing sounds. Phonemic awareness is a narrow term focusing on some ways of analyzing sounds. (See p. 29 for further information.)

2When letters are separated by hyphens within slash marks, the letter sounds, not the letter names, are represented. For example, when the word cat is written as /k-a-t/, the sounds of the letters are to be used. When the word is presented with spaces (c a t), then the letter names are to be used.

Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Teaching Reading to Struggling Learners, by Esther Minskoff, Ph.D.

Copyright©2005 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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