Research Time, Part 2: Working with Struggling Readers

In my previous post, I took a spin through a journal article that discussed some of the cognitive and experiential factors that influence children’s early literacy attainment, and focused particularly on the cognitive factors. I learned that there are a wide variety of processing characteristics on the brain level that vary in different children, and that a deficit in any one of those characteristics can cause difficulty in learning to read.

The processes involved include things like being able to perceive spatial order, being able to process the relationships between groupings of letters and the words they become, being able to remember the names for things and connect the word to the thing itself. There is a surprising level of granularity that can be studied in literacy learning.

So the next thing I want to do in this series of posts is to look at specifically how reading teachers and tutors overcome some of the inherent cognitive processes and the potential deficits therein that impact children’s literacy attainment. In other words: how do we – librarians and literacy practitioners – teach through and around the vast variation in children’s cognitive abilities?


What really matters when working with struggling readers

So for today’s post, I want to look a piece by Richard Allington that discusses the actual practice of working with struggling readers. The eventual hope of this series is that we can begin to establish some specific practices and useful strategies for working with children of varying reading ability levels.

Perhaps one particularly significant statement in Allington’s piece is that there is no one “best way” to pursue literacy learning. Historically, trends and strategies have varied greatly, and though perhaps each time we believe we have cracked the code, it is difficult to identify a decided superiority of one approach over another. Allington’s discussion of literacy curricula purchased for school settings is absolutely damning: he says most such programs “typically provide lessons that bear little or no relationship to the research on fostering the development of reading comprehension” but even so, “in the past decade, federal, state, and district policies have focused on mandating the use of an approach that has generated no support in the research on teaching beginning readers.”

He cites Vellutino and Scanlon, the same researchers from whose work I learned about cognitive and processing factors in my previous post, as illustrating the superiority of professional reading specialists in a direct intervention strategy for struggling readers. But librarians are not usually professional reading specialists. What can we glean then from this research?

I propose that there are three major functions from Allington’s work that librarians can perform for struggling readers – they happen to be functions that benefit more proficient readers too, and things we can do without undertaking a massive program or policy shift. Here are these three major functions:

  • Summer reading, summer reading, summer reading. Allington points out that a dozen self-selected books provided to kids at risk of falling behind can undo the “summer slide” which comprises a great deal of the difference between high achieving readers and low achieving readers. Why is this the case? Because independent reading, or self-instruction, is a sometimes-forgotten key to literacy attainment. Processing, phonics, and comprehension are all attained at least in part by independent reading. So, librarians: when you perform the simple act of putting books in kids’ hands, you are contributing to their literacy attainment.
  • Reading at an appropriate level. Struggling readers often do better when they are reading at their own level, as opposed to reading at grade level. High-success reading is actually not lazy reading at all – it is the kind of reading that most adults prefer as well. Too-difficult texts are exhausting and demotivating. So, librarians: when you have the skill to suggest a level-appropriate text to a child, you are contributing to their literacy attainment. Help a child find a book they can read and want to read.
  • Providing literacy support to struggling readers. Libraries already provide numerous literacy supports that can promote literacy learning through literacy doing. An example: a library program in which a child has an opportunity to read to a therapy dog, a common early literacy program, provides a child with a chance to participate in a reading assignment in a friendly and judgment-free environment. As Allington points out, poor readers are often given assignments in isolation, but good readers are often given opportunities to demonstrate their abilities. Perhaps giving struggling readers an opportunity to practice demonstrating their abilities at any level promotes engagement and confidence. This, in addition to trained literacy tutors which are present in many libraries, is a potentially useful strategy with children who are struggling to read. So, librarians: when you provide a child with an opportunity to exercise his or her reading skill in a safe environment, or to improve it with a literacy tutor, you are contributing to their literacy attainment.

Allington’s article is surprising in its conclusion. He seems to be arguing – and I would say that this argument is compelling for sure – that strict adherence to a pre-existing literacy curriculum doesn’t work in a big-picture sense. Some children will learn adequately in this context (and this may be despite the curriculum, not because of it), while others will fall behind, and it is the children who are falling behind who are the focus of my study this week.

Instead, Allington is proposing something almost radically simple: professional, relational, individual reading instruction; opportunities to experience and demonstrate reading success; and opportunities to read materials that are actually interesting and actually at a child’s ability level. This is a perfect opportunity for libraries to lead, and if not to lead to partner.

I hope that you read these ideas and feel excited about what you already do and what you have the ability to do in the future.


Allington, R. L. (2013). What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers. Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520-530. doi:10.1002/TRTR.1154


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