The Art and Science of Teaching Struggling Readers

By Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Education, Kent State University

The fact of the matter is that we have too many children who struggle in becoming proficient readers. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (The Nation’s Report Card, 2019) reports that only 35% of fourth grade students and 34% of eighth grade students read at a level that’s considered proficient or above. This means, then, that about two-thirds of students in the fourth and eighth grades are below proficient in terms of their reading development. What’s to be done to solve this problem of low achieving readers?

Foundational Skills Are a Major Stumbling Block

Research has shown that foundational reading skills appear to be a major stumbling block for developing readers. For example, students in primary grades (K-3) fail to develop sufficiently in terms of phonemic awareness, phonics and sight word recognition, vocabulary, and fluency, and, as a result, these difficulties snowball into even more significant and substantial difficulties with reading comprehension, motivation for reading, and reading and learning in disciplinary areas.

The Artful Approach: An Ideal Solution

Obviously, logic suggests that students should be provided with compensatory instruction that matches their area(s) of concern in reading. The task for a teacher or interventionist, however, is to first determine the area(s) of concern and then design and implement instruction to meet those needs. With the variety of areas of concern as well as the various combinations of areas, developing instruction to meet students’ individual needs can be a Herculean task. Moreover, focusing solely on individual areas of concern can result in instruction that is disjointed, failing to resemble anything like real reading.

“I always thought of myself as a humanities person, but I liked electronics. Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that is what I wanted to do.”

– Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple Computer

An artful approach to instruction for struggling readers recognizes the need for foundational instruction. But rather than teaching struggling readers in terms of individual areas of concern, an artful approach attempts to consolidate instruction in the various areas into a single lesson that provides instructional opportunities in all foundational areas. Moreover, an artful approach resembles real reading and provides opportunities for teachers to be creative in their development of instruction. Enter the Fluency Development Lesson.

The Fluency Development Lesson

Although the title Fluency Development Lesson (FDL) suggests a lesson format focused exclusively on reading fluency, the FDL actually provides opportunities for teachers to also provide instruction in the other foundational areas (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary) as needed. The ostensible goal for each FDL is for students to be able to read a text with fluency and meaning. Students who struggle in reading often do not see themselves as achieving success. With the FDL, students achieve real, tangible achievement with each lesson.

The FDL begins with a copy of a short text, often a poem, that the student(s) will master and perform. We encourage teachers to choose poems that students would like to read and perform, and that are related to a particular topic or time of year. Two copies of the poem are made for each student and a larger display copy is also made. The steps in each lesson are as follows:

  1. The teacher introduces a new, relatively brief text and reads it to students two or three times while students follow along. Text can be a poem or a short segment from another text.
  2. The teacher and students discuss the nature and content of the passage as well as the teacher’s readings of the passage.
  3. The teacher and students then read the passage chorally several times (assisted reading) in various formats – whole text, alternate lines, girls/boys, etc. – to maintain interest.
  4. The teacher organizes student pairs or trios. Each student practices the passage 2-3 times (repeated readings) while his or her partner listens and provides support and encouragement. The teacher also observes and gives encouragement and feedback.
  5. Individuals and groups of students perform their reading for the class or other audience (perhaps to a parent sitting outside the classroom or create a recording to share with parents).
  6. The students and their teacher choose up to eight words from the text to add to each student’s and the classroom’s word bank.
  7. Students engage in word study activities (e.g. phonemic analyses and word analyses, like rimes and morphemes, word sorts, flashcard practice, defining words, word games, etc.)
  8. Students take a copy of the passage home to practice and perform for parents and other family members (we ask parents to listen to their children read the text at least three more times at home and praise lavishly for their student’s efforts). The other copy of the text is kept in school for future practice.
  9. Students return to school and read the passage to the teacher or a partner who checks for fluency and accuracy.
  10. A new FDL begins the following day with a new text to be practiced and mastered.

Authentic Instruction That Drives Results

The artful and authentic nature of the FDL makes it appealing to students. They are learning to read a text with fluency each day. The teacher has creative choice as to which text is to be read daily as well as the follow-up word study activities. The FDL is comprehensive in that it has the ability to address all foundational reading skills in one lesson. The FDL also crosses boundaries from school to home and allows parents to be active in their children’s reading development simply by being good and enthusiastic listeners for their children. Finally, there is scientific evidence that implementation of the FDL on a regular basis does have positive outcomes on children's reading development at a variety of grade levels (e.g., Zimmerman, Rasinski, Kruse, Was, Rawson, Dunlosky, & Nikbakht, 2019).

Students who struggle in reading do not have to be subjected to instruction that is less than authentic and for which they seldom do not see themselves making progress. The challenge is for teachers and reading interventionists to do as Steve Jobs did – stand at the intersection of science and art – to make instruction that has the ability to touch the heart as well as educate the head.

Once balance has been found, students’ reading abilities will begin to take off! And that is the outcome we all hope for.

To learn more about the FDL, please see: Rasinski, T. V. (2010). The fluent reader: Oral and silent reading strategies for building word recognition, fluency, and comprehension (2nd edition). New York: Scholastic.

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Read more of Dr. Rasinski’s Art and Science of Reading series:

The Art and Science of Reading Instruction
The Art and Science of Teaching Vocabulary
The Art and Science of Teaching Word Recognition (Phonics)
The Art and Science of Teaching Reading Fluency
The Art and Science of Teaching Reading Comprehension

Zimmerman, B.S., Rasinski, T.V., Kruse, S.D., Was, C.A., Rawson, K.A., Dunlosky, J., & Nikbakht, E. (2019). Enhancing outcomes for struggling readers: Empirical analysis of the fluency development lesson, Reading Psychology,40(1), 70-94.


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