Last Fall I had the great privilege of hearing Michael Kamil and others speak at a conference designed to get us the breaking news on adolescent literacy – it was fantastic and renewed my  own sense of myself as a learner…I used a whole legal pad in 2 days of sessions!  (I measure  my learning by how many notes I take…and how many doodles are on the page, obviously!)

One of my biggest a-has was that we have too many struggling readers reading text at below- levels and we are handicapping them by not teaching them to get into and handle difficult-to-read text.  Michael Kamil said this: “You get students to do difficult things by doing difficult things”…I LOVED THAT!

I think this statement will become incredibly important in developing ALL learners through the implementation of the Common Core Standards – we are going to have to get ALL students (even our most advanced learners!) to work in ways that they have not previously.  It’s an urgent challenge that we cannot shy away from!

One of the conversations that I had with my seatmate at this one particular session was this: So, HOW do we teach students to handle difficult text when they are struggling to begin with?

I’ve thought about this a lot since that session because it would definitely rank in the Top 10 Most Commonly Asked Questions in my work in the field.  I’ve talked through these ideas with some of my colleagues and clients and here’s what we’ve tried…and what’s worked!

Option 1:    Rehearse text for next week
I have seen excellent results when teachers will target the struggling decoders/comprehenders by pulling them to a smaller group at the end of the week to take a look at the text for the next week.

This “rehearsing” of text is so valuable because it lessens the intimation (we all know that kids who struggle to read oftentimes size up text and immediately think “Nope!  Can’t do that!” and give up before they’ve even tried.  While I pull them to the group, I might point things out like text structure, have them preview illustrations or text boxes, point out the genre and things that will orient the students to the type of reading they will need to do.

Option 2:    Rehearse passage that have high comprehension points
Not every portion of the text is typically high-impact – there are parts that are worth teaching and parts that are not.  Identify 3-4 several-paragraph passages that are important to the overall comprehension of the text and pre-read it with kids.

Focus on retelling the high points of those passages and tell struggling students that you will call on them to respond and read during these passages when you teach them next week.  The time you spend pre-teaching ALWAYS nets you more in the end.  It’s worth it.

Option 3:    Pre-release key strategy-related comprehension questions to students and rehearse thinking and responding
Just like we pre-release products to our most faithful and loyal clients for a sneak-peek, do the same with your struggling readers.  Identify high-impact questions from your teacher’s manual and determine which question you will pose during whole group instruction to which struggling reader.

Then, in a small group check-in the week prior, have a conversation that goes something like this: Tomas, on Monday when we work through the text as a whole group, I am going to ask you to respond to this question.  (Give Tomas the question)  Let’s talk about how Tomas might answer this question on Monday.  (Have the group give ideas)

Option 4:    Preview high-impact vocabulary words
Identify 3-4 vocabulary words that, if known well, will highly impact comprehension…and teach them to the struggling kids ahead of time!  Give them the leg up by saying, “Guys, there are a few words that I’d like to teach you so that when we get to read the text, you’ll be ready to roll.”

Then put the definitions in student-friendly language, help them put the words in the context of your selection and have a conversation where you require the students to actually use the words in their speaking.

Here’s the bottom line: I believe that many students who struggle do so for two reasons:

  • Lack of skill
  • Lack of confidence

By rehearsing important information/important text we provide them the opportunity to do more practice AND build more confidence.

Then when we get into the whole class part of the lesson, the students will feel confident in their (rehearsed) answers and that confidence will only lead to more and more confidence which likely results in more responding!

More responding leads to more practice and more practice leads to stronger skills….see how this is done?

It’s magic!

Well, kinda.

Magic of the highly planned and totally-on-purpose sort!

So where do you start?

  • Identify your struggling kids and/or those where the text inhibits their mastery of the content you’re trying to teach
  • Look at one piece of text, story, selection, article that you really need the students to understand and respond to
  • Identify 3 important passages – or passages that contain lots of the important learnings/concepts
  • Identify 3 key vocabulary words that are critical for students to know in order to master the content
  • Find 2-3 ten-minute periods near the end of the week and preview the text for next week, preteach those high-impact words and practice important passages


You’re on your way…and you haven’t made the text “easy” – you’ve easily made the text more manageable.