Three Keys for Understanding Struggling Readers

I have long had an interest with students who struggle with reading. The term struggling reader has a long history to it. Over time, students who have academic reading difficulties in school have been referred to in a number of ways including reluctant readers, struggling readers, and striving readers. When we use a term – any term – to talk about any student in any way that term automatically comes loaded up with a history and set of assumptions that we may or may not be aware of.

No matter what age we teach, we all encounter students who seem to have regular difficulties comprehending the texts we assign. I’m not talking about the student who occasionally found a text hard to read, but those for who this experience is the norm. Given that it’s a commonality, I thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at how we have historically understood students who get labeled as struggling readers.

A Typical Definition of Struggling Reader

Students who are considered to be struggling readers typically read one or more years below their current grade-level but do not have an identified learning disability of any kind. They are often perceived as lacking the skills other students possess and use with little difficulty such as analyzing information, defining vocabulary words, or applying comprehension strategies. The difficulties they have with reading are typically attributed to inadequate instruction or from their own individual failures to fully engage with and learn from texts and instruction. Overall, struggling readers are often portrayed as students with problems with experience failure with reading in school and have little to offer. It is commonly assumed that the problem resides within them and that curriculum and instruction can simply be adjusted in ways that can “fix” them – should they choose to fully engage with it.

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How Struggling are Struggling Readers?

I don’t want to suggest that struggling readers don’t have difficulties with comprehending texts in school. They do – and their difficulties are very real. However, it’s not entirely accurate to pass judgment on them based solely on what they can/cannot do with academic texts.

Researchers have shown that struggling readers engage in complex and rich literacy practices in their homes and communities. They may read traditional print texts for enjoyment, they may use the Internet to read and communicate, and some even engage in out of school book clubs and writing projects. Their literacy practices challenge us to think about what it means to be a “struggling reader.” For these students, their regular and diverse reading habits outside of school suggest they see reading as having a regular place in their lives. Reading may not always be about succeeding in school, making a good grade, or doing well on a test. Instead, it may be a way to connect with peers, explore their own world, and learn things they find relevant to their lives.

Related: More Than a Lack of Skills or Motivation

Do We Create Struggling Readers?

Is it possible that institutions like school create a category called “struggling readers” and then make that status a reality for some students? Some argue that this is the case. Schools often view reading – and readers – through a deprivation lens. They create a list of what it means to be a “good” or a “struggling” reader and then define students based on these checklists. Often these lists are based on our perceptions of what it means to read at a particular age or grade level. Under this view, good and struggling readers exist because schools create a culture that supports the categorization of some as successful and others as failing.

Going Forward

I will admit to using the term struggling reader in my own writings. I hate it, but I have often used it because it is a common term that people readily seem to understand.  And while I work to challenge our understandings of struggling readers, and how we work with them, I often feel I continue to contribute to the issue by my use of the term. If I want to make a change then a piece of that is in the language I use. Dropping the term struggling reader from my vocabulary is something I have to seriously consider. What does it buy me? What does it buy you? In what ways does this term serve to advance the reading abilities of our students?

Related: What You Can Do Right Now: Talk to Your Students