/  By  / 

TEACHER VOICES: Dave Keller, #1

Helping Sonia and other struggling readers

Dave Keller - TEACHER VOICES - Iserotopefavicon Sonia is a girl in my 10th Grade History class that really struggles with reading. She tries hard and wants to do well, but her reading skills make mastering course content very frustrating.

Every year I have students like Sonia. She has a well-cultivated look, is rail thin, well-known if not popular, and says she wants to be a model. Whenever she is bored, she pulls out a phone with a cracked screen and jabs at Instagram photos. For teachers she is a bit of a behavior problem and has a prickly personality reserved for us adults. At the start of the year, she eyed me warily whenever I worked with her one-on-one.

Every year I have countless conversations with the frustrated parents and counselors of students like Sonia. Everyone wants to help the Sonias of our school get better grades, but few have found a way to help these struggling readers. This year I’m trying a few new things in my classroom and am having some limited success.

The teacher’s manual I grew up with says teachers can help struggling readers in activities in which heterogeneous groups do close reading together and then “report out,” where these small groups present what they’ve learned from the text to the whole class. The idea is that skilled readers support those who struggle when students work as a team to answer guiding questions.

Through my years of teaching, I have been frustrated with this method for a few reasons.

  1. Students like Sonia hide during small group work, presumably because they don’t want their problems with reading to be known.
  2. No matter how I structure the whole class “report out,” I rarely see the entire class engaged in listening and learning together. In other words, the traditional method lacks student engagement.

This year, I’m trying three things intended to increase the engagement of all students:

  • Groups of 3. When students are in groups of three, there is better overall engagement. I’ve seen Sonia playing a leadership role in her group of three, which never happens in larger teams.
  • Opinions matter. Close reading questions that call for opinions increase engagement. I see more disagreement and deeper conversations when I use opinion questions. Sonia rarely attempts the type of question that requires a right answer. However, she constantly answers questions that call for her opinion.
  • Students in circles for discussions increases engagement. After a few tries of circle discussions, students begin to talk to each other (not just the teacher), they listen more closely to each other, and I can see them building knowledge together. As for Sonia, she struggles to participate, but I see her paying attention the entire time and really trying to find a way to get into the conversation.

Sonia doesn’t look at me as warily as she used to. She still doesn’t understand much of what she reads, but I’m content with her progress in baby steps right now.

However, I’m left wondering whether baby steps are enough. I don’t think it is, so next I’ll change the way I am supporting Sonia’s reading of the textbook. favicon

Ed. Note: Dave Keller (@dkeller101) has been teaching Social Studies for 17 years, consistently looking for new curriculum and methods of instruction. While experimenting with technology in education, Dave focuses on teaching the reading and writing skills required for studying our social universe. He has taught classes throughout the Social Studies discipline in a variety of high schools, including a large comprehensive inner-city school, a charter school, and a competitive independent school. He currently lives in Oakland and teaches at Piedmont High.


  1. Christelle Huntin Lee

    Christelle Hutin Lee wrote – Nice! A couple of thoughts: struggling readers require a good amount of pre-reading strategies (front loading). This takes a great amount of time (which is seriously limited due to … ahem, content coverage) and in my opinion, semi-heterogeneous groups, to be most effective. The classes we have are comprised of the whole array of skills, so it makes it very difficult to serve everyone at the same time. I think you’re on the right track with the opinion questions. It forces everyone to read with a higher thinking skill in mind. I could talk about this for hours…Would love to chat with you about it when you’re not busy with your classes, mock trial, wasc and who knows what else…

  2. Heidi

    Dk! This is great- even though I don’t teach your same subject matter I agree that asking for opinions is a great lead intro into more scholastic endeavors.

  3. Dave Keller

    Thanks for all of your kind comments. Christelle really got me thinking – what can I do to help front-load for kids like Sonia? Currently my front-loading is accomplished haphazardly although I used to do a lot of it. Does anyone have ideas on how to front-load in a fun/interesting way? My experience is that front-loading can’t be more work for kids on top of the reading they are assigned. I love to reading people’s suggestions.

    • Christelle Hutin

      Frontloading should be done as a whole class exercise. Activating prior schema, vocabulary, higher order thinking questions… ways to get them thinking about the topic before they even read about it. the idea is that by the time they get to the text, they have generated opinions, ideas, reflections, vocabulary of their own. Let’s talk!

Please share your brilliant insights!