40 Ways to Support Struggling Readers in Content Classrooms, Grades 6–12


Elaine K. McEwan

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    List of Instructional Aids

    • 1.1 Seven Strategies of Highly Effective Readers 3
    • 1.2 A Lesson Template for Teaching Cognitive Strategies 4
    • 1.3 A Lesson Plan for Teaching Summarizing 5
    • 2.1 A Teacher Think-Aloud: A Letter From Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis (1803) 11
    • 4.1 Sample Inference Statements 21
    • 4.2 Think-Aloud Form for Making Inferences 22
    • 5.1 Clarifying Tools 27
    • 8.1 How to Search and Select: A Poster 35
    • 9.1 The Five C's of Summarizing: Comprehend 39
    • 9.2 The Five Cs of Summarizing: Chunk 40
    • 9.3 The Five Cs of Summarizing: Compact 41
    • 9.4 The Five C's of Summarizing: Conceptualize 42
    • 9.5 The Five C's of Summarizing: Connect 43
    • 10.1 Graphic Organizers for Content Instruction 49
    • 11.1 Concept Map of Easy Nonfiction 53
    • 12.1 Master for Math Stickies 57
    • 14.1 I Do It, We Do It, You Do It Lesson Plan Form 66
    • 15.1 A Simulation for Mitosis (or Meiosis) 69
    • 21.1 Blank Semantic Word Map 83
    • 21.2 Semantic Word Map: The Brain 84
    • 21.3 A Lesson Template for Teaching a Semantic Word Map 85
    • 24.1 Selected Bibliography of Easy Content Concept Books 95
    • 28.1 Choral Reading: Seven Strategies of Highly Effective Readers 106
    • 28.2 Readers Theater: A Love Story—Ed and Petunia 108
    • 29.1 Teaching Moves 111
    • 31.1 Rubric for Evaluating Personal Think-Aloud 118
    • 35.1 GROK Sheet 129
    • 35.2 Scoring Rubric for the GROK Sheet 130
    • 35.3 Rubric for Social Studies Writing 131
    • 39.1 Definitions for Developing a Rubric 144
    • 39.2 Scoring Rubric for Writing in Response to Science Prompt 145
    • 39.3 Point Totals and Corresponding Percentages 146
    • 39.4 Model Response for Scoring by Science Teachers 146
    • 39.5 How to Write a Paragraph 147
    • 39.6 Paragraph-Writing Worksheet 149
    • 39.7 A Lesson Template for Teaching Paragraph Structure 150


    The major challenge of teaching secondary content in the current era of accountability lies in helping all students read the massive textbooks, understand the complex concepts and ideas, and demonstrate proficiency on high-stakes tests.

    No Child Left Behind (2002) has created a growing sense of urgency on the part of every secondary educator to find ways to help struggling readers achieve. The idea is not that you are expected to teach struggling readers how to read. However, you are increasingly being expected to teach the knowledge and skills related to your discipline on which all students will be tested. To reach even a modest level of proficiency, struggling readers need support. While this book doesn't provide easy answers, it contains dozens of ways that you can scaffold these frustrated students to enable them to be more successful in your classroom.

    Who Is the Struggling Reader?

    Struggling secondary readers do know how to read. They are not nonreaders. They just can't read the same quantity and difficulty of material found in their content textbooks as their on-grade-level peers. Struggling readers are usually below-grade-level readers. However, you will find some students on grade level who are temporarily struggling in certain disciplines or for certain topics (e.g., honors biology students using a college-level textbook).

    Most struggling readers have a few gaps here and there in their phonics knowledge, making it difficult for them to identify multisyllabic content words without support. Others cannot identify words quickly enough to read fluently. There are still other struggling readers who can pronounce the words but don't know what they mean, because they lack the necessary background knowledge and vocabulary. Most struggling readers do little independent reading because it is a painful process, and their word and world knowledge is limited. When motivated and supported in content classrooms, struggling readers can master content as well as improve their reading and writing skills. Initially, the goal of scaffolding struggling readers in your content classroom may seem overwhelming and unrealistic. It is, undeniably, a challenge. However, do not let the enormity of the task deter you from experimenting with one or two of the research-based and classroom-tested approaches found in this book. Start modestly and aim for short-term success.

    Who This Book Is for

    I have written 40 Ways to Support Struggling Readers in Content Classrooms, Grades 6–12 specifically for academic-content teachers (social studies, science, mathematics, and English) who want to become more adept at meeting the needs of students who struggle with mastering academic standards and content in their classrooms. The following audiences will also find the book to be helpful:

    • Literacy coaches, interventionists, teachers of English language learners (ELLs), as well as Title I and special education teachers who support secondary teachers in meeting the needs of at-risk students
    • Secondary administrators and department chairpersons who men-tor, coach, and evaluate teachers, both novice and experienced
    • Teams and departments who desire to choose one or more of the 40 ways to develop content-specific lessons that incorporate the techniques
    • Central office administrators who provide professional development for secondary teachers
    • University professors who teach courses focused on reading in the content areas
    Overview of the Contents

    40 Ways to Support Struggling Readers in Content Classrooms, Grades 6–12 is about scaffolding—the process by which expert teachers support novice learners. Providing academic scaffolding for struggling readers is like throwing a life preserver to beginning swimmers floundering in the deep end of the pool. Even though you may not be able to teach them all they need to know to be highly proficient swimmers (readers), you can save them from drowning (failing) in the deep water.

    The book contains 40 research-based and classroom-tested activities that teachers can implement to help struggling readers be more successful. An additional benefit of many of these methods is that they also have the potential to raise the achievement of average and above-average students.

    The 40 activities are arranged in numerical order from 1 to 40. They can be accessed through three separate tables of contents found at the beginning of the book:

    • A traditional table of contents in which the various methods are listed in numerical order followed by the appropriate page numbers
    • A problem-solution table of contents in which the various methods are grouped as solutions to these common problems:
      • Students who read it but don't get it
      • Students who don't get it, even after you've taught it
      • ELLs and other students who lack vocabulary
      • Students who are overwhelmed by too many concepts
      • Students who lack background knowledge about academic content
      • Students who can't read the textbook at all
      • Students who are bored, unmotivated, or sleeping in class
      • Students who are confused
      • Students who need to process what they are hearing and reading more frequently
      • Students who can't retain information for tests
    • A topical table of contents in which the various methods are grouped by categories (e.g., Cognitive Strategy Instruction, Graphic Organizing, Vocabulary Instruction)

    Each of the 40 activities contains the following features:

    • An intriguing quotation or definition to grab your attention
    • A brief description of the method and suggestions for how to implement it
    • Recommended resources to help you gain a more in-depth understanding of the method, either through independent study or as part of a professional learning community
    • Research citations that demonstrate the power of the method to get results
    • Accompanying instructional aids where applicable

    You do not need to read this book from beginning to end to benefit from its contents. Skim one or more of the three tables of contents and select an approach, a problem, or a topic that appeals to you. Each of the 40 activities can be used singly. However, many of the approaches gain power when used in combination with one another. You will find cross-references and advance organizers throughout the book to help you make connections between various approaches.

    Question the Author

    One of the ways described in this book for improving students’ understanding of text is Activity 7, Teach Students How to Question the Author. This approach suggests that you explicitly teach your students how to question the author of any text that they read—conducting an imaginary dialogue, if you will. I engage in a similar exercise when I am writing books: I imagine conversations with you, the reader, and try to answer your questions and address your concerns as they might occur during your reading. There are several questions and reactions that content teachers typically have when they hear about some of these approaches for the first time:

    • I can't possibly do all these things in addition to what I'm already doing.

      Please remember that this book provides options, not mandates. Consider these approaches as possibilities, not prescriptions.

    • These ideas are great, but I don't have the time. I have content to teach.

      The underlying premise of the 40 ways is to help you teach more in less time—not make more work for you. Although an initial investment of time is required to learn a new approach, the payoff in increased student achievement will be worth it.

    • I am only one person. How can I teach content and help the students who can't read at the same time?

      I am suggesting that you support struggling readers, not teach them to read from scratch. That is someone else's job.


    I am grateful to the many middle and high school teachers and principals who have continued to ask the tough questions and been persistent about finding ways to support struggling readers in their classrooms. They have motivated me to find answers in the fields of reading, cognitive science, and educational psychology. Special thanks go to Allyson Burnett (interventionist at Alief Hasting High School, Houston, TX), Raymond Lowery (associate principal for instruction at Alief Hastings High School, Houston, TX), Val Bresnahan (special and regular education teacher at Franklin Middle School, Wheaton, IL), Beth Balkus (principal, Millard Central Middle School, Omaha, NE), and Linda Nielsen (reading teacher at Pacifica High School, Oxnard, CA).

    As always I thank my husband, Raymond, for his love, encouragement, and copy editing. We slipped this book into an already full schedule, and he rose to the occasion. He tells the truth in love with a tender heart and a patient voice. No writer could ask for a more supportive partner.

    Corwin Press gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following people:

    • Dr. Scott Mandel
    • Corwin Press Author
    • Teacher
    • Los Angeles Unified School District
    • Los Angeles, CA
    • Carl A. Young
    • Assistant Professor, Curriculum and Instruction
    • North Carolina State University
    • Raleigh, NC
    • Barbara L. Townsend
    • Reading Specialist
    • Elkhorn Area School District
    • Elkhorn, WI
    • Shari Hills Conditt
    • National Board Certified Teacher, History
    • Woodland High School
    • Woodland, WA
    • Melanie R. Kuhn
    • Assistant Professor
    • Rutgers Graduate School of Education
    • New Brunswick, NJ
    • Sandra Ness
    • Literacy Teacher
    • Patrick Henry High School
    • Minneapolis, MN
    • Natalie McAvoy
    • Reading Specialist
    • Tibbets Elementary
    • Elkhorn, WI
    • Kristie Mary Betts
    • National Board Certified Teacher, English
    • Peak to Peak High School
    • Lafayette, CO

    About the Author

    Elaine K. McEwan is a partner and educational consultant with The McEwan-Adkins Group, offering workshops in leadership and raising student achievement, K–12. A former teacher, librarian, principal, and assistant superintendent for instruction in a suburban Chicago school district, she is the author of more than 35 books for parents and educators. Her Corwin Press titles include Leading Your Team to Excellence: Making Quality Decisions (1997); The Principal's Guide to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (1998); How to Deal With Parents Who Are Angry, Troubled, Afraid, or Just Plain Crazy (1998); The Principal's Guide to Raising Reading Achievement (1998); Counseling Tips for Elementary School Principals (1999) with Jeffrey A. Kottler; Managing Unmanageable Students: Practical Solutions for Educators (2000) with Mary Damer; The Principal's Guide to Raising Math Achievement (2000); Raising Reading Achievement in Middle and High Schools: Five Simple-to-Follow Strategies for Principals (2001); 10 Traits of Highly Effective Teachers: How to Hire, Mentor, and Coach Successful Teachers (2001); Teach Them ALL to Read: Catching the Kids Who Fall Through the Cracks (2002); 7 Steps to Effective Instructional Leadership, Second Edition (2003); Making Sense of Research: What's Good, What's Not, and How to Tell the Difference (2003) with Patrick J. McEwan; 10 Traits of Highly Effective Principals: From Good to Great Performance (2003); 7 Strategies of Highly Effective Readers: Using Cognitive Research to Boost K–8 Achievement (2004); How to Deal With Parents Who Are Angry, Troubled, Afraid or Just Plain Crazy, Second Edition (2004); How to Deal With Teachers Who Are Angry, Troubled, Exhausted, or Just Plain Confused (2005); How to Survive and Thrive in the First Three Weeks of School (2006); and Raising Reading Achievement in Middle and High Schools, Second Edition (2007).

    Elaine was honored by the Illinois Principals Association as an outstanding instructional leader by the Illinois State Board of Education with an Award of Excellence in the Those Who Excel Program, and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals as the National Distinguished Principal from Illinois for 1991. She received her undergraduate degree in education from Wheaton College and advanced degrees in library science (MA) and educational administration (EdD) from Northern Illinois University. She lives with her husband and business partner E. Raymond Adkins in Oro Valley, Arizona.

    Visit Elaine's Web site at http://www.elainemcewan.com where you can learn more about her writing and workshops or contact her directly at emcewan@elainemcewan.com.

  • Conclusion

    The idea is not that content-area teachers should become reading and writing teachers, but rather that they should emphasize the reading and writing practices that are specific to their subjects, so students are encouraged to read and write like historians, scientists, mathematicians, and other subject-area experts.

    —Biancarosa and Snow (2004, p. 15)

    Secondary teachers are among the hardest working and most dedicated of professionals. They teach multiple sections of several different courses, advise and supervise, tutor after school and during lunch, and fit in collaborative teaming and professional development in their spare time. They plan lessons, write exams, and grade hundreds of papers. Regrettably, the time and effort expended on these activities don't always get results. Many students, especially struggling readers, fail and ultimately drop out of school.

    I have written this book to help you support these students before they fall through the cracks. There are no easy answers. But there are some big ideas—ideas that can help you scaffold struggling readers in research-based and classroom-tested ways.

    The Big Ideas
    • Content teachers are uniquely suited to helping struggling readers become more competent readers and writers of content—through thinking aloud and modeling their own processing of text reading and writing.
    • The fact that there are so many struggling readers should not deter teachers from teaching content and having high expectations. Many struggling readers will catch on, get turned on, and begin to take more responsibility for their own learning when they sense strong teacher support. Toss out a life preserver in the form of a new approach or method, and see who grabs on.
    • The life preservers you have at your disposal are the 40 ways to make content more accessible to struggling readers.
    • If you want struggling readers (or any students) to learn and remember critical academic content, they must constantly be engaged in a variety of cognitive processing activities.
    • Struggling readers cannot learn from inaccessible lectures and textbooks without support.
    • It is only by changing the quality and quantity of processing opportunities that struggling readers will begin to succeed.
    • Infusing the 40 ways to support struggling readers into your content instruction will enhance your teaching effectiveness for all students.

    In addition to these big ideas, there are also two small ideas—pervasive expectations that demoralize content teachers:

    • You should not be expected to teach beginning reading. Teaching students to read from scratch is a job for highly skilled reading professionals.
    • You should not be expected to teach reading skills or study skills or test preparation in isolation from your content.
    My Goals in Writing This Book

    I began writing this book with one goal in mind: to provide secondary teachers with research-based ways to support struggling readers in their content classrooms. When I finished writing, I realized that I also had a second goal: to support content teachers in their efforts to make a difference in the lives of struggling readers. There are two questions to answer with regard to taking on the challenge: If not now, then when? If not us, then who?


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