The Common Core State Standards Initiative focuses on rigor and raising expectation in classrooms nationwide. It calls for an increase in reading complexity for students of all ages. As principals and teachers work hard to ensure their curricula are standards aligned, are struggling readers at risk of being left behind?

The 10th reading standard says that by the end of the year, students will read and comprehend texts at their respective grade level independently and proficiently. The first question to ask when familiarizing yourself with the standards: “What is grade level when it comes to reading?” This is a question that many special-education teachers and literacy coaches grapple with daily.

The common core website provides guidance on Page 4 of Appendix A, where readers will find a chart with updated information about text complexity by grade band and associate measures. Still, what’s “appropriate” for each grade level is not black and white and doesn’t fit neatly into a chart, especially when working with a wide range of readers.

As a classroom teacher, it is immensely challenging to ensure that all students get what they need at their level, especially in large classes. The pressure that comes with this increase of text complexity makes this even more difficult. Perhaps now more than ever, it is crucial that teachers are creative in finding ways to meet the needs of our readers, while ensuring that our curriculum is standards aligned. Some steps you can take to get there:

  • There is a common misconception that in fourth or fifth grade, teachers can stop teaching decoding. If you have students who are struggling in this area, make sure to find time to teach them how to improve decoding, no matter what grade level you teach. A great resource might be the first- or second-grade teacher in your building.
  • Give students an opportunity to read materials that are appropriate for them, even if the level does not fall within the grade band in Appendix A. This can be in addition to other texts that they read. If you are crunched for time, try incorporating an independent reading routine in class or for homework and use that time to have students reading at their level.
  • For students who are stronger at comprehension than decoding, try pairing them with a partner for decoding or having them listen to a text read aloud. That way, they can have access to higher-level texts with increasingly difficult vocabulary in a way that is appropriate for them.
  • Include a variety of reading techniques with your class. If you usually have students read independently, try reading a text aloud and focusing on comprehension. If you usually read aloud, try using centers so you can have certain readers using headphones and listening, while others read independently or in pairs. This variety will set you up for differentiation.

You know your learners. If the level of instruction doesn’t feel appropriate for your whole class, it is time to rethink the structure of instruction. That might mean teaching in small groups or revisiting certain strategies one-on-one with a student. Raising our expectations is a good thing, and being in tune to what students need can help us pinpoint exactly where our expectations should be.

Three additional resources that can help you support struggling readers:

  1. ReadWorks.org: This website is free and provides access to nonfiction passages organized by grade level, skill or strategy, and keywords.
  2. Scholastic Action magazine’s Differentiated Articles: This is an intervention magazine for grades 6 to 12, and the link offers differentiated articles at three Lexile levels so you can differentiate in your classroom.
  3. BiblioNasium: This is a free, protected social network for children ages 6 to 12 designed to engage, encourage and excite young people about reading. It is used by parents and teachers.

Marisa Kaplan (@EdGeeks) is a special-education teacher and literacy coach in New York City. She has a master’s degree in learning disabilities and has taught in settings from early childhood to middle school. She writes a blog, EdGeeks, consults with local education technology startups and frequents educational meet-ups and conferences in the New York City area.

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