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Teaching literacy when students are below grade level

A second-grade teacher shares how she’s combatting learning loss by helping students recognize their potential.

4 min read

Voice of the Educator

Teaching literacy when students are below grade level


Like many educators around the world, I came into the 2020 school year in September having two jobs. I was teaching both an in-person class and a virtual class. I knew the second-grade students entering my classroom had missed out on the last half of their first-grade reading education, and I had to find a way to combat that learning loss. To make matters worse, I could see a lack of confidence was affecting their potential for growth. With a new approach to reading instruction, I have found a way to help students believe in their abilities. Here’s how it works. 

Teaching the science of reading

In college, I was not taught how to teach phonics. I was taught during the whole language era, so I wasn’t familiar with the effectiveness of structured literacy. I saw math as a subject that I could teach in a concrete way: every concept builds upon the previous concept. On the other hand, for decades, many educators had been teaching reading and literacy as an art, an abstract skill you pick up if you practice enough.

But in fact, it is a science. With this mindset, teaching reading can be much more black and white. When you know how to teach phonics according to the structured literacy framework, it’s easy to address the gaps in students’ reading skills. If students don’t know how to read a word, I can quickly show them how to break the word down using consistent patterns and steps that reveal how to properly read and pronounce the word–rather than having students guess or rely on pictures for context . Teaching phonics in a structured way has made learning to read much more concrete for both myself and my students. 

Getting beyond ‘I Can’t Read’

Unfortunately, one of my student’s mantras of the school year has been “I can’t read.” Due to COVID-19 and the learning loss that came with it, my students are reading more at a first grade than a second-grade level. Because they know they’re behind, their confidence in reading was very low when they entered my classroom.

To address our students’ reading challenges, my district adopted a new reading program, Reading Horizons Discovery, that teaches structured literacy in a way that assesses students’ reading abilities and helps them actively progress from their current level. I was worried the software was going to be another piece of technology to learn, but in a few months, I saw a lot of growth in one of my kids who “couldn’t read.” He loved building nonsense words–and he understood them–so I knew he was understanding the kinesthetic vowel clues. One day he looked at me and said, “I can read now, Mrs. Head!” This was one of those moments that make being a teacher so rewarding.

Once my students gained confidence and realized that they had the ability to learn how to read, they buckled their seatbelts and went on the ride. We wrote Christmas letters to Santa and the student I mentioned before read his out loud. He knew every word he had written, and he was so proud and happy. He now sees himself as a reader rather than someone who says “I can’t.” 

Boosting students’ (and teacher’s) confidence 

I’ve learned that students like their progress to be tangible. While they might recognize that figuring out words is easier as they continue their practice, they might not perceive it as progress or a reward. To help them visualize what they’re learning, I have a reading poster in my classroom that shows a map of progress. This visual incentive boosts their confidence and encourages them to keep growing in their reading.

Not only are the students getting a confidence boost, I am as well. When I see their growth, I’m reassured that I’m doing something right. Our reading program is constantly gathering data on what students are understanding and what concepts they are struggling with. From there, I can analyze those reports and easily see which students need intervention and how much. That reassures me that no student has been left behind.

Danielle Head is a second grade teacher at Laramie County School District #2, where she uses Reading Horizons Discovery  in her classroom. She can be reached at [email protected].

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