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New approaches in supporting struggling readers

By Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
In his work, Understanding Common Core State Standards, John Kendall cautions that under Common Core “it’s likely that [we] will have something new to learn and something to unlearn” (Kendall, 2011, page 43).

This idea applies in the area of text-complexity, where the concept itself is our “something new to learn” but where we also have to “unlearn” certain approaches that pertain to reading intervention.

Many strategies and commercial programs have been built around “High-Low” books. These are high interest, low readability books found in reading interventions and are not typically available, used, or even desired outside of those programs. Using a metaphor of weight training, when students struggled with lifting heavier (more complex) texts, we took weight off the bar by switching them to lighter (easier) alternatives. This included offering either simpler works or simpler versions (e.g. abridged) of the same works.

However, the authors of Common Core caution us against this approach:

Far too often, students who have fallen behind are given only less complex texts rather than the support they need to read texts at the appropriate level of complexity. Complex text is a rich repository to which all readers need access, although some students will need more scaffolding to do so.

(Coleman & Pimentel, 2012)

As a result of this new perspective, discussions around scaffolding and support for struggling readers are proliferating.  Our attention is turning to how we can build up and support struggling readers rather than switch them to alternative selections and thereby deny them access to complex texts –  that “rich repository to which all readers need access .“

When pushed on this issue, Common Core authors will admit that scaffolding is not always sufficient to get every struggling reader engaging appropriately with complex texts. Some readers who have developed significant gaps may, indeed, need alternative selections. However, it is clear that switching students to less complex texts should now be a last resort that comes only after thoughtful consideration of scaffolding and support strategies.

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Coleman, D., & Pimentel, S. (2012, 04-12). Revised publishers’ criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and literacy, grades 3–12 . Retrieved from
Kendall, J. (2011). Understanding Common Core State Standards. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, is a third-generation educator with teaching experience from elementary through the university level, in addition to his K–12 administrative experience. As Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance, Dr. Kerns advises educators in both the US and the UK about academic trends and opportunities. Previously, he served as the Supervisor of Academic Services for the Milford School District in Delaware. He is the co-author of three books: inFormative Assessment: When It’s Not About a Grade; Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise; and Literacy Reframed: How a Focus on Decoding, Vocabulary, and Background Knowledge Improves Reading Comprehension.


  1. Cyndia MArrero says:

    I agree with the statement, that struggling readers need to be exposed to higher level text with the appropriate scaffolding and support. When students are exposed to higher level text, it exposes them to vocabulary, which they would not find in text at their reading level. In addition, student’s self esteem improves when they believe they are capable of understanding grade level text or above grade level text. The use of effective scaffolding and differentiated instruction strategies helps struggling readers comprehend text that is above their reading level and helps decrease the learning gap of struggling readers. I have mostly experienced this with struggling readers who are in Middle School and High School.

  2. Carol Bodofsky says:

    I also concur. I have a few students whose decoding is very limited, but who have excellent comprehension at all levels. These students thrive on the higher-order questions. With students who don’t have that natural higher-order thinking process already, I find that modeling as a think aloud often helps get them thinking!

  3. Sarah Danielle says:

    I teach elementary age students in a highly accelerated curriculum where my students are continuously learning secondary/college level vocabulary and are reading complex text definitions and general material in all subjects (incl. Physical Science, U.S. History & Intermediate Algebra word problems). We have been successful by teaching groups of vocabulary words (of any subject matter) in a whole class environment eliciting high arousal through maximum opportunities to respond, choraling the material, checking individual accountability, and review of this process at the end of each day and the beginning of each day. For general reading materials, we practice bridged reading for accuracy and fluency, and eventually comprehension. It is not uncommon to find several vocabulary words we have recently learned in the text. All this has been inspiring to me as a teacher, but I must share, on a personal level, that I dearly miss using Accelerated Reader, which I used for years at another school. AR galvanized my students to read in great quantity, gradually increasing their independent reading levels, which is so important. My personal opinion is that all of the above should be utilized, covering a “present progressive” range.

    • Gene Kerns says:

      Yes, AR still has an important role to play in reading overall. In the zeal around text complexity and text-dependent questions as major “shifts” of Common Core, the multiple references to the importance of independent reading that are also in the Standards are often overlooked:
      – “Students need opportunities to stretch their reading abilities but also to experience the satisfaction and pleasure of easy, fluent reading within them, both of which the Standards allow for.” ELA Appendix A, Page 9
      – The Publishers’ Criteria documents call for materials to “markedly increase the opportunity for regular independent reading of texts that appeal to students’ interests to develop both their knowledge and joy in reading.”
      – David Coleman, Chairman of the ELA/Literacy Committee commented in an video that Text complexity does not apply “to all of the work (students do). Students will want to and should read a lot of material at their own level to develop a joy of reading, a pleasure of reading, and knowledge about the world.”

      We suggest that folks think of the different types of reading that should occur in everyclassroom as T -W – I – Reading TO students, reading WITH students (which encompasses much of what we do in the name of instruction) and having students read INDEPENDENTLY. These are 3 different types of reading practice, all governed my differnt rules, strategies, and measures of success.

  4. Lea Stone says:

    The idea of giving all kids access to grade level and/or challenging text definitely needs to be in our conversations when discussing the new pedagogical shifts needed to address coomon core standards, and prepare our students to be successful learners. Scaffolding is extremely necessary for helping struggling
    readers with challeng text but perhaps even more imperative is that we explicitly teach strategies for understanding complex text. If we are using scaffolding, we need to be purposeful in gradually reducing the scaffolding , allowing students to apply the strategies while teachers formatively assess and provide feedback to the student. We need to remember that if text we provide is not challenging, then the need for students to use strategies for understanding is reduced.

  5. Tonya says:

    I enjoyed reading the article and wouldn’t we educators of reading comprehension agree that it’s simply about “Balanced Literacy”. Think about it – if the initial text which the teacher uses is on grade level (exposing our students to the more challenging vocabulary), the second text would then need to be a leveled reader (high/low) – so our students feel more comfortable and accomplished in their own readability, then the final text should be their independent text (library book) which has tremendous interest for them. The challenge then becomes how to move school curriculum away from the one-size-fits- all literacy program to what works best for the individual child.

    • Mary says:

      I agree. My mother was a first grade teacher. She always laughed when a “new” approach to reading was touted, usually by a text book company that had profits in mind or an esteemed college professor who had never taught in an elementary classroom. Her experiences showed her that there was no one best way to teach reading. You had to try everything in your arsenal and be constantly educating yourself about new approaches until you find the one thing that works for a particular child. It makes teaching challenging but also always new and exciting. I love all this conversation about Common Core. It’s bringing us all to the table with our ideas. If we gain nothing else from it, at least we are talking and, hopefully, listening. Our students will be the ones who benefit.

  6. Leslie says:

    “Using a metaphor of weight training, when students struggled with lifting heavier (more complex) texts, we took weight off the bar by switching them to lighter (easier) alternatives. ”

    If we are to use the metaphor of weight training, would we want to start the underdeveloped adolescent off with a 200 pound barbell? No, of course not. We start with something manageable, then add weight in small increments as muscle develops. Hi-low books were never meant to be the end goal of any reading instruction. Rather, they are the entry point for readers who do not yet have the cognitive muscle to tackle complex text successfully. With thoughtful application and progress monitoring by a well trained teacher or interventionist, struggling readers can be coached to improve their decoding and meaning making skills in much the same way our 90 pound weakling can develop strength through regular sessions with a personal trainer.