How to Accelerate Growth for Struggling Readers

Infant brains are hard-wired for language.  We are born universal listeners with the incredible ability to discriminate between hundreds of sounds found in languages across the globe, and within a critical window, simple exposure to a language is enough to learn it.

The same is not true for learning to read, and it’s no secret that many schools are failing to teach our children the foundations of literacy.  More than 30 million adults in the United States have not progressed beyond a third-grade level in reading, and in 2019, only 45% of 3rd-8th grade students in New York State were considered proficient readers.  The disparity is even more pronounced in school districts that serve communities in which most residents live in a state of poverty.

Some schools, however, are marrying mountains of reading science with systems and structures designed to consistently identify struggling readers and systematically fill deficits, and they are seeing astounding results.  At Classical Charter Schools, for example, 91% of 3rd-8th graders were considered proficient or advanced readers in 2019 according to the NYS ELA Exam.  Year after year, 95-100% of Classical’s students have met or exceeded end-of-year reading expectations set by Fountas and Pinnell (F&P)

While many factors influence these results, several key tenets of Classical’s approach to struggling readers can be applied to schools across the nation.


At Classical, we believe it’s critical to regularly assess children’s reading abilities to measure growth and inform instruction, and we opt to use the F&P Benchmark Assessment System.  While most informal reading inventories will do the trick, it’s important to use one that not only allows teachers to identify a child’s independent and instructional reading level, but one that provides teachers with tools to quantify and observe specific reading behaviors that can inform instruction.

We assess each student’s reading growth every 6 weeks, and more frequently if the child is reading below expectations.  This enables us to pinpoint students’ precise strengths, growth opportunities, and reading level, and ensures instruction is always targeted to each child’s individual needs.

If more granular assessment is needed to inform instruction for students who are particularly struggling, we’ll use an informal phonics inventory, spelling inventory, or phonological awareness assessment.

Assessments are not the enemy if they quantify growth and inform targeted instruction.

Analysis and Purposeful Groupings

Following each round of F&P running records, we analyze school-wide running record data from a few different angles.  First, to identify the students who are most in need of reading intervention from our reading specialist, we look at how many students in each grade are one level below, two levels below, etc.  We consider each grade-team’s collective instructional strengths relative to student needs, the ratio of teachers to students in each grade, the spread of reading levels across the grade, and other literacy-specific factors (i.e. children who are building fluency skills will need longer-term intervention than students with phonics deficits).

When determining groupings, we group students first by reading level and second by skill deficits.  We then categorize student deficits by reading accuracy and comprehension to determine final groupings.

The school’s reading specialist then identifies the root cause of each group’s collective deficits, creates individual student goals with measurable outcomes, and builds an instructional roadmap designed to close the foundational gaps that are preventing the readers from making accelerated progress.

Strategy and Skill-Driven Instruction

At Classical, we believe reading intervention instruction should be explicit, systematic, targeted and, when necessary, multi-sensory.  We strive to make everything we model for children transferable.  Every student should walk away from every lesson knowing exactly when and how to apply the strategy she just learned.  We aim to ensure students know exactly how the strategy they are practicing connects to the skill they are pursuing.  Consider the following examples of this:

“We rephrase after reading every sentence [strategy] to make sure we understand the sentence before moving on [skill].”

“We annotate the main idea of each paragraph [strategy] so we can accurately retell the key details of a text [skill].” 

“When we get stuck on a tricky word, we find a part we know [strategy] so we can read 100% of words accurately [skill].”

Strategies are essentially habits which, when internalized, will lead to specific skill acquisition that can otherwise be somewhat ambiguous.  For example, telling a child to “read 100% of the words accurately” (a skill) is not too impactful because it’s not something concrete the child can apply over and over. Instead, teaching the child a procedure that can be habitualized (a strategy) will eventually lead toward mastery of the desired skill.  Certainly, strategies can be made more or less prescriptive depending on the student’s needs, but they should always lead to mastery of a skill.

Teachers at Classical make a point to not only name both the strategy and skill for students but also to ask application questions to get students thinking about other opportunities throughout their day to practice the new strategy. Consider the following examples:

“Is the strategy we practiced today something you should use during [name another subject]?  How might this look?”

“What are some examples of when this strategy would not be helpful?”

“Would this strategy be helpful to use when reading at home for fun?  Why or why not?”

“How does [name the strategy] affect your ability to [name the skill]?  What are some opportunities to practice this strategy throughout your day so you can get even better at [name the skill]?”

This approach to lesson closure breathes purpose into strategies and ensures they don’t live and die within an isolated lesson.

No More Excuses

There was a time when researchers were starkly divided on the best way to teach reading, so low literacy levels were somewhat understandable.  Since the turn of the century, however, the science has been clear, and excuses having to do with a student’s home-life, school budgets, teacher unions, and poverty are no longer factors we can accept as roadblocks to literacy.  Marry instructional best practices with structures that allow for consistent feedback loops of assessment, analysis, and systematic instruction, and children’s literacy levels will skyrocket regardless of school type or zip code.


This post was contributed by Mr. Paul Tryon, School Director of South Bronx Classical IV. As a non-CMO charter network, we rely on the thoughts, opinions, and innovations of our staff to move our mission forward and provide an excellent academic option to families in the South Bronx. To hear more from our staff, check out the next post! Or, click here to learn more.

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