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Teaching Rigorous Text to Reluctant Readers Can be Difficult. Try This.

Resources | Published 23 August, 2013 | By: Mary Arevalo

The critical thinking and close reading required in the new Common Core State Standards can take twice as long for students with dyslexia, reading disabilities, speech and language issues and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is not because they are unable to do it, but the process in the brain takes a different route, therefore it takes longer to create a pathway. Neurologists have seen this using rMRI machines – different brains take different routes for learning the same thing. These students simply need small steps, exposure and an approach to reading difficult text. This article will outline a plan that has worked for me for teaching for my seventh and eighth grade students, as well as helping my daughter, who is in second grade and who has ADHD. The process does take longer, so I suggest you explain to your principal what you are doing.

Follow these steps, using any topic in school*:

  1. Watch relevant videos. Try searching YouTube/Vimeo for videos on the topic and use clips no longer than 20 minutes. Let students watch the videos and ask questions. You may need to show the video twice for slow-processing and ADHD students, especially videos with heavy content area vocabulary.
  2. Have a Socratic discussion. Answer questions with more questions. Get students to share their questions, which you can then write down. Most importantly: don’t answer the questions; the new standards are all about inquiry – finding the answer, not being given the answer. Watch the video again as a group to ask more questions or to find answers. Even if students’ questions are wrong or off topic, they are making links/connections in their brains, so don’t discredit seemingly unrelated questions.
  3. Think and write. Have students write a few sentences about what they saw and/or learned from the video or the class discussion. Some kids will learn more from a class discussion. Have the video available for reviewing. A good idea for resistant writers is to have them speak the answer into a smartphone, computer, or iPad that will convert their speech to written text. A great app for this is Evernote, which works on any device.
  4. Compare texts (a text can be any piece of information you can extract information from). Collect a series of photos on the topic, using a graphic organizer, and have them find similarities and differences with the video. Have them ask the photographer or the subject a question. They could even write a story about what happened after or before the photo was taken. Then have a class discussion. Keep the video available for reviewing, as many ADHD students could forget details from one day to the next.
  5. Research. Find challenging non-fiction texts with lots of pictures; try magazines, newspaper articles, printouts and/or textbooks to find answers to their questions (the old fashioned way). Always keep a variety of texts in the middle of their tables and available at all times –- even dictionaries and atlases.
  6. The teacher reads the text. Pick a challenging text at the recommended lexile level of your age group, even if the students are not reading at this level. If you’re not sure what lexile level your text is, click here. As a class, look through the text and make a prediction of the article (the teacher can model this first with a different related text), using only pictures and/or subheads. Then read aloud. Students should follow along and ask questions on Post-it notes (encourage your students to find the answers to their questions.) The new standards require kids to find evidence that their answer is correct.
  7. The students read the same text the teacher did in a group, with text-based and author perspective questions to answer. Have students look for the answer in the text with a partner and be sure that they use what they found as evidence for the answer. Try giving ADHD and visual students highlighters or special colorful pens to keep them focused. This will be hard at first and you might want to read one paragraph at a time depending on your group. At this point, I usually compare the text to the video, but this is not necessary. There are lots of videos on YouTube under “Reciprocal teaching” that are helpful in seeing how this works.
  8. Draw or write. Students draw an alternative picture or write an alternative title for the text or headline for an article. If they are able to do this, it will show that they really understand the text.
  9. The students independently read the same text on their own. Give students specific questions to look for –- I like to give each group a different set of questions. Students take notes with Post-its or write on the article. At this point, the article should have many notes and marks. Students could also be tasked with finding unfamiliar words or shocking statements or they could write down additional questions.
  10. Collaborate again as a class. Come back together as a group and share all findings. Write down additional questions and unknown vocabulary. Reread parts of text if needed. Again, make sure that you have the video available. Students can then write down three or four sentences explaining/summarizing the text. Strategies for summarizing could require additional lessons.

As students get better at this, you can increase the amount of writing. The idea is to create genuine curiosity on the topic. Don’t rush it; do steps five to 10 with an opposing article for older students who are required to analyze different perspectives.

It usually takes me 15 to 20 days and then I have kids write argumentative essays. Even in social studies class I take this long. It’s amazing how much the kids learn and how interested they are in the learning.

*For seventh grade and up be sure to pick topics they like. Survey them.


Mary Mary Arevalo is a trained literacy specialist and special education teacher in New York City. She has been teaching 8 years for grades six to nine. She teaches special education teacher support (Setts) classes as well as eighth grade social studies for self contained (12-1) and inclusion.


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