Ms. Brown is a kindergarten teacher sitting with her new class on the first day of school. One of her main tasks this year will be teaching this group foundational literacy skills, including rhyming, sound-letter correspondences, blending (reading), and segmenting (spelling). Ms. Brown has taught for long enough to know that though they may look like blank slates ready to learn to read, her students are not all starting from the same place.
Some of these students are already readers. The others aren’t—we call them emergent readers. The emergent readers are not all alike: Some will pick up the foundational skills relatively easily, while others will, despite exposure, have difficulty learning to read. The trick is teasing these two groups apart in order to differentiate appropriately for them.
How will Ms. Brown tell the difference between her typically developing emergent readers and her struggling emergent readers?
Over the coming weeks, she’ll be working on the foundational skills with all of her students. While the typically developing emergent readers will pick them up, the struggling emergent readers will continue to have difficulty with:
- distinguishing and generating rhymes,
- manipulating the sounds of words,
- retaining new sound-letter correspondences,
- gripping their pencil,
- identifying letters, and
- writing letters.
In the past, it was commonly believed that these struggling students just needed more time to catch on. But current research shows that these students don’t just need time—they need rigorous instruction in the foundational skills of reading to make strides in catching up to their grade-level peers.
Research-Backed Ways to Support Struggling Emergent Readers
1. Use direct, explicit instruction: Research shows that struggling emergent readers learn best through explicit, direct, intensive instruction. When engaged with instruction that includes explanations, modeling, and guided practice, students make significant gains over peers who have not been taught using explicit, direct instruction.
2. Teach systematic phonological awareness: Struggling emergent readers have been found to have a common core deficit in phonological processing. Luckily, this can be remediated with intensive instruction. Strengthen your students’ ability to distinguish and manipulate the sounds of language: Start with the simplest subset of this skill, rhyming, and build to the most complex, phoneme manipulation. Doing so has a powerful impact on students with and without difficulties. Researchers have provided a roadmap of best practices for phonological awareness instruction in the classroom.
3. Teach sound-letter correspondences faster than a letter a week: Struggling emergent readers have difficulty connecting the sounds of language with their written symbols, most likely due to the aforementioned phonological processing deficit. Some kindergarten curricula introduce one letter a week, but research shows that introducing letters faster boosts children’s letter knowledge. Though it may feel contrary to instinct, make sure that you pick up the pace for your struggling emergent readers. These students need more exposure to letters, not less.
4. Teach sight words paired with pronunciation: Struggling emergent readers have difficulty instantly recognizing common spelling patterns and creating an orthographic map of our written language. Research shows that teaching sight words by having students pronounce them out loud and pointing out how the sounds pair to the letters increases their ability to store the written form in their memory and create an orthographic map of the word.
5. Teach handwriting: Research shows that guiding students to develop handwriting fluency is a powerful intervention for struggling readers and may even prevent attention problems and other language-based academic difficulties.
6. Teach blending (reading) and segmenting (spelling): Struggling emergent readers need 25 to 50 exposures before they master concepts, and they need lots of opportunities to make connections. Research shows that phoneme blending and segmenting support increased word learning in students. Memorization of whole words is a struggle, but blending and segmenting force students to see each letter-sound correspondence, helping them understand why a word sounds the way it does.
7. Know best practices for intensifying instruction: Struggling emergent readers may need more opportunities to master skills than typical emergent readers and may learn best in small groups. A module from Vanderbilt University walks teachers through the considerations of intensified instruction, including using data to inform instruction, creating intensified lessons, and changing instruction dose, time, and location.
8. Understand the basic constructs of literacy and explicit instruction: Struggling emergent readers need to understand why English works in the funny ways it does. Research shows that students have more reading growth when their teachers have more knowledge of literacy concepts and direct instruction classroom practices.
With the research linked to in this article, a teacher can craft a program to support struggling emergent readers, one that includes intensive systematic instruction in phonological awareness, sound-symbol correspondence, blending and segmenting, handwriting instruction, and sight words. In addition, knowing best practices to intensify instruction and track data on instruction will enable teachers to better tailor instruction to those readers who may be struggling.
Ms. Brown’s class may not be starting on a level playing field, but because she’s aware of the ways to support those readers who need more support, they can end on one.