Many teachers of struggling readers (SRs) know what works. They’ve studied the research; spoken to experts; observed the programs, methods, and strategies; and discussed implementation with well-informed colleagues. But many is not all.

Other teachers continue doing what’s traditional; what’s marginally helpful to SRs; what they’re comfortable with; what’s hyped by testimonials and advertising; what politicians, administrators, and parents want; or combinations of these.

Do these other teachers intentionally stress instruction they believe will, at best, perpetuate trivial progress? No. No more than farmers who spent their last penny and ounce of hope on new seeds want a drought to destroy their crops.

Most teachers I’ve met, even those using ineffective teaching strategies, are highly dedicated to helping SRs. In many of these cases, schools have hopped on bandwagons of shiny promises unsupported by independent, high-quality research.

Likely, many of these other teachers and administrators have had insufficient coursework on research or have been indifferent to current research. Poor teaching conditions are another likely cause. Justifiably, teachers often feel overwhelmed and exhausted by administrative dictates and by poor salaries and benefits that cause them to work second jobs.

In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Knowledge is power.” Some 400 years later, it’s still true. Pragmatically, however, knowledge is just a first step. To powerfully help SRs, their programs must be implemented in knowledgeable, high-quality ways.

Their teachers, administrators, and parents must get the support they need to do the right things in the right ways at the right times. By knowing what has a good chance of helping large numbers of SRs and knowing how to do it, you might have a powerful effect on your students, your child, and your school.

Reading Instruction: The Perfect Method

For decades we’ve searched for the perfect method, the “holy grail” of reading, the one method that will prove so much better than the others, the one that will vanish all difficulties with reading.

Despite the sales and advertising hype of countless publishers and disciples of specific methods, like Wilson and Orton Gillingham, research hasn’t found it. And we’re not even close. Why? Children differ from one another.

Some have rich verbal skills, others poor. Some have great phonemic awareness, others poor. Some are highly focused, others poorly. Some are highly cooperative, others not. Some feel greatly motivated to succeed, others little. Some have highly insightful and supportive families. Others don’t. Some get great nutrition and great sleep. Others don’t.

Moreover, their teachers differ. The same approaches used by different teachers in different classes can have dramatically different outcomes. There are many more reasons, like loud street noises, can be added to the list.

Reading Instruction: Exemplary Teachers

Nevertheless, we know a great deal about how to effectively teach reading to most students, including SRs. Professor Richard Allington, former President of the International Literacy Association (previously the International Reading Association), has identified the critical reading practices of exemplary elementary-school teachers, teachers who successfully helped children achieve reading success.

He summarized them in six T’s. Below, you’ll find a skeletal list of the six T’s that I edited to stress what the students were asked to do. To develop a far better understanding of the six T’s, I urge you to read Allington’s full article — it’s well worth your time.

1. Time. Students spent considerable time reading and writing, sometimes half a school day.

2. Texts. Students read lots of interesting texts that matched their current reading levels. This match was critical.

3. Teaching. Students routinely watched explicit demonstrations of the cognitive strategies that good readers used when they read. They watched their teachers model the thinking that skilled readers engaged in as they attempted to decode a word, self-monitor for understanding, summarize while reading, or edit when composing.

4. Talk. Throughout the day, students learned and practiced “purposeful talk such as problem-solving talk related to curricular topics.”

5. Tasks. Students worked infrequently on workbooks and workbook-like activities. Instead, they “often worked on a writing task for two weeks, read whole books, and engaged in individual and small-group research projects.” They often “chose one of several options” or assignments that their teachers offered.

6.Testing. Because teachers emphasized self-efficacy, students had opportunities to earn good grades “based more on effort and improvement than simply on achievement.” (For abundant information about self-efficacy strategies — strategies critical to the success of many SRs — see Margolis & McCabe’s articles on self-efficiency.)

When implementing the six T’s, Professor Allington cautioned teachers that “While the six T’s offer a shorthand, of sorts, for describing exemplary teaching in the elementary grades, they also oversimplify the complex nature of good teaching. For instance, the six T’s … operate interactively. It seems highly unlikely that we could develop teaching that reflects any single T alone."

In many of his other writings, Allington stressed numerous principles and strategies for helping to ensure the success of the six T’s. Here are several that transcend most situations.

  • Teachers (and IEP Teams) need to personalize instruction that goes beyond any prepackaged reading program or method. For example, they need to supplement any method or program with independent and instructional level materials that tap each SR’s interests.
  • Teachers (and IEP Teams) need to continuously monitor each SR’s’ progress, identify the causes of his (or her) difficulties, and eradicate or minimize the causes.
  • All teachers and personnel who work with SRs need to coordinate their efforts—such as using the same decoding strategies in the same ways—so what’s taught in one situation or class reinforces and builds upon what’s taught in others.
  • Schools need to continuously encourage and support the efforts of teachers and related personnel to improve their abilities to help SRs.

Sleep: The Missing Ingredient

Typically, students spend some 1,086 hours a year in public school. If they routinely get a “good night’s sleep,” they typically spend some 2,920 hours a year sleeping. Put another way, they typically spend 1,834 more hours sleeping than going to school.

But many SRs (as well as average and above-average readers) are poor sleepers who don’t get nearly enough sleep. They get only a fraction of the typical eight to nine hours of restful sleep that most children need to do well in school. Not only can this severely impede their reading and other learning, frustrating the best efforts of their teachers and parents, but it may well cause terrible lifelong illnesses.

Schools can help reverse this. But why should they? “They’re places for learning, not sleeping.”

Here’s why. Here’s a brief sampling of what research says about the dangers of poor or little sleep:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH): "Your ability to function and feel well while you're awake depends on whether you're getting enough total sleep and enough of each type of sleep [e.g., rapid eye movement, deep sleep]. It also depends on whether you're sleeping at a time when your body is prepared and ready to sleep. ... Sleep deficiency can interfere with work, school, driving and social functioning. … You might have trouble learning, focusing and reacting. Also, you might find it hard to judge other people's emotions and reactions. Sleep deficiency also can make you feel frustrated, cranky or worried in social situations. ... Children who are sleep deficient might be overly active and have problems paying attention. They also might misbehave, and their school performance can suffer."

Professor Matthew Walker of the University of California, Berkeley: "A lack of sleep, even moderate amounts, degrades every mental faculty necessary to obtain valid information... This includes the loss of accurate memory recall, emotional instability that prevents logical thought, and even basic verbal comprehension. Worse still, sleep deprivation increases deviant behavior and causes higher rates of lying and dishonesty. Short of coma, sleep deprivation places an individual into the least useful brain state for the purpose of credible intelligence gathering."

Though schools rarely have opportunities to work on sleep issues in students’ homes, they can directly help parents help their children to routinely get a good night’s sleep. Schools can offer frequent workshops; announce that school nurses, counselors, and social workers are available to discuss sleep issues; offer guidance and counseling to children whose heightened anxiety undermines their sleep; and frequently share articles about sleep strategies in school newsletters.

Schools can also educate their teachers, IEP team members, counselors and other support staff (e.g., aides, janitors) on the importance of sleep and what they can do to promote healthy sleep habits.

All of this is central to what vast numbers of people would see as education’s mission, per Jonathan Cohen: “To support children's ability to become lifelong learners who are able to love, work, and act as responsible members of the community.”

In sum, schools that fail to address SRs’ problems of poor or little sleep are likely perpetuating SRs’ academic and behavioral struggles. Though schools alone cannot solve these problems, they can help parents to do so.

Take Home Points

Here are five important take-home points:

  • Ensure that all reading (and writing) practices reflect what’s supported by reputable research, not just testimonials that fail to segregate and identify causative factors.
  • Don’t depend on any one or two reading (or writing) programs.
  • Ensure that teachers, IEP teams, and support staff get the support they need to knowledgeably and successfully implement research-supported interventions likely to accelerate SRs’ progress.
  • Recognize that no single instructional practice will work for all children, especially SRs. The corollary is straight forward: Frequently employ valid progress monitoring strategies to determine if SRs’ programs need to be tinkered with, substantially modified, or replaced.
  • Address the sleep issues of SRs and all other students.

Note: This was the first of two articles about struggling readers having no time to lose. The second article will discuss Social Emotional Learning (SEL).