"Educating the whole learner cannot be reduced to a simple set of policies or proposals. It is, instead, a mindset that should inform the entire educational enterprise." (National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development)

Like all children, struggling readers learn best when they attend classes in which they feel physically safe and emotionally confident. But given their all-too-common histories of failure, peer taunting, and humiliation, they often view school as threatening.

As stated in my previous article, Professor McCabe’s principles can help struggling readers feel safe and emotionally confident in their classes. But principles are not magic.

More may be needed, and the EARSS acronym, which shares substantial DNA with McCabe’s principles, can point the way. For many struggling readers, EARSS can multiply the effectiveness of McCabe’s tools: stack the deck for success, offer well-deserved praise, and offer persuasive comments.

Use EARSS. It Can Help

Struggling readers need classes that continuously radiate the essence of EARSS: Easy, moderately challenging, challenging enough to succeed; Attractive content, tasks, or both; attractive enough to try. Relevant to the struggling reader’s interests and goals; and Socially Supported throughout the day.

Easy, moderately challenging, challenging enough to succeed.

If classwork is too easy, struggling readers often believe that "The teacher thinks I’m dumb. This proves it." If it’s too hard, too challenging, they tend to believe, "I’ll fail. I can’t do this. And all my friends will know I’m stupid."

Teachers need to stress the sweet spot, the task that offers moderate challenge, but not enough to provoke distressing expectations of struggle, failure, and humiliation. This refers to the independent level, the level at which readers can successfully complete reading classwork and homework — by themselves.

It also refers to the instructional, the level at which teachers directly teach them new words, strategies, articles, stories, and the like. Again, the challenge is moderate and with reasonable effort, success is likely — because teachers work directly with them to explain, demonstrate, and quickly modify unexpected roadblocks to mastery.

Statistically, instructional-level reading lessons need to emphasize tasks and materials on which the readers can independently recognize some 95 to 98 percent of the words and understand some 70 to 89 percent of the materials — before the lesson begins.

Though independent and instructional level materials are always critical, they’re only part of formula for success. Two other parts are clarity and energy. For both levels, tasks must be clear enough to grasp without "I have no idea what they want me to do" frustration and brief enough to successfully complete without falling into an ocean of fatigue.

Attractive content, tasks, or both; attractive enough to try.

Despite numerous in-class supports, accommodations, and extra help, Samuel (a composite of students I’ve worked with) was struggling in ninth-grade college-prep English, a class he took to impress two girls he liked. One was in the class.

Samuel worked hard to "ace" the class but earned failing grades. His guidance counselor suggested that he switch to ninth-grade functional English. He balked. She then suggested that he and she spend just a half hour observing the class. If he didn’t like it, he didn’t have to switch. He agreed. Nothing to lose.

Samuel knew two students in the class. That was OK, but not a deal-maker. Then the teacher introduced an article on "Three Supermarket Secrets" that sounded interesting to him, but not a deal-maker. She discussed the critical vocabulary with the students. Again, not a deal-maker.

Then she had the students engage in a basic Jigsaw activity to master the content of the article. To Samuel’s surprise, it was far more interesting than the typical lecture with a sprinkling of questions. Jigsaw became the deal-maker. It went like this:

First, the teacher randomly divided the class of 12 students into home groups of three. She assigned an ID number to each student in the group: 1, 2, or 3. Second. she asked the 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s to read distinct parts of the article.

For example, she asked all 1’s from all groups to read the "The Checkout Secret" part while 2’s and 3’s read about other secrets. Third, when reading ended, she divided the home groups into expert groups.

In their new expert groups, all 1’s met together as all 2’s and 3’s met in their expert groups. Each expert group worked together to answer a brief set of questions that the teacher had given them.

Fourth, the experts left their expert groups and rejoined their home groups. Here, they reported what they had learned and led a discussion on their part of the article. Finally, to support the cooperative learning principle of individual accountability, the teacher gave the class a short quiz about the article.

Jigsaw gave each student a "stack the deck" opportunity to do well. It encouraged focused social interaction and teamwork while helping each student develop expertise that helped his home group. It also provided something critical to people: Social support.

Samuel’s response? Forget the half-hour. He wanted to stay for the full period. He believed he could do well in this kind of class. Both the content and activity were attractive enough for him to try. And so he did.

There’s an explicit and implicit lesson here. Why focus on interesting, attractive topics, activities, and preferably both? They attracted Samuel. If they keep doing so, it’s a good bet that his focus and his learning will improve.

But if the topics and activities lose their attractiveness, it’s a good bet that his focus and his learning will deteriorate. For most struggling readers, the formulas are straightforward: Little to no attractiveness produces little to no learning. Heaps of attractiveness at the right reading and task levels produces lots of learning.

Relevant to the struggling reader’s interests and goals.

Many struggling readers despise lessons that ask them to read newspaper stories they don’t relate to. Typically, they attend little and thus they learn little. Not exactly a formula for motivating students.

But suppose they’re presented with a stimulating discussion and a newspaper story about solving one of their major concerns, one that students and parents throughout America have been nervously thinking and talking about, one that will continuously evoke visceral distress until solid solutions are in place — school massacres.

It’s almost axiomatic that their attitude, motivation, focus, and learning will improve dramatically. In contrast, most struggling readers will show zero interest in newspaper stories about advances in frying pan grommets. Would you?

But what about longer-term motivation, focus, and commitment?

Jackson, a struggling reader, had a major goal. He desperately wanted to wrestle for his high school wrestling team. And with the team’s winning coaches, he ardently believed he had the strength and athleticism to win most, if not all of, his bouts. But to join the team and get the coaching, he faced a major obstacle: Failing grades.

In the past, he paid little attention in his classes, studied little, ignored his class’s inclusion specialist, and earned bales of failing grades. With these grades, he was barred from wrestling.

The coaches gave him a path to success, one he could meet if he made a reasonable effort: Earn 70 percent or better in each class. They said, “You have the ability. Now do the work.” They meant it. He knew it.

He and his inclusion specialist created a simple plan to monitor his daily progress and a simple step-by-step plan to overcome the few barriers to his success. He was motivated. Suddenly, academics were relevant to his goal: Team membership. And membership was relevant to his predominant but secreted goal, one held by many struggling readers: The respect of his peers.

Socially Supported throughout the day.

In one way, classrooms resemble diets. Willpower alone doesn’t work. It quickly evaporates. That’s why dieters need lots of social support, support that keeps the wrong foods out of sight and reach and replaces them with enjoyable, healthy ones in an environment that offers lots of genuinely supportive comments and experiences.

Here’s a small-group activity that offers realistic expectations of success and social support for struggling readers. Its expectations and structure encourage effort that’s focused, moderate, and comfortable.

Step 1

The teacher divides the class into pairs. She tells the readers that each pair that earns 90 points will win 10-minutes of free time. She’s going to teach them to spell four unfamiliar words that begin with the "br" sound.

Each member of a pair can earn up to 80 points if he correctly spells the four unfamiliar words she’s about to teach. One correctly identified word earns 20 points, two 40 points, three 60 points, and four 80 points. Each pair can earn up to 160 points.

Step 2

She teaches the four words. In the process, she and the class discuss the meaning of each word; immediately afterward, she asks student volunteers to orally present sentences that use the words correctly.

Step 3

She asks the students to copy each word from the board after she points to and pronounces it. She also asks the students to slowly whisper the word while writing it.

Step 4

She gives the pairs 10 minutes to quiz one another on the spelling of the words and help one another correct any errors.

Step 5

She reminds the students that they’ll earn 20 points for each word the spell correctly.

Step 6

Finally, she quizzes the students, marks their papers, briefly comments on the importance of their focus and effort, and declares free time for each pair that achieved a score of 90 or more.

If each new word matches the readers’ instructional level — his slightly challenging comfort level — this activity should succeed 99 percent of the time. Great odds.

Treat Reading Instruction as a Science and an Art

Often, struggling readers’ beliefs about their abilities and their expectations of success or failure on specific tasks will dramatically influence their focus, effort, persistence, and willingness to use specific learning strategies. This is science. Following the EARSS acronym — Easy, Attractive, Relevant, and Socially Supported — is also science.

The art comes from each teacher’s personality and relationship with her students. This includes her pacing, her smile, her caring, her listening, her sense of humor, her encouragement, and her trustworthiness. Is this art? Yes. Scientifically supported art? Absolutely.

What might you, as a parent do to meld the science and art? Explain to administrators the teacher-characteristics your child needs to succeed. Be sure to list them in the IEP’s “Parental Concerns” section. Sincerely compliment your child’s teacher for demonstrating these qualities. And incorporate these attributes and strategies into your daily living.

Finally, ask your child’s teacher and IEP team what you can do to gently support or accelerate your child’s progress, not as a teacher responsible for basic instruction, but as a parent who wants to keep or improve a positive relationship with your child.

Consider These or Similar Resources

G.M., Power, M.A., & Loh, W.I. (2016). The teacher's sourcebook for cooperative learning: Practical techniques, basic principles, and frequently asked questions. Skyhorse Publishing.

Howard Margolis & Gary G. Brannigan (2009). Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.