Why do some students struggle to read and how can we help them?

Many articles have been written about reading strategies but not much on reading assessment and how it improves literacy. With this in mind, Nabanita Deshmukh attempts to present easy-to-implement assessment strategies to raise reading levels of students.

“Why do some students struggle to read and how can we help them?” I asked a group of teachers during a workshop. Surprisingly none of them could come up with any useful answers and this is what prompted me to go deeper into the subject.

Reading is an important part of our schooling that not only influences our academic performance but our personalities as well! A child who cannot read properly often lacks self confidence and good communication skills. Her job prospects become limited later in life and frustration sets in. On the other hand, a child who can read well is confident, has more concentration and communication skills and better understands the world he lives in.

The first step in designing and implementing good reading instruction is to know one’s students’ baseline performance. After all, children from varied backgrounds and cultures are part of a class so teachers first need to use effective baseline tests to assess the level of students. Once done, these tests could provide valuable data for interpreting what ails our readers.

Assessments help teachers in the following areas:

  • To identify skills which need revision or improvement.
  • To monitor students’ progress.
  • To select instruction for different types of learners.
  • To help teachers know if students understand the content covered in their textbooks.
  • To provide teachers with inputs on how to improve teaching.

For gauging reading competencies of students, it is not possible to evaluate all aspects as there are numerous parameters. Some specific areas are usually assessed and these are:

Letter Knowledge
Letter knowledge is the student’s ability to link sounds to letters or more specifically to letter symbols. Without proper letter knowledge, words are simply scribbles on a page. The assessment of letter knowledge can be done through an interesting game.

Assessment Game: Can Anyone Tell Me?

  • The teacher presents a list of upper case letters on a chart and asks a student to name each letter.
  • This exercise can be done by using a simple rhyme: ‘There were letters sitting on a wall and then B had a fall. Where is he? Oh, where is he? Can anyone tell me where is B?’
  • The child gains a point if she runs to the letter chart, points at B and then pronounces it correctly.
  • The teacher continues the game by asking other students to identify even letters in lower case by singing the rhyme.

Phonemic Awareness
While letter knowledge is the connection between sounds and letters, phonemic awareness is the understanding that certain units of sound (phonemes) create words. Assessment for phonemic awareness can also be done through simple exercises using the blackboard.

Assessment Exercises:

  • The teacher writes a word on the board like mango, for example. She breaks it into syllables or sound parts (phonemes). She then reverses the order and has some fun like for example: man/go and go/man
  • The teacher writes a list of words on the board and students have to break them up into sound parts by clapping.
  • The teacher narrates a story and then distributes to each student a set of flash cards with familiar words from the story written on them.
  • The teacher then retells the story and students have to show the right flashcard when they hear the word.

Decoding is the ability to use letter-sound correlation to recognise words and read them in a text or in isolation. It is important to assess decoding to gauge a student’s reading accuracy.

Assessment Exercise:

  • The teacher presents students with isolated words and asks them to read each word aloud. Points are given for the correct pronunciation.
  • The teacher makes up nonsensical words and asks students to read them out for fun.

Fluency is the ability to read a text ‘with speed, accuracy and expression’ and is closely connected to comprehension. A reader must be able read a text quickly to create a coherent picture in his mind to be able to understand its overall meaning.

Assessment Exercise:

  • The teacher chooses a passage and jots down the word count. Each word is allotted a point.
  • The students have to read the passage aloud individually. Words that are skipped or wrongly read are not counted.
  • The teacher writes down the total points to determine the student’s fluency rate.

Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension or the understanding of what a text is all about is the main reason why we read. It involves the previous four aspects of reading such as decoding, fluency, letter knowledge and phonemic awareness.

Assessment Exercises:

  • The teacher makes students read a passage and then asks comprehension questions based on the text. The students answer orally.
  • The teacher asks misleading questions and waits for students to correct her.
  • The teacher prepares written exercises with fill in the blanks options. The students use appropriate words from the text to fill in the answers.
  • The teacher asks students to retell the story in their own words. This can be done by passing a ball around. Whoever catches the ball has to tell a sentence from the story.

A variety of modes can be used by teachers to evaluate different types of learning skills in their students, reading being one of them. Assessments done regularly will not only improve teaching styles but also help students become more confident and motivated to learn. More importantly, they would create a conducive atmosphere in schools that fosters academic progress and holistic growth.  


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