This blog has contained the products of a college course called “Teaching Struggling Readers and Writers in the Elementary Classroom.”  Throughout the course we have been doing fieldwork in an assigned classroom.  Our task was to choose one student who was struggling with reading and/or writing in some way and focus on them throughout our time in the classroom in order to write a case study.  These are my findings from throughout the semesters.

I spent my time working with a small group of students at Estabrook Elementary.  Estabrook is located in Ypsilanti, Michigan which is not a very wealthy or well-kept area.  Many people who live in this area are probably of the lower socio-economic class. The school is easy to get to, but it is set back behind some houses off of a main road.  This keeps the students away from a lot of traffic noise all day.  The school is very diverse, containing students from all different ethnicities and students from grades two through six.  Estabrook is also a Title 1 school which means that they work with students who are considered at risk.  Basically Title 1 schools are trying to bridge the gap between low-income/at-risk students and other students.

It seemed as if there was a lot of drama, disobedience, and bullying going on in this school.  Every time I went into the office, there were students who were sent there because of behavioral problems waiting to talk to the principal.  Even in the classroom I was in, the teacher set aside a time one day to talk about bullying because that had apparently been a recent issue.  The school also seemed to have a lot going on all the time causing it to be very noisy.  During the time I was there, there were almost always students roaming the hallways, classes being very loud in the hallway, or various other activities going on.    The school environment had a very busy and chaotic feeling to it.

Something that I found very interesting about the school, though, is that they standardized the schedule across each classroom.  In the morning, students had a Math block for an hour and forty-five minutes.  They then had 55 minutes for ‘Specials’ which were either gym, music, or art.  After lunch and recess, they had a reading block for the rest of the day.  During this reading block, they had a focus lesson for either social studies or science.  Though I realize that it is probably beneficial to standardize the whole school like this so students have a fairly similar schedule each year, this system did not seem very effective.  Keeping this in mind, since this is a reading/writing course, I was in the classroom during the afternoon for the reading block.  All of my information is based on my experiences during this time.

About the Classroom

I was working in a fourth grade classroom that was very diverse in terms of race, as well as reading ability.  In a class of 31, five are Caucasian, four Latino, twenty African American, and two Other.  Five students have IEPs so they receive special services and three students qualify for English Language services.  When I asked the teacher about the reading levels of students in her classroom, she said that nine students are reading below grade level, thirteen are reading at grade level, and nine are reading above grade level.  These numbers are partly to do with this being a Title 1 school.

The classroom environment was very busy, and there was always a lot going on.  The walls were filled with word walls, maps, math walls, and other informational posters. Though some of this was great to stimulate students, it seemed like a bit much.  There were always papers stacked everywhere which made the room seem cluttered and crowded.  During the reading block, students follow a ‘Daily 5‘ system meaning they read to someone, listen to reading or work on a computer, read to themselves, do word work, or work on writing.  Students are required to do all five of these during the reading block.  Many students work independently while the teacher calls over a group of students or even a single student to work with.  There are five computers available for students to use.  While I was observing, they used these computers for a variety of tasks including taking AR tests and doing grammar activities.  About 45 minutes into this block, the teacher suggested that they should start writing if they hadn’t already.  During this time, many students seemed to get distracted very easily and not stay on task.  This might have partly been because there were so many things going on at the same time that students were easily able to get distracted. Though this Daily 5 system had good intentions, it seemed to cause more chaos than should have been necessary.  Overall, the classroom seemed very busy and not very structured, but the students knew what they were supposed to be doing, even if they got off task quite frequently.

About the Case Study Candidate

Throughout my time in the fourth grade classroom, I worked with a variety of students before narrowing my focus.  When I first worked with Adriana (pseudonym), she immediately grabbed my attention.  We read a fable together and then she had to answer a question about it. She was such a joy to work with because I could tell that she was trying so hard, and she even said a couple times, “This is really tough!”  But we worked together through it and when she got done writing, I could tell she was really proud of her work.  I love working with children who are struggling, and seeing them try just as hard, if not harder, as everyone else.  It is so rewarding to see the sense of accomplishment on her face when she completes something difficult.  I decided to focus on her for my case study, and I am really glad that I did.

Though I do not know much personal information about her, I do know that she has had a rough past.  She was born in Mexico, and Spanish was originally the only language she spoke.  She was adopted into an English speaking home three years ago when she was in first grade.  It seems as if she was separated from her siblings for a while because her sister was just recently adopted as well.  Her parents now only speak English, but Adriana informed me that they are using an online program to learn some Spanish.  Because Adriana did not start to learn English until second grade, she was very behind in reading and writing, especially comprehension.  She simply does not know the words so she can’t understand them.  Knowing this about her, gave me a very good foundation to begin my case study.

Initial Assessment

Knowing that Adriana was struggling with comprehension, I wanted to figure out exactly what level she was reading at before I began to work more fully with her.  I decided to do a Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI) with her, and I started out with a Level Two Reading which is equivalent to a second grade level.  Even though this is two grades below her, she struggled a lot with this reading.  She scored a 54% on the concept questions which assess her prior knowledge.  This tells me that she was somewhat familiar with the concepts, but not completely.  While reading the 304 word passage, Adriana had 25 miscues, putting her at the lower end of an instructional reading accuracy. She was at an independent level when it came to meaning changing miscues.  This showed me that her fluency is not that bad, but I was very curious as to what she was able to recall from the story.

When I asked her if she could tell me what happened in the story in her own words, she started to complain a little bit.  She knew it was going to be hard and she didn’t want to do it.  She was only able to recall one idea before I told her to tell me anything that she remembered; it didn’t have to be in the same order.  This seemed to help her a little bit, but she still was only able to recall 10 of the 52 ideas in the story.  When asking her questions about the story, she still struggled, often commenting, “This is hard,” or, “Uhh, I don’t know.”  She was only able to answer five questions correctly, putting her at the frustration level for the comprehension section.

Luckily for me, Adriana wanted to do another one.  Despite her frustration she found them fun.  This time, I gave her a Level One Reading which is equivalent to a first grade level.  She seemed to enjoy this one better, partly because it had pictures to go along with it.  Her prior knowledge score was much higher this time, with 78%.  Her miscues were cut in half, having only 12 in a 264 word passage.  This put her toward the higher end of the instructional reader for fluency, much better than the last passage. When it came to recalling events that happened in the story she still struggled, only recalling 13 of 50 ideas.  When I asked her questions about the story, she was able to recall 3 of 6 questions, again putting her at the frustration level for comprehension.

Another problem that stood out was pronouncing words that were longer or that were exceptions to the rules.  I noticed this a lot when I was reading with her other times, too.  When a ‘c’ is supposed to sound like an ‘s’, she doesn’t recognize that and still pronounces it like [k].  Another example is the word ‘read’.  The word is spelled the same in both the present and past tense, and she often confuses those.

I asked her which story she liked better and she said the second one because it was easier, and she still wanted to read another one.  Adriana is an interesting, though not uncommon, case.  She has a decent fluency level and is able to read the words on the page, but she does not understand what she is reading.  It is hard to determine how to accommodate for this child because you don’t want to give them words that are way too easy for them because they will feel undermined, but if you give them something harder to read, they won’t understand what it is saying.

Based on this single test score, I came to the decision that Adriana would be somewhere between the first and second grade levels for reading.  After talking with the teacher, I found out that according to NWEA test results in January, Adriana has improved from a mid-first grade level to a mid-second grade level.  I would not have put her at mid-second grade yet because she was struggling a lot with comprehending that material.  I am just basing this on one assessment though, which is not the best resource when used by itself.  Regardless, I now know that Adriana is reading at least two grades below her level which is a problem that needs to be addressed.

How Challenges Are Met Outside the Classroom

Because Adriana is an English Language Learner, she qualifies for extra help.  Each day she gets pulled out of the regular classroom and goes to the TC (Teacher Consultant) for a half hour for reading and writing skills.  Adriana, along with two other students, gets one on one attention in this Project Reading Program.  During this time, students take a bottom-up approach to learning.  They are breaking the English language down into very small pieces.  Something that they do every day is go over the rules to spelling and pronunciation.  They have a list of rules written on the board, and each day as they review the rules, they have hand motions to go along with it. For words that break the rules, they tap their arm as they say each different sound, and then run their hand down their arm as they say the full word.  The idea behind this strategy is that by doing motions along with the sounds, it gets their brain more active and they are more likely to remember the rules and the exceptions to the rules.  The strategy seems to work and Adriana really excels in this classroom.  After they review the rules, they go over the words that they are focusing on for that particular week.  These spelling words use the rule that they are focusing on that week, too. So if they are focusing on long a, there will be words such as say, day, play, etc.  Check out the videos at the end of this post to see these strategies in action in order to better understand them. Each student also has a set of flashcards of words that they should just know by seeing, not by sounding them out.  As transition activities, students practice these words either with a partner or with the teacher.  I had a chance to work with Adriana on the notecards and she did very well.  The words that she kept mixing up were opposite, opinion, and option.  Obviously, these words look a lot alike so it is very understandable that she would mix them up.

In addition to spelling and word recognition, Mrs. Smith (pseudonym), the TC, incorporates what they are working on in the normal classroom so the students are still getting the same type of instruction. An overarching idea that students are working on is CAFÉ, which stands for comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and expanding vocabulary.  When reading with the TC, students have a line marker which allows them to cover up the lines that they are not reading so they can only focus on the line they are on.  Students are focusing on accuracy and fluency as they do this, but often times Mrs. Smith stops students because they are just using one tone while reading.  She wants them to understand what is going on in the story and show their understanding by the way they read.  If there is an exclamation mark, they should read with enthusiasm or anger, depending on how the character feels.  A lot of times she has students re-read a sentence or paragraph to put feeling into it or correct some mistakes.  Adriana thrives in this classroom because of the one on one attention, and it seems as if she knows it’s okay to make a mistake.  She seems more confident working in this classroom, which is great for overall reading ability.  The more often she can feel confident in herself, the better because she will keep trying to improve.

How Challenges Are Met In the Classroom

There are many tactics that are used in the regular classroom that help to accommodate students who are not at the appropriate grade level. The fourth grade classroom has its own library in it, and the books are all sorted by four different colors: red, blue, green, and yellow.  Each color represents a different reading level, and students are assigned a color for which they should choose their books from.  Also associated with these books is AR tests.  After students read a book according to their reading level, they take a test on it.  This test mostly shows their comprehension, but a lot of the questions I saw were regarding small details in the book.  One question even asked for a direct quote from the book.  Though this method helped to determine what reading level students should be working at, it didn’t seem to capture the idea of comprehending the entire story.

Another way that struggling readers, and especially Adriana, receive accommodations in the regular classroom is through the use of groups.  Since there is such a large block during the day for reading time, it allows the teacher to work individually or in small groups with students.  Generally, when I was in the classroom there was the main teacher, a student teacher, and two or three students from Concordia who were able to work with students.  With each of us working with a small group of students, those who needed extra help were able to get it.  Normally, the teacher would work with a small group of students reading a story or get them started on writing and then have them finish up on their own while she began working with a different group.  Grouping students like this allowed for similar abilities to be grouped together so they could work with materials that were appropriate for their age, but still practice the same general concepts as everyone else such as determining the plot of the story.  Some people think that having students grouped by age will cause problems because the students will know the ‘smart group’ and the ‘dumb group.’  I do not think that this was the case in this classroom though because there was such an even number among all levels.  It would have been different if there were two below grade level and everyone else was at grade level, but in this class the number were evenly spread out.  In this instance, grouping students by reading level was appropriate and beneficial to everyone in the classroom.  Those who were more advanced were reading more complex books, while those who needed something easier worked with lower level books.  The regular classroom approach was very much a top-down approach, as students were immersed in literature and were forced to read and write daily, regardless of their ability.

Analysis of Adriana (based on observation and interviews)

While continuously working with Adriana, I was able to learn a lot about her strengths and weaknesses. Through observations of her toward the beginning of my fieldwork, I was able to see what Adriana struggled with or what types of activities made her frustrated.  One of my first times observing, she had to read a fable and answer a question about it.  The question was one where she really had to understand the story in order to answer it.  As I was working with her, she was getting really frustrated, but was still working really hard.  She was having a lot of trouble answering the question because she didn’t understand the story.  Once I explained the story to her, she was able to verbally answer the question, but then again struggled with putting her thoughts onto paper.  This intrigued me so I wanted to learn more about her.  I eventually started to go with her to the Teacher Consultant and realized that she seemed so much more at ease here.

I wanted to get to know more about Adriana so I decided to do an interview.  Before doing this, though, I found out from her teacher that she was adopted from Mexico and that her sister was just recently adopted.  Her teacher said that she had a rough past and was finally starting to settle down.  Click here to see the Interview that I did with Adriana.

Based on this interview, it is evident that Adriana struggles with reading and writing.  From watching her in the classroom, too, it is evident that comprehension is one of her main issues, mostly because she simply doesn’t know the English words.  Watching her go from the regular classroom to the TC’s classroom, there is a huge difference in her confidence and success.  She thrives in the TC’s room because she gets the one on one attention and is being taught with a bottom up approach.  At her level right now, the top down approach that her regular classroom takes is much too overwhelming for her, and she just gets frustrated.  Bottom-up is much more beneficial for her learning and success.

Lesson Taught from Mini-Unit and Reflection

As I discussed in the introduction to my Mini-Unit, I wanted to work on building comprehension skills.  To do this, I decided to use graphic organizers and charts to organize the events and characters in the story.  Click here to see the Snow White Lesson that I was able to teach from my mini-unit to a group of three students. (Click here for the Rest of the Unit.)

Reflection of lesson:

As I was teaching this lesson, I had to make some adjustments.  Since only one of the three students had heard of Snow White before I decided that I needed to read it through once before we began to highlight.  Well, reading the book took a lot longer than I had originally planned because of comments and questions by the students.  By the time we read through it once, I decided that we did not have enough time to go back and reread it to highlight important parts.  I took the chance and skipped this step to see how it would go.  When we started to fill out the chart, they were confused at first so I helped them a lot with the first one.  Then as we went along, I tried to stop helping as much.  Each student filled in the last line completely on their own, which I thought was very impressive. You can look at pictures of their work here to see what students wrote.  Adriana’s is the last one.  Again, this activity took longer than I thought so rather than having the students write a paragraph summary, I had them give me a verbal summary.  I had Adriana go first so that it was fresh in her mind.  She still had a hard time, but was able to recall the very basic plot.  This was her summary:

“The Wicked Queen wanted to be the prettiest, but Snow White was prettier.  The Queen tried to kill her because Snow White was prettier.  Snow White went to the little house and she hid from the Queen.  The Queen found her and used a belt to kill her.  Then she took the poisonous apple to kill her, and the dwarfs found her dead and put her in a casket.  Then the prince came and made her alive.”

She had an extremely general plot, but I don’t think that she would have been able to get that much if she hadn’t worked on the chart before.  Overall, I think the lesson went okay. The children seemed to enjoy it, even commenting that it was fun when we finished. For the amount of time that I had, I should have chosen a much shorter and possibly less difficult book, so that I could have had time to have students highlight important parts.  I think that would have been even more beneficial for Adriana.

Luckily for me, the three students found this lesson engaging so I thought I would try it again with a much shorter book so we could actually do all the steps.  This time I used the book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  It is a much shorter book with fewer characters. The students seemed to do very well with highlighting important events, too.  In turn, we got through all the parts of the lesson and the summaries were a lot better because they focused on the main ideas of the book, and left out some of the trivial details.  I was much happier with the way that this lesson turned out.  Here are pictures of their work this time around.  Notice that this product includes their own written summary as well.  Adriana’s is the last two pages.

Evaluation of Instruction/Recommendations:

Overall, the mix of top-down and bottom-up approaches make for a good balance of instruction.  Though Adriana seems to thrive so much more in the bottom-up activities, I think the top-down strategy in her regular classroom is essential as well.  The best way to learn to read and write is to be immersed in literature.  The top-down strategy also allows Adriana to see her own improvement as she is gradually able to read higher level books and write more about them.  This approach has obviously been working because her teacher said that she started off the school year at a mid-first grade reading level and was at a mid-second grade level by January.  She has made an entire year’s progress in half a school year!

One criticism that I would have, though, is that the instruction level and expectations are not differentiated in other subjects.  I had the chance to observe some science and social studies, and the directions that she has to read and the writing activities that she has to do are at a much higher level than she is at.  I have a concern that she might be falling behind in other subject areas because the reading and writing assignments are too hard for her.  I would recommend that reading and writing be differentiated, not only for Adriana, but for all students, across the curriculum.  Another recommendation that I would have is to give Adriana more one on one time with the Teacher Consultant.  Though this is probably not possible due to time and different schedules, I think that if Adriana spent the majority of her reading time with the TC and only a little amount of time in the regular classroom, she would improve even more.  That is, I recommend that she have mostly a bottom-up approach to reading mixed with a little top-down.


Adriana is such a sweet girl and was so much fun to work with. Though she was struggling a lot, she always tried her hardest with everything and never gave up.  She even said to me on the last day that I was working with her, “As long as I try my best on everything, that’s all I can do.  I just gotta keep trying and keep working hard.”  She certainly has the right attitude about working hard, and this will take her a long way in overcoming her difficulties.  Working with her and seeing how her difficulties were handled in and out of the classroom was very beneficial to me.  I was able to see a variety of strategies, and learn a lot about how to accommodate for struggling readers and writers.