Kylene Beers - When Kids Can't Read: What Teachers Can Do

It is important to remember, and make explicit to our students, that comprehension is not the product of reading something. Rather, comprehension is a process, one that continues even after we have read. [1]

Scales: Scales are particularly beneficial for students who find it difficult to organize their thoughts, or for students who benefit from seeing visual representations. There are two types of scales. Likert Scales “often focus on generalizations about characters, themes, conflicts or symbolism.” [2] Semantic Differential Scales “focus on character development and can be used to track character changes through a story.” [3] Students are comfortable with scales because the answer is not what is important because there is no right or wrong answer. Rather, what is important is why students make their choices. [4]

Somebody-Wanted-But-So or SWBS: Students often struggle with summarizing texts. SWBS gives students a structure to summarize. The structure helps students pick out important information. “Somebody” is the character, “Wanted” is the character’s motivation, “But” is the conflict, and “So” is the resolution. After using this strategy, students can form one coherent sentence about what they have read. [5] This strategy only works for fiction material, but you can experiment with other structures for expository material, such as Something-Happened-And-Then.

Retellings: Retellings are important, and natural. Students need to practice retellings, as it allows them to summarize and synthesize important parts of a text. Begin by modeling retellings. Make sure to use a rubric to evaluate all retellings equally. Have students chart and track their retelling progress over time. Also, use students’ progress with retellings to inform instructional planning. [6]

Text Reformulation: Regardless of the structure use to reformulate a text, the process encourages students to talk about the original texts. Reformulation also “encourages students to identify main ideas, cause and effect relationships, themes, and main characters, while sequencing, generalizing and making inferences.” [7] The most important part of teaching students to reformulate is to model reformulation. You must model it for student using various patterns to reformulate, and you must model with various types of texts. Some easily recognizable and accessible patterns include fortunately-unfortunately stories, if-then stories, ABC book structure, cumulative tale structure, and repetitive book structure. The level of teacher control with this strategy can vary, making it easy to use in many classrooms with students at different levels. [8]

It Says—I Say: This is a strategy to help students infer. The flow-chart of It Says—I Say really begins with the question, then “It Says”, then “I Say”, followed by “And So.” The student can organize the information from the text and their own knowledge to form an inference. Teachers can begin by modeling the strategy, and posting it in the classroom. The teacher can ask students to use the strategy, those who are dependent and those who are independent readers. Remember that modeling need not always come from the teacher. In an example from the text, one student offers an answer to a question without going through the process. In order for the teacher to see whether the student remembered the example, used the flow chart or just inferred naturally, the teacher asked the student to come stand under each heading as he offered his answer. This allowed the teacher to check the student’s understanding, and it also provided a model for other students in the class. [9]

Sketch to Stretch: This strategy utilizes the artistic talents of many of our students, and it can always be adjusted to have students work in pairs if some students are not drawn to illustration. This is doubly beneficial, as the students must talk about the text and agree upon an interpretation. Students can make their illustrations on index cards, and provide explanations on the back. Or they can create their symbolic illustrations in a t-chart, or perhaps another graphic organizer. What is important is for the student to create a symbolic illustration and justify their choices. [10]

Save the Last Word for Me: This is a simple avenue towards just getting students to talk about a text. The students copy their favorite passage from the text onto an index card and what they liked about the passage on the back. They share the passage in small groups, and then each group member has a chance to comment on the passage. In the end, the student who chose the passage gets to share why they chose the passage. [11]

Most Important Word: Like the previous strategy mentioned, this creates lively discussion and sometimes a heated debate. Students must examine a text to find the word they think is most important. You can place certain stipulations on their choices, such as no character’s names or words from the title. Or you can vary the strategy to have student select the most important chapter or most important passage. [12]


As students finish with a text teachers should create opportunities for them to recall and retell what they have read. This activity allows the teacher to see the type of understanding the students pulled from the text. This type of activity can be used for comparing film and literature. By having the students recall their images from the text and comparing it to the film version, brings a new understanding to the original text [13] .


In order to evaluate student's comprehension of a text, have them draw out parts of the text. Applying their comprehension through that of pictures reveals whether or not the student truly understood the point of the author's message. Acting out a work is also another way to perceive the students understanding as well as their own interpretation. [14]

Marcell's "Traffic Light" reading comprehension strategy concludes with the green light checklist for "After I Read" with the following questions:
  • What did I learn?
  • What was the BIG idea?
  • What do I need to remember?
  • How was my MIND MOVIE?[15]


Discussing a text after reading it is so important to comprehension. In The Reading Teacher, it discusses a strategy for holding this discussion. It is called the 3-2-1 Strategy. In this strategy, the students first discuss important points from the text and summarize their ideas. Next the students share insight into the text on what they found to be the most interesting aspect of the text. Lastly the students will formulate questions about what they read. Students also can use a 3-2-1 bookmark or chart as they read to help them in their after reading discussion. These steps of discussion helps students connect to the text and think about it in a deeper manner. [16]

Creative After-Reading Discussion of Characters: Hot Seat Strategy
After reading a text, the students and the teacher arrange chairs in a row (the hot seats). Character names are written on index cards and are taped to student volunteers who then sit in the hot seats. Assuming the persona of the characters, the students answer questions written by the other students in the audience. These questions deal with issues/concerns the students had while reading. The students are responsible to point out if a character in the hot seat does not answer "in persona." This activity is a fun and creative way for the students to think about the complex interactions of character emotions, actions, traits, and other characteristics.
Allen advocates using “two levels of instructional support for specialized content vocabulary: verbal association that supports general content language, and explicit instruction that highlights specific words where lack of understanding would impede reading comprehension.” Allen advocates anticipating content through the context of the reading which supports word connections and allows the student to “activat[e] background knowledge prior to reading.” Allen supports McGinley and Dinner’s instructional activity that they call “story impressions” in which Allen has transformed the exercise to give students a chart in which the teacher has provided key words for the students to create sentences that are supposed to anticipate the content of the text. Then, each student shares his or her sentence with another student and then the entire class develops one united sentence. This allows the students to consider the ways in which other students are anticipating the possible content based on the given words. [18]

Kittle discusses Eagle Academy, “a second chance school for kids who have dropped out of our high school.” These are the young students who boast both tattoos and Garfield socks. Kittle says that she knows when students are lying. She claims, “As a child, I could bend the truth like clowns make balloon creatures: one minute it’s a dog, the next a hat.” She has a student, Casey, whom the thought of has woken her up at half past two in the morning because he cannot read, and she knows he is not lying. She speaks to a previous teacher of Casey’s from ninth grade (a friend of Kittle) who claims that Casey participated in class discussions of books often. The two teachers have a shared moment in which they recognize that Casey is both bright and illiterate. Casey listened and observed in order to participate in book talks. Casey utilized his intuitive during and after reading strategies in order to come to an atmospheric reading of the books that he was assigned without understanding a word of the text. Kittle poses a basic and difficult question: how doe we balance teaching of each student with the teaching of a different student in a very different academic level. [19]

Street explains one during reading strategy: two students get together and student A asks student B two “good questions” about the passage of text that they have just read (the teacher must model “good questions”). Then, student B responds to the two questions, and the two students respond to the questions and answers. Then the two students reverse the process of questioning and answering. One after reading strategy that Street explains one after-reading strategy called a fishbowl discussion. All students in a class read the passage and respond to some in writing to some questions that the teacher poses. Then, the teacher chooses a fishbowl of students to respond through discussion about the passage and a leader to facilitate the conversation about the passage. The other students not involved in the fishbowl discussion are to be listening and writing down their observations concerning the discussion of the fishbowl. This exercise allows students to integrate their ideas with the discussion of the fishbowl group. Street emphasizes that the teacher should act as a guide through this process and not an active member of discussion. [20]



If students do not apply what they are reading or connect it in some form, they are more likely to forget what they just read thus decreasing their overall comprehension. One activity that is beneficial to the application stage of reading is making a visual representation of what they just read. Comprehension can be enhanced when readers actively relate the ideas presented in print to their own knowledge and experience and craft a visual representation to make meaning out of the text. [21]

Apply and Create:
A creative interaction with the book can help students improve their understanding and connection with a book. The following projects are two examples.

1. Brown Bag Book Report

The student takes a brown paper grocery bag and decorates the outside to represent an important scene from the book. Next the student includes ten objects relating to the book’s characters, setting, themes, etc. in the bag. (The student should use an index card or sticky note as a bookmark and to keep a running list of objects that relate to the book as he or she reads). The student should present the bag with the objects and explain how the scene/objects are important to the book. This project especially benefits the students that struggle with writing—that is, the project allows the students to make higher-level connections without having to write an essay. This project allows students to creatively and independently think about the text.

This has been actively practiced in Jackson MS and is known as "What's in a Bag?" Students decorate the outside of the bag with everything they know about the book based only on the cover and inside flaps. Images, author and title are usually required. With sixth graders, the students are required to have a minimum of 3 objects in the bag. These objects can be quotes, images, character, summaries or even little objects students have made or found around the house. One student had four items she found at home to represent key points in the storyline of her book. While most of the students enjoyed the project, be aware it can cause issues with ELL students.

2. Alternate Ending

For this project, students function as the "author" and write another ending for the text (two page minimum). This activity is not only fun for students who like to write stories, but also this exercise helps students think critically and imaginatively about the reading. The students edit the work and share the final drafts with the class. Listeners give feedback and discuss the book and the alternate endings.

Read More

Smarter, Not Harder

There are many wonderful reading strategies to be used before, during, and after reading. It is, in fact, easy to get buried in strategies, sometimes leaving kids the ones drowning. However, Amy Goodman, in response to the difficulties of Language Arts teachers in preparing their students to pass standardized tests, offered a very specific idea. “What if,” she offered, “we chose five reading strategies that we all agree improve comprehension. We could roll out a strategy a week and get our content area teachers on board, too. If everyone were to systematically use the same reading strategy during a certain period of time within their school, students would receive repeated practice on the strategy in a variety of settings and on a wide array of text...Let’s agree to teach five reading strategies district-wide to see if reading comprehension improves. This idea of less is more could actually help us work smarter and not harder”[23] .
  1. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 139
  2. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 140
  3. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 141
  4. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 139-144
  5. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 144-152
  6. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 152-159
  7. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 160
  8. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 159-165
  9. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 165-171
  10. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 171-172
  11. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 172-173
  12. ^ Beers, K. 2003. When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. p. 173-175
  13. ^ Film and Reading Strategies. Reading in the Dark. 2005. 36-60.
  14. ^ Collier, Lorna. Fighting for Scientifically Valid Reading Strategies That Work. The Council Chronicle, November 2008. 22-24.
  15. ^ Marcell, Barclay. (May 2007). Traffic Light Reading: Fostering the Independent Usage of Comprehension Strategies with Informational Text. The Reading Teacher. 60 (8). pp. 778-781.
  16. ^ Zygouris-Coe, Vicky., Wiggins, Matthew., Smith, Lourdes. "Engaging Students With Text: The 3-2-1 Strategy." The Reading Teacher 58.4 (Dec 2004). 381-384.
  17. ^ "An After-Reading Stategy." Classroom Notes Puls. 21.1. (2006): 7-9. Print.
  18. ^ Allen, J. 2003. “I Am Thorgood, King of the Orgies”: The Reading Challenge of Content Vocabulary. Voices From the Middle. 9(4). Pg. 22-27.
  19. ^ Kittle, P. 2008. My Head Is Full of Children. Voices From the Middle. 15(4). Pg. 50-51.
  20. ^ Street, C. 2002. Expository Text and Middle School Students: Some Lessons Learned. Voice From the Middle. 9(4). Pg. 33-38.
  21. ^ Assaf, L., & Garza, R. (2007). "Making Magazine Covers that Visually Count: Learning to Summarize with Tehcnology." The Reading Teacher, 60, 678-680.
  22. ^ "Focus on Reading: More Choices Lead to More Reading." Classroom Notes Plus . 24.1 (2006): 1-4. Print.
  23. ^ Goodman, A. The Middle School High Five: Strategies Can Triumph. Voices From the Middle.13(2). p. 12-19. Retrieved from