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Struggling Reader Sight Word Instruction

How a teacher approaches reading instruction needs to look different for early elementary-aged students versus junior high students. Had I used the same games or literature for my junior highers as I use for my 2nd-grade reader, they would've been bored. How I approach even sight word instruction is important because my ultimate goal is to give them a desire to read on their own. If they are bored with reading instruction (which is typically a struggling readers only positive experience with reading) then I'm failing in this ultimate goal.

I also know the good components of reading instruction includes explicit comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency instruction modeling the skills needed during independent reading time. Good instruction cannot really separate one from the other - they are all related and working on one will affect another. I know that struggling readers need many, many encounters with good literature. They need to read with an instructor and then apply those skills to their independent reading time. Yet, it is readers who struggle with automatic word identification that receive the least amount of actual reading time. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that we separate sight word instruction from literature rather than making instruction literacy-based.

The challenge is finding literature that interests them that isn't too difficult to read, but it also has to do with repeated readings, consistent procedures, a fluency rubric, personal interests, hobbies, and background knowledge. It requires some searching, time, and a deep desire to inspire a love of reading. Without the later, it's difficult to take the time and energy to accomplish this. Thankfully, we work on the same text all week so it isn't a daily search, but when you have a large caseload it does seem overwhelming initially (I had approximately ten students in my high school remedial class and more than twenty between the 7th and 8th graders). What I found most successful is teaching them how to find reading that is appropriate for their ability. Giving them parameters to find their own literature was essential to their success! (I told them to read the first page of a book, if there were more than a handful of words they couldn't automatically identify it was too difficult). Giving them the power to choose was key! So once a week we went to the library and I guided them as they picked literature.

From there we used the first page to go on a high-frequency word hunt. We tallied how often we saw our focus words of the week. Example:

  • that

  • with

  • then

  • them

  • this

Then we reread the sentences that we found those words in, my goal was to give them many experiences of seeing and reading these words in context. We played games like "BANG!" (that will be for sale in my Teachers Pay Teachers store shortly) or SPLAT (found on Amazon)! We also wrote pyramid sentences trying to use as many of the words as possible and traded them with partners. Example:


That dog

That dog walked

That dog walked with

That dog walked with them

That dog walked with them without

That dog walked with them without a

That dog walked with them without a leash!

The goal is to give them ownership, successful experiences with literature, and opportunities to use the skills they're being taught. Let's break those elements of a successful program that integrates automatic word identification for struggling readers with literature they are interested in reading:

  • Consistent Procedures

  • Wordplay

  • Literacy-Based Learning

  • Literacy Rich Environment

  • Fluency Rubric for Repeated Readers (Here is the rubric that I use): It is impossible to separate word identification with repeated readings at the upper-level remedial level.

  • Practice, Practice, Practice

I've only given you a few examples of things we do together to build up unmotivated, struggling readers. But I hope the bit that I've given helps you understand what I do as a reading tutor, my experience as a reading teacher, and what will help you help your readers! If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at

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