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Dedicated to Teachers

When Kids Can't Read: 7 Underlying Beliefs


In When Kids Can't Read, Kylene Beers offers teachers the comprehensive handbook they've needed to help readers improve their skills. On Tuesday, August 9 at 8:00 p.m. ET, Kylene will host a Facebook Live Q&A on this book. The details are at the bottom of this post.

Below, read an excerpt of When Kids Can't Read, detailing Kylene's beliefs about teaching reading to struggling readers.

My beliefs about teaching reading to struggling readers include the following:

by Kylene Beers


Students can be taught to use a range of comprehension strategies so that these strategies influence how they make meaning from a text (Wilhelm, 2001; Pressley, 2000; Keene and Zimmerman, 1997; Collins, 1991; Brown et al., 1996; Brown and Coy-Ogan, 1993).


There are multiple ways to help students improve their comprehending abilities. Some of these ways are less explicit; others more explicit. Teachers must be prepared to switch to more direct, explicit models of instruction if that is what any particular student needs. Holding tight to only one methodology not only limits what a teacher can do but limits who can be successful. Believing that one single method can make (or not make) the difference in any given student’s chance of success negates the importance of the teacher. In fact, though, the teacher’s skill in assessing students’ abilities, effectively responding to students’ needs, and successfully analyzing and monitoring students’ improvement makes the difference (Duffy, 1991, 1992; Collins and Pressley, 2002). This means, in short, we can’t fix the reading problem by buying a particular program; instead, as teachers, we must learn how to teach students to comprehend texts. The less we depend on programs and the more we depend on our own knowledge—informed by practice and research—the less likely we are to be controlled by politically driven mandates, expensive programs that appear and disappear from our classrooms without rhyme or reason, and federally funded (or not funded) programs.


Some students do benefit from direct, explicit instruction in comprehension strategies. While some will argue that comprehension strategies cannot be taught directly, others find that struggling readers do benefit from direct instruction (Beers, 2001; Dole, Brown, and Trathen, 1996; Duffy, 2002; Pressley et al., 1992; Tierney and Cunningham, 1984; Vygotsky 1934, 1986).

These strategies can be taught directly and explicitly following a process in which the teacher models and explains the strategy, then students apply the strategy by practicing it with a range of texts under the coaching of the teacher or a more skilled reader (scaffolded practice). The teacher’s role is to:

  • monitor the use of the strategy
  • offer less coaching as less is called for (removing the scaffold)
  • ask students what strategy they are using and why (therefore bringing the use of the strategy to the student’s awareness)
  • give students continued opportunity to observe more modeling
  • provide multiple and ongoing opportunities for students to transact with other students with a range of texts


In addition to direct and explicit comprehension strategy instruction, some students will also need and benefit from direct vocabulary study. While we recognize that most words are not learned via direct instruction, but in a more indirect manner (you hear someone say, “This is a great buffet,” while standing before a buffet and you infer the meaning of the word buffet), we know that vocabulary knowledge affects comprehension (Beck, Perfetti, and McKeown, 1982; McKeown et al., 1983, 1985; Blachowicz, 1987; Blachowicz and Fisher, 2000). Methods that encourage students to actively construct meanings (as opposed to merely copying definitions from a dictionary) help students learn and retain word meanings longer (Allen, 1999; Anderson and Freebody, 1981; Bannon et al., 1990; Becker, Dixon, and Inman-Anderson, 1980; Blachowicz, 1986; Blachowicz and Fisher, 2000; Hill, 1998).


Some readers struggle through a text because they lack fluent word recognition. Let me say now that I believe that strong word recognition skills are a major component of comprehending a text; however, they alone don’t ensure comprehension. If you aren’t sure of that, pick up a medical textbook. You might be able to decode all the words, but once finished, might not have any idea what the text is saying. On the other hand, if you can’t decode the words, getting to that meaning is difficult at best. When students stumble through words on a consistent basis, they need help with word recognition skills that will allow fluent decoding of a text (Adams, 1990; Metsala and Ehri, 1998; Juel, 1988; Gough and Tunmer, 1986; Langenberg et al., 2000; Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998).

The less cognitive energy students must spend figuring out the words on the page, the more energy they can spend figuring out what the text means. Think of it this way: If an adolescent will give us ten units of energy comprehending a text and nine of those units go to just figuring out what the words are, then she only has one unit left for the most critical part of reading—comprehension. Therefore, automaticity and fluency are critical to comprehension. This, of course, has been the focus of much attention recently as reading researchers, politicians, publishers, and parents debate the role of phonics and the best way to help students learn to decode texts. What’s not debated, though, is that the point of reading is to get meaning and you can’t get to the meaning if you can’t get through the words.


Teachers who encourage a wide range of reading, who give their students plenty of opportunity for sustained, silent reading, who read aloud to their students on a regular basis, who provide ongoing opportunities for students to discuss—in small- and large-group settings—their understanding of a text, who encourage extensive rather than intensive reading, who encourage self-selection of some texts, and who recognize that students become better readers by reading, not merely practicing reading skills, increase students’ opportunity for developing a positive attitude toward reading, for improving fluency, for improving vocabulary, and for improving comprehension.


Reading is a social process, an interactive activity, one in which readers create meaning through transactions—interactions—with the text, their prior knowledge, the context, and other readers (Weaver, 1994; Rosenblatt, 1978; Durkin, 1993).

These beliefs provide the direction for strategies outlined in When Kids Can't Read. They are based on three premises:

  • Teachers—not programs—are the critical element in a student’s success.
  • The goal of reading is comprehension.
  • Comprehension is a complex, abstract activity.

It’s not enough knowing what good readers can do or struggling readers can’t do. We must also know what we believe about teaching, about learning, and about our role in both. Once that’s determined, we can make intelligent choices about the instruction that best suits the needs of our students.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Check out the Facebook Live archived video here on the blog: Kylene Beers: When Kids Can’t Read – Facebook Live

Topics: Reading, This I Believe, When Kids Can't Read, Comprehension, Kylene Beers

Date Published: 08/08/16

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