Praising the Baby Steps

I was working in a 5th grade classroom today with an ELL student, Jamal (not his real name), who is incredibly far behind his classmates.  Yes, he has some second language issues, having only been in this country for about 2 years, but there are other struggling reader issues going on as well. While other students are reading a variety of chapter books from Amber Brown and Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Harry Potter and Lightning Thief, this student is reading predictable texts at a beginning first grade level.  But what I love about Jamal is how hard he works, how willing he is to practice the guided reading books he is given, and how happy and interested he is in those beginning level books.

What I started wondering today was: are we helping struggling readers to realize their progress enough? Jamal is making progress, yet it is often slow and painstaking.  However, in order to keep him motivated, he needs to hear praise for the baby steps of progress he is achieving.  Some teachers, when faced with a student this far behind, might have trouble seeing the progress because so much of what this child can’t do is so alarmingly visible.

I am reminded of what Carol Lyons wrote in Teaching Struggling Readers: How To Use Brain-based Research to Maximize Learning, “Recent neurological research proves that emotions are central to learning.  They impact what children learn, how they learn it, and how they feel about themselves while engaged in the learning process.” Jamal, and others like him, need teachers willing to notice, praise, and reinforce the strategies and behaviors that he is beginning to take on.  Lyons goes on to say that “children who have positive learning experiences are happy and feel successful and supported.  Children who have negative experiences are dejected and feel like failures and alone.”

Here are a few ideas for helping students realize their growth as readers:

–  You used to ________, but now I notice how often you _________.

–  I can tell you really practiced the books I gave you last week in guided reading because……

–  I notice that you are checking on yourself so much more often.  I think those questions in your head (Does it look right?  Sound right? Make sense?) are really starting to help you.

– You are participating so much more in guided reading discussions (or interactive read aloud, literature circles, or share time.)  I love that you are sharing your ideas and opinions so much more lately.

– When you reread stories you begin to solve your problems faster.  Keep up all that great practice you’ve been doing.

–  WOW, the last time you read that book to me, you sounded a bit choppy.  Today it was beautiful, smooth reading!

–  Have you noticed that you are solving tricky words faster?  I’m wondering why that is.  Do you have an idea?

–  You used to get very distracted by the other students reading near you, but lately you’ve stayed more focused.  What did you change to make that happen?

–  I remember in September how long it took you to get started during writing workshop, but now…

How are you helping the struggling readers in your room to feel and believe in their own personal growth?


  1. Thank you for this reminder. I, too, have several ELL students in my third grade classroom who are reading at a first grade level. I agree that we need to remind students how they are doing well and help them see the progress they are making. I think they often focus on what they aren’t doing (reading chapter books for example). With our support, they can focus more on what they can do. Julie

  2. These are great scripts for teachers, not only in brick-and-mortar schools, but for distance education and homeschooling, as well. Parents homeschooling may not know how to help their struggling readers or know what to say, and it’s hard to find that kind of specific information. Thanks!

  3. I had very similar experiences with a pair of earnest struggling readers this morning. I love the way you explicitly praise the strategies and learning behaviours and the choices that the child is making. Thanks for your useful suggestions.

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