One of the toughest tasks you'll ever face is teaching challenging texts to at-risk students — students who, for whatever reason, are reading below grade level. Reading can be a frustrating slog for these students; they just don't have the tools they need to tackle the books you've assigned.

They can develop these tools with the proper support, and you can help. By no means is this an easy process, and you probably won't succeed with every student — there are too many variables at play, some of which you can't control. But what happens in the classroom is certainly something you can (mostly) control. Sometimes it's tough to stay positive, I know, but overcoming that challenge is part of being a leader, and you can help these kids.

Here are a few things to try.

Keep expectations high

One of the dangers of teaching at-risk kids is that we can fall into the trap of expecting them to achieve at a lower level simply because they've been designated "at-risk." And if you're starting the year with a classroom full of kids reading below grade level, you might think they won't be able to meet the expectations you've set.

However, if you don't believe they can do it, they won't believe it either. If you don't teach them as if they're capable, they'll lower their performance to your lowered expectations.

Instead of lowering the challenge level of your assignments, give your students supports that help them meet the challenge.

Use judicious scaffolding

One way to avoid lowing the challenge level of assignments is to give students the scaffolding they need in order to rise to the occasion. When you're trying to get your students to read rigorous texts, this scaffolding can take many forms:

  1. Inline annotations. Annotations are good for a number of things. They can give students definitions of unfamiliar vocabulary words. They can help students parse tough passages, possibly by interpreting these passages in simpler language. They can point out premises (both explicit and implicit) of formal arguments.
  2. Pre-reading lessons. Before your students start reading, prime them with information. Does the book have an unconventional structure? Teach them about it. Does it use odd sentence structures (like most Shakespeare)? Show students what these structures look like and teach them how to read them. Do students need any specific background knowledge to better understand the text? Give that to them upfront.
  3. Exercises throughout the text. Make plot outlines for each chapter and fill in some events but make students fill in others. In later chapters, leave out more events so students have to fill in more information. Or show them news articles, videos, chapters from other books, etc., that connect to the text. Have them write about their own experiences and how they relate to the book. All this will help students engage with the book's ideas.

Use direct vocabulary instruction

If you teach in a school where many children come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, you may be facing an uphill battle. Research suggests that these students will enter school with less developed vocabularies than those of children from wealthier households, and this gap only grows as children advance through school — Unless something is done about it.

Direct vocabulary instruction can help close the gap. As with any course of direct vocab instruction, you'll want to focus on Tier 2 words, though some students may need some instruction with Tier 1 words as well.

Make sure to give them several different ways to learn the words to help them stick. You may want to try:

  • short story writing
  • drawing pictures
  • paired conversation (for oral practice)
  • using context clues in reading passages to decipher meaning

What techniques are you using with your at-risk students? Let us know in the comments.