Reading Strategies That Work for Struggling Readers

speed reading

Strategies for Struggling Readers

Have you ever known someone who reads impossibly fast? You watch them reading and it’s almost as if they aren’t even reading. In fact, they seem to be absorbing text. They simply look at words and they jump into their mind.

As surprising as this may be to learn: they are doing much more than simply glancing at words and absorbing them. They are unconsciously using reading strategies that allow them to read quickly while maintaining a high level of reading comprehension.

Scaffolding Techniques

The lack of these effective reading strategies is often what prevents struggling readers from excelling with reading. Fortunately, you can teach reading strategies to struggling readers to help them improve their reading comprehension.

Often, educators call these reading strategies “scaffolding” techniques because they help struggling readers build their way up to reading comprehension, much as a scaffold helps a construction worker to build upward from the ground.

Annotating Text

One such scaffolding skill that you can teach to struggling readers is the annotation of text. This means, quite simply, that the reader “marks up” sections of text, either with a highlighter or underlining, and makes notes in the margin in his/her own words, to ensure understanding.

Annotation helps build three key reading skills. When annotating a text, the reader:

  1. Formulates questions in response to what he is reading
  2. Analyzes and interprets elements of poetry or prose
  3. Draws conclusions and makes inferences based on explicit and implicit meaning

Teaching Struggling Readers to Annotate Text

In order for this to be effective, it is essential that you show your struggling readers how to highlight and annotate a text. Otherwise, the student will probably lapse into highlighting every word, which doesn’t help him to identify key concepts.

A useful teaching strategy you can employ is to use an old-fashioned overhead projector or a SMART board, to display a piece of text and READ IT FIRST. Students need to know that they don’t start highlighting until after they’ve first read through the text. You can then highlight it yourself, talking your way through WHY you choose certain items to highlight. As you do this, you can also ask the students to pick items for highlighting and have them explain why they selected them.

As the highlighting progresses, it’s important for students to make notes in the margins, such as:

  • questions the student needs to ask you
  • predictions about what will happen as a story progresses
  • identify figurative language, such as: simile, metaphor, symbol, or other literary device (usually this would be done with poetry or prose)
  • note unfamiliar vocabulary (the definition can later be written in the margin)

As you use these teaching strategies, you should discuss with the students the purpose of highlighting. Each student will have different purpose for highlighting depending on their own skill set and reading struggles.

For example:

Students that struggle with understanding what they read (reading comprehension), benefit from highlighting because it helps them focus on identifying the main ideas of a text.

On the contrary, other students can grasp main ideas, but don’t “read between the lines” very well. They will benefit from having a set of reading questions provided in advance that require making an inference. These students can use the highlighter to try to locate information that will help them respond to the questions. A key question for students to write onto a text and refer back to frequently is: “How do I know this is true?” This question reminds them to look for evidence to support their conclusions.

Side Note:

K-12 students typically are not permitted to highlight their textbooks, for obvious reasons. It is well worth the time & expense for the classroom teacher to make photocopies if possible for struggling readers so that they can annotate their texts.


Showing struggling readers active strategies like annotating gives them concrete tools to be able to interact with text and find small, immediate successes. The more students practice effective reading strategies, the more natural they will become, and the closer to absorbing text they will get.