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reading comprehension

Moving Beyond “Struggling Reader” Labels

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Wednesday, March 6, 2019

boy reading

By Katherine K. Frankel

In a recent interview with Education Week, author Jacqueline Woodson, the Library of Congress's 2018­–2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, discussed her concerns about labels like “struggling reader.” She argued that these kinds of labels are harmful because they perpetuate the mistaken idea that a reader’s abilities are static rather than dynamic. Drawing on her own experiences, Woodson explained:

“I know if I was raised in this day and age, I would have been labeled a struggling reader. But what I know now is I was actually reading like a writer…What gets translated is ‘you are not as good,’ and that gets translated into our whole bodies. That’s where the danger lies” (Iasevoli, 2018, para. 5).

Woodson’s words of caution resonate with me on multiple levels. In elementary school, I too would have been labeled a “struggling reader” if the term had existed at the time. As a high school teacher, many of my students considered themselves to be “struggling readers” based on years of hearing this and similar terms applied to them. In my research, I have documented the negative impact of labels as experienced by adolescent readers. For example, I have seen how labels contribute to deficit thinking by focusing on what a reader cannot do. I have seen how labels locate reading difficulty as an individual problem that lies within the reader, rather than as an instructional- or societal-level problem that may be understood and addressed collectively by students, teachers, and parents working together. And, like Woodson, I have seen how labels oversimplify the act of reading by implying the existence of a static “good reader” / “poor reader” dichotomy that does not accurately reflect the complexity of reading.

Moving Beyond Labels 

As an alternative to labeling readers, we can instead engage in conversations and practices that reflect current understandings of reading as a dynamic process. Below, I offer three recommendations for how to do this, accompanied by guiding questions. My hope is that these questions will serve as starting points for students, parents, and teachers to engage in more robust conversations about reading that move beyond labels.

Focus on understanding the conditions under which readers are most successful.

  • What kinds of texts, broadly defined, do we read (for example: novels, graphic novels, magazines, song lyrics, maps, recipes, emails, text messages, social media posts)?
  • What kinds of texts do we most enjoy reading?
  • Why do we read these texts? What makes them so enjoyable?
  • What do we do when we encounter difficulties while reading them?

Be precise about when and why readers might require additional support with particular texts and tasks.  

  • What are the specific combinations of texts, tasks, and contexts that give rise to reading difficulties for particular readers? For example, the reading processes and challenges that a reader might encounter while comparing and contrasting multiple historical documents in preparation for writing a timed essay in school likely differ from those that same reader encounters while reading a young adult novel for pleasure at home and then texting or talking about it with friends.
  • What happens when these text/task/context combinations change? For example, does a reader gain more understanding of those same historical documents when she has opportunities to reread and discuss key concepts and vocabulary with her teacher and classmates? Does she communicate that understanding differently when she has opportunities to articulate and debate her arguments prior to writing an essay?

Emphasize that all readers experience reading challenges under certain conditions.

  • What text/task/context combinations give rise to reading difficulties for more experienced readers (for example: parents, teachers, siblings)?
  • What do experienced readers do when they encounter difficulties (for example: reread, look for key vocabulary, combine information from images and words, write down questions, talk with another reader, etc.)?

Finally, I urge students, parents, and teachers to advocate for policies and practices that take a more nuanced perspective on reading, a perspective that allows us to recognize and build from readers’ strengths and that reflects the complex and dynamic nature of reading.


Iasevoli, B. (2018, February 5). Stop using the label ‘struggling reader,’ author Jacqueline Woodson advises [Web log post]. Retrieved from


Thank you to the graduate student literacy educators enrolled in my Spring 2019 adolescent literacy course for their thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft of this post. For a more extended discussion of alternatives to labels and labelling, please see Frankel, K.K., & Brooks, M.D. (2018). Why the “struggling reader” label is harmful (and what educators can do about it). Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(1), 111-114.

About the Author

Katherine K. Frankel

Katherine K. Frankel, PhD, is an assistant professor of literacy education in the Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. Formerly a Landmark High School teacher, she now teaches graduate-level courses in reading/literacy and conducts research in classrooms and one-on-one tutoring contexts in partnership with middle and high school students and their teachers.

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The Five Components of Reading: The Keys to Unlock Reading Proficiency

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Monday, February 25, 2019

girl reading at desk with teacher

By Meghan Sebens

Reading is an integral part of our culture and has been for many millennia. While our social and academic lives are constantly infused with reading, this ability does not develop innately. ​The ability to read is shaped by the material we engage with, by our own internal processes, and most importantly, by the instruction we’re given. When we tease apart the concept of reading, we’re left with five vastly expansive underlying components. Although these areas range from pre-literacy skills to deep understanding of complex texts, they do not necessarily fall on a sequential spectrum. In fact, solid instruction covers many of these areas within a single lesson.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds (phonemes) within a spoken word. While this component of reading does not actually involve written text, it is fundamental to the skill of decoding. Some students may not need direct instruction in order to develop phonemic awareness. However, if phonemic awareness is not intact, difficulty will persist until it is remediated. Phonemic awareness instruction may consist of various wordplay activities. Can you show the number of sounds in gush (hint: it’s not four!)? Can you take out the /f/ sound in flip? Students build the ability to control sounds, and even syllables, within words. Without this capacity, phonics instruction will be incredibly challenging.


Phonics knowledge is the understanding that letters correspond to certain sounds. While in some languages, like Italian, a single spelling exists for each sound, in English, the 26 letters of the alphabet represent roughly 44 different sounds. Furthermore, English contains approximately 360 different combinations of letters to spell those sounds. The rules of phonics for English are more complex and varied than many alphabetic languages. Teaching phonics is incredibly important, especially for students who do not naturally synthesize the many rules of the English language. A systematic approach toward phonics helps students recognize expected patterns in English from the very basic to the more complex. First, students must apply these rules to reading and spelling tasks in isolation. Once patterns are reinforced, they are ready for varied practice and application in context.


The skill of reading fluency spans from words to connected text. At the word level, fluent readers are able to read words with automaticity, or accurate and fast word recognition. Within connected text, students can accurately and efficiently string words together to form phrases and passages with ease. Fluent reading should sound natural, like a conversation. Appropriate (not fast) pacing, accurate word recognition, and phrasing and expression that demonstrate an understanding of the text are all subgoals within fluent reading. Each individual student may need a different focus for instruction. Activities that build rate include repeated readings, listening to model readings, and chunking text into phrases. Accuracy can be addressed through error handling, word analysis and automaticity drills, and decoding practice. A student can increase prosody (phrasing and expression) with phrase-cued text, poetry, and reader’s theater. While one student may need to use repeated readings to establish appropriate pace, this may be counterproductive to students who approach reading too quickly. Relevant instruction and building self-awareness are important factors in addressing fluent reading.


Vocabulary is the understanding of word meanings. Although text is not the only place that children gain vocabulary, explicit instruction in vocabulary leads to consistent gains in reading. Teaching vocabulary can be accomplished by constructing word meanings and other associated information (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, examples), training students to use context clues, as well as familiarizing them with the morphological structure of words (prefixes, roots, suffixes). It is important to take into account the frequency and usefulness of terms selected for study. Words that cross a variety of domains (i.e., different classes or situations) can be practiced more and provide a higher benefit for the student’s knowledge base. Categorization helps students to connect like vocabulary terms and organize information more efficiently.


Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. It may begin with recall of stated facts from the text but generally stems far beyond this simplistic notion. Students should be able to engage with the text in order to draw inferences beyond the stated material, connect novel situations to their own lives or other readings, analyze broader themes, and more. In order to accomplish this, students need to be taught to independently use strategies that allow them to attack written material at a deeper level. Summarizing, visualizing, and questioning are just a few strategies that teachers may incorporate into comprehension instruction. Students must learn to identify comprehension gaps and use a variety of tools to reconstruct the author’s intended meanings. Some readers make the necessary connections from speech sounds to symbols almost imperceptibly, learning to manipulate phonemes, recognize words and phrases, acquire vocabulary, and extract meaning from passages with ease. For others, the sub-skills of fluent reading must be identified and explicitly taught. The degree of intervention and the recipe for effective instruction can be as individualized as the human brain, but research has shown that the five areas above, in combination with principles of effective teaching, are essential keys to reading proficiency.   For further information on the five components of reading and instructional strategies, I encourage you to review the National Reading Panel Report - Practical Advice for Teachers.


About the Author

Meghan Sebens

Meghan Sebens, M.S.Ed., is the reading supervisor, the testing coordinator, and an academic advisor at Landmark’s Elementary•Middle School.


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Tags:  reading stages of reading reading comprehension decoding vocabulary fluency phonics

What It’s Like to Be a Writer With Dyslexia

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Monday, March 9, 2020 Byline:  By Brittny Pierre

"She’s lazy” and “she doesn’t work hard enough” are two sentences I’ve heard from educators on why school was difficult for me.

The reality wasn’t simply that I didn’t have the resources that suited my learning style to help me reach my full potential as a student. Now, as an adult, I often fear this is how my employers view me as I adapt to working with my learning disabilities. I am lucky to have formed a support group of ladies who are willing to take time out of their day to look over a piece or a pitch for errors before I send it off, but I can’t help but wish I didn’t need to reach out to others to proofread my work. Why can’t my brain just spot errors on its own? Why must the one talent I have and love face such a huge hurdle?

I have fond memories of pure excitement when my mom would read me a book right before bed. I loved hearing stories and imagining them playing out in my head. I also enjoyed the quiet moment of bonding with my mother through stories. I couldn’t wait to be able to read on my own. Toward the third grade, however, it became apparent that it wouldn’t be as easy as I thought. Sounding out and reading certain words was hard, because what I saw was completely different than what was actually on the paper. Even though I’d read an entire passage, I couldn’t comprehend it. As my grades started to slip, I felt less confident as a student. My mother did everything to figure out the reason I was falling behind. She placed me in tutoring sessions, made sure I had extended time for exams, and advocated for me with teachers, but educators still often felt I just wasn’t working hard enough. We didn’t know where exactly my learning disabilities were stemming from or how to address them.

In high school, I was finally diagnosed with dyslexia—specifically difficulty with decoding, reading comprehension, and spelling. It was a relief that I finally figured out exactly how this was affecting me, but the stigma that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else was still there. Though reading was difficult, I learned to find joy in reading books and writing my own stories. Living in my head and dreaming up stories gave me a sense of peace when everything around me felt chaotic. I lived with the pressure of wanting to perform well. When a teacher called on me to read a passage, I would become anxious and read ahead, just to make sure I could read it correctly and not scramble the words. I lived in fear of my classmates making fun of me for reading simple words like “then” but seeing “them” and not grasping right away why it was incorrect.

"Though reading was difficult, I learned to find joy in reading books and writing my own stories. "

Despite my guidance counselor’s dissuasion, I went on to a four-year university, where I received an A in a notably difficult course. My professor expressed that it’s extremely hard for first-year students to ace Rutgers English courses and that I should consider entering my essay in a writing competition. I didn’t enter my essay in the competition, because I lacked confidence in my writing. I still have many regrets about not submitting that essay. Along with my writing and reading struggles, I had difficulties in math and science. My grades were dropping, and depression set in. I was determined to figure out strategies to get back on track and graduate. I learned how important it is to attend office hours when you’re a number in a big university. I took a speed-reading course that helped me identify keywords when taking tests, and I taught myself how to study in a way that benefits my learning style.

After graduating from college, I didn’t realize how much my learning disabilities would continue to be a challenge when I entered the real world, especially as a writer. I will never forget one major mixup after I completed an internship. An editor sent me a story assignment to interview a rap duo. I misread the email, went to interview the group, transcribed it, and then only afterward did I realize I had misread the email and interviewed them on the wrong topic. The deadline was approaching, and the publicist declined to let me re-interview the duo. The assignment was ultimately killed. I was devastated and thought I wouldn’t have a career as a journalist.

My fear has always been that an editor won’t enjoy working with me due to little errors I’m unable to spot because my mind can’t comprehend the mistake. I have pondered the idea of mentioning my disability to the editors I’m pitching. There hasn’t been much discourse on adults with disabilities and the difficulties of functioning as a freelancer.

Even with the many mishaps, spelling errors, and scrambled words, however, I am a published writer. I have several pieces in many publications that I am proud of. Every article reminds me of the winding journey that took place, from pitching to writing to getting published.

As an employee, I’ve been in positions where I was expected to multitask and work at a fast pace. I’m a quick learner in many areas, but I like to take my time to ensure I’m not making careless mistakes. Most employers would prefer that we work fast and complete as many tasks as possible, but when I do that, unfortunately, I often make many errors. This has caused me to lose many jobs, even as a hostess and receptionist. Readers might think I’m not a competent employee, but this actually causes me to be more careful and pay closer attention, arguably making me a better worker. Processing many things at once takes me a lot longer, and words and numbers often get scrambled, which causes many mistakes on my end, so I have learned to take my time and always double-check my work.

I never imagined that, post-college, I would continue to combat my learning disabilities. I didn’t think they would hinder my ability to complete tasks or fulfill my dreams. Even with the many mishaps, spelling errors, and scrambled words, however, I am a published writer. I have several pieces in many publications that I am proud of. Every article reminds me of the winding journey that took place, from pitching to writing to getting published.

As I reflect on my hardships, I know I’m not alone in this struggle. Many public figures, writers, readers, and so on have the same uphill climb to overcome and deal with dyslexia and reading comprehension problems. Today, reading is still a struggle, but that doesn’t change how much I love it. Reading nonfiction and short stories still brings me the same joy it did when I was a little girl reading with my mom. Using my imagination still helps me escape the chaos and find peace within myself. I will never allow my struggles to stop me from achieving my goals or quiet my voice.

About the Author

Brittny Pierre is a Chicago-based culture writer, focusing on music, personal essays, and pop culture. She has been published with Vibe magazine, Bustle, Zora, and Shondaland.

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