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Reading: Getting Students Up to Grade Level

By October 10, 2019January 31st, 2023English


Recently, a blog reader from Oregon asked about getting below-level, upper elementary readers up to grade level. That’s a broad topic, but I will share ideas from working with  5th grade classes.

NOTE 1: First, know that in the early 1990s, students learned letters and sounds in Kindergarten but it wasn’t until the end of first grade or even the beginning of second grade that they actually understood what it was to “read.” Today, students are pushed to learn earlier and earlier, so that the “end of first grade” time is now midway through Kindergarten.

Why are kids being pushed to read earlier and earlier?  One district head of reading put it like this: “Because they can.” Or…at least some students can read at age five. But so many others are left behind…which…ah…wouldn’t have been “behind” years ago.

NOTE 2: Be aware that research shows that upper elementary students don’t change much over the summer with regard to their reading scores. In other words, their reading scores from May to September don’t change whether they read over the summer or not.


Some teachers believe the way for students to get better in reading is to simply have them read, read, read. This seems like a reasonable philosophy; however, research doesn’t support that premise for below-level readers. As a reading/literacy specialist, I have found that if you can determine exactly what students don’t understand, you can target their needs and get them up to level.


One year, all fifth grade students were tested at the beginning of the year and melded into the usual school reading plan.

The 5th graders who read at the 2nd and 3rd grade levels read the same stories as all the other 5th graders. They had extra help with front-loading information and practice with workbook pages.  They were also given help with comprehension reading strategies.

This plan was not too successful. The fifth graders who began the year reading at the 2nd and 3rd grade levels, had a difficult time with the on-level 5th grade stories. It took them longer than expected to read the stories; thus often the classroom teacher was already reading a new story while the low-level readers were still on the old story. Also, because the stories were difficult, the low-level students became, disengaged, bored, and unmotivated because it was not easy for them to succeed. 


By December, the whole scenario needed to change.

The students were re-assessed with four programs. In addition to comprehension issues, it was obvious that students needed help with decoding multi-syllabic words.

Beginning in February, a plan was in place to increase student comprehension and fluency; to expand their vocabulary; and to help them decode words. They also needed some appealing materials to hold their interest.  These were the materials:

1) Reader books (4th grade ELL and below-level, a few 5th grade on-level for a total of 17 small books).

2) Practice Book grammar pages (about 20) that were specific to their needs.

3) High Interest/Low Readability articles/questions (a big hit; 13 passages).

4) Multi-syllabic word reading strategies.

5) “Other” (Most of these things I created.)

  1. Workbook pages: word families; vocabulary games; S V DO sheets; CVC + ing sheets; affixes/decoding…
  2. Vocabulary pages from ELL resources.
  3. Special articles (e.g., Titanic, cotton).
  4. Note taking, including note taking with drawings.
  5. Writing paragraphs (with drawing).

6) Time Magazine for Kids: This was a fabulous motivator since the magazine is timely (and well written). Students would finish their work in record time in order to read articles in that magazine on Fridays. We could connect reading concepts with the articles and had great discussions.

This magazine also contributed to their self-esteem since the below-level readers were the only students in the school who received the magazine and could take it home. Other students begged them to share and let them read it too. Sometimes I would give the below-level readers two extra copies to give to friends. These “unsuccessful kids” became popular.


 Stats for May testing:

  • One student (an English language learner) made it to the end of the 4th grade level.
  • One student tested at the end of 5th grade.
  • All others tested somewhere at the 5th grade level.

Why was this plan successful?

  • Part of the success had to do with giving the students 4th grade ELL materials, NOT 2nd grade reading materials — even though many began the year reading at the 2nd grade level.
  • Another was giving them reading selections that interested them.
  • But really zeroing in on exactly what they could understand but not read, like multi-syllabic words, is why the plan worked.

NOTE: In previous years, I taught the below-level students Latin and Greek roots and prefixes using my book, Word Archeology: Digging Up Latin and Greek Roots. They learned to guess the meanings of words because they knew the “insides” of the words and that really helped.  (I should probably add that I teach all levels of students Latin and Greek roots.)

Realize that for years, these 5th grade below-level students had failed in school, even though they were “passed along” each year to the next grade.  They were immature, didn’t want to work, and some bullied others. After a while, they began to trust me, knowing that if they did what I asked, they would succeed. (Success to them meant not dropping out of middle school.)

In the end, I left for summer holiday, knowing I did everything possible to help those students. I will always wonder how they did in middle and high school and what they are doing  with their lives right now.