Teacher Scholar Voices

Meeting the Needs of Struggling High School Students Through Putting Student Voice at the Center

Teacher Scholar Voices

As a teacher of struggling readers, I find myself constantly grappling with what to do with my high schoolers who are reading multiple grades below level. They walk in and out of my classroom each day and I see their sense of self as students waver as they are confronted with harder and harder texts. The need to serve them is immediate but also daunting. No two struggling readers seem to have the same need and the research about supporting readers is vast and divergent.

In an effort to design the best strategic reading class for 14 incredible students who are challenged by reading each day at my small school in the Fruitvale of Oakland, I leaned on best practices. I had learned about the practice of “Mazes” to support reading comprehension during my Masters program and decided to adopt it as a weekly routine. Mazes are short passages where every 7th word has been omitted. Students then choose the correct word from a choice of three as they read the passage. They have 3 minutes to do so and are measured on their number of correct selections and their words per minute. This provides both the student and the teacher immediate data about silent reading comprehension and fluency. I hoped that weekly practice with this exercise would help them develop their fluency and comprehension and, as they saw their own improvement, develop their confidence in themselves as readers.

A few months into the practice I found that students were not seeing growth, nor was I, and collectively we were feeling more and more frustrated around the practice. With my Mills Teacher Scholars facilitator, Jen, I began to think about the forms of data I could collect about the practice in order to gain a better understanding of whether it was helping meet my learning goal for students. She suggested that I provide students more space to reflect on the practice and share with me their own opinions about the plateaued results on the exercise. I decided to embed an additional data source into my routine in the form of a post- Maze reflection that asked students to look closely at their progress.

I found myself unsure about how best to serve my students as I read their reflections that were bleeding with frustration. One student wrote, “In my opinion Mazes are not helping my reading because I am still only getting 13 correct answers.” It was answers like these that caused me to dig deeper and turn to the students even more around the routine. The class was for them, and their needs were urgent.

I held a classroom circle and I talked openly with them about my questions around the practice and my need to hear them share their thinking beyond the written reflections. We passed the talking piece and my focal students suggested iterations of the Maze for us to try, such as using a “repeated read,” similar to our work with fluency building in running records.

Following their suggestion, we moved into a repeated read approach the next week. But then Andres spoke the truth: “Ms. Portugal, I am only doing better on this because I have it memorized now.” Clearly more change was necessary. I took a deep breath and pushed aside all my planning and data in order to redesign the classroom with my students.

Now if you are an educator reading this you are probably feeling sympathy for me in realizing that half way through the year I threw out an anchor of my instructional routine. At the time, I felt lost and confused and struggled at our next Mills Teacher Scholars session when everyone else seemed to be able to dive quickly into their inquiry work and all I could do was sit and think about the giant task that lay ahead of me. I looked at Jen, and she signaled for us to talk in the hallway knowing that I clearly needed to process this aloud with her. As I shared my story with her, she reminded me that even though I was ditching this routine, my choice to make a change was informed by my students through various data sources. And most importantly, now I had the students as partners in the work to reach our learning goals and their voices were at the center of the work.

Right around the time I was becoming frustrated with the Maze practice my school began diving into literacy during our Wednesday professional development sessions and our Instructional Leadership Team asked teachers to read a chapter out of the book When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do by Kylene Beers. The chapter listed symptoms of struggling readers ranging from: Can’t easily and quickly recognize single syllable words, can’t hear the words in their head while reading silently, mumble and blur words together while they read, don’t read to understand but read to finish, and so on.

Now this list not only struck me because of how exhaustive it was, but also because as I read the list my 14 students students in my strategic reading class were coming to my mind’s eye. Sandra was the student who couldn’t deconstruct multisyllabic words and Andres did not use context clues to understand unknown words. Raphael mumbled and blurred words while he read and Ariel was not visualizing a text while she was reading.

I no longer wanted to assume what they needed; instead I wanted to keep their voices loud and clear to inform me what they needed.

Immediately, I realized my classroom structure needed to change with a focus on these symptoms of struggling readers if I ever wanted to accelerate their reading progress. I also realized that I needed to show my students this list ASAP and see how they saw  themselves in relation to these skills. I no longer wanted to assume what they needed; instead I wanted to keep their voices loud and clear to inform me what they needed.

That night, I went to work and rewrote all of those negative “can’t” statements into positive “can” statements and the next day my students took a survey composed of each. The students were asked to decide if they strongly agreed or strongly disagreed with the statement on a 1-5 scale. When I got the results I was surprised in some areas and confirmed in others based on previous skill-based assessments. I realized the true work was about to begin in order to address their diverse reading needs.

The next day we had a circle and looked at the data together. I knew that we had to review it together if I ever wanted my high schoolers to clap to syllables, grapple with phonics, and go over skills that were deemed “babyish” by themselves and peers; even if it was something they identified as needing to succeed and grow as readers. By bringing them into the conversation, my hope was that through data, stigma could be shed. When I showed them the survey of responses on the Google form they, too, were surprised to see that many of their peers had similar struggles as they did. I explained that that  we would begin to address them now as a team.

From that day forward, my class focused on the skills that we had collaboratively identified. I re-cohorted students by the their responses to the survey depending on the skill. Each small group time began with a recursive opener to continue to review past skills. For the first time that year I saw my students enjoy and feel comfortable in our strategic reading class and get down to work with a new sense of urgency; they were feeling the growth. With a smile, I had high schoolers clapping syllables without any shame, creating visuals to represent compare and contrast and cause and effect, and sorting syllables to create fictitious multisyllabic words to decode in partners. As we worked on the skills, I continued to give them abbreviated versions of the survey to assess the changes in their perceptions about the skills and other reading assessments to see if the skills were transferring beyond our small group time.

The real marker of success, however was the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI), which is the reading assessment given to all students in Oakland Unified School District. It was their low scores on this test that placed them in the strategic reading class in the first place. In the Fall semester, with my old instructional routine, my students made some growth but not as much as I had wanted to see, so this test would be the tell all for these huge changes to my classroom structure.

At the end of the Spring, we had marched through about 60% of the skills and my students were ready to go. Before the test, I gave each student a post-it and asked them to list all the skills and tools they had gained. They were confidently rattling off what were once signs of their struggles and now were signs of their growth. Sandra, Raphael, Andres, and Ariel began writing suffixes, context clues, and visualization on the post-it in front of them. That day, 13/14 students made growth and some made growth upwards of 150-300 points on the exam. I’ll never forget what Sandra, who began the year reading at the 1st-grade level, the lowest in the room, said to me that day: “Don’t tell, Ms. Portugal, but I low-key, like reading.” For those of you who don’t speak Oakland Teenager, this translates to “Don’t tell anyone, but I like reading now.”  She had internalized some key reading skills and gained the confidence needed to alter her perception of herself as a struggling non-reader to a confident reader.  


With the students at the center of my instruction, they made huge growth. Of course I wish I had turned to them sooner in the work and given them the survey in August. But I am left feeling thankful for the inquiry process that allowed me to closely examine the practice, to look at student data in a deep and new way, and to feel safe to completely flip my classroom and my practice for real student gains. Through it all, my goals for my students stayed the same, but the means through which I got them there changed based on the data analysis in the inquiry process. Most importantly, I am thankful for my students for voicing their honest opinions about my curricular decisions and going on the journey with me to support them in the best way possible.

Nina Portugal is in her second year at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience and fourth year with Oakland Unified School District. Prior to Oakland, Nina taught English at a bilingual high school in the South of Spain and at a Charter School in South Chicago. Nina spent her first two years in Oakland focusing specifically on Long Term English Learners and English Language Development and this past year moved to Life Academy to teach 9th grade English and 9th grade strategic reading. She is especially excited about her department’s work with Mills Teacher Scholars because of its focus on how to uplift the needs of English Learners in the mainstream English classroom. When she is not teaching or thinking about her students, Nina is finding her center as a yoga teacher at Left Coast Power Yoga in Oakland.