How to Scaffold Texts for Struggling Readers in Actively Learn

Dr. Natalie Saaris
May 16, 2016

By now, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about the importance of scaffolding instruction. Creating supports for student learning is essential for improving students’ reading comprehension and content knowledge. Scaffolding enables students to read more challenging texts and engage with them more deeply than they could without the teacher’s assistance.

But now that you’re sold on the importance of scaffolding, how do you actually create instruction that will be most helpful to students, particularly those who struggle with reading?

We’ve dug into the research on reading comprehension and scaffolding to bring you the following guide. It includes differentiation for struggling students and targets the areas that students need the most help with.

Pre-reading prep: Setting the scene for the text

One of the major challenges for struggling readers is lack of content knowledge. Students who do not read broadly often lack the background information to situate new ideas and comprehend the unstated knowledge that the author presumes his or her reader already knows. Giving students a wider framework in which to situate the text will help to fill in some of these knowledge gaps.

Consider the essential information that the reader should know before digging into the text. What is the historical context? Who is the author? What ideas is he or she reacting to? The information you provide will vary depending on the text, but it should help situate the reading and hopefully pique the students’ interest in the material.

In setting the scene, you may also provide students with an explanation of major terms that come up repeatedly in the reading. Although you certainly do not have to define every challenging word in the text (because students can always look it up in a dictionary), discussing the meaning of “tyranny” in The Declaration of Independence or “guerilla warfare” in the context of the Vietnam War will help students comprehend these terms and connect to the larger themes of the text.

Students who do not read broadly often lack the background information to situate new ideas and comprehend the unstated knowledge that the author presumes his or her reader already knows.

Finally, be sure to set the focus for student reading. What exactly should students take away from this reading assignment? Should they focus on assessing the point of view of the writer? Is the purpose of this reading to evaluate the strength of the main argument? Struggling students in particular benefit from understanding the purpose of an assignment prior to reading.

Encourage reading strategies by assigning tasks to students

There are several reading strategies that promote deeper engagement and comprehension, including questioning, monitoring comprehension, summarizing, making predictions, and thinking aloud. Though some of these strategies come naturally to expert readers, they are often neglected by students who struggle with reading. Teaching these strategies is also tricky, because students may quickly forget to employ them and revert back to old habits of surface-level reading.

The beginning of every Actively Learn assignment includes a space for teachers to write instructions for students. It’s tempting to leave this space blank, especially given that you will likely embed questions in the assignment and thus make it clear what students are expected to do.

However, it’s beneficial for all students to encourage deeper engagement by assigning tasks that incorporate proven reading strategies. Instruct all students to ask a question and share it with their peers. Ask them to do the same for their most insightful note. Tell students that they must answer one of their classmates’ questions or respond to a shared note. Remind students to look up unfamiliar words or use the “I don’t understand” flag, and tell them that anyone who does not do so is confidently asserting that they know every word and have fully comprehended every concept in the text. If any students do show that level of confidence, feel free to ask them follow-up questions the next day to determine whether their self-assurance is valid or misguided.

Remind students to look up unfamiliar words or use the “I don’t understand” flag, and tell them that anyone who does not do so is confidently asserting that they know every word and have fully comprehended every concept in the text.

By assigning these tasks to your students, you are promoting the reading strategies that students should use whenever they encounter an academic text. It is especially important that struggling students get in the habit of asking questions, assessing their own understanding, and thinking actively as they read.

Use your notes to model, explain, and connect

The teacher’s notes are crucial for helping struggling students focus attention, overcome deficits in content knowledge, and understand how to think while reading. We encourage teachers to create two tiers of notes: one set that is helpful for all students in the class, and another supplemental set of “extra help notes” that will only be visible to students who are designated as needing additional support. This ensures that struggling students get the support they need while those who do not are challenged to read without the extra help.

One of the primary uses of notes is to model and prime the sort of thinking that you want your students to engage in as they read. The comments you make will depend on the text and your instructional goals. If you want students to analyze the structure of the text, you might signal when an author shifts to a flashback or addresses a conflicting point of view. If you want students to pay attention to the tone of a story, you might highlight a few details about the setting and reflect on their connotation. Students will gain visibility into how you process the text and what things an expert reader notices as he or she reads. The point of this sort of “think aloud” modeling is that many students don’t know what they should be doing as they read. Seeing your thinking on the page demonstrates what active reading actually looks like.

Model and prime the sort of thinking that you want your students to engage in as they read.

Another important function of notes is to explain concepts that may be outside the student’s content knowledge. You can clarify the meaning of an allusion or illustrate an unknown term. If an author is playing on a double meaning of a word, let students know. If you think that the author is making an inference that your students will miss, help them make sense of the implied meaning hidden between the lines. Make your explanations as concise as possible so that students do not lose track of the text. Visual aids can be particularly helpful here: if a character is traveling from one British town to the next, include a map that helps students understand the distance. If an unusual animal or article of clothing is mentioned, find an image that helps students visualize it.

Explanatory material can also help students figure out what’s important in a text. Because struggling readers have trouble distinguishing extraneous information from key points, signaling the main ideas can be extremely helpful to their comprehension.

Finally, use notes as a means of activating prior knowledge. Point out connections between the text at hand and something else they’ve studied in your class. Draw analogies between new concepts and ideas that are already familiar to them (i.e. “Think of this orbit system as a tether ball going around a pole.”) This helps students construct schema to anchor new knowledge and may even refresh their memory of things they’ve already studied.

Use questions to chunk, monitor comprehension, and encourage deeper thinking

The questions you embed in the text essentially serve three purposes: chunking the text, monitoring comprehension, and encouraging deeper thinking. These are especially important functions when scaffolding for struggling readers.

Chunking breaks down a large, complex text into more manageable pieces. In Actively Learn, questions stop students in their reading progress and allow them an opportunity to process what they’ve read. A lengthy text that at first seemed overwhelming can become much approachable if it’s digested in smaller bits.

In terms of instructional design, teachers should think carefully about the quantity of questions to include in the text and where to place them. Stopping a student every fifteen seconds to ask a question will make it difficult for him or her to maintain the flow of the narrative. Placing questions in seemingly random places mid-sentence will also make chunking less effective. Ideally, questions will be placed after a significant scene has occurred or a new idea has been introduced. The question will draw the student’s attention to the importance of what he or she has just read and allow a moment of reflection before continuing to the rest of the text.

Monitoring comprehension is another important function of questions. Students often assume that questions are like punishments imposed by their teacher, but monitoring comprehension is a skill that is essential to reading fluency (Rand Study Group, 2002). Fluent readers assess their own understanding as they read by asking themselves questions. They make sure they are comprehending what they read, and resort to repair strategies (such as re-reading or looking up terms) when they notice they are off track. Struggling readers, on the other hand, often neglect to employ this strategy and may get to the end of the text before realizing that they have not understood what they’ve read. The simple act of stopping the student to check in on what he or she has read can have a tremendous impact on comprehension, because it gives the student an opportunity to self-monitor and employ repair strategies if needed.

Think carefully about the quantity of questions to include in the text and where to place them.

Finally, questions provide an opportunity to activate deeper thinking. They can encourage students to make connections to their previous reading or class discussion, evaluate arguments, or apply the concepts they read about to other scenarios. Higher depth of knowledge questions are not only for expert readers—students of all reading abilities want to engage in complex reasoning and find greater motivation for reading when they do so. For questions that are harder to tackle, you can differentiate instruction by providing extra help notes in the question to give students hints or answer prompts.

Provide encouraging, constructive feedback

One of the biggest roadblocks that struggling students face when trying to improve their reading comprehension is an inability to get help and feedback while they read. When reading on paper, it’s difficult for teachers to get visibility into the student’s thought process and study habits as he or she reads. This makes student reading a black box: teachers are not aware of what students are doing as they read, and students cannot get help with their reading. Students who have trouble with reading comprehension begin to see reading as a fruitless endeavor because they are unsure what exactly the problem is or how to improve.

Digital reading provides an opportunity for teachers to gain insight into student thinking and reading habits and to make the appropriate interventions, whether it be suggesting to a student that he or she spend more time on an assignment or targeting specific skills that he or she is struggling with. The teacher’s involvement in responding to student questions and giving feedback on performance is crucial to improving reading comprehension.

Remember that many struggling students lack confidence in their reading abilities. Motivating them to read entails building their self-concept as readers and encouraging them to persist in the task. The feedback you provide should be genuine (rather than false praise, which students can keenly detect and disregard), but it should be presented in an encouraging and hopeful way.


Scaffolding is an ongoing process that evolves for each student in your class. Over the course of the year, you will gain a better idea of what students need help with, and which students require the most support. You may choose to focus on certain strategies and deemphasize others. Some of your struggling students may get to the point where they no longer need the extra help notes, while other students may suddenly require the additional support as the rigor of their work increases.

Continue to rely on data to understand your students’ needs and assess progress based on student notes and answers to questions. The teacher ultimately has the best insight into student learning and is the most qualified person to adjust scaffolding to suit his or her class.


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