Kathy King-Dickman's picture

Engaging the Disengaged, Number 3

by Kathy King-Dickman

How do we engage students who are well below grade-level in reading and help them catch up quickly?

The new Common Core State Reading Standard 10 states that students should “read and comprehend complex literary and informational text independently and proficiently (within the appropriate text complexity band).”

As teachers, we know we must send students on to high school, college, and beyond able to read appropriate level texts. But how do we help students who are several years behind catch up and do so quickly?

One way is to begin exactly where a student is. Many years ago, Lev Vygotsky shared that we must work within students’ “Zones of Proximal Development” (ZPD). This zone has been defined as the distance between what someone can do on their own and what they can do with assistance. Richard Allington shared in his influential book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (2006) that one of four factors in reading growth was that students needed to spend vast amounts of time in books they could read fluently and accurately—98% accurate or higher.


Kenna was a student who demonstrated how providing reading material in this zone can stimulate accelerated growth. This star basketball player came to me in seventh grade reading at second-grade level. She began her journey by reading Junie B. Jones—second-grade-level chapter books. At first Kenna was ashamed and hid these books behind covers. One morning she burst into my room and announced, “Mrs. D, I can beat up anyone who makes fun of me,” and ceremoniously ripped the cover off of her current book. Peter Brunn, author of The Lesson Planning Handbook, says, “It takes a great deal of courage for students to…read a book well below their classmates’ level.” Kenna had found her courage in a community of learners who supported students of all reading levels. By Christmas she had read 18 J.B. Jones books as well as all the Dr. Suess and numerous other picture books. By spring she was in a literature circle that read Where the Heart Is, an adult novel. At the end of the year, Kenna was assessed as reading right at seventh grade level. She had grown five years in nine months.

I personally experienced the importance of working within this zone when I took up skiing after a 13 year hiatus. My husband Rex is an expert skier. Years ago he would encourage me to follow him down many black diamond runs. I spent most of my time terrified and just trying to keep up. I never seemed to improve and, more importantly, I did not enjoy skiing and I simply gave up. Last year I sent Rex on his merry way and headed to the green runs knowing that I needed to ski within my ZPD if I was to improve. I quickly became bored as these runs were truly too easy for me and provided no challenge whatsoever. Quate and McDermott, authors of Clock Watchers, say that we must teach slightly beyond the students functioning level to keep them engaged but not frustrated. “The optimal experience, one that produces a bit of anxiety with a sense of hope, sets up a dynamic cycle.” Armed with this knowledge, I set off to find the perfect runs—ones that would provide a reasonable challenge but ones that I felt would hopefully help me improve my skills. I spent about six days practicing on these runs, and I have kept up with Rex since and now thoroughly enjoy skiing.

The letter below is one Kenna wrote after hearing the classic picture book Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco early in our year together.

It was always so imbarising reading at a 3rd grade level in 7th grade, it wasn’t right, wasn’t natural. No one had ever cared enough to help me. When the kids laughed at me trying, sports were the only thing I could count on. Till one morning, ‘Hi my name is Mrs. D. and we are starting a new program to help you read better.’ Their I sat thinking she was crazy if she thought she could help, I strongly belived that she was going to make me feel dumb and give up like everyone else. No one knew I couldn’t read because no one cared. Thank you Mrs. D, Thank You. —Kenna

A similar version of Kenna’s letter appeared in Educational Leadership, 2011

Upon graduating from high school last year, Kenna had already completed many of her freshman courses during her senior year.

My challenge to each of you: start all of your student’s instruction right where they are. Once again, we don’t have a moment to waste. Please respond with your own stories of engaging students by beginning instruction within their Zone of Proximal Development.

Core Principles: 


Common Core,
Independent Reading,