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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Ensuring Success: Pre-Remediation as a Valuable Alternative

A pre-teaching approach to Tier 2 instruction can help struggling students comprehend grade-level texts, boosting motivation.

Teacher question

I would love to know your advice on pre-teaching. My colleague does this for math instruction and has seen great gains. She teaches the whole group lesson for the day to those students she suspects of needing a double dose of instruction in small group before the whole group lesson is presented. She’s seeing great gains in confidence with these students during whole group instruction due to them having had this pre-teaching beforehand. What would this look like for ELA? I’m eager to try it, just not sure how.

Shanahan’s response

I know of no research on this scheme, but it is something that I have long recommended for certain Tier 2 programs. Recently, I heard from a middle school that had taken my advice on this matter. They wanted me to know of their big success with this scheme in terms of student learning and were looking to expand their efforts. (They sent me test scores and everything).

I think this approach could make a fine contribution within a classroom as well, at least under certain circumstances. In the past, I’ve not recommended this approach for classrooms, nor have I ever seen it in operation in the regular classroom. But I’m convinced that it could pay off.

Why do I think it could be beneficial?

First, and perhaps most important, it would increase the amount of instruction for some kids. This kind of time increase often results in learning gains, especially for students who don’t catch on as quickly as the others.

Another possible advantage is the one that you allude to. This game plan alters the social fabric of a classroom in a way that can be productive since it puts the low kids on a more even footing with the higher achieving students. In my experience with Tier 2 versions of this, that can be very motivational.

Think of how Tier 2 programs often work.

A classroom teacher recognizes that some of her students struggle to read the social studies book. They can’t keep up with the rest of the class and have trouble completing assignments because of their reading deficiencies.

Accordingly, this teacher refers those students for remedial assistance.

In response, the remedial specialist assesses them and if they test low enough qualify, they are provided a dose of pull-out teaching.

Let’s say that the students in question are fourth or fifth graders who read at a second- or third-grade level.

The remedial teacher will likely place them in a book or program supposedly appropriate to those low reading levels. That means that in the classroom, those kids will be taught with a grade-level social studies book, while in the remedial class, they’ll work with much easier books, books at those reading levels — and this work will probably include vocabulary study, fluency practice, and some form of guided or directed reading.

At some point the Tier 2 teacher will report that these students are making satisfactory progress.

And, what of the teacher who originally made the referral? She likely thinks, “What a waste of time!” These students, even if they have made progress in reading (perhaps going from a 2.0 to a 2.5 on the test and can now handle texts at the 2.5 grade level), still cannot read the social studies book. Those gains make nary a dent in these students’ inability to handle the grade level text. The students still can’t do the assignments, keep up with their classmates, or even read the content texts that were the original reason for referral.

The students’ thoughts on the matter should be considered too. In their case, they are often unhappy about the remedial work since it stresses their deficiencies and separateness to their peers. They might not mind this if the remedial work paid off with substantial gains, but that is all too rare. Moving from a 2.0 to a 2.5 reading level for 9- or 10-year-old students is barely noticeable progress and it certainly isn’t likely to enable those students to succeed.

There is just too big a mismatch between what everyone wants — educational success for the struggling students — and what is offered instructionally.

This pre-teaching approach to Tier 2 turns that situation on its head.

The students aren’t working on out-of-grade level texts, but with the actual texts that they need to read. They aren’t always lagging the other students but are instead always a step ahead.

The instruction they receive is not necessarily very different from what they would be doing with those second-grade texts. They are engaged in vocabulary work, guided reading, repeated reading, and so on — but those lessons have a perceptible payoff to the student since they focus on books that they need to read. In such a case, students can gauge the results themselves by considering what they are now able to do in their classroom. Instead of feeling unnecessarily isolated or segregated, the success this approach provides increases their ability to connect with classmates and more than compensates for the pull-out work.

Those meaningful payoffs are why I frequently recommend that approach for Tier 2 programs, especially in middle schools and high schools.

But it could payoff as a strategy for more effective classroom teaching as well even in the language arts.

As regular readers of this blog know, I often discourage small group instruction because of the inefficiencies it tends to introduce. However, I do say that if some students fail to meet the intended goals of a whole class lesson, teachers may want to follow up with additional small group work to get all students across the goal line.

Your colleague is taking a preventative approach, rather than my remedial one. I like her thinking on this better than my own. Although the overall approach lacks clear research support, there are studies showing that it is possible to use instruction to transform a text from frustration level to instructional level (e.g., Parker & Burns, 2014). That means that such pre-teaching — however and wherever it might be delivered — could have a real payoff in terms of student learning even within English Language Arts. Much comprehension instruction takes the form of guided reading practice with increasingly difficult text, and this approach would allow a greater percentage of students to benefit from such practice with more complicated texts than in the past. (That means that the pre-teaching would take place with the same texts the students were about to study in their reading class.)

I know some teachers would be afraid of this approach because of their desire to have those students work with “reading level” texts. Nevertheless, research reveals that such students can often make similar or better gains with more advanced texts, texts that in the past would have been deemed too difficult to support learning (Shanahan, 2019; Shanahan, 2020. The extra doses of teaching that you are asking about could be just the support those students need to make success possible.  

But what about the fourth-grade teacher who has students with the decoding skills of a first or second grader? Clearly, those kids would need some kind of explicit decoding instruction. Such decoding, however, isn’t content that would make sense for all fourth or fifth graders. This pre-teaching scheme only makes sense if it provides support for struggling students to get a jump on the grade level curriculum. It would not be useful for addressing important gaps that are not part of that grade level curriculum. That means as good an idea as I think this is, it isn’t appropriate in all cases, and it would not obviate the need for explicit help with that kind of learning problem.

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Parker, D. C., & Burns, M. K. (2014). Using the instructional level as a criterion to target reading interventions. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 30(1), 79-94. (opens in a new window)

Shanahan, T. (2019). Why children should be taught to read with more challenging text. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 44(2), 17-23.

Shanahan, T. (2020). Limiting children to books they can already read. American Educator, 44(2), 13-17, 39.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
May 3, 2024