How to Teach When Students are Years Behind
How to Teach When Students are Years Behind?

You announce an essay assignment to your class and the room stops. Some drop their heads. Others pull out their phones and tune you out. One student immediately asks you how long it needs to be. That essay sounds simple to most. But to your students, who are years behind in skills and ability, you’ve basically just told them that they’ll be hiking Mt. Everest in gym class. The curriculum decrees an essay must be written, but your students can barely write a sentence. How can you teach when your students are years behind? 

I teach at an alternative Title 1 school. If you teach a similar population, you might know them. They’re the students who somehow got lost along the way…. And the educational system never really went out of its way to put them back on the right path. 

Yet here they are, legally obligated to sit in your class and learn.

Ditching the Assumptions and Re-framing Your Idea of Class

In my first year, I naively thought that a group of sophomores would be well-acquainted with the structure of a five-paragraph essay. After all, by their age, I had probably written a dozen, and I had attended school in the same district. 

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Every day was painful–for me and my students. They had no idea what a “hook” or a “clincher” was. And the more I tried to bridge their gap of knowledge, the bigger, I realized, the gap. 

They didn’t just lack a basic understanding of the formal paper. They didn’t know the structure of a paragraph. And when I looked closer, I realized that many didn’t even know how to write a complete sentence. 

At the time, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed. If a sixteen-year-old can arrive in my classroom without knowing to capitalize the first word in a sentence, how can I possibly make a difference for them?

It took years, but I finally feel like I’m getting to a place where I can help move the needle for my students. I can’t make up for the years of poor education. But I can help them get closer to where they should be. So can you, but you may have to change the way you envision an English classroom. 

Pin of student who is behind

Ditch the Essay (Or Long Speech, Or Twenty-page Story, Etc.)

Ok, before I have a swarm of English teachers attack me, I don’t mean forever. But if your students can’t write a complete sentence, asking them to fill a whole page with coherent, academic writing is going to be completely overwhelming. 

That would be like asking them to give a speech in Chinese during the first day of a 101 language class. 

If students don’t have fundamental skills, then giving them a massive project is setting them up for failure. Students need to feel small successes to build up their skills, their enthusiasm, and their self-confidence. It’s your job to provide opportunities for those small wins.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t assign that big research project or multimedia presentation. But realize that you’re going to have to go slow. And you’ll have to provide students multiple ways to practice before they show up for the big event. So for now, shelve it.

Choose the Skills

This is important. You’re going to want to choose just 2-3 foundational skills that you can teach deeply. These skills should be the ones that you think will be the biggest bang for your students’ educational buck. 

(I recommend staying away from grammar skills as your foundational skills. That doesn’t mean you can’t touch on them as you work your way through a unit. But knowing where to put a comma doesn’t help a whole lot if you don’t know how to convey an idea.)

The English team at my school has done a lot of work on choosing foundational writing skills. Because our whole student body is grade-levels behind, we’ve really taken a close look at the Common Core State Standards to decide what to hone in on as a whole building. 

Be Sure These Skills are Widely Applicable

We’ve decided to focus on teaching our students how to create a claim and how to support it with evidence. If our students can just nail these two skills, they will be able to write an essay, give a speech, host a podcast–anything. 

As a school, we’ve adopted a C-E-R (claim, evidence, reasoning) writing framework for all student writing. Yes, even the math team has students state their answers in a claim, support it with evidence (their mathematical work), and then provide a reason for why that evidence supports the claim. 

You know your students and your school. So choose skills that you believe will have the biggest impact in your classroom. If you can get colleagues on board that’s wonderful, but you can still make hefty progress alone. 

This reading journal is a good example of how I assign smaller writing prompts. Each focuses on claim and evidence skills. They write five over the course of a unit instead of (or building to) one large paper.

Teach the Skills

Choosing skills isn’t enough. Now you have to do the work of actually structuring lessons around them. These skills will be your everything for the duration of the unit, class, semester–however long your students need. 

You can’t just tell your students to write a claim. You have to first explain what a claim is. Show them examples. Have them write claims that pertain to their lives. Allow students to peer-edit these claims. 

I know, I know, it sounds so juvenile. Like, am I really telling you to spend days teaching high schoolers how to write a topic sentence?

And the answer is, yes, if they don’t know how to do it. If your students can’t write a claim and you’ve determined that that is an essential skill, then you need to teach it until your students can teach it themselves.

Assess the Skills

Like any good lesson, you’ll need a way to assess what students have learned and what progress they’ve made. Your assessment should focus on students’ ability to implement the skills you’ve been teaching. Not their knowledge related to the skills.

This means you need to find a way to assess the skills authentically.

One idea is to take a traditional final assessment (a long paper, a speech, etc.) and shorten it. For example, when I taught The Hate U Give, instead of asking my students to write a whole essay, I asked them to write a paragraph every week in their reading journals

A paragraph is much shorter than an essay. An essay can be overwhelming for students, but a paragraph sounds a lot more manageable. Doing a paragraph each week also gives my students to practice the skill regularly. They receive feedback, make corrections, and work on improving each time. 

Create Scaffolds

For many large assessments, the final product is the only shot students get. Spending a whole unit researching and preparing for a speech is a lot of build-up. It’s a ton of pressure for just a few minutes in front of a class!

If, however, my goal is to get students to practice their speaking skills, we might play some improv games. Maybe we do a few sixty-second speeches. But we build our way up to a longer presentation. 

When students can overcome stage fright for a sixty-second speech, they win. They feel successful and come away with one or two high-quality pieces of feedback to practice for next time. Their three-minute speech is bound to be way better. After that, a five or ten-minute speech won’t seem that bad either.

I’ve talked about the importance of scaffolding when it comes to creative writing. But scaffolding is a necessary part of learning anything. In Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s 180 Days, they call it “taking a lap.”

I like to spend a whole quarter just going over claim, evidence, and reason. Only after students have implemented these skills will we attempt a longer writing project like an essay. 

When Students are Years Behind, Don’t Give Up

You are going to have to take it frustratingly slow. Whatever it is you want students to learn, you’re going to have to start at the very beginning.

You may not even know what the beginning looks like until you’re in the trenches with your students. 

Just remember that when you have been gifted with students who are years behind in skills and abilities that your goal is growth, not proficiency. You and your students want to aim for as much growth as possible. 

To recap, determine what you want the students to ultimately be able to do. What skills do you want them to be able to demonstrate? Then, work backward. What will they have to learn in order to understand these skills? How can they practice them on a regular basis?

The modern educator inherits a lot: old curriculums, old textbooks, old traditions, and students who have been dealt an unfair hand. It can be easy to get discouraged. But if you’re brave enough to breathe, take a step back, and join your students at step one, together you all can go so far. 

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