• Rebecca Cohen

5 Tricks That Brought This Middle Schooler From Distress to Success!

Sarah (name changed for anonymity) began working with me one-on-one at the beginning of the summer to prepare her for 7th grade. Her fluency and reading comprehension was at a 4th grade level and she was anxious and showing low self confidence. Over the course of two months, reading tests results showed that she went from a 4th grade level to a 10th grade level! So, what happened over those two months? How did Sarah reach such a high level of confidence and academic achievement? Here’s how:

1. Practice, Practice, Practice!

I saw Sarah four days a week for three hours a day. We followed a routine that encouraged practice and repetition, starting out each session with a series of fluency drills. Sarah’s confidence and reading skills grew significantly by practicing reading strings of complex words out loud each day and by spending 15-30 minutes reading out loud from a book of her choice.  Repetition, when mixed with other strategies, is a powerful tool that can be used to strengthen neural connections and normalize material for students, replacing anxiety with a feeling of ease.

2. Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Instead of feeling the need to rush and  begin with Sarah by mastering 6th grade level expectations and standards, I worked with her using reading materials suitable for 4th grade (Sarah’s tested reading level) and did not advance her until I saw that she mastered the material. Even if a student is behind schedule and it looks like they may not catch up in time for whatever goal is in place, it is important to scaffold his or her knowledge and start at the base of the issue so that no gaps are formed and confidence is built up.

3. Visualize Every Piece

Sarah and I used some of the pictures, reading passages, and techniques from Lindamood Bell’s Visualizing and Verbalizing program. Sarah succeeded by working her way up from visualizing pictures and basic sentences to visualizing several paragraph passages. When students see the events of readings play like a movie in their heads, instant connections can be made to the text and small details have a greater chance of being remembered.

4. More Vocabulary, Please!

By increasing Sarah’s vocabulary, I increased her ability to comprehend higher level reading passages. Sarah learned new vocabulary words every couple of days, and was routinely quizzed to check for understanding. Reading comprehension difficulties are worsened by a lack of vocabulary, and it is important to continually introduce students to new words, helping them understand text and become better writers.

5. Connect and Encourage

At the end of the day, one of the most vital things you can do for a student is make a genuine connection with them. Be the teacher and the mentor. Each day I spent with Sarah, I got to know her and continued to check in with her. She was able to share her likes, dislikes, achievements and trepidations. By building this level of connection and trust, Sarah believed me when I encouraged her, which ultimately boosted her confidence and increased her level of achievement. When you connect with your students, their trust for you grows and they will believe you when you say, “You’ve got this.”


Sarah, an incoming 7th grade student, improved from a 4th grade reading level to a 10th grade reading level in just two months over the summer through practice, scaffolding, visualizing, increasing her vocabulary, and building her confidence. The use of these strategies resulted in the success of a strong and confident reader. By using these methods,  you, as a teacher, parent, or counselor, can make a difference in your students’ lives and send them on the path from distress to success.

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