Literacy for At-Risk Students

Every student has the right to literacy. This simple statement can become complicated though when outside factors change learning in the classroom. How then do we, as educators, help at-risk students with their literacy? First, we must understand what exactly at-risk means and how those factors affect the students in the classroom.

What is At-Risk?

NAREN Definition of At-Risk Students- “Students are placed at-risk when they experience a significant mismatch between their circumstances and needs, and the capacity or willingness of the school to accept, accommodate, and respond to them in a manner that supports and enables their maximum social, emotional, and intellectual growth and development.”

Definition of Students At-Risk
   found under High Risk Threats to Middle School Students on Pyramid


  • those with single parent families
  • those living in poverty
  • those that have depression (suicide)
  • those using and/or exposed to drugs
  • those that have dealt with divorce
  • those that have dealt with domestic violence

At-Risk Factors According to

  • very young, single or low educational level parents
  • unemployment
  • abuse & neglect
  • substance abuse
  • dangerous neighborhoods
  • homelessness
  • mobility
  • exposure to inadequate or inappropriate ed experiences”

School V. Home


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs helps explain why many students act the way they do.

   The majority of middle school students are on Stage 3 of the pyramid (Belonging), where their focus is finding ways to belong in and out of the classroom.

   At-risk students, however, are more likely to be on Stages 1 or 2. They may not have the time to focus on aspects of school that teachers believe to be the most important; instead, they use much of their day worrying about the availability of their food, shelter, and protection. This obviously creates conflict between teachers and students based on their differing expectations and focuses throughout the school day.

   The following video clips and websites are useful for us to understand Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in greater detail and how to use that information to help our students.

Videos for Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:
1. General Understanding of Pyramid

2. One Teacher's Perspective on Using the Knowledge to Help Students

Role Conflict
When students have differing roles in their home and school lives, conflict arises.
Students that must act a certain way at home, such as those that:

  • are responsible for siblings, cooking, cleaning, or bills 
  • are responsible for interpreting language for their parents
  • survive due to independence
  • act submissively
  • don't embrace uniqueness & creativity when standing out is dangerous

 may have difficulty understanding why they are asked to act differently at school, such as when they:

  • are separated from siblings due to different grades/classrooms
  • use math for simple math problems, rather than real life experiences (ex: bills) 
  • rely on teacher for directions rather than doing it all on their own 
  • act creatively
  • focus on uniqueness.

Teachers need to understand the different roles that these students play, and use that knowledge to decrease role conflict. Then students will feel that all of their experiences are important in terms of literacy and learning in general.

What is Literacy?

NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacy (2008)
Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

Definitions from UNESCO The UNESCO Website

  • Literacy-"The ability to read and write with understanding a simple statement related to one's daily life. It involves a continuum of reading and writing skills, and often includes basic arithmetic skills."
  • Literacy Rate-"The percentage of population of a given age range who can both read and write with understanding a short simple statement on their everyday life." 
  • Illiteracy Rate-"The percentage of the population of a given age range who cannot both read and write with understanding a short simple statement on their everyday life. "

Statistics on Youth Literacy from UNESCO

  • In 2008 131 million youth worldwide lacked basic reading and writing skills, 61% were females.
  • The global literacy rate in 2008 was 89% (92% for males and 86% for females)
  • The youth literacy rate has increased by about 6% at the global level over the past 20 years

National Literacy Data


  • A rise of 1% in literacy scores leads to a 2.5% rise in labor productivity (The Economist, August 28, 2004).
  • American businesses spend more than $60 billion each year on employee training, much of that for remedial reading, writing, and mathematics (ProLiteracyWorldwide)
  • The definition of literacy has evolved from "the ability to read and use printed materials at an extremely basic level" to "using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential" (2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy).


Mr. K. Edwards
Principal Rosa Parks Elementary
Middletown City School District
1210 S. Verity PKWY.
Middletown Ohio 45044

Mrs. Dent
Teacher at Bloomfield Elementary
Edgewood School District


Useful websites:

• Information on Poverty & At-Risk Students: This webpage from an online teacher resource focuses on the effects that poverty has on both teaching and learning. It goes through the concept of "at-risk", as well as the challenges that teachers and students face when dealing with poverty. There is diversity and an achievement gap present in schools with many at-risk students, so this website discusses those topics in detail.

• Information on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity: This website looks at an aspect of being at-risk that is not commonly discussed. It focuses on students that are culturally of linguistically different from mainstream students. These students often have low literacy in English, have cultural clashes in schools, and/or live in poverty.

National At-Risk Education Network: NAREN is a private educational agency whose sole purpose is to help at-risk children and youth. This website is full of information on the agency itself, their definition of at-risk, and how educators can make a difference. It also includes useful information about upcoming workshops and conferences dedicated to at-risk education.

• Information on Literacy: Unlike many of our resources, this website deals with the statistical side of learning. It provides data from national and private surveys that give insight into the reliability and validity of literacy programs. It is important for educators to be exposed to the data behind our teachings, so that we may know what does and does not work.

Books/Articles on At-Risk Factors:

1. A Framework for Understanding Poverty By: Ruby Payne
Poverty is not just a condition of not having enough money. It is a realm of particular rules, emotions, and knowledge that override all other ways of building relationships and making a life. This book was written as a guide and exercise book for middle-class teachers, who often don't connect with their impoverished students--largely because they don't understand the hidden rules of poverty. In the same way, poor children disconnect with school because they don't understand the hidden rules of middle-class life.

Read reviews from other readers:

2. The Relative and Absolute Risks of Disadvantaged Family Background and Low Levels of School Resources on Student Literacy  --Journal Article
*If you do not have access to this article through the link, please copy and paste the title into Google Scholar*

3. Educating At-Risk Students By: the National Society for the Study of Education
This book focuses on reasons that students are labeled at-risk. Strategies that can be used to best help students at risk. Chapters also deal specifically in areas such as: extent and consequences of risk in U.S. education, resiliency among students at risk, issues faced by both African American and Hispanic students, how to work with students in various levels of education, and the usefulness of technology in educating at-risk students.

Useful sections in the book:
-Chapter 1 has statistics about students at risk, how it will affect them in the job field, and other issues they will face in life.
-Chapter 7 is building communities in middle schools, and reforming schools to help students at risk.
-Chapter 10 is titled Toward Universal Literacy. Talks about what literacy is compared to reading (p191), how to be responsive, and the means of assisting literacy performance (p. 199).

For a preview of the book

Books/Articles on Promoting Literacy:

1. I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers
  By: Cris Tovani
This book is a practical, engaging account of how teachers can help adolescents develop new reading comprehension skills. Cris Tovani is an accomplished teacher and staff developer who writes with verve and humor about the challenges of working with students at all levels of achievement—from those who have mastered the art of "fake reading" to college-bound juniors and seniors who struggle with the different demands of content-area textbooks and novels.

Information from the author’s website:

Read reviews from other readers:

2. Bringing the Outside In: Visual Ways to Engage Reluctant Readers By: Sara B. Kajder
Literacy used outside of schools is becoming much different than the reading that students are doing inside of schools. In this book the author finds ways to get students who are reluctant to read and write in schools to bring in their out of school literacy skill into school.

Useful sections in the book:
-Using different reading strategies to help with students who are reluctant to read, mostly visual graphs and charts.
- Stats on the “Reading Crisis” p 6
- Lots of interviews with kids in the authors school on their views of reading

Here’s a website created by the author specifically for the book:

3. Is Literacy Enough?: Pathways to Academic Success for Adolescents
  By: Catherine Snow, Michelle Porche, Patton Tabors, and Stephanie Ross Harris
This book focuses on a research project in which a group of children from low-income families are studied from preschool through middle and high school. It uses specific research and case studies depicting how students’ learning depends on many aspects of their lives. When home and social factors work against schooling, is literacy enough?

Useful sections in the book:
--foreward XiV: paragraphs 3-5
--puzzle image p. 3
--last paragraph chapter 3: p. 49
--case studies chapter 4: high academic achievement expected, but all had poor school success due to home/social factors
--Motivation and Learning section p. 70-72; The importance of Middle School p. 72-74
--Chapter 6: different motivational characteristics of learners

For information on the book from the publisher:

To read reviews from other readers:

4. Creating Literacy Communities in the Middle School By: Leigh Van Horn
This book gives specific examples of how one teacher created literacy communities in her middle school classroom in order to help her students read and write for a purpose

Useful sections in the book:
Chapter 1: The Literacy Community
Merging of Personal and Academic Literacy section: p. 62-64
Chapter 4: The Power of Talk
Chapter 6: The Power of Writing

For information on the book from the publisher:

Links to other Performance Pyramid pages

1. High Risk Threats to Middle School Students

2. </b>Poverty in Education

3. </b>Motivation for Literacy

4. Personal Issues and Conflicts Reference Library