Learning Acceleration: Helping Students Below Grade Level

June 20, 2023

Brooke McGuire

Ed.D. in Leadership

When I taught reading intervention to students at the intermediate level, I became frustrated when I realized that the same students needed intervention services year after year. It was rare that students exited intervention, and they seemed destined to be forever behind their peers. When I observed this pattern, I became particularly interested in accelerating learning and helping students make more than a year’s growth in a year’s time.

Research sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic provided valuable insights regarding how to help students progress when they are performing below grade level. Here are some important takeaways that have evidence-based support:

  • Favor an acceleration approach as opposed to a traditional remediation approach (Branching Minds and TNTP). If the emphasis is on remediation, students will be forever behind, which was indicative in my experiences. Instead, the emphasis should be on maintaining high expectations with high-quality instructional materials at grade level and providing students with the necessary supports and scaffolds to ensure the content is accessible for all students (McKinsey).
  • Spending some time on non-content specific skills can help maximize instructional time. Social and emotional learning (Center for Responsive Schools) and executive functioning skills (Frontiers) will help students develop self-awareness, which will contribute to their ability to manage their emotions and help facilitate the learning process. In addition, movement will help activate the brain, increase focus and engagement and improve memory (University of British Columbia). 
  • High-dosage and consistent tutoring, ideally from teachers or paraprofessionals, has also proven to result in significant academic gains (McKinsey). Successful evidence-based tutoring involves consistency, trained professionals, personalized and data-informed practices, time within the school day, and evidence-based practices and materials (J-PAL).
  • While not explicitly stated yet, many of the evidence-based approaches involve diagnostic formative assessments. Throughout the learning process, continual formative assessments should help identify specific areas in need of adjusted instruction and additional support so that students can continue to progress. Key components of evidence-based formative assessment include ensuring the learning intentions are clear, providing feedback to help learners make progress and supporting students to own their learning (LINCS).

While these may not be completely new and innovative ideas, it may take intentional planning and creative scheduling to implement these practices. Whether you slowly start to incorporate SEL skills instruction (We Are Teachers) or add a formative assessment technique (Teaching Channel or Ditch That Textbook), you will begin to see how you can adjust instruction to keep it on grade level and demonstrate your high expectations for all learners.

Keeping students at grade-level content when they aren’t at grade level is about providing the support necessary to access the content, to maintain forward progress and to maximize every second with our students. Look into these resources, put helpful habits in place and evaluate your own classroom to ensure that you are supporting all of your students while maintaining grade level instruction.

Expand your student support skills with an education program at American College of Education. Specifically, you can explore a career in reading intervention with our M.Ed. in Literacy.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Brooke McGuire
Brooke McGuire, Ed.D. in Leadership

Brooke has taught in a variety of settings, working everything from a service-learning summer program geared toward incoming first graders to a high school program for struggling readers. She's currently the director of teaching and learning at her district.

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