Engaging Students Who are Below Grade Level: Strategies for Success

Sep 1, 2023

By: Jessica Roberts, Teacher-Tutor at TbT

As educators, we are committed to providing a meaningful and inclusive learning experience for all of our students, including those who may be below grade level. To achieve this, engaging these students requires a thoughtful and strategic approach that acknowledges and addresses their unique learning needs and challenges – and there are a number of effective strategies that educators can employ. Here are six strategies that can help empower students below grade level to develop their skills, build confidence, and make meaningful progress in their educational journey.

1. Personalized Learning Plans

A key strategy for engaging students who are below grade level is through personalized learning plans, which outline specific learning goals, identify areas of focus, and provide a roadmap for students’ academic growth. Educators can set individual targets, monitor progress, and adjust instruction accordingly. To enhance student ownership of their learning journey, students should also be included in the development of their own learning plans.

2. Differentiated Instruction

One of the key strategies for engaging students who are below grade level is through differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction is a powerful approach that allows educators to tailor assignments to meet the individual needs of students who are below grade level. This approach recognizes that students have different learning styles, strengths, and areas of need. By tailoring instruction to meet individual students’ needs, educators can provide targeted support and scaffold learning experiences. 

When modifying assignments, consider simplifying the language of instructions, breaking down complex tasks into smaller steps, and providing additional support materials such as graphic organizers, charts, or reference sheets. For students who require extra assistance, consider offering alternative ways to demonstrate understanding, such as allowing them to create visual representations, use manipulatives, or engage in hands-on activities. 

Additionally, providing opportunities for students to showcase their knowledge through verbal responses, written reflections, or multimedia presentations can also enhance their learning experience. By offering a range of options, students can choose the method that best aligns with their strengths and learning preferences, empowering them to showcase their understanding and engage more effectively with the content. By addressing students’ specific needs, educators can ensure that they are appropriately challenged and engaged in the learning process.

3. Modified Assignments 

Engaging students who are below grade level often requires thoughtful adjustments to assignments to ensure equitable learning opportunities. Educators can provide visual aids and cues on printed content, allow extra time, use alternative assessments, offer prompts and sentence starters, encourage peer support, provide continuous feedback, and celebrate progress. Additionally, teachers can employ various strategies to modify a lesson, such as tracing, matching, fill in the blank, using word banks, offering multiple-choice options, encouraging illustration, highlighting important information, and reducing the workload. 

These modifications cater to the diverse needs of these students, fostering engagement, building confidence, and supporting their academic growth, making their educational journey more meaningful and successful. By using these strategies, students can better grasp the content and participate more actively in their education, ultimately enhancing their overall learning experience.

4. Small Group Instruction and Intervention

Implementing small group instruction and intervention effectively involves careful planning and execution. When forming small groups, consider students’ individual needs, learning styles, and academic proficiency to ensure a cohesive and productive dynamic. Use pre-assessment data and ongoing formative assessments to identify specific concepts or skills that students may be struggling with and tailor the instruction accordingly.

For example, if some students have difficulty understanding fractions, the small group could focus on targeted fraction concepts, such as equivalent fractions, adding and subtracting fractions, or converting fractions to decimals. During the sessions, encourage peer collaboration by providing structured math problems that require students to work together and discuss problem-solving strategies. This not only enhances their understanding, but also fosters a sense of camaraderie and mutual support within the group.

To create a supportive environment, establish clear expectations for behavior and active participation, and encourage students to ask related questions, seek clarification, and share their problem-solving approaches without fear of judgment. Moreover, provide continuous feedback and positive reinforcement to motivate students and reinforce their progress. By implementing small group instruction and intervention thoughtfully in classes, educators can offer personalized support, address specific learning needs, and create a collaborative and engaging learning environment that benefits students who are below grade level.

5. Multi-Sensory Approaches

Engaging students who are below grade level often requires the use of multi-sensory approaches to learning. These approaches incorporate various senses, such as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, to enhance comprehension and retention. For example, educators can use visual aids, manipulatives, hands-on activities, and technology tools to make learning more interactive and engaging. By appealing to different learning modalities, students can better understand and connect with the content, leading to improved outcomes.

6. Cultivating a Positive Learning Environment

To create a positive and inclusive learning environment in the classroom for students who are below grade level, educators can employ several strategies. First and foremost, establish clear classroom norms that promote respect, empathy, and active participation. Encourage open communication and create a safe space where students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas without fear of judgment. Incorporate multicultural perspectives and literature that reflect students’ backgrounds and experiences to celebrate diversity and foster a sense of belonging.

Providing opportunities for students to engage in tasks that challenge them and invoke problem-solving skills encourages risk-taking and a growth mindset. Encourage them to embrace mistakes as learning opportunities and offer constructive feedback that focuses on effort and progress rather than simply right or wrong answers. Implementing growth mindset language and encouraging students to set achievable goals can motivate them to persist and overcome challenges.

Building strong relationships with students is crucial, as well. Take the time to get to know each student individually, their interests, strengths, and challenges. This can be done through one-on-one conversations, interest surveys, or icebreaker activities. Engage in active listening and show genuine interest in their thoughts and concerns.

Promote a sense of community in the classroom by encouraging collaborative learning and peer support. Implement group projects, cooperative learning activities, and peer tutoring opportunities where students can work together and learn from one another. This not only enhances their understanding of the material but also creates a supportive and encouraging atmosphere where students can help each other succeed.

Recognize and celebrate students’ achievements, no matter how small. Offer verbal praise, use positive reinforcement, and acknowledge their efforts and progress in front of their peers. This can boost their confidence and self-esteem, leading to increased engagement in the learning process.

Overall, creating a positive and inclusive learning environment involves intentional efforts to foster a classroom culture that values each student’s unique contributions, encourages growth and resilience, and promotes a sense of belonging and community. By implementing these strategies, educators can effectively engage students who are below grade level, support their academic growth, and nurture a love for learning that extends beyond the classroom.

7. Utilizing Technology and Interactive Resources

Integrating technology and interactive resources into instruction is a powerful and effective strategy for engaging students who are below grade level. Technology offers a range of benefits that cater to individual needs and provide immediate feedback, enabling students to track their progress and make timely adjustments to their understanding. The incorporation of multimedia elements, visuals, and gamification makes learning more appealing and enjoyable, capturing students’ interest and motivation.

Virtual field trips and simulations are other valuable resources that technology offers. These immersive experiences allow students to explore diverse subjects and concepts beyond the confines of the traditional classroom. Simulations enable students to engage in practical activities and experiments, enhancing their grasp of complex concepts. An example of a great resource for virtual field trips and simulations is a website called Discovery Education.

Adaptive technology is another significant advantage of integrating technology into instruction. By customizing learning experiences to each student’s abilities and areas of growth, adaptive technology ensures that students are appropriately challenged and supported. For instance, many applications and devices offer voice-to-text features, which serve as an indispensable resource for students. Another example involves the integration of magnification and zoom tools for text and visuals, making learning materials more navigable for both educators and students. Embracing these tools, alongside other forms of adaptive technology, creates a sense of autonomy and ownership in students’ learning journey, empowering them to take charge of their academic progress. 

Gamification is a popular approach to engage students in their learning. By incorporating game-like elements into educational activities, such as earning points, leveling up, or completing challenges, students are motivated to participate actively. For example, a history lesson on famous historical figures can be presented as a quiz game on a platform such as Google Forms, Kahoot, or Blooket, where students earn points for each correct answer.

Integrating technology and interactive resources thoughtfully empowers educators to create dynamic and engaging learning experiences, catering to the unique needs of students below grade level, enhancing motivation, providing personalized support and feedback, and fostering meaningful progress in their educational journey.


In conclusion, engaging students who are below grade level requires a multifaceted and strategic approach that takes into account their unique learning needs and challenges. By implementing effective strategies such as these, educators can create inclusive and supportive learning environments. These approaches empower students, foster engagement, build confidence, and drive meaningful progress in their educational journey. By embracing these strategies, educators can nurture a love for learning in students who are below grade level and ensure that every student has the opportunity to thrive academically and develop their full potential.

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Tutored by Teachers (TbT) is a public benefit company with a mission to close the opportunity gap in education by serving high-need students through virtual small group intervention and instruction, delivered by experienced teachers.