How can we help struggling readers?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 | Reading

** This originally appeared on **

For those of you with children at home who tend to struggle with reading, I know what a frustrating, vulnerable process it can be.  Our desire to help struggling readers is often over-taken by feelings of inadequacy, or simply just a power of wills.  If there is one thing I have learned in my years as a teacher, professor, and reading specialist, it is that reading is a very complex progression, and people don’t always learn to read in the same ways.  What works for one child, doesn’t work for another.  In this article, I will provide clear-cut, hopeful, and doable suggestions to help your child feel more successful. 

Cycles of success… versus failure

The key is this– often times, when a child feels successful, he/she will have continued success.

Whether it is reading, or anything else in life, when we feel like a failure, we experience continued failure.  When we feel successful, we have continued success.  As adults, the more opportunities we provide children to feel triumphant in reading, the more they will want to read, and the more continued progress they will experience in reading. 

One of the tricks is to create occasions for children to feel sincerely successful, which includes finding books they can actually read with a good degree of accuracy and enjoyment. 

The second trick is to provide children with an array of strategies they can use independently to tackle unknown words.  In this way, children then have the confidence they need to navigate the unknown.

This brings me to my next point…

So, what is reading?

In order to help your child, you must know the answer to this complex question.

Reading is making meaning, not the painful letter-by-letter decoding with which we are all too familiar.

In our brains, we have what is called a Cognitive Capacity.  I simply refer to it as my “cup runneth over!”  In other words, when any of us feel frustrated with something, our brain power seizes. There is only so much we can focus on at a given time, and the rest understandably turns to mush.  Unfortunately, we have all had what I refer to as a “meltdown,” when the stress of something just gets to be too much.  Typically, and sadly, this is precisely what happens to a struggling reader’s Cognitive Capacity.  The child is trying so hard to decode a word– letter by painful letter– that he/she loses track, and can’t make heads or tails of the entire thing. 

Reading (and all learning!) is a “dance of strategies at our fingertips.”  Even as adults, we don’t all know every word we encounter—instead we have a hidden plethora of strategies at our fingertips that we use to quickly make analogies and to chunk words into familiar parts.  Show your child how you do this!  Here are some suggestions:

1.  Go to the dictionary and find some really challenging, long words.  Have fun!  Laugh at the words.  Demonstrate for your child how you break the word down, syllable by syllable, looking for chunks of little words within the big word, which you already know. 

2.  While browsing the Sunday newspaper, purposefully underline long or difficult words in interesting articles.  (Children love to read about animals, sports, etc.)  Read the article aloud for your child, pausing briefly at each hard word.  Explicitly illustrate for your child the strategies you use to figure out that word, then show the child how you go back to re-read, to ensure it all makes sense.  Show your child how you look for context clues (words or pictures around the tricky word) to help you determine the word.  In essence, you are exhibiting for your child there is absolutely no shame in not knowing a word—instead, we can all feel empowered by having strategies at our fingertips to tackle the word.  By modeling and extending explicit strategy use with our children, while reading and writing in authentic contexts, we promote self-monitoring and meaning making.

3.  Prompt your child to use those strategies!

In order to truly read, we need to be balancing three cues we send to our brains:

1.  the meaning of the text
2.  all of structural aspects of the text and the words (looking at the whole word, or the entire sentence)
3.  and the visual cues (usually pictures or individual letters in words)      







Unless our brain is balancing all three of those cues, we are not really reading.  For example, most commonly, children will zoom through a text, and have no idea what it was about.  When the child does encounter an unknown word, he/she will just look at the first couple of letters in the word, attempt to sound it out, give up, maybe look at a picture for a clue, and then guess the word, even though the word makes little to no sense.  That isn’t really reading, and no wonder it’s no fun for your child!  His/her cup runneth over!  Your child is only truly reading when he/she can balance all three of those cues from the brain, looking for meaning, all the structure of the words and sentences, and all of the visual cues, such as the pictures and letters.

What can you do if your child is still having difficulty with what sounds letters make?

This, of course, is the core of all reading.  This is also at the heart of the phonics debate that has been going on for decades.  Some children absolutely need explicit phonics instruction, while some children appear to do well without a regimented program.  If your child needs more assistance with phonics, there is certainly no shame in this, and it can be really fun!  I would recommend the book Phonics They Use by Patricia Cunningham.  It is a favorite text among educators, and I’m sure parents love it, too, because Cunningham provides loads of fun ways to meaningfully play with letters, their sounds, and the ways words come together.  Cunningham’s tone is very down-to-earth, and her phonics games are appropriate for a variety of learners, regardless of age. 

Essentially, you want to ensure your child’s phonemic awareness—the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in words.  Can your child hear the word “cat” and tell you it has 3 sounds?  “C-a-t… cat!”  Can your child stretch words out and put them back together?  Have fun with these types of playful activities.  Parents often find joy and success by watching educational TV programs such as “Sesame Street” or “Between the Lions” with their children. While watching these programs, pause at key points to explore phonemic awareness with your child.  Between the Lions also has a wonderful book for parents, which can guide anyone on the path to literacy for their child.

Remember—this whole article is about children feeling successful, so…

Your children need books that they can actually read!

A common mistake that can easily be avoided is when books are either too hard or too easy for the reader.  I am frequently reminded of the old “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” analogy.  You don’t want a book that is too easy, or a book that is too hard, you want one that is “just right.”  I call it “the zone.”  Finding “the zone” is not always cut and dry, however.  Your child’s teacher will be able to help you with knowing this exact level, and should also be able to suggest leveled reading books that your child could read regularly.  You could also pick up a book such as Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Books, K-8, which has a tremendous list of books, all sorted by their various reading levels, so you can ensure your child is reading in his/her “zone” and proudly watch the zone soar as the child improves.  There is nothing more rewarding!

As you help your child select books, please take context and personal passions into consideration.  Remember, reading is fun, so finding topical books, at a reading level that is comfortable for your child, will make a world of difference, and your child will actually want to read!

When choosing books, among other factors, consider a text’s:

  • Vocabulary complexity
  • Sentence complexity
  • Length
  • Illustration support
  • Overall text structure
  • Page layout
  • Suitability to particular reader (personality, maturity, etc.)
  • Content knowledge
  • Genre    

Last, but certainly not least…

In order to get better at anything, whether it’s skating or reading, you need to do the activity a lot.  As the old saying goes, practice truly does make perfect!  In his book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, Richard Allington reminds us that kids need to read a lot, and they need to be reading books they can read, and that they enjoy. 

I challenge you to think of creative ways to make reading more fun in your households, so that it just becomes another healthy aspect of your lifestyles.  Reading is just another activity we hope children will do independently, and successfully.  With success, comes more success.

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