How Can I Help My Child Who is a Struggling Reader?


Parent reading with their struggling reader

Since our inception of Informed Literacy, we have fielded numerous inquiries from parents asking, “How can I help my child who is a struggling reader?

It’s frustrating and heartbreaking to watch your child fail day after day, week after week, month after month, and even year after year. Unfortunately, the response to intervention model can turn into a ‘wait to fail’ model unless you know what to ask for.

Before you can advocate for your child, there are some basic understandings of learning to read that every parent should know.

Reading is a code-based system.

Students who rely on phonics (the code), do not need to use the picture or guess at a word. Guessing is an ineffective strategy and guesses are more often wrong than right. Some studies indicate that guessing at words only works about 14% of the time.

Many struggling readers avoid detection until third or fourth grade.

Students who have an extensive vocabulary and a broad range of experiences, are quite often good at guessing. They manage to get by using this strategy until they reach about third grade. Third grade is the point at which students move from learning to read to reading to learn. Often, these students who have compensated for code-based (phonics) weaknesses by guessing and checking will begin to struggle in Grade 3. Students must read and understand texts that have outpaced their vocabulary and experiences. Guessing, while never an ideal strategy, fails the struggling reader completely. This is commonly referred to as the “Third Grade Wall”. For more information about older struggling readers, click here.

Proficient readers know and automatically recognize the 6 syllable types.

The six syllable types are:

Closed – these are words containing one vowel followed by one or more consonants and the vowel is short (cat, pink, mesh, stick) 

Open – these words contain one vowel found at the end of a word and the vowel is long (no, he, why) 

Silent e – these words follow the vowel-consonant-silent e pattern and the vowel is long (make, stone, life)

Vowel digraphs – these words contain two vowels next to each other, the first vowel is long and the second is silent (boat, sleep, pie)

Vowel diphthongs – these words contain two vowels next to each other, the two vowels work together to make a completely new sound (boy, coil, couch)

Final stable syllable – the final stable syllable is not a stand alone word. The final stable syllable must be added to word part to create a complete word.  Final stable syllables include c+le (table, giggle), tion (lotion, caption), and sion (vision).

It is vital that students who are beginning to read (or who struggle to read) have a solid understanding of these syllable types. Recognizing the syllable types is not enough. Students must be able to read single syllable words containing phonetic patterns with automaticity. Multisyllabic words are built upon one-syllable units. If students struggle to read one syllable words, they will most certainly struggle with multisyllabic words.

The Science of Reading is based on over 20 years of reading research and supports explicit instruction in the components of reading.

The components of reading are: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

There have been extensive studies on the best way to teach reading. The science is settled. Explicit, systematic, cumulative, reading instruction is the most effective way to teach reading. Here is one of our favorite videos on how reading takes place in the brain by one of favorite neuroscientists, Stanislas Dehaene.

How can I help my child who is a struggling reader?

1. Insist on a reading program that adheres to the Science of Reading.

There are major differences between programs that adhere to the Science of Reading and Balanced Literacy. Do not accept a Balanced Literacy approach to reading instruction. This eye-opening article clearly explains the deficits of a Balanced literacy approach.

The Science of Reading provides explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction. Two programs that provide that type of instruction in phonemic awareness are Heggerty or Kilpatrick.

Phonics instruction that is explicit, cumulative and sequential is critical for helping beginning and struggling readers become proficient. Fundations is an evidenced-based program and is perfect for classroom instruction in Grades K-3. Students who have a language-based reading disability or who have dyslexia often require a more intensive program such as Wilson or Orton-Gillingham.

2. Decodable reading materials are a MUST for independent reading.

Parents can help their struggling reader by insisting that the school provide their child with decodable texts. Decodable texts means that the words follow the phonetic patterns that the child is learning. Providing decodable texts for independent practice helps reinforce students’ understanding and builds automaticity for reading phonetically regular words.

Merely providing struggling students with leveled readers serves to reinforce the misunderstanding that our English system is random. When this happens, students revert to the faulty strategy of guessing and checking.

Decodable books help students apply phonetic patterns and develop automaticity.
Parents can help their child who struggles to read by providing decodable texts at home.
3. Ask about the teacher’s qualifications.

Qualifications matter. You wouldn’t go to an unlicensed dentist. You probably wouldn’t hire a plumber or electrician if they weren’t certified. So, you shouldn’t put your child in the hands of an unqualified reading instructor. The teacher must be knowledgeable in the foundations of reading. Look for training in Fundations, Wilson and/or Orton-Gillingham. Is the teacher a certified dyslexia practitioner?

4. Check for legislation in your state.

Some states have been passed laws (or are in the process of passing laws) requiring schools to implement reading programs based in the Science of Reading. Recent legislation in Connecticut, The Right to Read Act, requires every school system to be compliant by 2023.

5. Knowledge is Power.

The more parents know the more parents can effectively advocate for their struggling reader.

These 2 books by Faith Borkowsky help parents answer the question,
These two books were written with parents in mind and help answer the question, “How can I help my child who is a struggling reader?”

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