Reading Help: Why Some Children Struggle to Read

February 5, 2021

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Reading problems can be caused by many issues, and the reading help children need may differ because of the underlying causes of their struggle. Children could have a medical condition like a hearing impairment that affects the way they understand language. A learning disorder called dyslexia also could be the cause of reading struggles.

According to the Mayo Clinic, children with dyslexia may exhibit many symptoms, including reading avoidance, spelling difficulties, problems related to identifying sequences, and a reading level that is below the expectation of their grade.  

Some children may have no underlying medical cause for their literacy struggles. Perhaps they simply do not like to read and fall behind their peers. Children could struggle with phonetic decoding, comprehension or both. And providing reading help to children may need to be tailored to the areas of literacy in which they struggle.

When parents need to provide reading help, they need to understand why their child is struggling and how they can best guide their child to overcome these difficulties. Unfortunately, watching a child struggle to read may make a parent feel powerless to help them.

However, understanding how to advocate for their child may help to empower parents. For some children, reading may be difficult to master. Parents may need to be patient and may need to try different solutions, resources and interventions to find what works for their child.

How Can I Help My Child Who Is Struggling to Read?

Not all children have a medical condition that is causing the reading struggle. However, ruling out medical conditions may be one of the first steps parents can take to help diagnose the problem.

Parents may need to find out more details about their child’s struggle. That is, they may want to approach their child’s teacher to ascertain their child’s reading level. Is the child reading at grade level? Sometimes parents may perceive that their child is struggling because they may have a different view as to what their child should be able to read. Maybe an older sibling read far beyond grade level and parents hold this as the baseline of normalcy.

However, if parents discover that their child is reading below grade level, then they may want to initiate further conversations with their child’s teacher. How far below grade-level is the child’s ability? Is the teacher concerned? Parents may ask a teacher for recommendations about how to help at home.

Teachers are not going to give a medical opinion, and parents should not expect this from an educator. Parents can inquire about possible interventions that may be available through the school. Districts may offer testing that can help a child receive additional reading support at school or perhaps even in a more specialized classroom.

Seeking medical intervention and guidance may be a parent’s next step to help diagnose a reading problem. If a parent suspects that a child may have an underlying medical condition that could affect reading, parents may make an appointment with the child’s pediatrician. A doctor may recommend other specialists or diagnosticians for any additional testing or evaluations.

Medical professionals may diagnose an underlying learning disorder that may be affecting a child’s ability to read. But medical evaluations also could leave a parent without a reason for the struggles. Ruling out medical concerns is simply one step to understanding why or how a child may struggle.  

Even when evaluations reveal no underlying medical concerns that could affect literacy, clinicians and specialists may be able to provide resources or recommendations to parents to help them find additional help for their child.

Children with or without medical diagnoses also may qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP).  An IEP will outline all the services for which a child qualifies and also includes any educational support a child might need/receive. For example, an IEP for a child with a hearing impairment might include hearing support services like an FM system and support from an audiologist. Qualifying for an IEP often requires an evaluation process. Parents interested in pursuing an IEP for their child need to reach out to the school for guidance.

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What is the Best Way to Help a Struggling Reader?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to helping a struggling reader. Helping a child who struggles to read may include multiple strategies, depending on the underlying cause of their struggle. The tools and tactics used to help a child with dyslexia, for example, may differ from helping a child who simply struggles with comprehension but has no issues decoding. 

Parents who are trying to help their child at home can use a variety of strategies. If a child receives reading intervention at school, parents may ask teachers or instructors how they can mirror the lessons at home.

Some simple ways parents can help children read at home include:

    • Talking about the story. Ask ‘wh’ questions related to comprehension (who, what, where, when, and how).
    • Creating a reading habit. Make a reading schedule; this could mean that children always read before bed. 
    • Choosing the right books. A child should read at their level, not too far above or below. If a parent doesn’t know a child’s level, they can ask the child’s teacher.
    • Asking children to read aloud. Help them correct pronunciation errors and sound out words they don’t know.
  • Letting children choose their books when possible. 

What are the 5 Reading Strategies?

There are a number of educational reading strategies parents can use to help children. Some educational resources may list five strategies, seven strategies or more. According to Reading Rockets, some common comprehension strategies include:

  • Asking questions. This goes back to talking about what is read. Parents should ask questions related to comprehension from the ‘wh’ list.
  • Making predictions. Comprehension isn’t just about being able to retell the story. Children should be asked to make predictions about what they read. This shows another level of understanding. 
  • Inferencing. Hidden meanings add to the story. Inferencing is all about finding the underlying meaning of an action or a dialogue. 
  • Providing a summary of the text. Retelling is a key component of comprehension. Children should be able to summarize the plot of the story. Younger children may simply retell in the basic sense, but older children may be able to delve a bit deeper in their summarization. Parents may want to chunk chapter books and encourage children to summarize after each chapter.

Children that have struggles related to phonics or phonetics may use other strategies to help guide their understanding. To help with phonics skills, We Are Teachers recommends these strategies in the classroom, but some can be used at home, too:

  • Matching pictures to sounds.
  • Using music to teach sounds. The show “The Letter People” used songs to teach children the sounds of letters in a fun way. For example, Mr. M had a munching mouth!
  • Get moving with sounds. Incorporate exercise into the lesson.
  • Tactile exercises can make sounds fun, too. We Are Teachers uses a pool noodle activity, but stringing letters on a necklace could be another crafty exercise. Just make sure kids are old enough for beadwork, as small pieces can be a choking hazard
  • Grab a partner. Kids can work with a sibling or a parent at home.

How Can I Improve My Child’s Reading?

While there are many tips and tactics that experts may recommend to help struggling readers with comprehension and phonics/phonemes, parents also can create activities at home to complement the reading journey and help young readers immerse in the story. These activities might not be conventional, but they can make reading more fun for children.

Parents can support, encourage and liven up the reading journey with these fun ideas:

  • Make recipes or meals from the book. Eat what the characters eat, or try a new food that children learn about in the story. Even orange marmalade can be a new taste for a young child. Cooking recipes or helping parents with recipes may help children work on comprehension, too. And measuring may help with math skills. 
  • Watch a movie adapted from the book. Many children’s books have been developed into movies. After a child reads the book, have them watch the movie, too. The family can discuss how the book and the movie differed. Were plot points missing in the movie? Did the characters look how the child pictured them in the book?
  • Take a reading field trip. Visit a key location from the story or book. Parents may need to get creative with field trips, especially during Covid. Even if families can’t visit museums or historic sites, some tours are available online. Take a virtual reading field trip!
  • Play games related to phonics or reading. Word games may help children think about letter patterns and sounds. Parents can make their own games or buy a favorite board game.
  • Go on a vocabulary scavenger hunt. Children who have a list of vocabulary words or sight words can venture on a scavenger hunt for their list of words. Take a scavenger hunt in a store or even at home. Once children check off all the words, parents can reward them with a small prize or a special privilege.

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Other Tips to Provide Reading Help  

Games and activities can enhance the joy of reading, especially for kids who view regular reading time as a chore or a burdening homework assignment. Parents can make the reading journey even more exciting for kids in other ways, too.

Young children might enjoy building a reading fort for a special place to curl up with a book. Create a reading fort by placing a blanket over two chairs. Or parents can stack a huge pile of pillows or maybe even set up an indoor tent. Grab a flashlight to shine a light on the book! 

What about timing reading lessons and sessions? Most schools encourage or even mandate that children read a specified number of minutes each night. Some parents find it helpful to chunk these minutes over a few days so children aren’t seemingly burdened by the clock. 

For example, if a teacher wants students to read 20 minutes each night (five days per week), then children should log a total 100 minutes of reading each week. Some children might read for 45 minutes for two days and then 10 minutes for another day. Or maybe a child really becomes engrossed in the book and reads for two hours one night. This could count for the week’s reading minutes.

Parents differ in how they view reading minutes. Some may be adamant that children read nightly. The clock can be complicated, though. If the timer goes off and the child is still reading, does the alarm encourage them to stop mid-chapter? Children must read consistently, and parents should encourage a reading habit. Setting reading goals could be a great approach to ensure that children read their specified number of minutes and still enjoy their book.

Reading goals should be set according to a child’s ability. Parents can talk to teachers about how to set meaningful, yet challenging, reading goals for their child. Goals could be related to pages read each night or maybe a chapter goal. Work with a child’s teacher to set realistic goals.

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Technology for Reading Help

Many children now have access to a smartphone or some type of mobile device. Many schools also utilize one-to-one computing, which means children may have their own laptop. As screens and technology have become such an integral part of education, parents may have their own policies at home related to how much screen time is appropriate (outside of the classroom).

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t set firm mandates on screen time for older children. The AAP instead emphasizes that children should have a healthy balance of activities beyond the screen, and staring at the screen should not interfere with eating, sleeping or other health indices.

Technology has its benefits, however. Apps and educational programs can help children with subjects like math, science and reading. Online research-based reading programs could be useful for children who struggle with reading and need more intervention related to phonics or comprehension. Before committing to an app or online program, parents should investigate the features and benefits to ensure that it fits the needs of their child.

Many online programs—including Readability—offer a free trial period. During this time, children can explore the features and benefits of the programs. Parents can then decide if the program or app is worth the price of a subscription.

Not all apps are created equal, however. Some free apps may be structured as an educational game and may not focus on boosting a child’s reading level. Free apps or games also may be interrupted by ads, and this may distract children.

Reading Help: Final Thoughts for Parents

When parents notice that their child is struggling to read, they may want to take immediate action. Reaching out to a child’s teacher to explore these struggles and figuring out a child’s reading level can help parents better understand if their child is meeting grade-level expectations and benchmarks. Parents also may wish to schedule an appointment with the child’s pediatrician to rule out any medical issues that could be causing a reading struggle. In addition, parents may request additional evaluations from the school.

Parents also can provide reading help at home using different strategies. Teachers can help provide guidance on how parents can complement their child’s school lessons at home. However, parents also can use online resources and/or reading apps (or programs) to help children become more proficient readers. Games and other activities can help children find greater joy in reading, too. Parents needing additional resources for reading help and guidance also can visit the Learning Disabilities Association of America; this site is especially helpful for parents whose child received a specific diagnosis like dyslexia or dysgraphia.