How to Help A Struggling Reader: The Mother of All Guides

Desperate to help your struggling reader? Perhaps you’re feeling the pressure to get your child reading on grade level?

Maybe every single homeschool day ends in a battle over all the things school and learning? Or maybe you’re just sick of dodging questions from Aunt Edna about what reading level your child is on?

If this resonates and you’re done with the stress, there’s good news!

Today we’re taking an in-depth dive into various reading issues in kids. And then I’ll lay out strategies you can use to help.

Special Needs or Not

Understandably, we moms worry when our children show resistance to books, reading and writing.

Kids with reading difficulties are often diagnosed with one or more learning disabilities such as ADHD, auditory processing disorder or a language processing disorder such as dyslexia.  

Regardless of whether your child has a diagnosed learning difference, we can all agree on one thing.  

When kids have a hard time reading, they need help. Period. 

teen girl confused stressed

Reading is a Long Term Learning Process

With that in mind, I’ve been working on this comprehensive guide for a long time (almost two years). Reading and language development is a long-term learning process and it’s passion of mine.

As you’ll soon see, this is because knowing the best ways to help your child read has greater implications than we often realize. 

(Check out Reading, Writing & Relationships to hear more on that one.)

For now, though, fellow momma, I do pray this helps and encourages you. Your kid is going to read. In this with you!

Characteristics of Struggling Readers: Questions To Ask

When a mom asks me how she can help her struggling reader, my first step is to ask questions. These questions are meant to root out the real issues behind her child’s reading problems.

This is always the first step: Ask Questions.

  1. How old is your child?
  2. Can your child rhyme?
  3. Is your struggling reader able to audibly hear sounds in isolation and then make them into a word?
  4. Does your child have the ability to decode (sound out) words?
  5. Can your child understand what he has read (reading comprehension)?

The answers to these questions will take you one step closer to the root issues behind your child’s struggles with reading.

Auditory Processing or Working Memory?

  • Is your child struggling to hear the phonics sounds? 
    • If so, it could be an auditory issue in which your child can’t “hear” the sounds.  (Phonemic Awareness) 

  • Or does he know the sounds one minute but then when asked to synthesize (combine) them, can’t do so? This may be an indication of trouble with Working Memory. 
cartoon brain working memory

Working memory is the ability to hold on to multiple pieces of information long enough to manipulate and respond appropriately. 

Note that children who have trouble following multi-step directions often struggle with language and working memory. 

Even Early Readers Struggle 

Here’s an unfortunate reality. 

When kids are “early” readers, adults (ahem… first time moms… pointing the finger at myself here) often think,

“JACKPOT!  My kid is so smart!”

And while they may be smart, these children may still end up as struggling readers.

Here’s the thing.

The ability to “decode” (create sounds from a written word) is simply one skill in the reading journey. 

That reading skill is just one in a long line that ultimately makes a truly literate reader.

components of reading learning process
For in-depth homeschool parent training, check out Reading, Writing & Relationships.

What are the basic reading skills?

Reading skills include:

  • Phonological and phonemic awareness
  • Decoding
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary Development
  • Comprehension

Understanding the basic elements of reading and language will help you best equip your struggling (or resistant) reader.

So let’s start by taking a look at reading piece by piece. Then we’ll see how it helps you to see your child’s reading and learning journey differently.

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

One of the first components of language and reading includes phonological and phonemic awareness.  

  • Phonological awareness refers to the overarching ability to isolate and manipulate sounds from and into words.
  • Phonemes are the units of sound that make up words.  

When a child starts to recognize that spoken words are composed of individual units of sound, he is developing phonemic awareness. Poor readers often demonstrate weaknesses in phonemic awareness.

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Let’s look at an example of phonemic awareness.

When you hear the word BUG, it’s your phonemic awareness skill that allows you to hear each sound that makes up the entire word.

  • “B” (side note: avoid adding an /-uh/ sound),
  • short U, and
  • hard G
  • “BUG”

This is just one small step in reading.

Assess Your Child’s Phonemic Awareness Skills

The important thing to know is that phonemic awareness is a foundational reading skill that comes BEFORE you attempt formal reading instruction.

So if your child is struggling to “read,” it’s critical that you assess his or her ability to audibly “hear” sounds.

Put down the reading curriculum, and let’s figure out what’s going on.

Activities to Improve Phonemic Awareness

1. Play With Letter Sounds

One reading intervention strategy to start with involves letter sound and word manipulation activities.

For example, assess phonemic awareness by verbalizing to your child component sounds of simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words. Say the letter sounds of the following words one at a time:

  • CAT —> /k/ /a/ /t/
  • D-O-G —> /d/ /o/ /hard g/

Can your child take those individual sounds and blend them into the whole word?  This is often a HUGE problem in early readers.

Teaching Your Child How to Rhyme

2. Good Readers Know How To Rhyme

Can your child rhyme?  Are you sure? Before saying,

“Of course my kid can rhyme,”

it’s a good idea to double check and ask them to do so.

Depending upon the age of your child, you may need to “backdoor” this so as to not embarrass them.

“Hey Son, Let’s play a game.  I’ll say a word and you try to match my rhyme.  Let’s see how long we can do it.”

phonemic awareness rhyming words

Rhyme in the Car

You want to engage in rhyming activities to strengthen your child’s ability to “hear” and identify sound patterns in words.

While in the car, see how long you and your child can go back and forth using a given rhyme.

Be sure to point out that the words DO NOT have to be “real” words. In fact, model this by adding a “Z” in front of rhymes.

  • Cat, bat, sat, rat–> Zat
  • Star, far, bar, car –> Zar

Again, many parents and educators mistakenly believe that children automatically develop the ability to rhyme.

When your kid resists reading, don’t assume anything.

What about high-school kids?

The ability to hear individual sounds (phonemes) and syllables is often a difficult task for even older students.

It’s not uncommon for high school students to have trouble spelling or to avoid reading like the plague.

If you notice this or any reading resistance in your older child, it’s a good idea to consider ways to strengthen phonemic awareness skills in them as well.

This skill must be developed in order for a child to read well and with understanding.

Go back to the basics for a short time and tell your older student the why.

Always give older kids the “why” behind an activity in order to get them invested.

PRIVATE Speech & Language Support

If your child struggles to “hear” isolated sounds and isn’t “getting it” with practice, it’s time to see a Speech and Language Pathologist.

Here’s the caveat. You want a PRIVATE SLP evaluation (outside the public school system).

I say this because sadly, many SLPs within the public school system are handcuffed to limited government guidelines.

What they diagnose, the school system has to pay for. Get it?

(This is not a criticism of the SLPs in the school system. They are simply limited by constraints of government and red-tape.)

Understand Phonics

Let’s move to the next step which is some form of direct reading instruction.  Most homeschool curricula are phonics-based.  

Phonics is a method of teaching where sounds are assigned to printed letters or combinations of letter symbols

A Typical Homeschool Phonics Lesson

A typical homeschool phonics lesson may look something like this: 

  • Your child sees the letter sequence D-O-G.
  • He then produces the sounds “D”- “short O”- “hard G.”

This is part of the process of DECODING (specifically, segmenting)  This is one component of phonics-based reading instruction.

two people communicating speech bubbles

Letters, Letter Combos & Associated Sounds

Children who struggle with reading often need extra support with basic spelling or phonics rules. For example, in the English language, the letter A is represented by four possible sounds:

  • the short a sound as in CAT,
  • the long a sound as in CAKE and
  • the “ah” sound as in ALL.
  • the “uh” sound as in ABOVE

All letters in the English language have sounds associated with them. Some have one specific sound and others have more than one sound.

All About Learning Press

Ever heard that English doesn’t make any sense?

While many believe that the English language doesn’t make any sense, this is not true.

Some letter combinations, called digraphs, appear confusing to many readers (including adults.) But once explicitly taught, digraph patterns are easier to recognize.

What are digraphs?

Digraphs are specific letter combinations that together represent a completely unique sound. Some examples of digraphs are:

  • CH- (3 sounds) Church, Christ, Charlotte
  • SH- (1 sound) Show
  • TH- (2 sounds) The, bath

An Orton-Gilligham approach to teaching reading and spelling is a solid way to explicitly teach these rules in a way that makes sense to struggling readers.

Two excellent Orton-Gillingham based homeschool reading programs are All About Reading and Check out this article for more suggestions to equip your child with a solid foundation in reading.

Reading Is A Complex Cognitive Process

Going back to our DOG example, the student will walk through the following steps as he decodes the word:

  • Determines that the 3 letter symbols represent 3 separate sounds
  • Creates the sounds individually
  • After saying the individual sounds out loud, he puts the sounds together in his own mind.
  • Finally, he blends them together so as to clearly say the word DOG

Note: Just because a child says the word “dog” does not mean that the child is visualizing an image of a dog.

What is Reading Fluency?

As decoding becomes second-nature, the next goal is for kids to develop reading fluency. Reading fluency is the ability to read with proper speed, inflection and accuracy.

Using our DOG example:

  • Eventually, the student sees the three letter symbols, D-O-G, and immediately knows and verbalizes the correct word.
  • He verbalizes the word aloud effortlessly and moves on to the next letter sequence with speed and confidence.

The ability to read with speed, proper inflection, confidence and comprehension is what is termed “FLUENCY.”

Language and Auditory Processing Disorders

If you have a struggling reader, it’s critical to look at foundational oral and auditory language skills.

Friend, deficits in these essential skills show up in many areas of life and can have devastating consequences if not addressed.

My own child has an auditory processing disorder diagnosis. APD is when auditory stimuli (sounds) enter the ear, but the brain receives a distorted message.

It’s as though the sound has a traffic accident on the journey through the ear canal on its way to the brain.

diagram of auditory processing disorder
Auditory Processing Disorder Illustration: From Reading Writing & Relationships Homeschool Parent Workshop

Symptoms of Language Comprehension Gaps 

So what do language comprehension (or language processing) gaps look like? And why am I so crazy about this issue?

Well, take a look at this list of behaviors that you may see in a child (or adult) who’s struggling with these skills.

Hopefully that’ll help you understand why I’m so stuck on this (it’s partly my ADHD hyperfocus, I know.)

  • Resist reading at all costs,
  • Reads a book but then completely “forgets” what he/she read,
  • Cries at the thought of school work,
  • Struggles with word problems in math,
  • Consistently responds with, “I don’t know,” or “What?” when asked questions,
  • Uses demonstrative and indefinite pronouns (non-specific words) such as, “That thing over there,” (to describe a pencil on a desk),
  • Can’t follow multi-step directions,
  • And more.

How To Help Your Child With Comprehension

Challenges with language comprehension can be seen with all types of language including:

  • Spoken (expressive output)
  • Auditory (input or receptive)
  • Socially (gestures and facial expressions)
homeschool reading comprehension help, language processing

Not So Sudden Reading Comprehension Issues

Even when successful with earlier stages of reading, many children start to show reading comprehension deficits around 3rd grade.   Teachers and parents become concerned about “sudden” reading comprehension issues. 

But the reality is that those “reading comprehension issues” were there the whole time.  It’s just that in earlier seasons, the comprehension issue was not easily identifiable.

Kids can compensate for auditory  misunderstanding by reading:

  • Facial Expressions
  • Physical Gestures

Read to Learn vs. Learn to Read

Additionally,at the 3rd grade level, we see that multiple reading skills must integrate at once.  The traditional education model expects 3rd graders  to read in order to learn.   Compare this with learning to read.    

Many kids at this age are not even remotely fluent in all the component reading skills.

They’re often sent out on their “academic” own to read, process, and apply written information that they are NOT developmentally ready for yet. 

They then fall further behind in other content areas because we’ve placed reading to learn ahead of learning to read.  

Skills Involved In Reading Comprehension

The precursors skills to reading comprehension include (but are not limited to):

  1. The ability to know how to pronounce a word correctly using relatively new decoding skills,
  2. Accurately interpret that specific word,
  3. Once properly spoken aloud, your student must move to the next word while holding onto previous word (working memory).
  4. The child must pull from his often limited vocabulary in order to understand (long term memory and vocabulary development).
  5. Engage the previously read words in his working (and short-term) memory in order to process them as a whole.
cartoon boy reading a book and imagining

Is Visualizing the Missing Piece?

As mentioned earlier, just because a child can decode words does not mean that they are seeing a story in their mind (visualizing).

The ability to visualize what is read is a HUGE factor behind troubles with reading comprehension.   And many children do not naturally create a picture or “movie” in their head. 

This skill, along with many other language processing skills, are frequently lacking in kids with symptoms of dyslexia, autism or ADHD.

This is why many of these skills need to be explicitly taught.  

Suggested Visualizing Resource

I cannot more highly recommend Janine Toole’s Visualization Skills For Reading Comprehension.   Her entire collection of learning materials are FREE on Kindle Unlimited. 

Highly Verbal Kids Aren’t Immune

Here’s the kicker.

Even if your child has always been “highly verbal,” they can still have receptive language deficits which show up as reading comprehension problems.

  • Or if your child frequently forgets what they’ve read,
  • Can’t remember that you told him 100 times how to clean his bathroom,
  • or says, “I don’t know” a lot…

These are just a few indicators of an underlying auditory processing or language comprehension (language processing) issue.   

Even if your child has always been “highly verbal”, they can still have receptive language deficits which show up as reading comprehension problems.

Auditory & Language Processing Impacts More Than Reading

Reading is not a simple process by a long shot. 

Language processing deficits and gaps in oral and auditory language skills are a HUGE issue for children (and adults).

Most parents, educators, administrators and doctors don’t understand the magnitude of these issues.  Instead of seeking root auditory and language issues, many of these kids have been labeled:

  • LAZY
  • Slow
  • Much worse…

These kids often struggle terribly with low self-esteem. More specifically, kids experience a sense of shame, feelings of never being enough as well as social issues.

We all know that telling our kids to work harder or pay attention does no one any good and often leads to shame.  But have hope.

Ultimately, addressing these language issues head on will make a HUGE difference academically, socially, relationally and more in the long term. 

Seek The RIGHT Diagnosis For Struggling Readers

If you are concerned about your child’s auditory or language skills, seek support from a PRIVATE speech and language pathologist or an audiologist with a speciality in Central Auditory Processing disorders.

Between a private SLP and the right audiologist, underlying language issues can be addressed.

Check out this excellent presentation by Gail Richard, PhD and the former President of American Speech & Language Hearing Association.

Homeschooling To Equip Struggling Readers

One of the greatest blessings is living in a country where we can homeschool our children.

Homeschooling affords parents the ability to seek out the best possible resources and support to meet the needs of the individual learner.

Reading, Writing & Relationships: Parent Training

And if you’re looking to take back the power in your child’s academic, emotional and long-term success, I’ve created an in-depth training that you don’t want to miss.

I presented Reading, Writing & Relationships at the 2020 NCHE Summit For Teaching Exceptional Children and now it’s available to you.

Access the training today, and then circle back to me with questions. We’re in this together, Friend!

All About Learning Press

Logic of English Dragon

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