How Do You Help A Struggling Reader?

Moms often search the Internet wondering, “How do you help a struggling reader?”

Whether you’re a homeschool mom or not, we’re all aware of the importance of reading. 

Understandably, many moms worry when their children are resistant to books and reading.   Often these kids are diagnosed with learning difference such as ADHD or dyslexia.  Regardless of whether or not your child has a specific diagnosis, we can all agree on one thing.

When kids struggle with reading, they need help.  Period.

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Characteristics of Struggling Readers

When a mom expresses concern about her child’s reading, I typically ask specific questions to tease out root issues.

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

Again, it’s important to understand that reading is not simply sounding out words written on a page.  Reading is a process that includes multiple component skills that ultimately work together to produce a truly literate reader.

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Struggling Readers Need More Than Decoding

Here’s an unfortunate reality.  Often when children are able to “read” aloud, we think that reading has occured.  However, that is not necessarily the case.

The ability to “decode” is simply one step in the reading journey.   And each reading skill builds upon the other.

The components of reading include:

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Decoding
  • Fluency
  • Comprehension

Understanding the basic elements of reading will help moms best equip struggling readers.

Let’s take a look at reading piece by piece and see how it equips you to see your child’s reading journey differently.

Logic of English Tree

Phonemic Awareness- Foundational Reading Skill

One of the first reading skills is called phonemic awareness.

Words are all made up of units of sound called PHONEMES.  When a child starts to recognize that all spoken words are composed of individual units of sound, he is developing the skill of Phonemic Awareness.

Let’s use an example.  A child hears a word such as BUG.  We want him to identify the three sounds that make up this word.

  • Buh (we don’t want to emphasize that -uh sound.  I’ve included it to emphasize the “sound”),
  • short U, and
  • hard G
  • “BUG”

When a child can hear sounds in isolation, we know he is developing the skill of phonemic awareness.  This skill alone is not universal and often needs to be explicitly taught.  

Teaching Your Child How to Rhyme

Assessing Phonemic Awareness Skills: Try This

Phonemic awareness is a foundational reading skill that comes BEFORE we attempt formal reading instruction.  If your child is struggling to “read,” it is 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.  Start with rhyming and word manipulation actvities.

1.    Assess phonemic awareness in your child by saying aloud component sounds of simple CVC words. 



       Is your child able to make sense of the word(s)?

2.   Can your child rhyme?

Cat, bat, sat, rat

Star, far, bar, car

Struggling Readers & The Ability To Rhyme

Again, many parents and educators mistakenly believe that children automatically develop the ability to rhyme. When your kid resists reading, don’t assume anything.

If your child can’t rhyme or hear sounds in isolation, this is an indication that there is a gap in phonemic awareness.  This skill must be developed in order for a child to read well and with understanding.


NEVER skip foundational reading skills in fear of your child being behind.  It’s not worth it.  Ever.

Struggling Readers Often Need Speech & Language Support

If your child struggles to “hear” isolated sounds and isn’t “getting it” with practice, it’s time to get an eval by a PRIVATE SLP.  An SLP refers to 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 amazing SLPs in the school system.  They are simply limited by constraints of government and red-tape.)

Auditory Processing Disorder

How Do You Help A Struggling Reader?  Understand Phonics

A child sees the letter sequence D-O- G and then produces the sounds “D”- “short O”- “hard G.”  This skill is referred to as DECODING and the process of decoding is involved in PHONICS.

Once he pieces together the sounds in his mind, he says the word DOG.   This is referred to as ENCODING. 

When seeking help for your struggling reader, it is important to assess your student’s phonics skills.

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.  The sounds are all dependent on letter combinations within words.

Homeschooling with Dyslexia

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, the patterns are easy to recognize.  

Digraghs include:

  • CH-  Church, Christ, Charlotte
  • SH-  Show

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.

There are several solid homeschool reading curriculum options based on this extremely effective teaching method.   Two excellent Orton-Gillingham based homeschool reading programs are All About Reading and Logic of English.

Check out this article for more suggestions to equip your child with a solid foundation in reading.

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The Complexity of Reading

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.

Visualizing: An Overlooked ESSENTIAL Reading Skill

Being able to visualize is a skill that many children do not have.  Once kids hit 3rd grade, we often see a rise in “sudden” reading comprehension issues.

Visualizing is an essential reading skill to check for as your child develops the ability to read.   Many children with ADHD, Autism and other executive functioning issues, lack this essential skill.

Adults assume that many language skills (including rhyming, hearing sounds, visualizing, etc) are automatically learned by osmosis.  This is NOT THE CASE!  These often need to be explicitly taught.

Check out this amazing series of resources by Janine Toole, PhD.  Her materials are FREE on Kindle Unlimited. 

I cannot more HIGHLY recommend her resources.  Specific to reading comprehension, Visualization Skills For Reading Comprehension, is AMAZING!!  Don’t overlook this essential skill.

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Reading Fluency

As decoding becomes second-nature, the goal is for kids to become quicker to recognize familiar letter patterns and words.

Using our DOG example:

  • Eventually, the student will see the three letter symbols, D-O-G, and immediately know and verbalize 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 and confidence is what is termed “FLUENCY.”

Reading Comprehension

As you seek help for your struggling reader, you’ll begin to tease out where your child’s reading weakness lies.

Even when successful with earlier stages of reading, many children start to show reading comprehension deficits around 3rd grade.

It is not surprising that this skill would lag behind the other reading skills.  Understanding what is read requires:

  • A child identify how to pronounce a word correctly using his relatively new decoding skills,
  • Once properly spoken aloud, your student must move to the next word,
  • He then has to maintain the previous words in his mind (working memory) in order to process them as a whole,
  • The child to pull from his often limited vocabulary in order to understand.

Here’s the kicker.  Regardless of whether you have a “highly verbal” child, receptive language deficits can still be present.

Homeschooling with Dyslexia

When Kids Hate Reading: There’s A Reason!

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

Most educators and administrators are clueless to this essential issue impacting way too many children. 

Instead of seeking root language issues, many of these kids have been labeled:

  • LAZY
  • Slow
  • Much worse…

If You Want To Help Your Struggling Reader, You May Have To Go Backwards

If you have a struggling reader, it’s critical to look at foundational oral and auditory language skills.  Deficits in these essential skills appear in many different areas of life and can have devastating consequences if not addressed.

Symptoms of oral and auditory language gaps include:


  • 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.

Check out Dr. Daniel Franklin’s Helping Your Child With Language-Based Learning Disabilities for more information.  

Gaps In Language Processing & Development Must Be Addressed

If your child demonstrates any combination of these issues, know this.  There is likely a gap in language development.

These kids often struggle terribly with a sense of shame, feelings of never being enough as well as social issues. 

Please don’t yell at or shame them by telling them to work harder or pay attention.  Equip themGet a private Speech and Language Eval by a reputable SLP.  

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So what do you do for your struggling reader?

Do not be afraid if your child struggles with reading.  Your child can read.  I truly believe every child can thrive and succeed when equipped based on their own unique needs and wiring.  

There is always a way.  By diving deep, and by being willing to think outside-the-box, you can equip your child to become a reader.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Homeschool ADHD Cheat Sheet

Homeschooling To Equip Struggling Readers To Thrive

One of the greatest blessings is living in a country where we can homeschool our children.  For tips for the new homeschooling mom, click here. 

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

Check out this series of posts here to help you in your journey to equip your uniquely-wired child to thrive academically, emotionally, and in all the things.

  1. Orton-Gillingham Homeschool Reading & Spelling Curriculum That Works
  2. Best Homeschool Language Arts Curriculum For Learning Differences
  3. Strategies For Struggling Readers

Don’t panic, Momma!  We’re in this together.  Comment below with your questions about how to help your struggling reader.

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