17 Effective Ways To Help A Struggling Reader (updated for 2021)
These are 17 of the most effective tactics to help a struggling reader. Updated and ready for 2021.
Last week, my son was looking for a favorite YouTube channel.
As he scrolled through the options, it occurred to me that he was reading the titles. I held my breath a little, wondering, “Will he need my help?”
A few minutes later, he found what he needed. He read the name aloud, pressed the play icon, and started learning about Galapagos turtles.
After eight years, I can finally say that we are seeing progress and independence in his reading ability. After eight years, I want to cry tears of relief and throw confetti.
And after eight years, I realize that it was not any one thing that helped my son as he struggled to learn to read. It was a combination of so many approaches coupled with trial and error with a healthy dose of time.
With this in mind, today, I want to share my real life approach to helping my now emerging reader.
17 Effective Ways To Help A Struggling Reader
In no particular order, here are my best tips and tried and true strategies, for helping a child struggling to learn to read.
1. Audio Books
This might be my favorite recommendation on this list. Audio books give my son access to age appropriate literature and all the beauty that comes with a wonderful story, without any concern about his reading level. Moreover, audio books have been a wonderful way to transition into reading chapter books. We turn on the audio and he follows along with the hard copy of the book.
2. Tandem Read-Alouds
My son really, really wants to be able to read the entire Harry Potter Series on his own. For now, we sit together. I read a page and then he reads a page. It allows him to follow along with the story, even when he is intensely focused on decoding the words. It also gives him a break in-between passages that are challenging for him.
3. Change it Up
If what you are doing is not working and is adding to your child’s frustration, it is 100% OK to change it up a bit. Try a different time of day, a different location (my kiddo reads best outside), and maybe even a different curriculum.
4. Hands-On Helps
When my son was first learning his letters, the best thing we ever did was buy a montessori wooden letter set (aff link). It allowed him to manipulate and touch the letters and was essential to his ability to remember them on his own.
5. Movement Matters
My guy is a mover. He just is. Fighting it and expecting him to sit at the table for reading lessons is something I gave up on a long time ago. Now, we practice sight words with hopscotch squares and nerf guns. I have learned that keeping his body moving allows his brain to better retain the learning.
6. Review and then Review Again
No matter how tired you are of reviewing the word ‘the’ or teaching the helper ‘e’ the truth is, your child may need more review than your reading program or your patience recommends. Periodically going back and reviewing past topics not only helps your child retain the information, it can help them feel more confident as they encounter something that is familiar and allows them to be more successful.
7. Reward diligence
I have learned that rather than rewarding my son for learning the seven sight words, I want to reward him for his hard work in practicing them. Even if he never learns the sight words, I want him to know that his attitude and approach to difficulties matters most to me and is what I think will allow him to be successful in life, no matter what his reading level.
8. Educate yourself
If your child is really struggling and is a bit older, I highly recommend educating yourself about dyslexia and other learning differences. I found that once I knew more, I could better help my son. It also made me feel much more confident in helping him learn to read.
9. Consider an evaluation
Along the same lines, if you are genuinely concerned that dyslexia may be in play, I recommend looking into an evaluation. No matter what the outcome, more information about how my child learns has always been helpful.
10. Make it fun
Games are my favorite way to review and quiz my son on reading material. Making something that can be really, really challenging for our kiddos fun, helps them relax and actually retain what they are learning.
11. Incorporate Interests
My son loves animals and rocks. We have collections of both and use them for our reading practice. We use his gemstones for sight word Bingo, we bring his lizard out and read aloud to him, and we have a ton of books in the house about both topics.
12. Find A Program That Works For Both Of You
I wish someone would’ve told me this seven years ago! Finding a reading program that works for your child is great, but it has to work for you too! We use All About Reading. I cannot recommend it highly enough, but your family may be different. No matter what everyone else is using, find your best fit and run with it!
13. Remember, sometimes slow is the fastest way.
It took my son 8 years to be able to read a YouTube thumbnail. 8 years. There were times when I was tempted to just skip ahead in the learning because I just couldn’t do lesson #7 again. I have learned it helps no one. If my child doesn’t fully understand a lesson, slowing down to allow him to achieve mastery is actually faster than having to come back to it in the future.
14. Celebrate strengths
There are times when my son feels discouraged and less-than because of his difficulties in reading. I try to weave areas of strength into our days, around the times he is reading. This way, when he is feeling the frustration of his reading lesson, we can move into something that comes more naturally to him. It helps keep our days on track and buoys his self- perception and confidence.
15. Strew Interesting Books
Leaving books around the house about snakes is a trick I have employed for years. While I don’t necessarily like seeing pictures of pythons in my living room, it is a seamless way to get my son reading.
16. Visit the Library Regularly
Going to the library reminds my son that books are something to be explored and enjoyed. This is important because there are times where he feels like books are the enemy. At the library, that adversarial feeling quickly dissipates as he wanders the stacks.
17. Do Something Else
When all is said and done, some days, reading just doesn’t work well for my son. On the days when it starts to turn into stress and anxiety, we just do something else. We go for a walk, do a science project, or, as I have already mentioned, turn on a YouTube show about turtles. It happens and it’s OK to just do something else for the afternoon.
Above all, please let me encourage you – you can do this. Your child can do this. Some days it will feel like your child will never learn to read, believe me, I know.
It is my hope that these real-life recommendations not only help your child learn to read, but also help you enjoy life together along the way.
For more Struggling Reader Resources:
Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned educational consultant, and mom of two brilliant boys who have learning differences and special needs.
Shawna has also written four books: Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos, and Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. A passionate advocate for individualized education, Shawna is frequently featured on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers and The Mighty. She can also be found supporting parents online at her own site, DifferentByDesignLearning.com.