It’s a question I have been asking for years, trying to help my own child. How do I help an older struggling reader?
My youngest son began his reading instruction the way most kids do.
He was in preschool and practiced the letters and sounds for more than a year.
But by the time he was seven, I knew he was dyslexic.
By the time he was ten, I began to panic.
By the time he was twelve, I was shocked at how little help there was for an older struggling reader.
The Unique Dilemma Of The Older Struggling Reader
Ask any mom of a child over ten who is still struggling to learn to read and she’ll confirm my experience.
The older a child gets, the less age appropriate options there are for reading practice.
It’s like if your child didn’t get it before they matured out of little kid drawings of squirrels and alligators, you are left with no resources and a growing sense of panic.
Even the programs who keep the childish drawings out, still require rote practice with flashcards and basic readers that most older struggling readers have been doing for more than five years.
The resistance builds. The anxiety peaks. The battles intensify.
Our older struggling readers are left dangling.
Just before my son turned twelve, I panicked. I thought I had failed him and that we needed an educational therapist who could help in learn in age appropriate ways.
Every Monday and Wednesday, for almost a year, I forced my son into those sessions.
I listened in, surprised that they sounded exactly the same as what I had been doing with his structured curriculum at home. I felt terrible as I watched my son become more and more bitter about his reading ability. I mourned his diminishing self-confidence.
After almost a year, he had made almost no progress – less in fact, than he had been making at home with me.
Now, a caveat. Not all kids are the same. Not all educational therapy programs are the same. This is NOT about the benefits and drawbacks of educational therapy. I know many families who swear by it and have seen amazing success by bringing in an outside resource.
But it did not work for my child. Maybe it hasn’t worked for yours either.
The more families I work with, the more I’m asked the same question – How do I help my older struggling reader?
Today, my son is fourteen and reading.
Not at a middle school level, but with increasing fluency. He can read street signs and computer prompts. He picks up an adult book and can struggle through a paragraph or two – slowly, but with accuracy.
He will be able to fill out a job application and take the written test for driver’s ed when he is older.
I cannot even begin to describe the immense relief I feel being able to type those words.
I can’t say for sure. I think it was a combination of everything.
We had laid the foundation with years and years of Orton-Gillingham based reading practice.
He matured significantly between the ages of twelve and fourteen (so did his brain).
And, after our failed attempt at educational therapy, what changed the most was my approach to helping him, as an older child, learn to read.
How To Help An Older Struggling Reader
I was convinced my son might never learn to read after seeing that another, trained expert was not able to really help him.
It was that, combined with the sheer amount of anxiety and stress reading had started to cause my son that lead to me give up.
Seriously. I gave up on trying to help my child learn to read in any formal way.
I decided to take a year and just let him breathe, and only practice reading in ways that were naturally a part of our days and in ways that he chose.
It was terrifying, but also incredibly helpful to just eliminate the constant pressure my son had experienced around reading for more than seven years.
This is what we did instead of any formal reading program or practice.
Practice Activities For An Older Struggling Reader
My son loves music. We often print out the lyrics to a new song that he enjoys. He reads the lyrics as he sings along.
This practice works well because even if he is struggling a bit, there is a cadence and often, rhythm to the lyrics that help him decode any unfamiliar or difficult words.
Similar to songs, poetry is easier for my son to use as reading practice. Because he can predict some of the words through the cadence and rhymes, he feels more success as he moves through the lines on the page.
For example, loves Edgar Allen Poe. I thought it would be way too difficult for him to decode because of the Old English style, but I was wrong. The poetic structure itself made it easier for him than a set of flashcards or chapter book.
This may seem silly, but it has worked. When he asks a question about something, we immediately google search it. I print out the article about snakes or a famous skateboarder and we read it together.
I think this works for a couple of reasons. Number one, it’s interest-led so he is more willing to put in the time and number two, articles online are often written in a short and sweet format that is easier for him to grasp.
I love this idea for older struggling readers. Learn about Secret Stories to help with reading practice in this video!
Dictation and Read Back
Even though we took a break from formal reading practice, I still expected my son to “write.” (What I mean by write is he tells me how he wants to answer a question or dictates a story, and I either hand-write or type it for him.)
Any time he would dictate a passage to me, he and I would read back what he “wrote.” Because it was in his own language and with words he had just spoken, it was much easier for him to decode the words on the page and make sense of the paragraph.
Graphic novels can make all the difference for an older struggling reader. The natural prompts of the pictures, less overall words, and the sense that the material is age appropriate, all make graphic novels an accessible choice.
Not sure where to start with graphic novels? This list of 92 graphic novels for middle school is perfect for older struggling readers.
This is what worked for my child, and continues to form the bulk of his reading practice today.
I am sharing it in the hopes it may support you with your older struggling reader, but more importantly, I am sharing it to encourage you to hang in there.
It can be terrifying to see your older child still struggling to read and not know how to help.
I want you to know there is still time and you still have options.