When your child is struggling with reading, you can feel worried and stressed. Strong reading abilities are not only critical to academic success, but they also have many other developmental benefits.
In this article, we want to share suggestions and strategies for how to help a struggling reader. But before we get to our suggestions, we want to start with some perspective.
Our first tip for helping a struggling reader is to keep things in perspective. In some places, including America, we place immense emphasis on learning to read early (along with other areas of academic learning, like math). In other countries, however, formalized instruction, including in reading, is much more delayed. Take Finland, for example, whose school system has been ranked first among European countries for over a decade. In Finland’s system, children do not begin formalized school instruction until age seven. And in the popular parenting book Bringing up Bébé, author and mother of three Pamela Druckerman describes what she terms “The American Question”: the impetus American parents feel to speed their children through childhood development. “The American Question sums up an essential difference between French and American parents. We Americans assign ourselves the job of pushing, stimulating, and carrying our kids from one developmental stage to the next. . . . French parents just don’t seem so anxious for their kids to get head starts. They don’t push them to read, swim, or do math ahead of schedule” (p. 92). Like in the Finnish system, formal reading education in France also doesn’t start until first grade, or age seven. “This relaxed attitude,” she writes, “goes against my most basic American belief that earlier is better” (p. 175).
We’re not suggesting that we don’t think reading is crucial for our kids’ development. We’ve written extensively otherwise, and we think it’s never too early to start raising a reader. In our own home, though, we introduce reading as a natural, normal part of our lives, we nurture and support our children in incorporating it into theirs, and we don’t stress when a friend’s child is already reading middle grade novels at age 6 while our 6-year old is still figuring out picture books and early readers or is choosing not to read at all.
When it comes to struggling readers, it’s important to distinguish between motivational struggles and other challenges. For example, we have a friend that once asked us what she should do about her child that was “struggling to read.” She was five years old and just headed into kindergarten. Our friend said that her little girl could read, she just didn’t want to read. In her case, her reader struggled with motivation more than with reading difficulties.
Reading struggles unrelated to motivation can be as varied as dyslexia, hearing impairment, poor vision, and learning disabilities. As children’s librarian Jennifer Sullivan writes, “If a child is truly struggling with reading on a technical level (versus a motivational level), seek help from an expert in teaching reading who can determine what is causing the difficulty and find the best approach for addressing it.” While identifying the characteristics of and addressing and overcoming technical challenges such as these is beyond the scope of this article, here are some resources we recommend: Read Aloud Revival, Reading Rockets.
If your child is struggling with a desire to read or wants to improve her reading, here are a few suggestions.
There’s a reason we joke about whether a person has read a book like War and Peace—we can all feel intimidated by the mere length of a book. The same goes for a book’s subject matter—we aren’t all up for tackling The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The same is true of young readers. As Jennifer wisely observes, “Shorter books are less intimidating than longer ones, even if the longer book is easier, [and] some struggling readers may need books with a high interest level, but lower reading level.” She also recommends keeping the stories simple to help struggling readers as well as “straightforward plots without a lot of changing points of view or shifting timelines.”
We often share J.K. Rowling’s quote that readers who don’t like reading just haven’t found the right book yet. To expand on that for a moment, sometimes it might not even be about finding the right book. As Dana Sheridan, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Princeton University’s Cotsen Children's Library and blogger at Pop Goes the Page, says, “If you have a struggling or reluctant reader, I recommend you broaden your definition of ‘reading’ to beyond books. For example, some might consider Garfield ‘just a silly comic’ but I have seen struggling kids have breakthroughs with the Garfield books!”
She continues, “In fact, comics and graphic novels in general are fantastic for reluctant readers because the readers can take cues from the artwork and engage with the story. Once kids get more confident, they can expand their interests to include more traditional chapter books.” Jennifer agrees, “Illustrations that support the text and provide contextual clues are very helpful.” If you want to try graphic novels for your child, we have some recommendations you can check out over here.
We’ve experienced for ourselves the effectiveness of supporting a child’s interest in reading using materials other than books. Our oldest is a huge LEGO fan, and for a while the only thing he wanted to “read” were LEGO building instructions. He would seriously sit and study the pictures for hours. Rather than insist he read a “book,” we subscribed him to the LEGO® Life Magazine (which is free and amazing). He carried his magazine with him everywhere and read and re-read it until he wore it out.
Audiobooks can also be helpful for struggling readers. As Dana says, “Audiobooks are a terrific option for auditory learners who want to access the books their classmates are enjoying, but their reading skills aren't quite there yet.” Jennifer also suggests audiobooks for struggling readers: “Alternative formats such as audiobooks, audio paired with print, graphic novels, and books in verse are often helpful (children can typically understand books being read to them that are written at a higher level than what they can read for themselves).”
We have enjoyed some of our favorite family read alouds, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, listening to them during family road trips. Apps like Libby make checking out audiobooks using your library card very convenient.
Lastly, while we always prefer the physical book when available, when used properly tablets can also be helpful to struggling readers because, as Jennifer notes, “the font size and style can be changed, as can the color and level of contrast,” all of which can support struggling readers.
If you’re trying to help a struggling reader, try to set a good example of reading yourself. Ralph Waldo Emmerson once wrote, “What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” In other words, when you tell your child they should read, but your child never sees you reading, the encouragement falls flat, or worse, sounds hypocritical. We recently wrote how being a reader yourself can help your baby become a reader, and the same is true for struggling readers. (If you just really don’t enjoy reading, check out some of our tips for how to still make reading look appealing to your kids.)
While we love reading aloud to our kids, reading a book with your kids by taking turns to let each family member read can also help a struggling reader. If you have two children or more reading, all the better. It’s one thing when your child sees you reading, but when they see a sibling reading, that’s especially motivating.
You can gather around classic stories, the newspaper, or other writings. I watched my own siblings’ interest in reading be piqued watching our family read passages together each morning from a religious text, and I see the same thing happening again with my own son, who is eager to join us now that his older brother reads with us.
Note, though, that it can be a bit tedious for strong readers and requires patience to listen through others’ turns.
If it’s in your budget, a reading program or tutor can be very helpful for your struggling reader.
Depending on the age of your reader, a course on phonics might be helpful. The debate about the importance of phonics has been going on for decades, but scientific evidence supports its place and importance in learning to read, especially for struggling readers.
If you’re searching for a reading tutor, we recommend our partner service Savvy Reading. We’ve watched their program help our own son greatly improve his reading skills, and he looks forward to each class session! When you sign up through our affiliate link, you'll save 10%. (The coupon code will automatically be applied when you click the linik.)