Encouraging Young Struggling Readers – A Mom’s Perspective

I will open this blog post by saying again that I am not a reading specialist, teacher, speech/language therapist, etc. I am a mom of a boy with dyslexia. He was diagnosed about five years ago and my husband and I have learned a lot about kids who struggle with reading.

Please excuse the spelling, punctuation, and grammar issues in this post. These are the struggles I face.

You can read my post on Identifying Reading Issues at Home by clicking HERE.

I’ve also rounded up many books that are at a reading level for struggline readers – 1st and 2nd grade, 4th, 5th, and 6th (middle school) as well as high school. Check out these book lists.

My little cutie pie when he was around 3.

Things are going well with my son, not perfect, but better. It was an uphill battle.  Reading will never be easy for him. He still reads very slowly and needs help with many words.

Each school year my son was given a standing reading assignment – read twenty minutes per day – OR – fill out a calendar to show the number of pages, books, or minutes read.

UGH – he hated each and every one of them.

Many agencies and educated professionals have given advice on how to encourage or foster the love of reading in students. There’s THIS ONE from Reading is Fundamental – 20 Tips to Encourage Struggling Readers. Or THIS ARTICLE that draws information from the US Department of Education, The American Library Association, ERIC Clearing House on Reading, and The International Reading Assoc.

These tips are all fine and good. Check them out.

But here are my tips to help make reading a little more fun for kids who hate it. Because let’s face it, if a child has a learning disability or knows they are way below the reading level of their friends at school, they most likely dread it.

One tip I need to give before all the others - have your struggling reader read out loud to you. Every single time they sit down to do their ten pages or twenty minutes a night – have them read out loud. This means you need to listen while they are reading. Why? Many reasons – it shows you are invested and care about them, struggling readers will pretend to read and reading out loud avoids that, you can monitor their progress, you can help them with words they don’t know, it will provide you with lots of opportunities to praise their efforts, as well as laugh or comment about the story.

1. Timing - Find the time of day in which your son or daughter is in a better mood and read at that time. My son used to fall apart after 7:30 p.m. We made sure to do all reading before this time. For a couple of years, his school day started quite late. We would oftentimes read in the morning before he caught the bus.

2. Who is More Patient? - It may fall on either mom or dad to monitor the reading time. I seemed to be able to handle this better than my husband. I could listen, be positive, fight through the “I hate reading” moments, not badger, etc. Whichever parent decides to take on the roll, they must be ready to put on that happy face and endure. Trade off and have the rest of the homework, or things like bath time, soccer practice, or bedtime be up to the other parent.

3. Pick Fun Books with Lots of Pictures - Graphic novels are excellent book choices for struggling readers. You can read my reasons why HERE. You might be thinking this is cheating or that there aren’t enough words on the page. Sometimes, yes. In this case perhaps you can compromise with your child and add a few extra minutes or pages. Graphic novels are fun and usually packed with sound effects. Bang, crash, or in the case of The Captain Underpants Series - Tra la la la laaaaaaaa. Imagine your child reading those words out loud. They are reading. Reading is the whole point of this isn’t it? If the book has an action scene, let them get up and act out the movements of the characters as they read it. They will smile, have fun, and maybe enjoy the session a tiny bit.

4. Eliminate Games -It’s my opinion that struggling readers will find many ways to interrupt the reading session. They will: play with the lamp, say they’re thirsty, argue about how much time is left, how many pages they’ve already read, drop the book, count how many pages they’ve read or have left, etc. UGH! All of these things (and many more) will eat up time on the clock and cut down on how much they are actually reading. It also sets up lots of opportunities for mom or dad to yell at them. An argument starts, things go downhill, time is wasted, and the session may even get so bad it is brought to a close. Who won? Your child. He or she is not reading.

Here’s what you can do: sit between them and the lamp, hold the book for them, turn on a timer and place it out of reach, place a sticky note on the last page that will be read, redirect and refocus straying readers, and remain calm. Come up with a few phrases that you can say over and over. “We can do this. I want to see what happens next. Focus and read and then we can go outside.” Be brief in your redirects and do not engage in an argument. Your son or daughter will get louder and louder. They will get more and more agitated – you need to remain calm, keep a level voice, and be a broken record.

5. Don’t Make Them Sit Still - Once your son or daughter is able to read out loud to you without playing a lot of time-wasting games, let them hold the book themselves. Also let them pick the room they’d like to read in and the location. My son used to read in a big chair we had in our living room. I would sit in the same room and work on a jigsaw puzzle, crochet, or just sit and listen to him read. After about a minute his leg would be over the arm, then he’d lie down, and before long he’d be upside down. I never said a word because he was reading and staying on track. After a while he discovered the fun idea of sitting behind the big chair with a flashlight. It became a nightly routine. Are there any other rules that you are putting in place during reading time? Can they be eliminated?

My son is also a fidgety kid. He usually has something in his hand that he fumbles with. I don’t take it away. If he’s reading and moving forward, great.

One other idea. I’m not sure where to put it. Kids with dyslexia or other challenges will sometimes look away from the page when they are trying to sound out a word. This used to baffle us. “Focus on the page. Look at the word. Sound it out.” I came to realize later that he was tryingto do this. A page full of words and letters can be very visually distracting to a reader. If they close their eyes, look away, or up at the ceiling, they are clearing away the clutter and separating out the one word. They might be walking through and arranging the letters – B U I LD. Allow the child to process the word or sentence their way. Watch what they do. It’s very possible that what you think is daydreaming or signs of giving up is really them trying.

6. Don’t Force Them to Agonize Over Every Word - Struggling readers or kids with a learning disability will falter a lot during their reading session. If they are struggling too much, chances are the book is too difficult. Find one that is better. His or her teacher can help with this. You can also visit Lexile.com to find books. As your child is reading out loud, you will notice errors. They will get stuck on words. Do your best to determine how much you will correct your son or daughter. Also determine what you will make them sound out and what words you will give to them. If you make them labor over every single word, or make them sound out each unknown phrase you will soon have a deflated and frustrated reader on your hands. If they try once or twice to sound out a word and still don’t get it – give it to them. (Again, this is mom advice.) If your son comes across a word they don’t know while reading, allow them to spell it out loud. Let’s say the word is pancake – you can then tell them what it is. In the next paragraph, when the book mentions pancakes again, your child may be able to read it on their own.

Early on, before we knew any better, I witnessed reading sessions led by my husband that quickly turned into an hour-long meltdown because he was trying to get our son to sound out nearly every word. What did my son take away from that session? Thoughts of, “Reading sucks, I can’t do it, and I’m stupid.” Let’s avoid that.

Also, pick and choose which misread words you will correct. Do not pounce on each one. If your child reads – “Sally lived in the blue homes on the corner.” OR “My mom baked him  (omits a) large cake.” Just let it go. What I found was my son would gloss over these errors, but as his reading improved, he would correct himself.

Go ahead and give your child the first part of a word or the syllable they are stuck on. Say your daughter is struggling with the word cucumber. Give her a clue that it is a vegetable and start with the sound Q or even Q-K. Let’s say she comes across the word busy or shoe. They may have the beginning sound but get stuck in the middle. Give those sounds to them. Hopefully they will take the parts they know, add them to the parts you give to them and sound out the word. (How’s that for technical mom speak?) If you’ve been listening to them read out loud you will be able to guess at what word they are trying to say without looking at the page. If they come across those words again shortly after you’ve helped them, encourage them to try the whole word on their own.

This section boils down to one point – try to make the reading session as pain free as possible. Struggling readers need fun, successful bouts of reading. Help your reader focus on the overall story, not walk away feeling as if they just took the ACTs.

7. Help with the Load - From time to time go ahead and read with your child. Sit next to them and read every other line or paragraph. You can extend the time or pages needed to be read a little bit. Reading every other line keeps their eyes focused on the page and following along. They need to do this to know when it’s their turn. Your reading will help lighten the load, model how to pause for commas or changes of scene. If you read the word giant, your son or daughter will most likely be able to read it when it’s his or her turn.

8. Focus on the Story - If your daughter is reading a funny story about a mushroom with ninja skills – talk about it. Laugh with the storyline as she’s reading. Ask her what she thinks will happen next. Try to have an entire reading session – regardless of the errors, issues, and stumbles – remain focused on the story. Try to instill the idea that reading is about venturing to other worlds. When you are sifting through a pile of books to pick from bring this idea up again. Will it be witches, aliens or puppies?

9. Get a Timer - I wish I’d discovered this tip earlier. If your child needs to read for twenty minutes per night, invest in a timer. I used my meat thermometer/timer. THIS ONE is nice because it is very visual. My son and I used to argue over the number of minutes read, left, what time did we start, what time were we set to end, he’d stop numerous times to ask how many minutes were left, etc. Night after night it was the same argument. (See number 4) Set the timer. Place it on a shelf or table in eyesight of your child but out of reach. If your son or daughter has to go to the bathroom or if the phone rings you can pause it and restart when ready. It’s best to get one that the child can glance up at and see easily during the session. No need to stop and ask how many minutes are left.

10. Reading is Not for Punishments - Let’s say your son is having a bad day. He’s lost his TV privileges already and is on his way to losing his Xbox. Fine – but whatever you decide as parents to use as punishments for your kids, reading should not be a part of it. We found that taking away the opportunity to play with Legos worked well with my son. If he were behavior badly, he’d get a warning of losing that opportunity. We did not say, “You can’t watch TV or play video games and you will need to read for an extra half hour tonight.” OR “Go up to your room and read until we come talk to you.” OR “We are going to (Aunt Mable’s house, the hardware store, car shopping) and you are coming with – bring your book.” UGH. That even sounds bad to me. Don’t mix punishments or icky situations in with reading.

Another thought – it’s one thing to give a child a reward for doing well. We do it all the time with my son. Be careful that you are not instilling more ‘reading sucks’ feelings into your child. I’ll explain. You say: “No skateboarding until you’ve read for a half hour.” or “We won’t leave for the ultra fun park/pizza place/laser tag zone until you’ve finished that story.” Your child is now mad, pouting and thinking – repeatedly, “This sucks, reading stinks, I hate reading, reading ruins everything.” Avoid this if you can. Try to not bring up the fun stuff at all. Allow your child to skateboard for ten minutes then come back in and finish his reading.

I used to focus on his fussing. No fussing = praise, comments regarding how much easier and quicker it went when he was fuss free, and lots of comments on how proud I was for his effort, great character voices, sounding out a few ‘hard’ words. That was the reward or prize. The nights that didn’t go so well I once again focused on his fussy behavior – not his lack of reading skill or his lack of ability to get through it quickly. I commented that the fussing caused us to sit there much longer, made it kind of painful, reminded him that I knew he could hold it together, etc. and then I moved on, dropped it – no punishment, nothing taken away or suspended.

11. Avoid Embarrassing Scenes - Situations may come up in which your child is asked to read something out loud in public. Early on in his or her reading career this can lead to a very painful memory. Try to help avoid or bypass these occurrences. When my son was in third or fourth grade the family went out to eat for his birthday. There were about ten of us at the restaurant. My father in law gave my son a birthday card. He “read it” and put it down then thanked him for the Target gift card that was inside. My father in law insisted that my son read the card out loud in front of the guests. This soon turned into a session of grandpa making him sound out each word, cousins commenting about his lack of skills, etc. It did not end well and I wish I had stopped it when I had the chance.

Perhaps you attend Sunday school and the kids are asked to read aloud. Go ahead and let your child’s teacher know they are to be skipped – or ask for the passage in advance, practice it at home, and allow for a successful public reading experience.

An example of a situation that went well for my son was when he was vice principal for a day. My school held a fundraiser and the kids got to bid on things like – lunch with the gym teacher, coffee with the janitors, or vice principal for a day. My son won that one and had a great time. Part of the day was reading the announcements. The principal gave us the list in advance so my son could practice. He did very well. All through school we had written on my son’s IEP that the teachers would not call on him to read unless he volunteered. By about the middle of fourth grade he started volunteering.

12. Books in Other Formats - Try to incorporate books into your life via technology. Download audio books, listen to them in the car, watch a movie and mention that it was based on a books, or see a play based on a novel. I’m not suggesting that you do these things instead of the reading assignments. I am saying to add them to your day. This is going to sound corny but – the power of books is everywhere. Show your son or daughter just how much of our everyday lives are impacted by reading and by the words of great authors.

~ Most Important: Stay Positive ~

Throughout my son’s school and reading experience we’ve tried to remain positive and use encouraging words. “You tried really hard. That was a tough word, good job. Thank you for not fussing tonight. You’re good at monster voices. I think you picked a great book. I can’t wait to hear you read more tomorrow night.” Yes, this is reeeeeealy hard some days. There were times in which I needed to go into the bathroom and take deep breaths. But I feel this style worked very well with our son. He felt defeated, stupid, behind, and anxious. I did everything in my power to not bring any more negativity into his reading life.

You are your child’s biggest and most important cheerleader. Do it well and often.

At the time of this post my son is finishing up 6th grade. He earned five A’s and two B’s last quarter. If you had told me this a few years ago I would have laughed in your face.

You can do it parents!! Keep up the good work.

~ Jenna

OK – I know that was a lot of reading. I do recommend a couple of books for you to read as well. I found them VERY helpful. There is so much more to reading issues, dyslexia and learning disabilities than slow reading or flip flopping letters. Trust me. Buy these books.

The Secret Life of the Dyslexic Child: How she thinks. How he feels. How they can succeed

The Everything Parent’s Guide To Children With Dyslexia: All You Need To Ensure Your Child’s Success


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20 Responses to Encouraging Young Struggling Readers – A Mom’s Perspective

  1. Pingback: Books for Struggling Readers in Second and Third Grade | Struggling Readers | Jenna Scribbles

  2. avatar Lisa Craft says:

    I have a son who is in first grade and has ADHD. Your blog was quite informative and helpful! Thank you!

    • avatar JAScribbles says:

      I’m so glad. If I had to sum up my super long post I’d say – keep the session fun, stay positive at all times, and have your child read out loud. If you follow those things, you will see positive results.

      ~ Jenna

  3. avatar Vicky B. says:

    Very good tips. I have a third grader with ADD who receives special services at his school. His main struggle is reading. I’ve already learned some of the tips you mentioned along the way but I think many of the others will be very useful to us.

    Thank you for sharing this!

    • avatar JAScribbles says:

      Hi Vicky – let me know how things go with your son. Check back in a few months.

      Good luck and happy reading!


  4. avatar Michele Villegas says:

    Thanks for the interesting article and the article on e-readers. My daughter is a struggling reader. Do you have any thoughts on the kindle vs the ipad as an e-reader? What are your thoughts on the mechanical voice? I am a little concerned that it will hurt fluency because it is so choppy sounding.

    • avatar JAScribbles says:

      Hi Michele, thanks for stopping.

      I prefer the basic Kindle for struggling readers and not a tablet or iPad. I feel kids have a lot of distractions the way it is and holding an item in your hand that can quickly switch to apps, videos, games, music, etc. is just too tempting. The plain Kindle or Nook were created for reading, period.

      We recently bought our son the cheapy Kindle for $79. It has ads on the home screen and when in sleep mode. He is reading his book report title on it right now and liking the device very much. This is the one we got – http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0051QVESA/?tag=ga0b72-20

      One note – that device does not have text to speech. I think they did this to keep the price down.

      I have text to speech on my Kindle 2, but we haven’t used it much for reading skills. I don’t really care for the mechanical sounding voice. It doesn’t pause correctly, there’s no inflection, expression, change of tone, and some words are pronounced wrong.

      My advice regarding audio books is to find a CD or iTunes download of a book with voice actors reading the story. Don’t use your Kindle for text to speech. My library has a lot to pick from and you can also look through their catalog and order ones from other branches.

      We purchased a book on CD for my son only to find out it had a British actor reading the story. My son couldn’t really follow it.

      So – borrow a few from the library, look at the half price books stores, etc. for audio CDs with actors.

      Good luck. Stop back and let me know what you decide.

      ~ Jenna

  5. avatar Michele Villegas says:

    Thanks for the feedback. You are certainly right about distractions especially for a kid who would do anything to get out of reading like my daughter.

    I had intended to use the text to speech features but have to admit I am a little reluctant to take the plunge. I am concerned about “taking the easy way out” rather than continuing to focus on building her own reading skills. I am not sure how the mechanical voice will influence fluency development which is a real challenge for dyslexic kids and my daughters main challenge at this point.

    Your son is helped by using a kindle even though he is doing all of the reading? Does it help reduce the fatigue or improve his speed (fluency)? This is my daughters struggle. She reads accurately (after 2+ years tutoring) but is still slow and laborious. It is mentally very taxing for her which makes it hard to read for long periods or when she is tired.

    Thanks for your feedback.

    • avatar JAScribbles says:

      I guess I can’t really say what helped my son improve over the years. Was it help at school, practice, the fact that I tried to keep things fun and stress-free, or just plain ‘ol time? No idea. He’s been at this for six years and his fluency, speed and accuracy are still low. He can read books in the 900L Lexile range now – although we don’t always push this. I’d much rather he read and enjoy a story in the 600 or 700 range.

      His speed and fluency of a book in the 900L is still choppy and slow. Actually, overall he’s still slow.

      (Tangent – he’s made the B honor roll a few times in middle school so far – Yiipppeee!!)

      Have you tried sitting beside her and reading every other line? I talk about that in the blog post. It will give her clues on the words and she’ll need to follow along closer to the text. Using an audio book or text to speech… meh. Kids won’t keep their eyes on the paper or ereader. It’ll just be another thing to fight about.

      Back in fourth grade there were times that my son would read one page out loud and I would read two. I took the burden off him a little. Again, my main goal was to not bring his feeling of reading to a level of HATE. I saw improvement. He was trying hard. He was getting words that he hadn’t gotten the week before. Why torture him with 45 minutes of reading? I didn’t ever worry about how fast he was reading or if he said a word in a goofy way. (one of my tips in the long list above) Speed and accuracy were never on my radar.

      I can say this though – he recently asked for a Kindle for Christmas. He also asked for me to buy him books. He also bought himself some books with his own money at a book fair. Reading is not his first choice of activity, but every once in a while he picks up a book to read for no reason at all and that brings tears to my eyes. Will he be a big reader like me – a book a week. Never. Will he read a few books a year for pleasure? Yes. I love that.

      So, sorry I don’t have a lot of data about the Kindle and if it was the reason for the improvement. I think it was a combination of things. He has dyslexia. It isn’t going to go away or ever be erased. If I can give him things to make it a little better, I will.


  6. avatar Michele says:

    Tell your son “Congratulations” on making honor roll.

    I will think about the kindle/ipad thing a bit more. Amazon has a free kindle app for PCs (and a few free books). I am toying with it to see how I like it.


    • avatar JAScribbles says:

      Good luck. If you lived closer I’d loan you mine to try. :-) I think the grey, eink is the way to go.

      Check out the ebook samples on Amazon. You can downlaod a Kindle sample for free of many titles. That way you don’t have to limit yourself to the freebies.

      ~ Jenna

  7. avatar Fiona says:

    Great web site and suggestions for struggling readers. My son (almost 8 years old) struggles with reading. I agree with you that graphic novels are an excellent way to hook struggling readers. My son spends every night looking at Tintin’s or his other graphic novels. He may not be reading all the words, but it is creating a love of books and increasing his motivation. He says he sometimes reads the words, so that makes me happy. I’m sure he will eventually start to really read these books. My son reads aloud each day, but has real trouble decoding unfamiliar words. Sounding out words is frustrating for him. Thanks again for your suggestions.

    • avatar JAScribbles says:

      Hi Fiona – thanks for stopping. Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. I’m so glad to see you are fostering a love for reading and not focusing on speed or accuracy. If we drill our kids or students we will set them up to hate reading. That’s not good.

      We are our kids biggest and most important cheerleaders. We need to do it well and often!

      ~ Jenna

  8. avatar Brigitte says:

    You sound like an awesome parent. You are kind to share your experiences with us. I found many helpful techniques in your article. I will continue to use them each time I work with my daughter. I wish you and your son continued success.


    • avatar JAScribbles says:

      Hi Brigitte! So glad I could offer you some help. Kids get frustrated so easily. My son is in eighth grade now and doing better. The dyslexia will never go away but at least he is struggling less.


  9. avatar Kelli says:

    Thank you for taking the time and thought to produce this page. My son is 10 and in 4th grade. He too struggles. He has top interventions in school where they take him out of class for 30 minutes a day. I see improvement, but he still gets very low grades across the subjects. His goal is to get on the B honor roll. It is so hard to see him get down on himself. He is a technical kid, loves all technology. I bought him an ipod touch to encourage more reading, and playing educational games. Does anyone out there recommend good apps that their child responds well too?

    • avatar JAScribbles says:

      Hi Kelli. I don’t know much about educational apps. I would say that even if it isn’t labelled ‘educational’ and has a bit of reading in it, the game would be a good one. My son and I played Sponge Bob Life last summer. The cards had one or two sentences on them. So… sneaky reading minutes.

      Graphic novels are also a great idea. I wonder if they fit on an iTouch. :)


  10. avatar Kel says:

    Thank you for this article! I home school my twins who are in 1st grade. My son is an excellent reader, but my daughter struggles a lot. I started to search on line for helps and came across your article. It hit home in almost every area. I know she knows the reading “facts” because she does great if it is just a word or two on a page. Give her a book though or a sheet with numerous words and she struggles majorly. She is a big “look away” reader and I have not understood why, now I do! Thank you! Also I discovered last week that if I cover the page, except for the line she is reading, she reads so much better, faster, and with more understanding. She finally admitted after I knew the right questions to ask that the page looks very blurry when there are so many letters on it. We have already had her eyes tested and she has reading glasses, but just this simple covering of the majority of the page has helped tremendously. Thanks so much for your insight, I look forward to reading the books you recommend!

    • avatar JAScribbles says:

      I’m happy to help. One thing I did with my son when he was in second and third grade is allow him to reread books. Even if his teacher wanted ten new books per month (or whatever) I allowed him to reread the same title a few times. This builds confidence.

      Good luck. Check in later!


  11. avatar Beth Smith says:

    Hi Jenna. I have done some of these things with my own son, pulling aside his Sunday school teachers ahead of class, letting him read whatever he wants to read, and listening to him read out loud. He was a very late reader but is doing well in middle school. He still hates to read, though.

    My daughter is 16 and taking AP English. Unlike my son, she was a very early reader, BUT she has never enjoyed it! It’s like pulling teeth to get her to read. When she finally does read a book for school, I sit and listen while she reads, then we discuss. Sometimes she reads with an English accent. It’s hilarious! I hope she can find someone in college who will read with her. And once my son goes to college, I hope he can find someone to correct his papers before he turns them in!

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