Reading Strategies for Struggling Readers

Reading strategies are tools you can use to help support early readers (grades K-3) overcome challenges or tools that help intermediate or advanced readers process what they’re reading with more depth (4+). Offering relevant & consistent support is the key to supporting struggling readers!

Before we jump into support strategies let’s take a look at understanding why beginning readers struggle first.

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Reading Strategies:

Comprehension

Comprehension strategies can be a bit more complex because you are working to create a bridge from the details in the story & authors meaning to the child’s understanding of what happened & ability to communicate their understanding. For Kinders and First Graders this is a big ask. I like to simplify with questions or a statement that guide the reader to get the most of out of their thinking. We talk about the strategy we are learning, then practice it & talk about it again in context of the story we just read.

Below is a general list of reading comprehension strategies. I suggested grade levels and categorized them by difficulty as a support for parents who need a little more support helping their child learn to read at home. To simplify start with the basic reading comprehension skills and work your way toward intermediate once your child can successfully use the basic comprehension strategies.

Basic (Pre K- Kindergarten)

  1. Visualizing (Make a movie of the story in your head.)
  2. Making Predictions (What do you think will happen next?)
  3. Retell (Tell me what happened in this story.)
  4. Ask Questions

Intermediate (Grades 1 & 2)

  1. Make Connections
  2. Sequencing (Beginning, Middle & End with accuracy)
  3. Summarize
  4. Determine the “Big Idea” or Lesson of the story/ Author’s Purpose

Advanced (Grades 2+)

  • Monitor/ Clarify
  • Inferring
  • Evaluate
  • Determine Importance
  • Synthesizing

Reading Strategies: Fluency

  • Reading Fluency takes years of listening & reading to develop
  • Expectations advance with each grade level (ex: in 2nd grade “sound it out” won’t work the way it did in Kinder or first grade)
  • Sight words and vocabulary play a big role

What can I do?

There are several fluency strategies that K-2 students learn as their reading skills progress. It can be hard for kids to understand since what was ok in Kinder or First Grade, like read and point word-for-word is no longer the expectation by the time you reach second grade. Expectations shift as new skills are taught and depth of learning expands.

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice (Read Aloud-adult or fluent reader, Read Aloud- Buddy Reading, Read Aloud- Child at their independent level)
  2. Decoding Strategies (see below)
  3. Understand Grade Level Fluency Skills & Expectations (see below)

Example Fluency Expectations:

This is a general example of reading fluency expectations. Notice how they graduate to more skilled/advanced reading with each passing grade.

Pre K & Kindergarten it is appropriate to read word-by-word with some phrases or chunking as they begin to build confidence. Better fluency follows as kids build confidence.

First Graders may begin the school year reading word-for-word and pointing to each word as they read. It is appropriate at this age until they have mastered tracking words 1:1. As understanding of reading fluency & comprehension begins to solidify children read more in chunks, phrases or “scoops” (3- 4 words at a time) which sounds more relaxed and natural.

By Second Grade the expectation shifts again since children are introduced to more complex spelling patterns like -ough and -tion. They are reading more fluently but still may struggle with keeping track of words. Skipping entire lines is very common at this stage. Teach them to better track larger passages with an oversized bookmark to hide some of the text. 2nd graders are expected to have been reading independently to some degree since Kindergarten & by December children should read more naturally in chunks and phrases and less word for word (exception…it is expected when children are having a hard time comprehending or decoding a word for them to rely on phonetics or reading word for word).

Reading Strategies: Decoding

  1. Build Vocabulary (Preview: all ages and before reading a new story)
  2. Sound it out (if it doesn’t make sense move to the next strategy… What makes sense?)
  3. What Makes Sense? (sounding it out only works for a short time on regular spelling patterns, think about the story/ look at the photo what word makes more sense)
  4. Chunk it
  5. Skip it & go back (tricky words- that may make sense in context but not phonetically)

Why Beginning Readers struggle?

Preschool through grade 2 are the grade levels where children are building a foundation for learning. To over simplify preK through 2nd Grade are all learning different strands of the exact same thing. They are learning the foundations of reading and are building an academic trust fund so to speak that will carry them throughout all of their academic learning. PreK is entry level and by the end of second grade mastery is expected for most or all skills. Until they master these basic concepts progressing through these foundational levels may be challenging and reading expectations for grades 3 and up may seem impossible. It is natural for a child during this time to feel challenged or even struggle during this process.

Learning Gaps

A learning gap is more than a reader who is struggling. Learning gaps are areas where your child has been struggling for some time and is performing below grade level standard. So if your child is in 5th grade and reading at a 2nd grade level, I would consider them a beginning reader with a 3 year reading gap.

If your child is in First Grade reading at a Kindergarten level, try not to worry. Make sure to read consistently to them each week and monitor their progress. Kids come into reading in their own time (especially PreK through grade 2). As a parent it’s important to take state standards with a grain of salt, especially in the time of the Covid-19 Pandemic. There are times where learning gaps (like struggling in reading for 6 months or more) may be more noticeable like after the “summer slide”, major life events, or the big shifts in our lifestyles the pandemic has created.

2 or More Years

Bigger learning gaps like 2 years or more behind is not something to be taken lightly and requires extra relevant support (find out what is causing the gap & strategically support it & consistently follow up. If your child is enrolled in public or private school then work with their teacher to find out what is causing the gap or if it is necessary to test to see if your child qualifies for services. If you are homeschooling check in with your county office of education to see what services are available if any.

What Happened?

It is different for each child. For many kids learning gaps begin even though nothing actually happened to them. The learning is deepening and getting more complex and if their learning foundation isn’t rock solid they will be challenged and if they aren’t supported throughout and overcome those challenges then they may begin to struggle consistently.

2020 was pretty tough for most families and I am sure it has made learning to read more difficult for some kids. So please find balance in supporting your struggling learners. Social emotional is the best place to start when kids have big stuff going on. When kids basic needs are met they are better prepared to learn.

Self Esteem

How kids feel and what they think about their learning experiences makes a great impact on their self esteem, even if they do not show it. How a child processes an activity is just as important as the learning experience & activity itself. It is important to understand this in balance as well so they understand that being challenged (in any way) is part of the learning process.

If your child begins to struggle, talk about it and help them make sense of their learning in a calm, respectful manner. It’s not always easy to have a calm conversation especially when emotions are high so when you need to take a break and try again later when everyone is calm. Less is more so keep it simple for example: “we don’t know how to read tricky words… yet! Let’s practice so we can learn them!”.

If at First you Don’t Succeed…

That old adage “If at first you don’t succeed try, try again” is not enough. Equip your child with a Growth Mindset so that they will learn how reframe negative thoughts & emotions to overcome challenges. Make this a daily practice with your child(ren), and if you’re brave enough, yourself!

With that said it is not uncommon for children who consistently struggle to have layered issues. For example emotional (repeated negative emotions, self talk, bad experiences, etc.)& foundational (mistaken understanding of concepts/ skills- this is a natural part of learning). Kids who consistently struggle with a subject may lack the necessary foundational skills, conceptual understanding or sometimes there is a physical/ mental ability that is functioning at a different pace or level than that of their peers. They deduce from those challenges that they “can’t” do something or are “not smart” and that is simply not true.

Embrace the Struggle

Most kids stumble or even struggle with academic learning at some point and in the process of learning this is actually a good thing. It means different things as learning progresses. It can be as big as being on the brink of discovering advancing concepts/skills in their learning or something as small as not understanding a specific skill or tricky spelling pattern like silent /e/ or /ph/.

It’s a very exciting but also very delicate time. If children do not have proper guidance and ample time to practice during these learning challenges overtime they may become learning gaps and self-esteem plays a huge role in when & how they will overcome them.

Example:

If your child is still learning letter sounds & simple phonetic patterns in the middle of Second Grade. They read word by word and aren’t enjoying the process of learning to read. There is a definite learning gap. Simple phonetic spelling patterns (like word families) are introduced in Kindergarten, reiterated in First Grade and then quickly reviewed again in Second Grade. It’s ok for some kids to learn to read fluently later on as long as you put a plan in place.

Don’t Overthink it!

Emotion is important but it isn’t the end all be all. Work through the emotions that aren’t helping the learning happen and skills can (almost*) always be gained.

Kids develop their “reading muscles” (fluency, stamina, beginning & intermediate reading strategies like “sound it out” or “what makes sense”) when they are ready. That means years and years of practice, literally!

Start a habit of reading to your children as many days per week that you can be consistent with. We started a bedtime reading habit when I went back to work full time and was really missing my mommy & me time. Reading 5 days per week during these early reading years (preschool through grade 2) is a good goal. You can do all the “right” things and have one child reading chapter books in Kindergarten and another still learning to decode CVC words (Consonant Vowel Consonant like “cat”) in second grade. If you feel like you need professional help, get it!

The “Late Reader”

The late reader is a concept that some kids just learn to read later and should be based off of individual childhood developmental needs. I have a feeling it is going to make a comeback to some effect with all that is going on with the pandemic.

My hope is that the modern day “late reader” is far more balanced and kids aren’t written off as late readers and check back with them late second grade or early third grade.

Originally when this terminology was thrown around it was a kind of set and forget it a term. “Oh… they’re just a late reader. Check back in 2nd or 3rd grade. I’m sure they’ll be fine…”. This obviously isn’t a viable solution and other factors need to be considered.

Are there other areas your child is struggling with as well? (visual, sensorimotor, etc.)

Do you have a plan to support them or Have you been strategically working on them?

Have they been able to grow as a reader?

What if my child is more than a “late reader”?

The exception to the “late reader” concept is other developmental delays, physical or mental impairments or processing disorders for which I recommend professional help. To do some research on your own check out understood.org for learning or attention disorders or try Reading Rockets if you suspect your child may have dyslexia.

Talk to your child’s teacher if you think your child may have reading impairment (“disability”- I don’t care for that term) or processing issues. Ask how you can get more help or if you are homeschooling look into your local office of education to check out local services. This is free help that your child may receive but may need to qualify for. NOTE: some school districts require a learning gap of 2 years (below grade level) to qualify for services. Again- check with your local school district or county office of education to find out about their services and requirements.

Finding Balance in Supporting Budding Readers

Key ideas in finding balance to support learning readers:

  • Learning to read is a process that takes years
  • Children need to listen to and make sense of stories well before they are able to read independently
  • There should be NO pressure to learn how to read
  • Children will come to read independently in their own time, again for most that takes years of practice

It is noteworthy that Waldorff has modeled their reading program around these facts to support growing readers. Waldorf’s formal reading and writing curriculum occurs later on (late first or early second grade for phonics for example instead of Kindergarten for traditional public school) and begins instead with modeling great reading behaviors storytelling and acting out stories.

Waldorf models their early literacy curriculum around childhood Development (physical, emotional & positive social experiences) and enriching multi-sensory experiences with reading & writing. I firmly believe in a “no pressure” way of learning to read and only began phonics when my son presented signs he was ready.

Learning to Read in the time of Covid

In the age of Covid I feel like more children will become fluent readers later than they would have if we had been consistently in the classroom for whatever duration this will end up being. There is nothing wrong with that, for children developing normally especially given the circumstances and the disruption the pandemic has caused. Pay attention to any other signs that your child may need more help sooner but in the meantime build a reading rhythm at home by finding enjoyable ways to naturally read as a family like a family reading night, reading picnic or poetry tea time.

Family Activities that support Struggling Readers

Give these examples a try & let me know what you think!

  • Pajama day– stay in your jammies all day and grab your favorite books series. (Elephant and Piggie anyone? This set is PERFECT for beginning readers and the characters are hilarious!)
  • Mentor Texts– struggling to learn a skill or reading strategy? Search mentor texts for ________ (skill/strategy. Read & discuss them together.
  • Read Aloud Activities– Indulge your child with activities centered around their favorite author, book or series. Include art or other project based learning activities after you read it. For more advanced readers… learn a new skill/ concept & apply it with a follow up activity.
  • Buddy Reading– Practice reading skills with a buddy! Read to a sibling, friend, pet or stuffy!
  • Reader’s Theatre– act out stories your child’s favorite stories that you all have read 100 times or more.
  • Integrated Art Projects– Use your child’s interest/ hobbies to select books and help make reading more enjoyable.

Strategies that Support Struggling Readers

  • Read, read, read. (children need experience being read to, read with and reading by themselves)
  • Consistency
  • No pressure
  • Strategic use of time (enjoyable reading for 10 minutes is FAR more beneficial than any length of labored reading. Equally valuable is 5 minutes of 1:1 specific skilled reading- modeled, choral or I read/you read time for a skill that your child is struggling with)
  • Strategic use of materials (books should be carefully selected and reading and writing should be taught together)

The best way adults support reading is with consistent reading time and strategies to help kids overcome challenging words or context. Start small and work to build reading stamina. We started in preschool with 5-10 minutes of bedtime reading a few nights a week when hubby & I worked full time. Now (Grade 1) my son will read independently 30 minutes to an hour at a time, on his own time and still ask for a bedtime story (we now do an I read/ you read format at bedtime). We still do 3-5 nights a week unless he requests more because this stage of reading development is so important.

Select one strategy at a time and work on it.

NOTE: Before you select the strategy you want to work on with your child you need to know the specific area or skill they need the most support with.

Miscues

Miscues are the difference between what words are on the page and what your child is reading aloud. They give insight as to your child’s understanding of language and where they are at in the process of learning to read.

Assessment

There are 2 kind of assessments you can use to check on your child’s reading miscues, a running record (more formal) or do a formative assessment (less formal). If your child is in public school ask your child’s teacher what skills and strategies they specifically need to work on.

During a Running Record your child is reading a passage of a book for one minute. You are timing them and noting 3 things;

  • their fluency rate
  • miscues
  • comprehension

You can use any passage or book that they haven’t read yet. For a running record print out a blank recording sheet and write the words in or find a reading passage with the words already typed. Passages can be harder for kids to read because some are unnatural, be sure to prescreen them.

A Formative Assessment is you sitting there & listening as they read and notice the miscues your child makes (jotting them down as notes and revisiting later to help better plan & support their learning). Pay particular attention to repeated miscues like skipped words, incorrect guesses for sight words, specific spelling patterns, etc.

Reading Strategies: Differentiated Instruction

To over simplify this refers to creating a supportive learning environment where multiple opportunities are offered to help children develop skills and understand concepts. I think it is more geared towards classroom teachers offering multiple learning opportunities like small group & buddy learning as well as learning styles & modalities of learning (audio/visual, kinesthetic/ tactile), etc.. Homeschool families can also benefit from differentiated instruction and it highlights different ways of learning & helps children become more well rounded.

Online Reading Program for Struggling Readers

I have an online reading support program if you are needing more help teaching your child to read at home.

My Spring 2021 program I support readers and their parents learning to read from Kindergarten to Grade 3 levels (or children reading at these levels). I will assess your child(ren) remotely in a no-pressure way & help you focus on key reading strategies and the skills that would benefit your child the most & how you can support your child’s learning at home.

Spring Support Session runs from (Paid support sessions March 1, 2021 – May 22, 2021)

Summer Reading Challenge (FREE! Sign up anytime, work at your own pace.)

Grade Level Reading Expectations OVERVIEW

Let’s zoom in on the big idea of reading:

Kids in PREK- Grade 2 are learning to read & kids Grade 3 and up are reading to learn.

By Grade 3 there is a BIG shift in how reading skills play a role in a child’s learning. By now (grade 3) kids are reading to discover & process information on a higher level (some schools start this at a much earlier age). This transition is very difficult to do when you are still learning how to read.

Let’s look at general end of the year reading & writing expectations… Children in grades Preschool through Grade 2 are learning letter sounds, spelling patterns, reading strategies, etc. By the end of Grade 2 mastery is expected in these areas. Below I have listed a general end of the year mastery by grade level.

Preschoolers

Recognize some letters and know it’s name or sound or both.

Kindergarteners

Know the letter names AND sounds and be able to identify word family spelling patterns (use a picture or sound it out). They may begin to notice some spelling patterns in their reading are “tricky” and should know some sight words (words your child needs to memorize because they are “Rule breakers” and do not follow spelling patterns). They may sound out spelling phonetically based on their letter-sound knowledge.

First Graders

Know all letter names and sounds, word families & simple vowel combinations. They are beginning to develop a deeper understanding of simple spelling patterns and mostly comprehend what they are reading. Their writing should consist of phonetically spelled words and spelling patterns they have learned.

Second graders

Know all letter names, sounds, word families, simple blends, diphthongs & tricky spelling patterns like silent e, etc. Children fluently read and write simple (phonetic) patterns to help them understand & retell the story. They can combine all of their reading skills from Kinder & Grade 1 to make sense of complex spelling patterns or understand what is happening in the story. Their writing should be longer in length than the previous year with mostly correct spelling including advancing patterns (-dge instead of /j/, ph- when appropriate instead of /f/, etc.).

Grade Level Mastery

Mastery in any grade would be completing a task or demonstrating grade level knowledge with 90- 100% understanding. For Language Arts that would be retelling a story, fluency & writing. Not all kids leave their grade level with 90-100% mastery and perfection is not the goal here, independently understanding is. Kids should make growth throughout the year. The early elementary portion of Language Arts & Math kids WILL not progress unless a proper foundation is in place.

How to assess Learning Gaps

If your child enrolled in a public school your child’s teacher and the school is responsible for monitoring your child and making sure they are making appropriate growth in each of the developing academic areas. They are required to report their progress monitoring (report cards, conferences etc.) to you and hopefully you all work together to design a learning plan for your child. It is your responsibility to advocate for your child’s best interests and make sure assessment & support is happening.

If you are homeschooling this is your responsibility to monitor progress and I highly recommend keeping records of your homeschooling (whether it is required by your state or not). Progress monitoring will help you keep track of your child’s learning and can be done 2-3 times per year. So if you do run into a learning gap in the future you can see where you need to fine tune before moving forward.

Child Centered Goals

It is important for your child to have goals and be actively involved in their learning (no matter their academic level). The COVID pandemic has certainly made this more difficult for most families who do not have the resources they need to support their child.

If you are homeschooling or (Distance Learning) it is important for you to monitor progress and address any academic areas of concern.

Now what?

Assessing where your child is at academically is very important and it doesn’t need to be stressful. It can be as simple as reading or doing math with them. Check in with their learning make notes (mental or written) about what questions they are asking or what concepts they seem to be struggling with.

If you notice areas of concern set aside time for extra practice & talk about what you’re learning.

Assessment

How do I assess Reading at home?

STEP 1

For reading you can make a video of your child reading (google running record reading passages by level & print) or just take any book they are reading & record one minute of them reading it. If they want to watch it offer only positive feedback in the moment. For example… If they read a word incorrectly & notice- whether they correct it or not…

“I like how you thought about what made sense.”

“______ didn’t make sense there, did it? What word would make more sense there?” (If they need a hint… look at the letters and think about the story… what word makes the most sense?)

STEP 2

Use your earbuds & go over their reading video. Use a blank running record sheet or the printed passage. Jot down what they say verbatim. Note miscues (how children are processing the words they do not understand- no matter how minor). This can give you clues as to how to next steps in their learning. They are not technically mistakes but insights into their understanding of reading and development.

STEP 3

Score the running record. Jot down the number of miscues and note what type they are;

  • Correction (they read incorrectly first then went back & fixed it)
  • Omission (skipped word)
  • Substitution (said another word. Note: if the substituted word changed the meaning of the sentence)
  • Repetition (repeatedly reading a word
  • Reversal (reversing letters in a word to make a different word like form instead of from)

Remember the 5 finger rule:

As they’re reading kids hold up a finger when they come to a word they cannot figure out.

0-1 finger = too easy

2-3 fingers = just right

4-5 fingers = too hard for independent reading

Need Help?

I am offering a remote homeschool reading support program, that I am running in the spring of 2021. This is like having a weekly tutor & learning-at-home mentor all-in-one. It is a combination of coaching for the parent & structured reading support for your child at home. (NOTE: This is a paid support program.)

OR join us for our 2021 SUMMER Reading Challenge (Free)!

Math support is coming late 2021 and pre-registery is TBD.

You will need an internet connection to access the online reading materials & connect with me.

This includes personalized reading support from a credentialed teacher a custom online library for your budding reader. Your child will get a new reading skill and comprehension strategy. You will get new support strategies for building skills at home. We will check in Bi-Monthly & you have question/answer support for the 12 week program. I will email you copies of assessments for your records & an end of year assessment.

Reading Strategies for Struggling Readers
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2 thoughts on “Reading Strategies for Struggling Readers”

  1. Thanks for reminding me that I need to talk to my child in a calm, respectful manner as soon as I notice him struggling. He’s having a hard time learning how to read and I would like to help him myself. Maybe we can schedule a weekly reading session at home and let him read some storybooks while I focus on a spiritual autobiographical fiction novel.

    1. Hi Zoe,
      I am so glad you found this post helpful!
      It’s really hard sometimes (especially at first) finding balance when your kids are learning to read. With support the challenges of the struggle help them build skills and become better readers.
      I think that’s a great idea! Breaking up the type of reading helps naturally support the reader with less pressure. For example; when your son is independent reading help him make sure he’s using the 5-finger rule so it’s a good fit (see end of post for more info.), read moderately hard books together and you read the trickiest books aloud.
      Happy Reading! :o)
      Mudpiesandmanis recently posted…Reading Strategies for Struggling ReadersMy Profile

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