Working with Struggling Readers in the Early Years

By now you have identified there are some students in your class who either don’t do well at reading or just don’t like it!  As teachers… we want to inspire them to like and love books because “reading opens so many doors” but what do we do for these kids to get them there?  Is our approach to teaching these kids helping or harming?  Just some food for thought from this teacher (and parent of a struggling reader!)

Don’t let your relationship with the child be defined by their reading skills!

Often times we put so much pressure on reading that the students really feel it!  Whether you philosophically believe reading is the be all end all or not… you are teaching the whole child.  The constant criticizing, constant pressure to do more, the feeling of not being able to meet an expectation of such an important person in your life is a very heavy thing on kids!  Often times we mean well.. “that does not say the silly… that says me” can be playful and yet very embarrassing and hurtful to a child who is really risking reading in front of others.

I went the other night to hear Ben Foss speak… he is the author of The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan and his whole philosophy is just this.  (Although 1 in 5 people are dyslexia.. I am by no means saying this post is only for your identified or unidentified dyslexia learners… it’s just good stuff for all kids!)  Don’t let these kids define themselves by their learning difference.. each child in your class has strengths and you need to work with what-cha-got!  And that’s exactly what struggling readers have.. is a LEARNING DIFFERENCE… they just learn differently.  My favorite quote of Ben Foss that night night from him was “Spelling.. it’s a cool party trick.”  I am not saying it is not important… but it is surely not the only important thing we teach kids in school!

We no longer say “Earth to Carole… answer the questions” but I have had people tell my son who is a struggling reader “just sound it out” when he is not intellectually able to do so.  If he is not ready to sound out he is not going to no matter how many times you ask him to and no matter how many other activities he misses because he has not been instructed in a way he understands or is just not academically ready to do so even though the rest of the class is.  I have also had a teacher tell my struggling reader when he tells her that his mom tells him to do something differently that she “does not care what her mom told her to do.”  My child left feeling like his teacher did not care.  I get what she was saying… but then I don’t because if my reader knows a different way that makes sense… so be it… run with it… listen to them and be open to your method is not the only method!  These experiences with my own struggling reader made me really think about my own practice and making changes for the subtle things I may unknowingly do myself.

Consider there may be a learning disability.  

This is hard for us as kindergarten teachers because we are often told to wait… are they ready for school, are they ready for reading, are they ready to learn in general.  What’s the cost of waiting?  Cost of waiting is loss of a valuable instruction time… if we were showing movies all day and having recess 4 times a day it would be an issue right?  So why is allowing a student to sit in your class and struggle and not learn ok just because they are not ready?  Not OK.  Often times we wait until 2-3rd grade to assess and then the kids are diagnosed with a learning disability… what happened to grades K-2 at that point… lost learning time and very sad IMO.  Things to look out for… lack of phonemic awareness, inability to remember letters taught, and just overall aversion to learning.  These are all signs of a learning disability that CAN be identified and remediated in the early year no matter what your school says!  Parents have rights and it’s just sad that many times when we go to advocate for our little learners we can’t quote the laws for them without losing rapport in our school.

Check out this brain scan… on the left is a scan of a typical learner reading and the right is the brain of a person with dyslexia reading.  We have to recognize that brains work differently with kids with learning differences and that these kids learn differently!  General education classroom teachers often don’t have the resources or time to work with these kids and so you need the support and you are legally entitled to help with students with special needs.  (Easier said than done right!)
Also consider this… do you think the person on the right wants to learn any less than the person on the left?  Absolutely not!  We all want to learn but we all have different levels of frustration and shutting down is a part of that frustration!  Again don’t let that frustration define their reading road!
And I am not implying that all kids who struggle to read have dyslexia… but there are a whole series of issues it could be that are what you are seeing in your classroom!
Ask and give them the sounds if they don’t know them before they read… every time… even if you think they have it! 

 If a child is going to not be able to read a word because they can’t remember if it’s a d or a b or if it is a m or a n… just tell them upfront so they can be successful.  Remembering 26 letters can be hard and overwhelming for some readers and in order to build confidence you have to give them as many opportunities as you can for them to be successful!  If they struggle on a sound.. just tell them that sound.  Don’t make a big deal out of it.  If your goal is to get them to read and blend… don’t make it a task of remembering sounds.  Yes it is a part of the process but again.. it’s hard for some kids!

Put a time limit on reading.  

Struggling readers should never have to ‘suffer’ through a book just to get to the end.  They should never be punished for not being able to read… and by that I mean they should never lose recess because they have not finished reading a book in your small group and/or never miss a different because they did not complete a task that involves reading.  Reading does not trump math, science, or even emotional well being!  The way we do this in my classroom is we will switch to I read a line, you read a line OR I read a page, you read a page.  This helps the child feel like they can finish!

Praise, praise, and more praise!

That’s right!  You praise them for ever little part of reading they get correct!  They opened the book… “good job getting your book open!”  Check out this great little video on praising that you can really relate to struggling readers and the effects of doing it effectively can have!   The impact on how you praise is very powerful knowledge for us as teachers!  And I learned I was doing it all wrong myself!

Recognize they are trying and know their limits.

You may have a child who shuts down or flat out refuse to read.  This is tricky because we want to teach accountability but we also have to know when we have pushed a child too far and into a state of frustration.  If they are frustrated.. they are not learning and it just becomes a task of completion instead of learning.  Start smaller next time if they frustrate out… praise a lot… let go when it’s time to let go because you are also developing their love of reading while you develop their actual skills!

Give them a word window.  

Take an index card and cut a hole in the middle so the child can only see a limited amount of text.  This will help them to focus on what they are working on and not feel overwhelmed when reading.  In the picture it shows a decodable.. but this trick can easily be done with a page with nothing but letters on it too!

This resource goes well with:

Teach the kids tricks!

Who does not love learning a good trick to figure something out!  “Let me show you a little trick to help you remember that” works wonders!  The kids begin to feel as if they are ahead of the game because they remember some special little trick to help!  B and D… teach them the bed trick with their hands… stuff like that.  Just by calling a trick you have instant engagement and buy in!  It’s crazy!

Play brain games.

Have you ever heard anyone say your brain is like a muscle?  In order to make your muscles stronger you of course have to exercise them!  Your brain is the same way.  Now let’s apply this to reading.  If we warm up with a flashcard review or quiet reading… are we engaging these kiddos who hate reading?  No.  Are we exercising their brain?   No.

So at the teacher stores there is usually a whole section of brain games we ignore because they are not reading, writing, or math.  But I encourage you pick up a game or two and play them before you work with your struggling readers!  Below are two of my favorites!  When I purchased these games… I started to notice them in our resource classrooms!  I was like… wow… what is the this hidden treasure that has not been shared with us!!!

Spot it… a fun game of matching where kids quickly have to identify what 2 items are the same on the cards!  Your brain will get confused even as an adult!  It’s a fun game kids will love that they won’t even realize they are exercising their brain!  At kinder age you just have to watch that the match is not word to picture (you can stack the deck ahead of time to ensure that does not happen by matching pairs you see.)

Nada… another fun game!  You roll the dice and have to find an orange and a white dice with the same picture.  When you can’t find anymore… you roll the dice again until all the dice are gone!  Another thinking game that kids will love that will challenge their brains to work before reading!

Seriously try these before reading groups and see how those challenged readers open up!

No red pen and limit homework!

Struggling readers work so hard and put in so much more effort than many in their class!  Don’t do the dreaded red pen and mark up their papers IN ANY COLOR!  It’s heartbreaking for the child and the parents!  As a parent and a teacher.. when I got the below papers home last school year from my own son… the impression I got was not that my child did not know how to do the skill… but that the teacher did not know what skills my child was ready for!  Unfortunatlly a reflection on the teacher and not on my child.  And the effects are a frustrated child and an extremely mad parent!  Just don’t don’t do it.

Homework as well… is it realistic to give a child 3 decodables each evening?  No.  Come on – no child should have 3 decodables let alone a struggling reader.  Let’s get successful at one book at a time with these kids.  The typical packet homework as well… it most likely takes students who struggle to read much longer to complete tasks… put a time limit on homework and allow the parents to sign off.  Allow the child and parent time to bond in a positive way over homework…  it will payoff I promise.

Build phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is just one of those things you just don’t get until you make sense of it in your head.  In kindergarten we do phonemic awareness pretty much all year but we have to remember to provide them with appropriate small group activities with this every day at their level.  For example.. by March we are on ending sounds but are we going back every day still and doing initial sounds with these kids?  We as teachers feel like we are beating a dead horse and they just don’t get it… but they will and the order in which they obtain is remains the same!  Go back… every day with these kids because they need it!

Give them technology and support items.

Just adding the technology piece to reading makes it so much more fun for struggling readers.  I don’t quite understand why or how but it does and when these kids get older they will probably be given iPads as part of their general tools for the classroom.  If you enter into the world of children with learning differences and start talking to parents… overwhelmingly technology is the best tool we have for struggling readers!  So anytime you can put them on a piece of technology it’s a good thing.  Technology could be a listening center as well which many of us have!

Two of my favorite apps are Sight Word Ninja which is free and so engaging and Farfaria which allows you to download a free book everyday!  (Click the images to see my full reviews.)

Other support items you could give your struggling readers are strong mnemonics support, picture cards, word walls, and picture dictionaries.  And guess what.. these are all great tips for all kids not just your struggling readers!

I would love to hear what you do with your struggling readers!  Comment below!

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