Struggling Readers: The further behind they are, the quicker they will catch up
Say you have two children who are struggling with reading, one in kindergarten and one in sixth grade. Logic would dictate that the further behind the child is, the longer it will take them to catch up, but in my experience, it takes about the same amount of time for children in various grades.
For instance, back when I worked in Title 1 and saw children from Kindergarten through 7th grade for reading remediation, over the course of one year, we saw nearly all the students come to grade level in reading no matter what grade they were in. This means, of course, that the kindergarteners took the school year to get solid in their kindergarten skills, while the 7th graders advanced about 5 years in that one school year. (Most were reading at the 2nd grade level at the beginning of the year).
So let’s go with the assumption that the further behind a child is, the more quickly they can catch up. Once we wrap our minds around this concept, our feelings about working with children who are really struggling with reading will become more hopeful and optimistic. And this is very important because children absorb and mirror our beliefs about what they are capable of doing. If we approach them confident that they will catch up, their own belief system kicks in, mirroring ours, and becomes the fuel for success. Be confident in the child’s brain, it does want to learn. That is what it was made to do. One of the biggest roadblocks to learning is a lack of belief in oneself. Without this confidence as an underpinning for learning, learning might not happen. A tactile activity to do with your child is to ask them what they believe about their ability to learn. Write each comment on a sticky note and cover all the negative thoughts with a bright sticky note that says, “I can do it!”
When we are beginning to work with a struggling reader, it is important to take the time to study the child. We should look at the child first to take our cues from what we observe before we choose our strategies. An easy way to do this is to ask the child to read a passage and watch him, in addition to listening. Take notes of what you notice. When observing the child:
- Attention - Do they look away from the text, skip words, or lose their place in the text? Notice when they miss a word what they were doing (looking away or skipping over words).
- Unknown Words – When they come to a word they can’t immediately recognize, do they reference the picture? Do they look for a previous instance of the same word? You want to discover their strategies for dealing with an unknown word. Guess? Skip over it? Sound it out? Look for a picture cue?
- Sounds – Pay close attention to the sounds that seem unfamiliar to the child as they read. When they miss a word, write the word in your notes and note if there was a sound issue, such as a long vowel sound or a multi-letter sound missed. Sound spellings are the building blocks of reading, and the child needs to be very fluent with them in order to read fluently. For struggling readers, unfamiliarity with vowel spellings is a common roadblock to reading. Even my oldest students needed a lesson, or five, on vowel sounds. They couldn’t hear the difference between the short vowel sounds. As you can imagine, this gap in their skills caused many problems with reading.
- Sight Words – Now, as the child reads, follow closely along in the text and mark every single word they cannot read instantly or figure out quickly. Compare this list with our list of sight words so you can determine the level at which your child is stuck. The importance of high-frequency words, and being fluent with these sight words cannot be emphasized enough. Because these sight words make up so much of the content of children’s texts, the most direct way to jump-start reading success is to be sure they know their sight words. After that, you can focus on teaching sound spellings, which will help the child decipher longer, less common words.
Now that you know where the child is, do a quick assessment. One is for sounds and one is for sight words. You will also want to go over a checklist with the child to determine whether or not they might be a visual learner. Having this information will be critical to success in remediation. Visual or right-brained learners require different tools for learning.
- Once the assessment is complete, you will have some good information that will help you make a very specific plan.
- If you focus only on the specific skills the child doesn’t know, progress will be quick. For instance, make sure you review/learn the short vowel sounds. Don’t do any activities that are not critical to getting the child reading. Stick to knowing basic sounds, knowing sight words, and then knowing sound spellings. That's it. Too much stuff creates more confusion for those right-brained, visual learners.
- Please don’t plan to use traditional materials that didn’t work for the child already. Two reasons: if something doesn’t work the first time around it won’t work this time around either. And secondly, if the child takes one look at the same ole stuff that didn’t work before, they will shut down even more. You need to change it up! Child1st materials have done that for you. They are successful because they utilize images, body movement, hands-on learning, story, and are designed to close the common gaps in learning for struggling readers. They go right to the heart of the roadblock and remove it.
5. Share the Plan
It will be a very good idea to sit your student down at this point, and share with them some reasons they will want to engage in this work.
- Share their learning strengths – such as the ability to learn very quickly with images.
- Share specifically what they need to learn (don’t focus on what they don’t do, focus on what they will learn that will help with reading).
6. Give Them Ownership
Give the child ownership of the learning process. For example, out of the words they need to learn, let them choose which ones to start with. Let them take the lead any place you possibly can. Games to review sight words are good places to allow for choice.
Give the child check off sheets so they can monitor their own progress. Less work and management for you; more ownership for them.
7. Use Incentives
In the beginning, before real success has begun to kick in as the internal fuel for remediation, use whatever incentives you find helpful! Anything from play money they earn for achievements and can redeem for little prizes, to stickers on a chart, to posting their name on a bulletin board. Anything at all that will encourage and applaud progress is good. Once the child sees the progress, success itself will be all the incentive needed.