Top Tips for Struggling Readers

Top Tips for Struggling Readers




Keep anxiety levels down

If your child is struggling, the most important thing is to keep anxiety levels down – their anxiety levels, and yours! Learning to read involves complicated skills, and these can soon go to pieces if a child gets worried – just like yours probably did in the early stages of learning to drive, say, or mastering a sport, if you got tense and anxious.

Even if your child is not worried about their reading, they will quickly notice your tense face or ever so slightly impatient voice – so just don’t go there. Breathe deeply, smile, find some funny books that you can both laugh at, and don’t drag out reading sessions if they are stressful. Keep them short and sweet, and focus on sharing a book with your child rather than ‘hearing’ them read.

Make time to share books

Try to set aside time each day – ten minutes or so – to read together using books your child has chosen from the library, or books sent home from school. If you go to the library together, you might want to help your child choose two books, at different levels of difficulty:

  • A book you’ll read together, because it really interests your child but is too hard for them to read on their own. This might be a book about their hobbies or interests, for example.
  • A second, easier book which your child will be able to read independently.

A good way to check the level of a book is what’s called the five finger test. Open a page of the book and ask your child to put one finger up for every word they don’t know. If all five fingers have been used up, the chances are that the book is too difficult. So get them to choose again, until you find one that passes the test.

Do let your child read favorite books over and over again if they want to. Research shows this will really help them become more fluent readers. And let them read what most grabs their interest – comics, magazines, information books or text on internet sites can be just as valuable as stories.

Turn the television and the radio off to help your child focus. Always start a new book by looking through it together and talking about what it might be about – look at the cover, the contents page and the pictures. As you do this, use words from the book that you think may be difficult for your child to read, and point them out. This kind of chat helps the child by giving them a sense of what’s in the book before they start to read it, and preparing them for some of the words they will meet. This means you are setting them up for success right from the start.

Take turns to read

Take turns to read is about how to help your child once you have done this initial walk through the book. Your child might want to read the whole book on their own, and that’s fine if it isn’t too difficult. But if it is a book that is a bit hard but still really interesting for them, or if they are at all lacking in confidence, it can be more fun if you and your child take turns to read. They might read one page and you the next. Or you can both read out loud together, pointing to the words as you go.

You can suggest that when your child wants to have a go on their own, they give you a nudge or knock on the table – and then you stop reading and let your child carry on alone until they make a mistake, or get stuck. At this point you join in again, both of you reading together until the child signals they want another go on their own. And so on! The important thing is to keep the flow going and keep your child interested and enjoying what they are doing.

Build confidence

Again, think back to what it was like when you were learning to drive or mastering a sport. There were probably times when you wanted to give up, so needed lots of encouragement. It’s the same for reading; notice what your child has done well and tell them – often. 

What to do when your child gets stuck

The first thing to do is give them time – don’t jump in too quickly, just wait to see if they can work it out by themselves. If they can’t, you have a choice. You might want to just tell them the word, to keep the flow of reading going. Do this if they are looking really frustrated or losing interest. But at other times you can use simple prompts to help them when they get stuck, like prompting them to use their phonic knowledge to sound out the letters.

At school they will be taught to say the sounds of a word quickly, in a clipped sort of way (c-a-t not cuh-a-tuh), so encourage this at home too. Children will also, depending on their age, have been taught that sometimes a pair of letters make one sound not two – for example, that when they see the letters ‘o’ and ‘a’ together the sound will be ‘oa’ as in ‘boat’, or that ‘a’ and ‘i’ make ‘ai’ as in ’train’. Again, encourage them to apply this learning when they read with you. 

If there are sounds your child doesn’t know, tell them the sounds. Then when you have sounded the word out together (t-r-ai-n), perhaps using phonic flashcards to show one sound at a time, say the sounds together very quickly (train) and then say the word. This is called blending. Then run your finger under the word again, and wait for your child to read it to you on their own.

Sometimes, of course, none of this will work, because you’ve come to one of those many tricky English words that don’t follow phonic rules – words like the, said, once and was where the letters don’t make the sounds you’d expect them to. In this case you might encourage your child to sound out as much of the word as they can. Then tell them the word and get them to repeat it.


Play with sounds

Many struggling readers have particular trouble with what is called phonological awareness – picking up the separate sounds in a spoken word, knowing when words rhyme, being able to blend separate sounds into whole words. There are lots of simple games you can play to help build your child’s phonological awareness and phonic knowledge. The obvious one is playing ‘I spy with my little eye … something beginning with – say ‘p’.’ This is a good one for a car or bus trip. You might also want, for example, to have fun helping your child make a collection of objects beginning with the same sound, and put them in a treasure box labelled with the appropriate letter.

`For older children, you might want to play word games in the car where you say two words (like a Labrador and a Poodle) and ask your child to swap round the initial sounds ( so ... a Pabrador and a Loodle). They can then give you two words – maybe something they can see out of the window – to do the sound swap with. Hopefully this will make you all laugh!

Games with magnetic letters on the fridge are good too. You can make a word – like coat – then have your child change parts of it. What happens, you can ask, if you replace the ‘c’ in coat with a ‘b’? With a ‘g’? With ‘f’ and ‘l’? What happens if you change the final ‘t’ for an ‘l’ or ‘st’? What happens if you change the ‘oa’ in the middle to ‘oo’?

Here are some other games you might like to try:

  • Games where each member of the family adds a word beginning with the same sound – ‘I went to the zoo and saw a lion... leopard … and so on’, or ‘I went to market and bought ...’
  • Making an illustrated book with your child, using different adjectives that begin with the same sound – ‘A dopey dog ... a dangerous dog … a dirty dog.’
  • Making up and illustrating silly sentences like ‘Bertie Brontosaurus bites boys’
  • Making a collection of objects beginning with the same sound, and putting them in a treasure box labelled with the appropriate letter
  • Rhyming riddles – ‘I’m thinking of a color that rhymes with bed… an animal that rhymes with fog’
  • Playing word sums – adding sounds (What’s ‘pot’ with an extra‘s’ in front?’) and taking sounds away (‘What’s Tom without the ‘t’?, ‘Sharon without the ‘sh’?’)


Read to your child

Keep on reading to your child, as well as listening to them read, for as long as they will let you. For struggling readers, this is especially important – partly to make sure the child continues to see books as fun and interesting, but also to make sure they don’t miss out on the things that other children learn from reading to themselves. These include new information, new vocabulary, and the way words and sentences are put together in print – essential learning that helps children become good writers.