First Aid For Struggling Readers

It is difficult to realize, but most of us are acquainted with a struggling reader, whether we know it or not.  Some children with reading problems are recognized, but others go unnoticed.  Many adults with reading difficulties have become experts at hiding their illiteracy.  With many Cass County adults facing serious struggles with reading (the National Center for Education Statistics estimates the rate for functional illiteracy to be around 20% and for partial literacy to be around 43% of our population, source:, it is crucial that we watch our children and provide intervention if reading problems are an issue.

How do you recognize a struggling reader? It can be quite difficult, because children have different sorts of reading problems, and because many are working hard to hide their difficulties. They feel stupid or inadequate.  Sometimes they’ve even been told they are lazy or that they just aren’t “trying hard enough.”  Struggling readers may hurry through homework, have difficulty reading and following directions, have trouble on tests, or avoid bringing homework home.  They may hate to read, may have trouble reading silently, may make a lot of mistakes when they read aloud or be reluctant to read unfamiliar material.  Struggling readers may read very slowly, take an inordinate amount of time on tests or homework tasks, may refuse to write or have difficulty creating paragraphs or even sentences.  Some struggling readers even have trouble telling stories out loud!  Any of these signs can be a clue that your child is having difficulty with reading, and any of them should prompt you to get the matter checked as soon as possible.

You can do a quick check up on reading at home any time you want.  Get a book that is for your child’s grade.  You can use a textbook from school or a book from the library that is clearly marked with a grade level.  You can even find text passages for various grades online and print them out.  Have your child read an excerpt that is at least 100-400 words in length.  Read out loud.  Count the number of words that your child misses.  Count words that are stumbling blocks, words that your child has to stop and “sound out” and words that cause a noticeable hesitation.  If there are more than five of them, there might be a problem with reading.  Your child should also be able to answer questions about the text, summarize it, and retell the events in order.  If any of these pieces are missing, there may be problems.  This simple test will help you know if your youngster is reading at the level expected of children in that grade.

Find a problem?  The best answer is to talk to your child’s teacher and get some advice.  Consider some tutoring or other intervention.  Find ways to encourage more reading, read aloud together as a family, learn new words together and play language games.  And try these First Aid tips.  They can help a young person over a hump and get reading back on track.

Tip One

Make sure your student knows the sight words.  These are the basic common words that are generally taught in the early grades at school.  Many are phonetically irregular, and they are all so common that they must be committed to memory for efficient reading.  You can find lists online or from your child’s teacher.  Common sets of words include the Dolch list for younger children and the Fry list for older children and adults.  Buzz through these lists and find out if your reader has any difficulty with any of them.  If so, plan to practice the words until they are memorized.  Sight words make up a large percentage of the words we need to read every day, even as adults, and so it is vital that they be learned as automatically as our name, our phone number and our address.  Each one should be recognized instantly and with no hesitation.

Does your reader have trouble with some sight words?  Try these first aid ideas to help:

  1.  Find the words and highlight them in text, like in a newspaper.
  2. Spell the words with manipulative letters.
  3. Copy and write the words over and over.
  4. Find the words in word search puzzles.
  5. Choose the version of the words with correct spelling.

Tip Two

Help your reader learn to visualize.  Most proficient readers make mental pictures as they consume text.  We form pictures that illustrate stories, that organize information, or that show how to do something.  Struggling readers often do not do this.  Help your child learn to make pictures about what they are reading, and you will find improvements in comprehension and retention.

Does your reader have trouble with visualizing? Try these first aid ideas to help:

  1. Illustrate text. Draw pictures to go with stories, make diagrams or charts or graphs to go with nonfiction text.
  2. Encourage the creation of mental images. Ask questions about a scene that are not answered in the story directly, like the color of a person’s shirt or bike. This can force a mental picture.
  3. Describe scenes from memory.  This makes a great car game.  Have your child describe part of your house or something else that cannot be seen at that moment.  Give points for accuracy and detail.
  4. Retell narratives in sequential order.  These can be stories of events that really happened to the child or the family, or they can be the things that happened in a favorite story.
  5. Describe inventions or totally new and unique foods.

Tip Three

Create active involvement. Everyone reads, comprehends and remembers better if their brain is actively engaged.  Simply staring at the words, or even reading the words without taking in the information is not enough.  Your child needs to be making mental connections, hooking new information up with old, and more.

Does your reader need help with involvement? Try these first aid ideas to help:

  1. Talk about topics before reading about them.
  2. Introduce new vocabulary and words that may be difficult.
  3. Read to find the answers to questions or to get information to solve a problem.
  4. Fill out a graphic organizer or outline while reading.

Tip Four

Chunk letters in groups of three.  Many struggling readers don’t have a good strategy to manage long and difficult words.  For whatever reason, their understanding of higher-level phonics skills just isn’t working for them.  One way around this is to follow the Rule of Three.  Look at the hard word and pay attention to the first three letters.  Often this will give you a recognizable chunk of the word.  You might see a prefix, a consonant blend or digraph, or a smaller word you already know.  It also slows the reader down long enough to pay closer attention to the rest of the word.

Does your reader have trouble reading long words?  Here are some first aid ideas to help:

  1. Do word sorts based on the first three letters.  Give your student groups of words that begin with the same three letters (you can raid the dictionary), then sort them based on how the first three letters sound.  Is the vowel long or short? Is there a prefix?
  2. Try reading nonsense words.  These are groups of letters that you have made up and that are not real words.  You can pronounce them if you follow phonics rules, though, and they are great for practicing chunking.  An example would be “buntip.”

Tip Five

Use the Six Syllables Rule.  English is a complicated language, and there are exceptions to nearly every rule, but one handy thing to know is that there are just six types of syllables.  Each syllable has just one vowel sound.  The six types are the consonant-vowel-consonant (like ‘cat’), the open syllable (like ‘be’), the vowel and R syllable (like ‘car’), the consonant-vowel-vowel-consonant syllable (like ‘head’ or ‘rain’), the consonant-LE syllable (like on the end of ‘bubble’) and the consonant-vowel-consonant-silent e syllable (like ‘came’).  Learn to recognize these six, and you will be able to read just about anything!

Does your reader have trouble reading long words?  Try these first aid tips:

  1. Sort words by the classification of first or last syllables.
  2. Learn the division rules so you know how to split syllables.
  3. Use colored letter cards to spell syllables-they will make distinctive patterns if you use one color for vowels and one for consonants.
  4. Put syllables from different long words on separate cards and try to reassemble them into the words they came from.

Find out more about helping struggling readers at my website,


And as always, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a note at sfleming1235(at)

Hands-On Phonics Activities for Kinesthetic Learners

Many children, especially young ones, learn well when they can move around or manipulate things.  Present phonics concepts in kinesthetic mode to ensure that children are getting the most out of the lessons!

  • Use Magnetic Letters. Slide those letters all around the fridge or the side of the file cabinet.  Spell to your heart’s content using these great manipulatives.  Help your child understand CVC and CVCe pattern words and show how the vowel changes from short to long when you add a final ‘e’.  Practice changing mat to mate, not to note and hid to hide.
  • Try Some Tapping. Each letter or group of letters in a word makes a single sound.  When teaching three and four sound words, try showing the student how to tap a sound on each finger.  Touch thumb to forefinger when saying the sound of the first letter, touch thumb to middle finger while you say the second sound, thumb to ring finger while saying the third sound, and so on.  When you get to the end of the word, slide the thumb back over all the fingers to blend the sounds back into the word (a motion like snapping your fingers, but with lots of fingers).
  • Make words with play dough. Roll play dough into long snakes, and form them into letters to spell words.  Spell words that begin or end with a target sound.
  • Do word sort collages. Choose a letter element for focus, like medial A.  Cut many words with medial A’s from the paper or magazines.  Sort by the sound that the A is making and glue onto the correct spot on the collage or paper.
  • Play Stranger in the House. Make a long list of words that have a similar phonetic element, such as medial long i or rhyming endings.  Instruct students to listen for the ‘stranger’ that does not belong with the ‘family’ and to respond with a predetermined signal when they spot the ‘stranger’ (like a clap or a jump).  Say the list, and insert a non-matching word at random in it somewhere to see if the kids notice.

For kinesthetic learners, these games and activities will help phonics teaching to be more meaningful and more likely to be retained.