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How to Support Struggling Readers – Without Adding Extra Stress

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June 12, 2024


If you’ve ever worked with a student who is struggling to learn how to read – no matter the age – you likely already know how heartbreaking it can be.

As they work diligently to sound out sentences, memorize sight words, and decode context clues, you know they’re trying hard – but the pieces just aren’t coming together.

Children come to the classroom with so many different ability levels and backgrounds. You may have students who speak English as a second language, or those with dyslexia for whom reading is an uphill battle from the outset.

As the teacher, it’s your responsibility to support those struggling readers in any way you can, but you probably already know that. The tricky part is figuring out how, exactly, to do that – especially without piling on any extra stress (they have enough of that already).

In this post, we’ll walk you through some strategies you can use to support struggling readers in your classroom – no matter what, exactly, they might be struggling with. 

How Do You Encourage a Struggling Reader?

child reading hop on pop book

Are you ready to boost literacy in your classroom? Here are a few tips to help struggling readers without adding any extra stress.

1. Get to Know Your Students

Without a doubt, this is the single best thing you can do to support a struggling reader.

You need to get to their level and understand why certain challenges exist, as well as what motivates the student.

Start by taking a look at the child’s records. Have they always struggled with reading, or is this a new hurdle? Have they been assessed for hearing or vision issues? How long have they been receiving special education services, and for what?

Beyond the paperwork, take time to get to know the person behind the print. Ask your student about their interests and their dislikes. Do they like reading? Why or why not? What would make it more enjoyable?

2. …And Get to Know Their Families

Go one step further and get to know the child’s family, too. Learning to read takes a village – and you’ll need that support as you start scaffolding activities to improve that child’s literacy.

This can sometimes be challenging, especially if you’re trying to connect with families whose first language is not English, or with families whose work schedules are demanding. Do your best to connect, though, whether that’s by holding phone meetings or conferences at odd times (like before school or on the weekends).

3. Encourage Good Literacy Habits at School and at Home

The main reason why it’s so important to connect with families is because good literacy starts at home. If you can, support reading efforts (without adding more pressure) by letting students borrow classroom books overnight. Send home books that you know the student will be successful with (don’t make them too hard). 

If the parents are open to the idea, suggest ideas to support literacy development that might make the process even more enjoyable. For example, you could encourage playing with magnetic letters or reading together each night as a family.

4. Work With Specialists

If the child is already working with a speech teacher, a reading specialist, or some other professional, this one’s obvious – make sure you’re tapping into everyone who’s already involved in their reading instruction.

However, you might need to call in the troops yourself. Talk to the other professionals in your building about your struggling reader and get their perspective on what might be behind the issues – and how to address them. 

You can also tap into the expertise of other teachers in your building who might be working with struggling readers. What resources have helped them? Are there any school wide facilities or tools that you might be able to use, like graphic organizers or books on tape?

5. Scaffold, Scaffold, Scaffold

One of the biggest challenges in working with struggling readers is figuring out where to set the bar. Particularly for older students who have gone many years without adequate (or personalized) reading instruction, this can be tough.

If you set the expectations too high, the student will be frustrated and feel like they can never hit the target. They’ll get discouraged. But if you don’t set expectations high enough, there’s no challenge and the student might feel insulted. 

Think carefully about where the student is currently at – not necessarily where you want them to be. Scaffold your interventions to build upon what they know.

6. Be Inclusive 

Be inclusive so that the struggling reader can participate as much as possible in the class, without feeling called out. Let them listen to a text ahead of time before you read together as a class, as an example. Be sensitive about their needs and be discreet about how they’re included. 

7. Be Mindful of Oral Reading

Oral reading, even when done in a context that’s not necessarily the dreaded “Popcorn Reading” style, can be devastating for a child who struggles with reading. Why? It’s publicizing their weakness.

Just think about it – would you want your biggest weakness to be broadcast to a room of your peers? No? Then why are you still making yoru students read aloud, especially without giving them any warning? 

While oral reading practice can sometimes be useful, you need to be extremely cautious about how you go about it. In many cases, it’s best just to skip it entirely.

8. Tap Into Students’ Interests

Include a wide variety of reading material in your classroom. 

While independent reading is another valuable practice, you shouldn’t pigeonhole your students into categories of books or reading material that they’re just not interested in – fiction isn’t for everyone. Consider including nonfiction texts, magazines, and even comic books.

9. Do Some Shared Reading

Shared reading is another helpful strategy you can try. It involves reading together as a class, with students joining in when they’re ready to participate. You’ll end up reading the same text multiple times, but it can help boost reading comprehension and lift your students’ confidence, too.

10. Use Environmental Print

This may seem somewhat strange, but it’s a strategy that has been used for decades in foreign language classrooms with much success. 

Label everything in your room. This isn’t just about making a word wall with the week’s vocabulary (though that’s helpful, too) but instead, about labeling things your students see every day to help give them exposure to the words. 

Pop a label on the filing cabinet, the chalkboard, your desks…whatever it is, make sure there’s a word attached to it. You don’t even need to draw attention to it constantly – just the mere existence of the word will help boost your students’ literacy over time.

11. Mitigate Feelings of Shame

There is a lot of shame attached to difficulties with reading. Do your best to build a supportive classroom environment where students feel empowered to make mistakes. Let your students request books or reading related activities and make sure you offer lots of praise.

12. Be Mindful of Your Grouping

A common practice in classrooms is to group students of similar reading skills together. While this can help in reading instruction in some ways, since it makes it a bit easier to pick out books that will match the reading level of all the students, it can also backfire.

Research has demonstrated that students in lower level reading groups are slow to progress academically and less likely to improve their reading skills. It’s stigmatizing, but it also prevents students from moving forward as they tend to get stuck in those groups.

Instead, try using groups that are heterogenous, composed of students of all different abilities and interests. 

13. Make it Multisensory 

The more hands-on and engaging your literacy instruction can be, the better. Give your students opportunities to participate in multimodal activities that play to each student’s strengths while also introducing new information to them. 

14. Celebrate the Wins

You can’t praise too much! Make sure you’re calling out every victory, no matter how small. Finished reading a comic book? Way to go! Figured out how to spell that tricky word they’ve been struggling with all year? Good job! 

You don’t even need to go so far as setting up reward systems (though that certainly help). Even some verbal praise is incredibly helpful in supporting struggling readers. 

What is the Best Intervention for Struggling Readers?

girl picking out book from shelf

This is a question you’ll hear asked often, and we’re going to let you in on a dirty little secret: there is no best intervention for struggling readers.

You read that right.

You see, when it comes to literacy, there’s no single best way to go about things. Each child will have different triumphs and struggles when it comes to learning how to read, and therefore, will need a different approach in the classroom.

The best thing you can do, as an educator, is to be patient, and to be willing to do some trial and error to help figure out the best methods to help that child.

Remember, a little humor – and a whole lot of personalization – go a long way when you’re working with kids with reading challenges. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and meet your students where they’re at!

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