Expert help

Helping struggling readers

Jean Gross, CBE

In Jean’s two films she talks about the concerns surrounding children’s reading, why children might be struggling to read and offers top tips to help support struggling readers. You can watch each film all the way through or, once the film has started, you can click on the links to the left of the film to skip to part that is most relevant to you.

What to do if you think your child is a struggling reader

Here is Jean’s advice on what to do if you are worried about your child’s reading...

When should I worry about my child's reading?

Lots of parents worry about their child’s reading – it’s really common. Parents can be pretty competitive and when you hear the playground chat about how well little Angelina is doing with her reading, it’s easy to feel that your child might be getting left behind.

One important thing to remember is that reading isn’t a race. Being a good reader might be the finishing line, but children get there in many different ways and at different speeds. Some start early, then slow down. Others come to it later but soon catch up.

Another important thing to understand is that learning to read isn’t about being clever or not. Many very clever children come late to reading or may struggle with it for a long time.

So – when should you worry? Personally, I wouldn’t worry too much about a four- or five-year-old, but I might notice things and just give them a boost at home where necessary, through activities that focus on fun. So, for example, if I noticed that one of my two lovely twin grandchildren weren’t showing an interest in books, I might start taking them to events at our local library or find picture books about their interests. If I noticed that they weren’t picking up letter-sound links, I might play word games with them in the car. There are lots of ideas for games like these on Oxford Owl, and you can ask your child’s teacher for ideas too. They can talk to you about what your child is doing at school and make suggestions about how you can support this at home.

Moving up the age range, if my grandchildren weren’t reading in Year 1, by the time they were six, I would be worried – but not panicked! I’d definitely want to ask advice from their teacher. But I would also know that there was every chance that my child would soon catch up.

Is my child the only one struggling to read?

When you listen to the playground chat you may feel you are the only one whose child is struggling with reading. But you certainly won’t be. Learning to read isn’t plain sailing – at least one in six children struggle with reading. That’s the number – sixteen per cent – who by the age of 11 aren’t reading at the expected level. So if you are concerned, you’re certainly not alone.

Is my child a struggling or a reluctant reader?

There are two main types of worry that parents have about their child’s reading. You may have noticed that your child doesn’t seem interested and won’t pick up a book. If they do, they seem to be able to read the words quite well – it’s just that they don’t want to.

We call this group of children reluctant readers – and often they are boys. The trick is to switch them on to reading by using their interests: magazines about computer games, books about dinosaurs, instructions on how to build a model, comics and adventure stories – whatever works.

Click here for more ideas for switching boys on to reading on Oxford Owl.

The second type of worry parents have is when their child just can’t seem to remember the sounds of letters or remember common words – like the word ‘the’ or ‘come’ – from one day to the next. Reading is a slow and painful struggle, full of umms and aahs and heavy sighs, distressing for your child and distressing for you to watch. These children we can call struggling readers.

Why might my child be struggling?

Children struggle with reading for all sorts of reasons. They may find it hard to sit still and concentrate, may have missed a lot of school, may have got so anxious about reading that it stops them learning, may have speech and language difficulties or a history of hearing loss, maybe because of frequent colds or ‘glue ear’. They may be in the early stages of learning English, because they speak a different language at home. There may be a history of reading or spelling difficulties in the family; research does show that literacy difficulties can be hereditary, when linked to dyslexia.

If you are worried about dyslexia, do talk to your child’s teacher. The teacher or the school’s SENCO (special educational needs coordinator) may have a checklist of indicators of dyslexia that they can go through with you. They will be able to advise on whether further assessment might be needed. There are good websites you can look at too, such as the British Dyslexia Association’s website:

A shared feature of many struggling readers is that they find it hard to process the sounds in spoken words. They have what is called poor phonological awareness. They don’t for example pick up that a spoken word like ‘coat’ is made up of three separate sounds (c-oa-t), or that it rhymes with ‘boat’. This makes it hard for them to learn the links between sounds and letters.

Always bear in mind your child’s birth date. If they have an August birthday, they will be almost a year younger than children in their class who were born in September – so you’d expect them to be a little behind the average. They may well just need a bit more time to mature before they start to fly with reading and writing.

What should I do if I am worried?

The best thing to do if you are worried about your child is to talk to your child’s class teacher. Your child’s teacher is absolutely the best person to help in this situation. They can set your mind at rest if they think your child is making good progress, or if your child does need more support they can talk you through their plans to help.

So ask for a time to chat, say you are unsure and ask whether your child is at the reading level expected for a child their age. There are lots of different ways schools track children’s progress, here are a few that your school might use:

Some schools use reading tests that give a result called a ‘reading age’ – like ‘six years six months’. A child’s reading age should be at the same level as their actual age, or above this, if they are keeping up with what is expected.

Other schools assess children’s progress in different ways, based on the National Curriculum. Again, they will be able to tell you where your child is in relation to what is expected.

They may use a system of colour-coding books, with different colours representing ‘bands’ of difficulty. The colour banding differs from reading scheme to reading scheme, so looking at the colour band of the books your child is bringing home is not always a good guide to how they are getting on. Again, it’s best to ask the teacher about this rather than try to work it out for yourself, or start to compare the books in your child’s book bag with those other children are reading!
All children in England now also have a phonics test in the summer term of Year 1, so when they are around six you will automatically receive information from the school about whether your child is on track with the phonic skills that are vital building blocks of reading.

For more information on school assessments and levelling click here.

What do I do if I'm told not to be worried, but I still am?

Sometimes when you meet your child’s teacher you may be told not to worry, and that ‘it’ll come’ when your child is ready. There are many occasions when this will be true – for example for some children with summer birthdays or who have had a lot of disruption in their lives.

If you’re not sure, though, the best thing to do is agree a timeframe with the teacher – a period after which you’ll meet up again to see how your child is getting on. Do tell the teacher if there is any history of reading or spelling problems in the family, as this will help them make a decision about whether or not your child may need extra help.

What extra help might my child receive?

When you talk to your child’s teacher, they will be able to tell you about the kinds of extra help the school can offer. Schools have a range of different arrangements to help struggling readers catch up. There might be a period of extra phonics teaching or extra reading practice 1:1 or in a small group with a teacher or teaching assistant.

Schemes like these can be really successful. Lots of research has shown that children can catch up and keep up when they get the right help. Schools which carefully track progress, assessing children’s reading before and after a period of support, can often show that children can make incredible progress.

Parents sometimes worry about their child feeling singled out or embarrassed if they go out of class for extra 1:1 or group help. Please don’t be concerned. It’s very common for children to have extra help at some time or another, and not just for reading. So children just tend to see it as a normal part of the school day, and they really love the extra attention.

It’s true they sometimes miss subjects they like and are good at – IT maybe, or PE – when they are having the extra help. But schools try to minimise this by changing the time the help happens so a child doesn’t always miss the same lesson. Bear in mind, too, that the extra help often happens for a limited period – two or three times a week, say, for a half term or a term. It won’t go on for ever and it aims to get your child reading well so they can then take a full part in the rest of their school learning.

What will I be expected to do if my child is having extra help?

When you meet your child’s teacher, they will be able to talk you through the different types of activities the child will be doing in their extra help in school, and tell you whether there is anything special you can do at home to help. Some programmes have specific ‘take-home’ activities built in.hallo

Sometimes the teacher might ask you to use a ‘reading diary’ so you can share information about how your child is getting on, on a regular basis. There is so much you can do to help your child. There are special ways you can read aloud with them, games you can play and support you can give to boost their confidence.

Top Tips

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 favourite 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. You might for example say:

‘Oh, I wonder what Winnie the Witch might be doing with this pumpkin.’
‘I wonder why it’s amazing.’

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. You might say things like:

‘You sounded that word out brilliantly, didn’t you?’
‘I really liked the way you read that bit in capital letters with a BIG voice.’
‘You noticed that word didn’t make sense so you had another go. Well done!’

It may sound odd, but it is also important to react positively when your child is struggling or gets things wrong. You can make clear that mistakes are how we learn. They are essential. Look back on your own life – all learning starts with the ability to say ‘I do not know.’

So when your child is stuck, say things like:

‘Well done, it’s making you think, you are learning.’
‘You’ve got a bit stuck – that’s OK. What helped you last time this happened?’
‘That’s a hard one – good try. Let’s say it together so you’ll remember it next time.’

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. There is lots of information on Oxford Owl to help you here.

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 a ‘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 colour 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’?’)

There are lots more ideas for playing with sounds on this website – click here to find out more.

Convince them they are not stupid!

If your child sees their friends reading well, and they can’t, they may have started to think they are stupid. Tell them they definitely aren’t. Tell them about all the clever and famous people who struggled with reading when they were at school – people like Einstein, Charles Darwin, Hans Christian Anderson, Orlando Bloom. It’s a long list!

You can make it clear that learning to read comes really easily to some people, but for many others it doesn’t – it’s hard work. There will be other skills your child learned easily that cause problems for their friends: learning to swim, maybe, or to draw, or to put complicated models together. Everyone is different, and struggling to learn to read does not mean people are slow, stupid or lazy.

Avoid blame

When you listen to your child it may seem to you that they are just playing up, not trying – being lazy. You’ll see them read a word perfectly well one day, then forget it the next. But this is normal when we are learning a new skill. Our performance is always erratic to start with. We have to repeat something again and again before it sticks and becomes automatic. Tell your child this, and let them know that you know they are trying their best.

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. My own children still liked what they called ‘chapter books’ read to them at bedtime right through their primary school years. 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.

Use technology

As well as listening to you reading to them at bedtime, they can listen to talking books on their MP3 players in the car. They can have fun playing phonics games using apps you can get for your smart phone. They can help you read text messages. They can use the internet, too, to go on websites for fun reading activities. There are lots of great ideas out there, from podcasts to treasure hunts to quizzes and puzzles. You might want to look at the National Literacy Trust’s Words for Life site, for example, and of course Kids' Barn on Oxford Owl.

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