Helping A Struggling Reader

8 Tips for Helping a Struggling Reader

Having an ADHD son who attended a Spanish immersion kindergarten and has an ADD and dyslexic/dysgraphic grandfather, I am not too surprised that I am now helping a struggling reader.

In the fall, at the beginning of his 1st grade year, a reading specialist assessed him as reading at a late kindergarten level with “swiss cheese knowledge”; above grade-level understanding of concepts but struggling to remember and apply basic rules. I have no idea, where he stands now, after a year of working on his reading, but my suspicion is he is closing the gap and may even be right on target with common core standards.

But, the question remains in our family; does he have a reading disability? Dyslexia or dysgraphia? Both? He very well might, especially given how much he avoids writing and complains of his hand hurting. On the other hand, he did attend a Spanish immersion kindergarten and he does have ADHD so…There are many factors that may be contributing to his small reading delay.

For now, we don’t feel the need to get a formal evaluation. What we do feel the need to do, is find ways of breaking down the reading that work for him so that, even if the progress is slower than initially anticipated, we are are always moving forward. We are doing what works for him.

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8 ways I am helping my struggling reader and seeing big pay-offs!

1. Switching curriculum to a dyslexic/dysgraphia focused program

We started this year with a few different curriculum and a tutor, however, the more we progressed, the more we began to suspect dyslexia or dysgraphia. My son has not been officially tested, though I spent munch time researching dyslexia programs. All About Reading is based on the Orton-Gillingham method, a multi-sensory approach to reading, writing, and spelling. Initially designed for students with dyslexia, it works for all learners and is a particularly great approach if you are uncertain about dyslexia in your child.

2. Finding ways to make the learning relevant to him

One of my favorite quotes these days is “Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he is not interested, it’s like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it learning.” Katrina Gutleben

When my son was a young 6, he asked “what kind of jobs don’t require reading?” We of course ended up in a lengthy conversation with us highlighting the fact that nearly all jobs require reading and him coming up with jobs he suspected wouldn’t.

From that day on, my husband and I have made a point of not reading things to him (other than our family read aloud books of course.) I also started directly asking for his help reading things such as looking for the word “milk” in our recipe and telling me the correct measurement needed when I was busy with a previous step in our baking project. He quickly figured out how many things he was used to having read to him and began to see the relevance of reading in his life.

Just because he has more reason to read now, doesn’t mean he likes the effort it takes to learn. It’s still wasn’t easy at first but, he understands WHY it’s important and that has been huge in growing his reading persistence. And, with persistence comes habit and growth.

3. Consistent review, even when it seems redundant

I love how All About Reading emphasizes and builds in consistent review practice! This is extremely important for my ADHD kiddo who is often challenged by his working memory. If it takes the neuro-typical brain 150 repetitions to learning something, it might take the ADHD brain 350 repetitions to learn the same thing. (That’s not an exact calculation, just more of a point-prover.)

I have learned that slow, steady, and consistent are what my son needs. The challenge is to find ways of engaging him so that he does not either “tune out”, claiming he “already knows that!” or gets overly frustrated. I remind him on a daily basis that review is important to create the long-term pathways in our brain for the important things we want to remember. I remind him of the story of the kids walking across the grass to get groceries. Have you heard it?

For this story, you will want a piece of paper and a pencil. Begin your story.

“Once there were two families” (make two Xs at the top of your page) “who lived in a quiet neighborhood at the corner of a large grassy field.” (Draw a square, with one corner facing the two Xs). “One day, a new grocery story opened on the opposite side of the field” (draw a small circle at the opposite corner.) “That evening, the parents of one families sent their kids to grab eggs from the store for dinner.”

At this point, ask your child if they think the kids walked around the grassy area or cut through the field? “That’s right, they cut through!” Draw a very light line indicating their path. “And how did they get home?” (trace the previous line you drew). “The next day the other family sent their kids to the store for milk. (Repeat the above process, making the line darker with each trip to and from the store.)

Now ask your child what they think happened to the grass where the kids were walking. “That’s right. By walking the same way each time, the kids created a diagonal path in the field.”

Conclude your story by telling your kids that repetition is important for creating paths in our brain. The more we repeat something, the deeper and easier finding the path becomes.

Remember, repetition doesn’t have to be long or boring. 3-5 minutes on a daily basis has proven to go a long way in our home learning.

4. Focusing on his reading progress and growth

My son used to struggle and avoid reading so much that each reading attempt became a 30 – 45 minute saga with more tears, arguing and negative energy than actual reading. I am not proud of some of the things I said to him, implying he may grow up illiterate, if he didn’t start “caring”.

Switching to All About Reading and taking time to shift my mindset to a more intentional learning approach, one that works for him, has changed our reading experience and progress rate.

Instead of getting frustrated, I’ve made a point of finding at least one positive thing to point out after each reading session. When he struggles through a sentence and gets to the end, I say “look at you reading!” When he asks what something says, I respond “I bet you can read that because you have become a strong reader in the last few weeks.”

I have seen his confidence and pride increase and his desire to read is growing.

5. Keeping Lessons Short

Ultimately, we settled on All About Reading because of their short, easily digestible lessons, the way they incorporate review into each lesson, their multisensory learning approach, and their great reviews from around the web and other homeschool families. This is a fantastic, easy-to-follow program which works well for my ADHD kiddo. We will be trying All About Spelling in the near future. We spend, on average 10-20 minutes a day on reading.

6. Empathy Goes A Long Way

If my son is getting frustrated, we take a break, let him know it’s okay to be frustrated, discuss what went well (sometimes this is a challenge but I try to find something positive), touch briefly on his growth mindset, and give him the choice of trying again later in the day or waiting until tomorrow. I emphasize that learning to read is hard work and that, no matter the result, he is showing up each day and that is something to be proud of.

7. Tracking The Reading

My son has a hard time moving from word to word. He often spends a while breaking down a word only to repeat it several times, looking at me for approval before moving on, then loosing track of what he is actually reading. When I first suggested using his finger under each word to track where is was, he gave me stink eye, slapped his entire hand down under a random word and huffed loudly. After explaining that even his dad and I read with our finger (hey, we just took a speed reading course from Jim Kwik!), and that many reading specialists have helped kids learn to read through finger tracking, he was finally willing to give it a try.

We also created our own reading tracker card by cutting a small rectangle in an index card and he appreciates having two different ways of helping him move from word to work without distraction. He has seen the progress from tracking, which has given him a boost of confidence.

8. Having fun!

Games: We love Scrabble (this lock-in-place version is great for active kids), Scrabble Slam, and Bananagrams. We mostly just play around to create words together, as a team, although we did manage a full, simplified game of scrabble the other day! We also enjoy word search puzzles and Mad Libs Jr and Mad Libs.

We also make up our own games to help with the mundane repetition needed for differently wired kiddos. Below are a few ideas to get you started!

Word Monster: Put 4-6 phonograms, digraphs, words (whatever you are working on) on the floor. Call out one of the cards then say “I am the word monster and I am going to stomp on the word out.” Then, see if your child can grab the card before you step on it. Whoever gets the most cards that round wins. Play again, reversing the roles so the child becomes the word monster and has even more practice reading!

Lava: Put your cards on the floor and play the classic Lava game where the floor is Lava only this time players call out the words they are jumping too. If they get the word incorrect, they fall into the lava pit! To make this even more challenging, call out a letter sound or digraph. Players can only jump to words with those sounds.

Hopscotch: Write words instead of numbers in the squares and call out the words as you go. Or, if reading all the words is too much, just ask your child to read the word where their pebble lands.

Tag: This is more of a spelling game but lots of fun. We play a normal game of tag and then, when someone is “caught” they are given a spelling word by the “catcher”. When they spell the word correctly, they are unfrozen and the game resumes. If they are struggling to spell the word, help them sound it out, then tap each letter on their arm followed with the whole word. O-U-T. Out. Tapping it on their arm gives more of a sensory learning and carves pathways in the brain.

Tips for Helping a Struggling Reader: Conclusion

While we were initially concerned with getting a (quite expensive and laborious) dyslexia evaluation, it is now less of a concern since our learning approach will be the same, regardless of diagnosis. It’s sort of like eating healthy and preventative care!

No matter where you begin, my recommendation: start when your kids are ready, stay positive and encourage their growth, go at their pace, and use whatever works for them!


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