Parent-Tested, Expert-Recommended Advice for When Your Child Isn’t Reading Yet

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: danchooalex, E+/Getty Images

Anyone who’s spoken to me recently has gotten an earful about the topic of struggling readers, the pitfalls of new-fangled reading curriculums, the unreasonable demands of first grade and why don’t they just do worksheets in school anymore?! Mostly, I’m just grasping for something to blame or something to explain why my son, a first grader, seems to struggle so much with reading.

To be fair, I wasn’t so much speaking as I was full-on venting. I was freaked out. I was panicked. And a series of negative emotions were spinning in my head. Shame. My child isn’t meeting expectations. Worry. Is there something deeper going on? Helplessness. Watching him struggle is so hard, and I don’t know what to do.

Finally, I shifted gears from endless ruminating to doing something about it. I reached out to some other moms — and guess what? I’m not alone. I reached out to a couple experts — and guess what? There’s no single, universal “right” developmental timeline for reading in first grade. I reached out to his teacher — and guess what? She’s (mostly) not concerned. I talked to my therapist — and guess what? I’m still gonna see her in two weeks.

Watching your child struggle with anything is so fraught. And learning to read can be even more loaded, as it is connected to a lifetime of learning, academic success, and personal pleasure. But there are smarter, better, more reasonable ways to manage it all. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way (mostly by doing the exact opposite, first).

Don’t judge. This is the cardinal rule, and the one I break all the time. So your child isn’t reading in first grade. So what? You can start labeling or comparing, or you can accept the situation as it is, and work with it.

“It’s not about where she should be,” says Lesley L., a mother of two, the older of which, now a fourth grader, struggled with reading in early elementary, even as she excelled otherwise.

Plus, the judgment can come across as criticism and make a child even more anxious or upset about the situation than he or she already is.

Seek advice. “I sought advice from every teacher she’s had,” explains Lesley L. “The advice that was terrible was ‘This is what protocol says — and this is where she’s not meeting expectations.’ The advice that was the greatest — and this resonated over and over again — was ‘Let it be on her terms. Let the child pick the book. Don’t worry if they’ve already read it or [about the] age level. Make it something they’ll enjoy, first, and they’ll continue to seek it out.’”

Know your child. No two children are exactly alike — and that includes siblings. To navigate this, you have to tailor everything to the specific child.

For Lesley L., it was a two-pronged approach. “Like everything else in her life, it just has to be really gentle encouragement and confidence building and celebrating our wins.” And also to accept that her own love of books wasn’t necessarily genetic. “She is my child, but she will never read Harry Potter, which I loved. Okay, fine, let it be that way.”

Advocate. Once you know your child, and what motivates him or her, spread the word. Lesley L. says, “I worked hard to pair her up with teachers who will meet her needs, minimize anxiety, and provide structure.”

Be kind — to yourself. Another mother, Abby Z., and I were commiserating about the funny (and not in the ha-ha way) timing of these reading issues. For both of us, we have two children, and the struggling reader is our youngest. And for both of us, early elementary has coincided with a shift back to our own wants and needs — as parents who no longer have small babies are wont to do. There’s a sense of, “Oh, all this time I was spending on me, when I should have been __________ (doing sight words/becoming a full-time phonics experts/reading two hours a day). If you can, leave that guilt at the door. Less baggage for everyone.

Have empathy. It’s hard to be a kid. It’s hard to struggle. It’s hard work, learning to read.

“When did you care about learning,” Abby Z. asked, rhetorically. “It was when I got to do what I wanted.” And as any former child knows, that’s typically not for a long, long time.

Rayma Griffin, an expert with, where she advises parents of struggling readers as well as those with kids who face learning or attentional disorders, gives it the professional spin. “One of the key things a parent can do is to validate the child’s feelings and recognize that you understand that it is a struggle and it is hard for him,” she says. It’s not a “get out of jail free card,” however, she explains. “You need to face the issue, and work with your child and his teacher to come up with strategies and supports to make it easier.”

Embrace the process. This is about celebrating small moments. Recognizing growth, tenacity, and what, these days, they call grit. It’s not necessarily linear. It’s not necessarily easy.

For Mark Griffin, Ph.D., another expert who, along with Rayma, has decades of experience educating kids with learning and attentional issues, it’s about giving regular, positive feedback.

“It’s important for kids to know that they are better at it than they were two weeks ago. Keep the feedback and praise specific and honest. Tell them three things they are doing better, things that they can’t refute or deny. So it’s, ‘No, you didn’t get lucky. You were able to retrieve that information, or that was a really good chapter test’ or whatever it happened to be. Parents need to praise youngsters about getting better, working hard. We should notice and celebrate the process and have expectations that are high.”

Still, says Abby Z, “it’s messy. This process of parenting and child development, it just does not happen in a way that’s not messy.”

And I, for one, am newly finding the pleasure in diving in and getting dirty.