Growing Reader

Kid-Approved Books for Struggling Second and Third Grade Readers

by Laura Lambert

Woe is the parent who loves children’s books while raising a reluctant reader — especially when the books start getting really good, around second and third grade. We know that reading by age nine is an important educational milestone, but, at that age, some kids who can read at grade level still don’t.

To help, I asked Bob Cunningham, executive director of learning development at Understood, an organization dedicated to helping kids who learn and think differently, what he knows about what works for kids this age.

“Second and third grade is about how you make meaning out of what you’re reading,” he says, which is why it’s such a ripe time for readers. But skills at this age vary quite a bit.

“If you have a child with dyslexia who really struggles with learning or thinking differently, you want to make sure you’re paying attention to that work,” he says. Beyond that, however, there is a lot of flexibility when it comes to helping reluctant or struggling readers find their footing — and Cunningham has a few tips to keep in mind.

Don’t just focus on the mechanics. Mechanics are important, of course — but that’s not all there is to reading. “You ignore what your mind does with the reading — the comprehension part, what you’re actually doing with the information you’re gathering from the reading,” he says.

Get a little help. Parents can’t always sit right next to a child to switch off reading paragraphs or assist with more complex text — and that’s fine. Cunningham suggests using all technology that’s available to you. Try using voice to text or apps that read to your child, and then level up from there.

Think in kid time, not adult time. “We forget that 10 minutes of real attention to reading with your child is a phenomenal amount,” says Cunningham. “You don’t have to set aside an hour to sit with your kid and read or help them. Any amount of time to devote to it will have an outsized effect.”

Interest is everything at this age. “Most kids don’t hate everything,” says Cunningham, so he always starts with their interests. “Because reading as a mechanical process is the same whether it’s a boring or an exciting book, you can still learn the same kind of skills, still improve your understanding, and grow your vocabulary.”

Use nonfiction as a bridge to fiction. Nonfiction formats are a great way to open the door to topic-oriented chapters books, says Cunningham. Kids who love horses, for instance, might start with browsing Gallop! 100 Fun Facts About Horses (a National Geographic book) then move on to Horse Heroes, a nonfiction companion book from the Magic Tree House series, and then perhaps to Stallion by Starlight, the related Magic Tree House novel itself. Voila!

Don’t knock graphic novels. “Reading only graphic novels is not a great strategy,” says Cunningham — who typically recommends a mix of genres. “For a really reluctant reader, though, if that’s what you can do, then by all means.”

Consider all genres. “Like poetry,” he says, “just to give your kid broader exposure to what reading is.” Even song lyrics cover rhythm, rhyme, and storytelling.

Narrative is everywhere. This is by far the most important piece of the puzzle, says Cunningham. “Language strategies are the same whether it’s something you see and hear or things you read,” he explains. The media children consume, as well as the world around them, offer plenty of opportunities to talk about the beginning, middle, and end of a story, to answer who-what-where-when-why, or to get at character development and motivation.

“It’s all narrative,” says Cunningham. And parents should use it. “Make sure you are paying attention to narrative situations outside of the printed word so your child can continue to develop the critical thinking capacities that they will need in life.”