If you have a struggling reader, it’s a bumpy road to the land of reading fluently — and for pleasure. There can be leaps forward, followed by setbacks. Good habits that are hard to instill, and old habits that are hard to break. I had been reading at night with my first grader — popcorn reading, where he reads a page and then I read a page. Not correcting. Not pushing. All the things I had been advised to do. His ability to read aloud was coming along slowly. We’d even got so far as varied intonation and a few well-timed jokes.
Then, one afternoon, I asked him to read the instructions to some homework. “I can’t read,” he said.
“That’s silly, we read every night!”
“No, mama, I CAN’T READ. Everyone can read BUT ME.” He broke into tears.
Any whiff of your child’s own disappointment can break your heart, but this one went deep. It caught me off guard. We were reading. The patience and practice was working. But I realized this wasn’t about sight words or fluency. This was about a feeling. This was about his self-esteem as a reader.
Turns out, in class, he has friends who help him with instructions most of the time. And while the arrangement works to some extent — I was even a bit impressed that he finagled it — it does set his friends apart as “readers,” with him outside that group. Week after week of that had a way of informing his sense of self.
When I asked around, I found that it’s not uncommon among young readers who struggle. And there are things we can say and do to help them.
It’s not a sprint.
A marathon analogy was especially useful for Teresa D., of Vancouver, British Columbia, when her then 6-year-old son was struggling. “I told my son that reading was no different from any other skill. He had to persist with his practice,” she says. Teresa runs half-marathons, and used her training as a way to show her son that everyone starts small and works their way forward.
“I tell the story about how I first had to start with 15 seconds of running and two minutes of walking, and slowly build from there. I didn’t quit before I had a chance to get strong enough to run half marathons, and he wasn’t going to quit before he could read,” she says. “It worked.”
A just-right book can be magic.
Even those who can read can still struggle. Sally M., a librarian in the Los Angeles Unified School District, remembers when the mother of a seventh grade boy came to her. “She said all his teachers tell him he’s a terrible reader,” Sally recounts. The mother battled to get her son to read 20 minutes each day at home — and she wanted some guidance. Sally recommended the graphic novel, Cardboard, by Doug TenNapel. When the mother came back a few days later, she said her son kept reading after the requisite 20 minutes, and even finished the book that night. “She was so happy, she cried,” says Sally. And now the boys come back to the library for new books all the time.
For an older reader, this is often the case: It wasn’t so much that he struggled to read, he struggled to read what he was assigned. “I really believe in finding the right book at the right level,” says Sally.
Build on each and every success.
Rayma Griffin, an expert with Understood.org, has worked with children with learning issues for more than 40 years. In that time, she’s perfected a gentle, positive, process-oriented approach for kids who struggle to read, one that focuses a lot on building the child’s self-esteem. When I asked her about what to do if a child is struggling with reading self-esteem, Griffin shared these top tips:
- Recognize and encourage her strengths.
- Point out something that she did well earlier than most (ride a bike, walked or talked early, have artistic talent, etc.) and let her know that while all her peers can do that now it might have taken them longer. Similarly, let her know that she will learn to read at the pace that is right for her.
- Set small, measurable, achievable goals and help her recognize her progress toward meeting those goals. “Success breeds motivation to keep trying,” says Griffin.
- Celebrate the process and offer specific, honest praise often. “Don’t wait for the finished product,” says Griffin.
- Read to and with her daily.
- Find a series of books related to your child’s interests and read them to and with her.
- Share something that you struggle with and how you work to overcome the challenge. “That will show her she is not alone and that everyone struggles with something,” says Griffin.
- Partner with her teacher to create the “holy trinity” of parent, child and teacher to work on her skills.
And beyond that, it’s about practicing the kind of patience and perseverance you hope to instill in your child — whether it’s about learning to read or some other life skill. And staying positive, even when the road is rough. Griffin says, “Always praise the unique talent and effort of each of your children, modeling individuality, not comparison.”
Do you have any helpful advice for when a child says they’re the only one who can’t read? Let us know in the comments below!