Helping the Child Who Is Struggling With Reading

Since the pandemic, even more children are struggling with reading. What to look out for and how to help, with advice from Redwood Literacy.

Researchers today know more than ever before how children successfully learn to read and write, yet we’re still in the midst of a literacy crisis. Despite talented, well-intentioned teachers, not every child is successful at learning to read, says Kait Feriante, CEO of Redwood Literacy.

With the pandemic came measurable learning loss, putting students even further behind.

“We were already in a dire situation and with COVID came a wake-up call in some ways,” she says. Parents concerned about their child’s reading and writing skills — or who are concerned about pandemic-related learning loss — can help their child get caught up with intensive support.

From the early elementary level on, strong literacy skills are critical for every child. “What do we ask kids to do all day, every day? Read and write in order to learn,” Feriante explains. In any given group of children, about 45% can learn to read with broad classroom instruction, and about 40% require code-based, systematic, explicit instruction. A further 15% require intensive intervention, according to Feriante.

Impacts of a reading gap

When a kindergarten or first grade student enters school excited and fully prepared to learn but instead experiences confusion and frustration, that child may quickly decide they are just “bad at school.”

That label, self-applied or otherwise, helps kids “buy into the belief that they can’t achieve ambitious goals,” Feriante says. “They lose that desire to learn and pursue their dreams which impacts their ability to grow up to be a healthy adult who gives back to society.”

This belief can negatively affect a child’s sense of self-worth or cause them to create coping mechanisms that can be disruptive to the whole classroom.

“Kids will internalize that confusion and some will experience anxiety. Or they may recognize that if they knock over a chair or spend extra time in the bathroom instead of in class, they don’t have to read,” Feriante says.

Warning signs your child may be struggling with reading

Preschoolers as young as 3 may offer clues they are struggling or have a learning difference. So what can a parent look for?

If your little one struggles with rhyming or phonemic awareness — meaning they can hear and identify the individual sounds in words — this is an early indication of a reading difference. “If they’re attending preschool or kindergarten and are struggling with sounds in words by the end of kindergarten, they may be missing this big foundation for learning to read,” Feriante explains.

Another clue to look out for is trouble with word retrieval. They know the word but can’t find it to use in a sentence.

A child who has difficulty with multi-step directions, coupled with other indicators, may struggle to learn to read, too.

“In the early years some kids, especially smart kids who have developed coping mechanisms, can easily fly under the radar,” Feriante says. “Children can get to second grade without their teachers and parents knowing they aren’t really reading. But that breaks down over time. Oftentimes, but not always, parents will see significant avoidance behavior because they are asking their child to do something they simply can’t do.”

If your upper elementary or middle school student continually refuses to read aloud — or if they only want to learn through audiobooks or podcasts — dig in and ask why, Feriante suggests.

“Sometimes you can ask, ‘Does reading take a lot of energy for you?’ If the answer is yes, it’s a sign that something is going on,” she says.

helping-the-child-who-is-struggling-to-read
Photo credit: Redwood Literacy

Involving your child’s teacher

No matter your child’s reading level, their teacher should be able to provide information about what they see in class.

“Teachers are wonderful and work hard to give kids what they need. Be sure to ask questions in a way that lets them know you are all on the same team,” Feriante says. “Approaching the school with a sense of collaboration and in a way of partnership to get your child what they need sets the stage for the hard conversations,” she says.

Not sure what to ask? Start with these five questions.

Tips for helping your child at home

Include your child in conversations, but don’t worry in front of them. Your child’s struggles are stressful enough, Feriante says. “Vent to your partner, friends, and other parents. They are great for support and they may have already learned some of these lessons,” she says.

Work to get your child in evidence-based remediation as early as possible. The younger they are, the easier it will be to close the gap.

While they are learning, be sure they have access to rich vocabulary and background knowledge.

“If they are learning about a product that is made in Brazil, for example, knowing that Brazil is a country in South America and being able to locate it on a map all act as Velcro in their brain onto which future knowledge can stick; this knowledge base helps with reading comprehension,” Feriante explains.

Don’t be afraid to use assistive technology, even with little children. “Using a Kindle with a read-to-me feature will help your first grader read the same chapter books as their peers so they can feel connected and on par,” she says.

What to look for when seeking remediation

When you are seeking support for your child, do some research. Start by asking what programs have worked for other families and “date around” a little bit, asking standard questions when interviewing companies, Feriante suggests.

“Make sure you ask them all the same questions so you get a sense of their expertise and philosophy,” she says. Ask about their target audience and request sample data to determine progression over the course of a year.

Ask about their training level with the curriculum they use. “At Redwood Literacy, we use the Wilson Reading System, Empower Reading, SPELL-Links, and other evidence-based programs. We also have certifications and that’s important,” Feriante says.

Find out what happens when things don’t go according to plan. “If your child is not making progress in three months, what will they do? Will they partner with you and individualize an approach for your child?”

Finally, remember to balance school and tutoring with experiences and activities your child enjoys and is good at,” Feriante says. “Pay attention to the holistic child. If they struggle to read and need intervention, what else do they need in their life? How can you balance that with something that comes easy to them?”

Content sponsored by Redwood Literacy and Redwood Schools. Learn more about Redwood Literacy’s individual and small group intensive instruction options at redwoodliteracy.com. Visit Redwood Schools at redwoodschools.org.


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Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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