5 Tips to Help Struggling Readers

Hi, I’m Tammy Fortune, and I’m a tutor and author with a passion for helping struggling readers. Over the past 20 years I’ve helped tons of students discover the unique way that his or her brain learns best. I am so excited to share five tips that every teacher can use to help struggling learners develop a love for reading. 

5 Strategies for Transforming Struggling Readers into Book Lovers

When I began teaching, I quickly realized that my training had not prepared me to help young learners in the way that I had hoped. I initially thought that if I provided children with enough of the right kinds of books, then reading would come naturally – almost magically.

It was NOT that easy.

As I watched my students (and my own children) struggle with basic literacy skills, I often asked myself, “How do I help a struggling reader?” or, “How can I help students develop a love for reading?”

At a more basic level, I wondered, “What is the best way to teach a student to read?” 

I didn’t know the answer to those questions, but I was inspired, motivated, and determined to find out.

I researched, read, tried new methods. I learned all I could about the connection between the brain and reading. As it turns out, the human brain is not wired or preprogrammed with the skills required for reading. Humans must learn and master basic skills before reading fluently.

In addition, people with special learning needs require additional strategies or approaches that will help them unlock the puzzle of reading. 

Once I had more training and experience with the effective methods, I implemented the techniques and watched my students succeed. Not only could they read, but there was nothing more rewarding than hearing one of my struggling, reluctant students say, “I actually liked reading that book.”

I can’t possibly include everything in this post, so I’ve narrowed it down to the top 5 tips I think every teacher should know.  If you do these things with your readers, they will shine.

 

1. Get to Know Each Student

In my opinion, this is the number 1 thing you can do to help a struggling student.  Most of these learners, especially older students, have experienced frustration, discouragement, and failure. Many of them will say they hate reading, express feelings of inadequacy, or say things like, “I don’t want to do this.”   

Building a relationship with each student is key in helping them feel confident and able. Students who feel frustrated often shut down and become unavailable, uninterested, and unengaged in the learning process, no matter how great the lesson is.

Find out what students like to do (hobbies, passions, and interests), and what they are good at (skills, accomplishments, and abilities). Use this personal knowledge in your teaching to pique their interest in various topics. Encourage each student to share personal strengths, so you boost existing self-esteem and build confidence in areas of concern or struggle.

If you have the luxury of working one-on-one with a student, try these tips:

 

  • Choose books featuring the student’s favorite topics, series, characters, or authors.
  • Choose books that are aligned with the student’s reading level AND feature customized, high-interest storylines and themes.
  • Use games related to a student’s interest to practice reading and spelling skills. For example, I use a baseball board game to practice sight words with students who love baseball.
  • Incorporate short “brain breaks” into reading lessons – move, play, create artwork, or choose another favorite activity that fosters comprehension.
  • Use technology and audio books.

If you can’t work one-on-one, you can still develop strong relationships with your students and incorporate their interests and strengths into your lessons.

  • Allow students to choose reading material based on their interests. Offer guidance about the appropriate reading level for each student.
  • Vary your lessons to include books, games, and projects. Capitalize on the different interests in your classroom with a variety of approaches and methods.

 

Remind students that you are one of their biggest cheerleaders!  Specific, frequent, and authentic encouragement will help them feel confident and capable of taking on the challenges they face.

2. Start Instruction at The Right Level

Find out where the gaps are in your students’ learning.  Struggling readers may still need help with phonemic awareness or basic phonics skills.  If the early skills are not addressed first, students will continue to experience frustration.

Differentiate your instruction to your student’s developmental level.  Let them experience success with easy tasks, then provide support and challenge when they appear ready.  Remember, frustration =  learning avoidance.

3. Use an Explicit, Systematic, and Sequential Teaching Method

These three teaching strategies are essential for struggling readers, especially those with dyslexia.  Programs that incorporate Orton-Gillingham methods are proven to help students improve.  Look for a curriculum that has these features.

Be Explicit:

  • Instructions and expectations are clearly explained at the start of the lesson.
  • Step-by-step directions are provided and modeled.
  • Instruction is broken into manageable chunks.
  • Lessons include guided activities and lots of practice (with support and as needed).
  • Student receives ongoing assessment and immediate, specific feedback.

Be Systematic:

  • Provide procedures and routines that students can easily understand and follow.
  • Employ activities that have a predictable order.
  • Provide guided practice.

Be Sequential:

  • Teach skills according to a particular sequence (based on previous lessons).
  • Assess mastery before moving to the next skill.
  • Use repeated, spiraling review.

4. Teach Using All the Senses

Instruction should allow students to use as many of their senses as possible.  This is called a multi-sensory approach.  It opens pathways in the brain, so that students can easily connect information and improve recall.

Instead of just telling a child, “this is the letter m,” let the student see the letter, trace it on different tactile surfaces, form the body into the shape of the letter, hear the sound the letter makes, see how the mouth makes the sound, build it with dough, and so on. There are endless sensory opportunities for learning about letters, or any concept.   

Children train their brains and strengthen their skills when they participate in multi-sensory activities. Remember, everyone has different strengths, abilities, and ways of learning. Provide auditory, visual, or tactile experiences to boost comprehension.

Need ideas? Get this free interactive growth mindset activity workbook to help students of all grade levels use their senses to learn.

5. Seek Out Help

There is a great deal of information and research on effective approaches for teaching struggling readers.  Make sure to enlist the help of specialists in your school and seek out professional development opportunities.

My favorite places to get more information include:

Building strong readers is no easy task. Struggling readers can become super readers with the right teaching approaches and lots of encouragement. Try my tips and you just might make a BIG difference in a struggling reader’s life!

About the Author

Tammy Fortune is a tutor and author with 20 years of experience working with students who struggle with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning challenges.  She lives in Virginia with her husband, son, daughter, and Dusty the Dog. She loves reading, crafting, and teaching Dusty new tricks. She is the owner of Tammy’s Toolbox, a shop full of creative and fun educational resources for teachers.  She is also the author of the awarding-winning children’s book Did You Say Pasghetti? Dusty and Danny Tackle Dyslexia. You can find out more about her at tammysteachingtools.com and dustythedog.com.

You might also like our post about how to engage readers during Reader’s Workshop.

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