By Marion May

One of my teenage students many years ago taught me a valuable lesson: that genuine encouragement, one-on-one personalized attention and good humour can go a long way toward motivating a struggling reader.

This young man had become a resistant reader. A diagnosis and targeted intervention in his younger years would have likely resolved his specific reading difficulty, lack of reading confidence and dread of reading aloud. He was an intelligent fellow and well-liked by his peers.  He read hesitantly and as a result, his reading comprehension suffered.  Despite his reading struggles, he had a cheerful disposition, keen sense of humour and an excellent ear for mimicry—mastering exceptional imitations of George Bush Junior and Bill Clinton. We worked together every week but without much progress.  One morning when I was tutoring him one-on-one, I asked him if he might like to read a few sentences of the story in the voice of George Bush. His eyes lit up.  “All righty then!” he replied in a Texan drawl, and he instantly launched into reading aloud.  Without any hesitation, he read almost every sentence correctly and with good inflection. Then, he asked if he could continue reading to the end of the story.

To my delight, he became completely engulfed in his performance and was glowing with self-assurance. Most of all, he was enjoying himself.  At that moment, he himself had discovered a way to increase his reading speed and restore his confidence.  Knowing the exact reason for his reading difficulty and receiving help when he was a young boy, however, could have spared him 10 years of struggling to learn.

A young child struggling to read needs help early on

Identifying a child with reading difficulty early on, pinpointing the reason for the difficulty, and getting appropriate help are essential to sustaining the child’s confidence and instilling a sense of reading enjoyment. A child who is reluctant to read and left without a diagnosis and interventions will become resistant to reading altogether, saying things like “I hate reading” or “I can’t read”  or “that’s too hard for me.”

As renowned literacy educator, psychologist, researcher and author Marie Clay, points out in her book An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement, “If a child with reading difficulties has to wait until their third or fourth year of school for special instruction, by then, the child’s reading level would be two years behind that of their peers. The learning difficulties of the child might have been more easily overcome if he had practised error behaviour less often, if he had less to unlearn and relearn, and if he had reasonable confidence in his ability.”

“The longer we left the child failing,” she says “the harder the problem became…and the results are:

  • There is a great gap or deficit to be made up
  • There are consequential deficits in other aspects of education
  • There are consequences for the child’s personality and confidence”

“An even greater problem,” Clay goes on to explain “is that the child has tried to do his work, has practiced his primitive skills and tries to combine his skills in ways that are not effective, the prior learning stands like a block wall between the remedial teacher and the responses they are trying to get established.”

Let’s remember—its tough learning to read.

As adults, we might forget from time to time how hard it is to learn a new subject or skill. Remember your first day at a new job or learning how to drive? You might have felt overwhelmed and discouraged with all you needed to learn and remember. With practice, tips and a few kind words of encouragement and praise from your mentor, however, you felt more confident and were able to soldier on. Now put yourself in the position of a struggling reader where you see your peers catching-on to reading and learning while you’re lagging behind in the slow lane. How might you feel?

What a struggling reader needs is recognition of their struggle, targeted support, genuine encouragement and sincere praise for what they can do well. Whether it’s recognizing sight words, sounding out short consonant-vowel-consonant words or correcting themselves when they have realized they used the wrong word in the context of the sentence, when they are reading aloud be sure to offer plenty of encouragement by saying exactly what they did correctly and praising their efforts and hard work.

“Wow, I saw you tackle that Mondo-tough compound word there, I’m impressed. Good work!”

“Nice correcting on that tricky word that shows you’re making sense of what you are reading.”

“That’s one of our new sight words and it just rolled off your tongue!”

“Good stickhandling and sounding out that word. Your phonemic awareness is soaring!”

Your encouragement will resonate even more with the child if you use the words, “You” and “Your” in your praise. It’s a way to capture a person’s attention and speak directly to them. It’s also a very useful technique that advertising writers have been employing for years.  Remember, however, to be sincere, genuine and specific in your praise. Don’t be cheesy. Children are quite adept at seeing through the holes of phony flattery and false praise!

Cater to the child’s reading level to guarantee achievement and build confidence.

It’s important to give struggling readers text they can master fairly easily, so they feel a sense of accomplishment and are encouraged by their own success.  With this in mind, if your child has been diagnosed with a reading or learning disability and is receiving additional reading help with a specialized program; ask the teacher or tutor what controlled and levelled books they would specifically recommend. Be very sure to stay within the parameters of the recommendations and do not press your child to read books that are too difficult for them. By reading texts they can read and master, your child will build confidence, comprehension and fluency. If a child is pushed to read texts beyond their capability, they will make more mistakes, require more ongoing correction and will likely guess at words, rather than sounding out and decoding unknown words. This can lead to frustration and discouragement, turning a reluctant reader into a resistant reader, who refuses to read at all.

Try to keep the reading experience helpful, happy and harmonious. Most of all, a struggling reader needs plenty of uninterrupted time to practice reading and a lot of patience, encouragement and praise from you. This will motivate them to keep trying.

Find books your child is interested in… that you can read to them

It can be difficult to find books for upper primary grade readers who are struggling at a lower reading level. Instead, I like to find books to read to my students about subjects they are keenly interested in, to sustain their interest in reading.

To discover what kind of books my students like and what their interests are, I interview them using two questionnaires from Cynthia M. Stowe’s book, How to Reach & Teach Children and Teens with Dyslexia.

  • The What I Like to Read questionnaire (pg. 86) asks questions about why they like books, i.e. to learn things or be told a story and what kinds of subjects, humour and writing style appeals to them.
  • The second questionnaire, My Reading Interests (pg. 87) zeroes in on what kinds of fiction and non-fiction genres they enjoy.

Whether you are reading a fiction or non-fiction book to a child, be sure to point to each word as you are reading along. Over time, your child will begin to recognize commonly-used words, phrases and punctuation. Keep your pace smooth and don’t stop haltingly at each word or you might sound like a robot!

Non-fiction books that cater to their interests are particularly helpful for generating constructive thinking and promoting discussion. Exploring the child’s thoughts and ideas about what you have just read gives you insights into their level of comprehension and problem solving skills. Non-fiction books also show struggling readers that being an independent reader means that, if you can read—you can teach yourself almost anything. The Eye Witness books are ideal for exploring all kinds of science and nature subjects because the student can point to the photos they are interested in and you can read the accompanying photo captions. If the student already has some knowledge of the subject they may know some of the terminology and related words. This gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise, which is a big confidence booster for a struggling reader. Biographies written for children are also excellent books for struggling readers. The storylines are usually written in mature but simple language and very often the people being heralded needed to persevere to overcome adversities—a concept struggling readers can identify with and apply in their own lives.

And, in a world where adults are supposed to know everything…non-fiction books make it fun for a child to see their parents or tutor learn something new from a book too. J

One-on-One Comprehension:  read, pause, chat, and repeat

The bonus of teaching a child to read one-on-one is having the luxury to stop and discuss the story as it unfolds. This gives the child a chance to ask questions about something they want to know more about or may not have understood and, for you to ask inquiring questions or show how you tackled pronouncing tricky names or words.  For instance, you can talk about how you arrived at your pronunciation by putting a spelling rule into action.  In the Barton System, Level 3 students learn about the FLOSS spelling rule (if a word has only one vowel and ends in F,L,S or Z, then double it). I sometimes ask students to spot words in a passage that follow this rule, i.e. Inuit taught Arctic explorers how to use moss to insulate the soles of their boots to keep their feet warm.

Acting out is perfectly ok!?

When a child hears someone else read to them, they begin to develop an ear for fluency. This can be a fun area to explore with your child using an iPhone or iPad audio notes. Practice writing pretend audio scripts or commercials then read one script applying punctuation and inflection (question marks, exclamation marks, and periods) and the other without. Record them both and watch the child’s reaction when they hear the punctuated versus unpunctuated script. This exercise really demonstrates why sentences shouldn’t be too long and how punctuation and inflection truly make a story or script come alive.  If they have a favourite TV cartoon, ask them to just listen to the show without watching. They will hear the voice actors using inflection and punctuation to act out the script, as well as sound effects and background music—all elements they may have completely overlooked when watching the show.

When intelligence and reading levels don’t match.

If your child is interested in subjects or books beyond the controlled text recommended by their teacher or tutor, it is perfectly acceptable to read books to them without  having them follow along as you read the words.  As we know, many adults and children thoroughly enjoy having someone read to them—hence the popularity of audio books. Audio books and reading books aloud are very helpful in engaging struggling readers who are curious and highly intelligent but whose reading levels are below their peers.


I am not sure where my teenage “George Bush” imitator-student is now. Perhaps he is a voice actor on an animated children’s TV show or a comedian entertaining audiences with his exceptional mimicry skills.  He also taught me that too often we overlook students with reading difficulties as being unintelligent and unmotivated. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A young child struggling to read should not be overlooked. As literacy researchers know very well, children do not outgrow reading disabilities. To overcome reading difficulties, a child must be identified early on, assessed, diagnosed and given specific interventions. Without help, their self-esteem and learning paths disintegrate. With help, they will grow to become confident readers, successful learners and flourishing, contributing members of our society.

Books mentioned in this post, include:

An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement, Second Edition by Marie M. Clay

How to Reach & Teach Children & Teens with Dyslexia by Cynthia M. Stowe, M.Ed.

Recommended Reading:

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers by Richard Allington


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