5 Ways to Encourage a Struggling Reader

If you have more than one child, then you probably have notice by now that no two children from the same gene pool are cookie cutter duplicates of each other. Sure, there may be similarities, but it just blows me away sometimes when I think of how differently each of my kids are wired by their Creator. One of those areas is in school subjects.

Now as for me, I was a good student in school and didn’t really need to try very hard to get good grades, whereas my husband was the exact opposite (he tried really hard but never got good grades). I have some children in our family who don’t really have to work at reading well, but then there are those that can do math three grade levels ahead of where they “should” be, but are struggling readers.

I am thankful for homeschooling, because I can tailor the curriculum to challenge the advanced student beyond their grade level scope and sequence, and I can tailor the curriculum to give one on one help to the struggling reader, and the struggling learner in any subject as well.

Reading is so foundational. You can’t let that slip. The ability to learn just about anything in this information age is based on the ability to read well with understanding.

After you have helped a child learn how to read, there are still some ways you can encourage a struggling reader who just doesn’t want to read, or who has difficulty reading well.

1. Read Aloud

I believe it is crucial for every family to enjoy books through some read-aloud time. One of the teachers that stood out in my memories of school was the one that read to our class (though we were in the older elementary age by that time) from novels, always choosing to end at an exciting part. I can’t read “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” without hearing her voice reading to me, and it’s been 30 years now! Most of the books she read to us that year have a pleasant memory attached to them, and are among my favorite children’s novels. I’ve always liked to read, but I really fell in love with novels during my year in her class.

It's crucial to enjoy books as a family through some read-aloud time. Click To Tweet

Reading aloud to your children, even if they do know how to read, helps them to discover the joys of what we can find in all different kinds of books. Reading is not just something we do “for school” but a way to learn, to relax, to take a vacation in our minds, among other things. The more I read aloud to my children, the more they look forward to reading the books I’ve read to them, and other books as well. After we read a book on the travels of Marco Polo, there was a time when everyone in the family was reading up on Marco Polo on their own.

Read aloud helps kids discover what we can find in all different kinds of books Click To Tweet

I’ve written another post on getting started reading aloud.

2. Read for Fun

Until you are reading for fun, I don’t really think you become a proficient reader. Reading as to be something that your child likes to do, and does even when there are no assignments for them to complete. The same is true for you, mom! You need to read for fun too.

I believe that this also means that you don’t need to always be concerned about what “grade level” a book is listed as. Reading for fun should be about enjoying our reading, not obsessing about grade level or being concerned about whether or not the book is “challenging enough”.

Reading 4 fun shouldn't mean only challenging books or books at grade level. Click To Tweet

If you are trying to relax, do you, as an adult, pick up something “challenging” to read?

Even if you read at a Graduate level and love physics, you probably don’t pick up Doctoral Theses on String Theory for your light reading when you’re trying to relax. I have some graduate work under my belt, and I don’t read advanced anything while hanging out in the bathtub. I am able to read tech manuals, and understand the dozen or so programming books on my shelf, but that is NOT what I choose to read when I am reading for fun.

The bottom line is this: Don’t say no to a book that a reluctant reader picks up because you don’t feel it is “hard enough”.

Don't say no 2 a book that a reluctant reader picks up bc it's not challenging Click To Tweet

The point of reading for fun is to get into reading for the entertainment and enjoyment factor so that the harder, more challenging books aren’t such a chore when we read them.

I believe there is a “reading level”, at which they are able to read with understanding and a headache. Then there’s the “fun reading level”, at which reading is enjoyable, easily understandable, and headache-free. I’m sure you know where yours is; be in tune to your children’s fun level.

3. Read to Learn More

Reading isn’t just about entertainment, of course. With books, we can read made up stories from lands far and away, but we also can read true accounts of the lives of others, or instructional books on every subject under the sun. Teaching our children how to get more information from books and other written materials is also a good way of getting a reluctant reader excited about reading.

When my son was learning about the Second World War this past year in his history books, and we began to talk about the different factors that brought the war about in the first place, this sparked an interest in him for that time period. After talking with the librarian, she showed him to several books about the start of World War 2, and he enthusiastically read them, and discussed them with us.

One of these books was a bit difficult for him at first, but he was determined to mine the information found in it, and we helped him with the pronunciation of names, places, and other difficult words in the book. From there, he read several biographies of the important players in the Second World War, and together I think our whole family learned quite a bit because we talked about what he was learning over dinner often.

When a child develops an interest in something, like learning about World War 2 during school, encourage them to find at least one or two books on the subject and read more. I have found that with my children, biographies are usually more interesting than a history book, and helps you to learn about the very real people who were involved.

Biographies are usually more interesting than a history book Click To Tweet

The Children’s Desk librarians at your local library may be able to recommend some good books on the subject too. Our local children’s library is also usually able to recommend a couple of novels or biographies of the time period or geographic location that are within their “fun reading level” to help them experience that time period in a more relaxing way as well.

Children's librarians at your local library can recommend good books on any subject too Click To Tweet

4. Read to Exercise Some Mental Muscle

Obviously, if we only read books that are light reading and don’t challenge us, we never will grow past our current reading level. We need that challenge. For me, after years of reading children’s books to a houseful of closely spaced little ones, the first time I picked up a Jane Austen novel again my brain hurt. It was strange, as I used to read Jane for fun in college! (Maybe pregnancy really does kill brain cells)

One discipline, which I have encouraged in my children, and which I also practice to this day, is to keep a notebook of new words and concepts. When I am reading or when they are reading, I encourage them to write down an unfamiliar word in a notebook. There are a few ways of learning what it means.

Keeping a notebook of new words + concepts is a good discipline for readers. Click To Tweet
  1. Instead of looking it up in a dictionary right away, can you guess what it means by the context? This is helpful prep for the SATs, too, as often the keys to what a word means are found in the context on the vocabulary part of the test.
  2. Look it up in a dictionary, and figure out which definition fits with the context (if there are multiple definitions for the same word)
  3. Write down the definition of the word in your own words in your notebook.

Sometimes we also come across unfamiliar concepts or ideas in a book we are reading. These are words or ideas that can’t be given a simple dictionary definition.

Especially when reading historical novels, or books written in a different culture or time period, there will be concepts that the author assumes the reader will know, but because of the passage of time, the concept has become foreign to our way of thinking. It’s a good idea to try to discuss these concepts with your child ahead of time, to help them understand the context, which may be confusing.

In my first article on helping a new reader, I gave the example of all of the racism in many older books. One of the reasons why I cringe at people encouraging older books over newer ones is the amount of racism in most older books, especially children’s books like the McGuffey Readers. In some books, racism is presented with no moral judgement (that is, without showing how ugly racism really is); we tend to avoid those kinds of books as much as possible.

On the other hand, many great books may present racism, but throughout the story, the author shows racist attitudes for what they are, and helps the reader see how wrong it is. We prefer to read these books out loud at the start, so we can discuss them, and help the children understand what is going on. A great example of this is Harper Lee’s awesome book, “To Kill a Mockingbird“. Mark Twain’s book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” isn’t as dramatic in showing the evils of racism, but through the friendship of Huck and Jim, Twain shows us that he doesn’t agree with racial prejudice. Taking a moment while reading a book like To Kill a Mockingbird to really understand the historical context of the racism in that era will help your child to learn something important morally (namely that racism is vile and ugly) and historically.

My children gasped in horror the first time we read To Kill a Mockingbird because racism and racist attitudes are not tolerated in this home by any stretch of the imagination. However, they learned more about our nation’s history as we took some time to learn the back story before moving on.

5. Read to Grow Spiritually

Last (but not least) is helping our children learn that they can read to grow spiritually. Not only is good reading skills necessary to read the Bible personally in our daily devotions, but also good, inspirational books, biographies, and study helps.

One book I have enjoyed reading with my teens and pre-teens immensely is The Teenage Years of Jesus Christ by Jerry L. Ross. This handy little book has been such a blessing to our family and a source of spiritual growth in my kids (and in their mom, I must say!), as well as the book Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by Alex and Brett Harris.

There are many other books that are good for reading together (or alone) to challenge us spiritually. I feel it is very important for me, as a mom, to get my children hooked on good books that inspire them to grow spiritually.

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