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Help a Struggling Reader

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

We're sure you’ve exhausted your research from phonics to sight words and more if you've suspected your child is having problems with reading. But there is one area that can make a huge impact on a child's overall reading success. Here's how to help a child struggling with reading and how you can work to improve their reading comprehension.

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As parents with children learning to read, it can be overwhelming especially if we see our children struggling or falling behind. We naturally want to intervene or fix the problem as soon as possible.

But, you could be missing or skirting around the root of the problem.

Difficulties can be caused by a variety of factors and can appear differently among students which is why it's important to understand how one important reading skill can impact your child. It's called fluency.

What is fluency in reading? Why is it important?

Reading fluency is the ability to read accurately, quickly, and with expression. Not being able to read fluently impacts our comprehension. If missed at an early age, fluency can get worse as children head to upper grade levels where the amount of reading material increases dramatically.

EXAMPLE: Think of fluency as the gas/break pedals in a car. If you're not a "fluent" driver, you will continuously brake and step on the gas in a choppy motion, because you're still figuring out how the pedals work. Much like reading, non-fluent readers are choppy because they're still figuring out how to decode the words.

On the other hand, fluent readers have mastered driving the car with ease. They understand the pedals without even thinking. They no longer need to decode the words; they are now comprehending the words.

Below is a quick reference:

Children who are NOT fluent readers

Children who ARE fluent readers

​Reads slowly (i.e. Reads. like. this.) or Reads very fast (i.e. readslikethis). Ignores punctuation. Stumbles through passages. Moves mouth while reading.

​Read aloud smoothly, with expression, and at an appropriate pace. Pay attention to punctuation, and read with inflection.

Children who are not struggling with reading fluency are able to read aloud smoothly, with expression, and at an appropriate pace-not too fast and not too slow. When a child reads fluently, they also pay attention to punctuation and read with inflection in their voice.

Fluency is important because children can struggle to understand what they’ve read if they are reading very slow or very fast. They are still learning to decode written words.

Signs Your Child is Struggling with Reading Fluency

The top two signs that your child is struggling with reading fluency are if he/she "reads. like. this." Or, "readslikethis." I bet you just did it in your head!

  1. When a child reads very slowly or very quickly this can impede their comprehension of the text. Some children who read very quickly may appear to be ignoring punctuation when they read aloud. Other children may repeatedly get hung up on a word, stumble through a passage and lose their place.

  2. When a child moves their mouth when reading silently, this is called subvocalizing which is the act of saying words silently to oneself when reading. Although this can help us remember what we read, it limits how fast we can read which ultimately can impact overall comprehension.

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Quick self-test:

Does your child take a long time to read a short book or passage in their head despite knowing how to read the words?

When your child reads aloud do they read without expression or change of tone in their voice?

How to Build Reading Fluency

1. Model Fluency For Your Child
  1. One of the simplest tricks for helping to overcome reading difficulties is to read aloud to your child. Make sure not to rush through the text and have fun by really getting into the expression. Not only will your child enjoy hearing a story read this way, but it will help them to feel more comfortable with using expression and will show them how to use it properly.

2. Use Finger-Tracking
  1. This tip goes hand in hand with the previous tip.

  2. For younger readers: While you model proper fluency for your child, have him/her track the words you read with their finger. This practice helps the child to connect the sounds with the words. When their brain makes that connection, they will be more likely to be able to read those words more fluently in the future.

  3. For older readers: You can also try having them use a ruler or index card instead of their finger.

TIPS: It is important to point out that you should have your child place their ruler or index card just ABOVE the current line of text they are reading. If you place the tracking tool below the current line of text this can interfere with reading the text fluently. By placing the tracking tool slightly ABOVE the current line of text, when a child comes to the end of the line, their eyes can sweep to the next line without their tracker being in the way. They can then move their tracking tool down one line as they continue reading.

3. Fun Ways to Practice Reading

Reader's theater, poems and song lyrics are all helpful in improving fluency while also being motivating to your reader. These various texts all give the child repeated exposure to the same text which increases word recognition and comprehension without being boring.

  1. Reader’s theater is when you choose a script and assign parts to different readers (it could even just be you and your child but you can also incorporate other family members). The participants then read their lines with expression and accuracy. The child can practice reading his/her lines with lots of expression as if acting them out.

  2. Song lyrics also helps with improving reading speed, an essential component to reading fluently, by requiring the child to keep up with the pace of the song. Most kids find it fun and entertaining to practice fluency using these tools

4. Listen to Audiobooks

Most audiobooks, especially those recorded for children, are read with excellent fluency. When your child listens to stories or chapter books with good fluency they can pick up on the pace, expression, and inflection of the reader.

If you have a hard copy of the book or story, you can also have your child track along as they listen to the audiobook. This is a great option if you are a parent who also isn’t as confident reading aloud.

5. Use Echo Reading

Echo reading is when you read a sentence and then your child repeats it back to you, like an echo! You can also build up to have your child echo read paragraphs or longer pieces of text as they get more comfortable.

Before you begin reading, it is also important to have a conversation with your child about the text features they will come across while reading. For example:

  1. Are there words in italics in the passage?

  2. Where are the commas and periods?

  3. Are there exclamation points or question marks in the text?

TIPS: Encourage your child to echo back the speed and expression that you use. Have your child complete this activity several times because repeated readings will increase their fluency, help them limit mistakes, and boost their confidence.

How to Help a Child Struggling With Reading

  1. Don’t wait to get help if you suspect your child is a struggling reader

  2. Start the habit of reading with your child daily

  3. Go to bookstores/libraries and pick out books by your child's reading level

  4. Consider audiobooks

  5. Create a reader-friendly home by monitoring screen-time


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