Helping Struggling Readers

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

As a parent or educator, it can be intimidating and even a little discouraging helping young readers or struggling readers. Where do you start to help a student who is behind in reading? Reading is such a complex process it can be difficult to break down and figure out what a student learning to read really needs. I have broken up the process of teaching reading into several parts and then give examples of how to assess and teach each part to struggling readers (and all students on the reading path).

Whether you are teaching reading from home or in a classroom, determining where a child needs help and how to teach that concept is key in opening up the world of literacy to young minds.

Reading is commonly broken up into three different parts:

Phonics: Putting together letter sounds to form words also known as decoding or sounding out words.

Fluency: How quickly and accurately a person reads as well as their ability to flow with the reading and use emotion (or expression) as they read.

Comprehension: Understanding what is being read. This is the end goal that a student reads and UNDERSTANDS the text.

If your student or child is struggling with reading it's important to see where they are struggling. Do they have trouble sounding out words or make frequent mistakes with long vowels? If so, they likely need help with phonics.

Do they know how to sound out the words, but spend so much time decoding that they don't process what they are reading? Do they read without looking at punctuation or with little inflection in their voice? If so, they probably need extra help in fluency.

Finally, do they read the words correctly and quickly but then have no idea what they read or have a hard time answering questions or talking about concepts in the text? If so, then the student needs help comprehending what they read.

It is helpful for students to be working in each of these areas daily in order to see the most growth, but if you know what parts they are struggling with specifically, you will be able to provide the most accurate help and see the most growth for you and your student's efforts.

Read on to learn how to assess students in each area and find resources and tips on how to help the students practice and improve their reading skills.


Phonics can be broken down by the different rules students need to learn in order to sound out words. There are lots of orders and ways to teach these rules, but the steps typically go something like this: teach phonemes (each letter sound), CVC words, digraphs, blends, silent-e, vowel teams, and r-controlled vowels.

Along with knowing all these rules, students must be able to blend the sounds together to form a word. As a literate adult, this might seem so simple it is hard to imagine explicitly teaching it, but it is a very common struggle for students first learning to read.


Whenever I work with students in reading, I always start with a phonics screener. Phonics screeners can be used as a way to see which rules the students can apply when reading and which rules they have not yet mastered. A phonics screener usually has students read about 10 words that use the rule, they also frequently include a portion of nonsense words. Words that are not real, but include the letters that would follow the rule to see how the students decode the word.

The reason behind nonsense words is that a student may have memorized the real words without learning the rule, while a nonsense word is new and you can see more authenticity if they know the phonics rule needed to decode the word.

Practice and Resources:

Learning the Rules:

There are many different resources that help students learn phonics rules and practice them. One strategy is to find a book set that has stories to practice each sound that your child enjoys reading. I really like the book “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Lessons." It focuses on more than just phonics, but it teaches the beginning steps of reading in a very clear way. If your student knows many sight words and phonics concepts and just needs a refresher on one or two concepts you can look for specific passages that reinforce that concept, or have the student practice word lists that focus on that concept (maybe word families and rhymes). If you are stuck, feel free to comment below or email me and I can help you find the right resource for your child.

Blending Sounds Into Words

If students are struggling with blending the sounds of letters into words here are some strategies that may help.

Dots and Arrows: Write the word that the child will read on a whiteboard. Draw dots under each letter. Have the students touch the dot and say each letter sound as they move across the word. You may want to have the child read each letter sound individually several times before going on to the next step. Then erase the dots and draw an arrow from the first letter to the last. Have the student blend the sounds together and read the word altogether.

Arm Pat and Slide: This is very similar to the dots and arrows, but can be done without a whiteboard. Have the child read each letter sound in the word and pat their forearm with each sound, then have them slide their hand down their forearm and say all the sounds together to form the word.

Say It Slow, Say It Fast: This is a way to practice the skill before the student even begins reading. You can have the student break up words into the sounds they hear “Say it slow” and then say the word “Say it fast.” Then as they are reading you can explain or practice that “saying it slowly” means they are reading each letter sound separately and “saying it fast” means they are blending the sounds and saying a word. I even will use hand motions to prompt. I put my hands away from each other and move them in little hops closer together as they say the word slow and then when they say the word fast, I bring my hands apart and move them together in one quick motion.

Add-on Sounds Blending As You Go: Sometimes kids get overwhelmed with blending the word all at once. You can try saying the first letter sound and then the next letter sound and blending those two sounds. Then say the next letter and blend it and continue on until you have the whole word. I don’t like this strategy as well, because it gets tricky when you get to words that have letters working together, but I do use it when the other strategies aren’t working.

Chunking: Chunking is a very useful skill to help students start blending sounds. As students progress in phonics they will begin to know what certain letters sound like together. Then instead of having to sound out every letter in a word, they just have to put the pieces of the words together to make the word. This skill is crucial as students start learning bigger words. It can help them tackle words that they would be overwhelmed to sound out letter by letter.


Fluency is the ability to read words quickly, correctly and with expression. This is important because students who have to decode every word they read have a hard time understanding what they read because it’s too much to focus on decoding and meaning. Fluency is the bridge. Once students can read fluently, they can stop focusing on “learning to read” and start focusing on “reading to learn.”

The beginning of fluency is sight words or words that students have memorized. They look at the word and just know it. There are lots of different orders in which students can start learning sight words, but typically it’s best for students to start with words that they will see frequently, especially ones that don’t follow the rules of phonics.

As readers become more advanced fluency becomes more than just memorizing words, it’s about being able to read the words correctly without making mistakes, in a fast (or smooth) way, and with expression (voice inflection, pausing in the correct way at punctuation marks, etc.).


In early readers, fluency comes with knowing sight words. These are words that a student has memorized and doesn't need to sound out. As adults, almost all words are sight words. This is one reason it can be so difficult for us to help struggling readers even though we ourselves are very competent readers ...we forgot how we read before we memorized so many words.

That was the long answer to say that to assess student's fluency when they are struggling with phonics concepts still is to give them sight word lists and see what words they know. There are many word lists that can be used, I normally just use Frys list. Most lists focus on common words that don't follow phonics rules.

The other way to assess a student's reading fluency is through a running record or a one-minute timed test. Running records are similar to a more detailed way to assess, but if you have not been trained it is simpler to just use the minute test. Print two copies of a passage that is on grade level for the student. Have the student read for a minute and cross out any words they say incorrectly as they read on YOUR copy of the passage. Mark where they stop after one minute. Count the number of words they read CORRECTLY and write it as their score….I also look at the number of errors. Do this test every few weeks using different passages that are the same reading level. See if the student is slowly able to read more words in a minute with fewer mistakes. If a student is able to improve by a few words each week, that is good progress.

Keep in mind, this test only measures their speed and accuracy. In the end, we don't want readers who can speed read aloud a text without any expression or understanding. Once a reader can read between 130-180 words in a minute on grade level, I would have them focus on expressive reading or comprehension. Again, comment below with questions!

Practice and Resources:

Sight Words:

I believe students should be practicing fluency as they first begin to read. First, choose a sight word list. A few I find helpful are; . Then choose ways to have the students memorize the words. This can be as simple as flashcards or something more engaging like sight word games that can be found online or on Teachers Pay Teachers. Another fun thing kids can do to practice sight words is by writing them using different mediums. Have your child use magnet letters, playdough, sand, flour, a whiteboard or chalkboard or even popsicle sticks with letters written on them to practice forming their sight words. This resource with activities to practice spelling words can easily be used to practice site words.

Speed and Accuracy:

Repetition is also a great way for kids to practice fluency. There are lots of quick passages that students can practice reading for a few minutes each day of the week and then at the end of the week, switch to a new passage. Another way I like to practice speed and accuracy with kids is by letting them choose a book (they should be able to sound out most of the words, but it shouldn't be "easy"). I have them pick a few pages of the book (although sometimes kids get into it and want to do this with the whole book) and I have them "own the book" or practice reading the book until the can read the whole thing out loud without making mistakes. I focus on having them read with expression, moving their voice to match the punctuation and context. Once the students have ownership of the page or whole book, I have them present it and read it to a partner, parent or whole class.

Students love having the autonomy to choose a story. They also love being able to present their work and it helps them understand how important fluency is when reading. It is so much more fun and engaging, as well as easier to comprehend, a story that is read smoothly and with expression. They also get to see their growth, because they take a story that they enjoy, but was intimidating and practice it until it is "easy" to read.


Using the book ownership activity helps with expression. Another activity that is great for expression is reader's theater. Having students practice lines and pretend to be a character can be a great way for them to learn to read with emotion. I will also be writing a curriculum that teaches reading with emotion explicitly by looking at punctuation, character, and tone as a guide while reading.


This is the most important part of reading. The whole point of reading is communicating. If the reader doesn't understand what is written, then communication is lost. One of the biggest mistakes educators make is being so focused on teaching phonics and fluency in young readers, that they don't add in the comprehension piece. Kids will lose the motivation to read if we don't help them internalize, connect with and understand the text. Even from a young age we should be using pictures and guiding questions to ensure that students internalize what they read.


There are lots of different ways to test reading comprehension. The most traditional is by having the students answer questions about a text (multiple-choice or short answer). You can also have students do activities with a story to see what they understand from the text. Another quick way is having students summarize the text or write a journal reflection about the text.

Practice and Resources:

Students who are struggling with comprehension need to learn reading strategies to help them understand the text and then learn reading skills and communication skills to explain their understanding.

Strategies for Understanding:

The first thing I do for kids who seem to be reading, but not understanding is I help them make connections and visualize. Students should have a mental picture or "movie" of the story as they read. We make a mental picture by connecting what we read to what we know in life.

If the story is taking place in a forest, I ask the kids when they have been in a forest and what it looked like. If they've never been to the setting, we think about when we've seen the setting in movies and pictures. Sometimes students will have no background knowledge or experience with the context of the story. If this happens, give them background, show them pictures, teach them how to use imagery from the text to change the picture In their brain or add to it.

We do this with other aspects of the story. If the character is feeling embarrassed, we think of times we've felt embarrassed, I have kids show with body language what it looks like to be embarrassed. The whole point of reading and writing is communicating, and communication is all about connecting. We can't expect kids (or anyone for that matter) to understand something if they have no connection to it.

Another skill that helps students understand is rereading and questioning. I teach students how to read the questions they will answer in a passage BEFORE they read the passage. They circle clue words in the question that they should look for in the text to help them answer the question. While they are reading they highlight text evidence (parts of the text that help answer the questions). Then once the story is finished they go back and reread the questions and then reread the parts of the text that had the clue words.

Rereading and questioning are also important for understanding the text outside of test-taking. When kids are reading and something doesn't make sense, we will ask a question. Then we'll reread and see if we can make sense of it. If not we keep the question in our brain and see if the text answers the question later. This can be great for nonfiction because it can prompt research after reading. It is also a great way to promote theme and reflection in fictional books.

All the time as adults, we decide to read more on a topic when we finish a text, or we even stop reading halfway through if the text doesn't seem to have credible answers. We will go back and reread something confusing or really powerful. These are skills we must teach to our students.

These are a few resources I have that will help students struggling with these strategies….

Strategies for Explaining: