As educators, we always have students who struggle, but often times wonder how to help a child struggling with reading.
The question then arises, what is the best way to help a struggling reader? There are countless articles and research done on the best practices to help children with reading. However, how do you know what is the best practice?
In 2001, the National Reading Panel convened to see exactly what children must know to become readers. After examining many different areas and thousands of pieces of research done on reading, they determined that there are five areas that children must be solid in to have a firm grasp of reading:
- Phonemic Awareness
Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas and how they influence a child’s reading skills.
The National Reading Panel determined that in order for kids to be successful with reading, they need to have strong phonemic awareness. This is a basic foundational skill that children should have before kindergarten. Phonemic awareness is normally instilled in children in kindergarten and will continue to progress on into the middle of first grade.
Phonemic awareness is the ability of kids to be able to hear and manipulate sounds. For example, take the word flip. The first sound in the word flip would be f. A child with this awareness would be able to tell you what word rhymes with flip and maybe even be able to generate a rhyme.
In order to master this skill, the child must be able to manipulate sounds.
They may not necessarily be reading but they are able to work with pictures and identify words based on pictures. This is the first step in building their reading skills.
As we are building a solid foundation in phonemic awareness with children, we must also be explicitly and systematically teaching phonics. This involves taking text and letters and allowing children to decode these letters in order to read words.
It’s important that children in the phonics phase are taught the letter sounds and sound-spelling patterns.
This skill needs to be explicitly taught, as they are not able to simply pick it up by being exposed to the text. They need to be aware of what certain sound spellings are, and only then can they apply it to what they read.
Once children have mastered phonemic awareness as well as the skill of phonics, they can now apply these sounds to what they read. Children that are solid in these two areas are going to be able to decode what they read and improve their fluency.
Fluency is the rate at which students read the text. There are certain benchmarks that children have to meet in order to be considered on track for becoming fluent. When children are fluently reading it’s freeing up their brain to understand what they read. In turn, as they become more fluent, they begin to read more.
At this point in time, they are receiving instruction to improve their vocabulary. They are taught prefixes and suffixes and what these mean. They’re also taught Greek and Latin roots. All of these tools help them to determine what a word means when they read it.
Once a child is able to read fluently, they then able to read more, which then builds their vocabulary. It’s been shown that the more fluent a child is, the more they read. This helps them improve their vocabulary.
Improving their vocabulary allows them to increase their comprehension level.
Having a high level of comprehension is what we want all children to achieve. The goal is for them to be able to read books or text and comprehend what they read.
What Problems May Arise
All of these five areas are connected:
- If a child struggles with phonological awareness, they’re never taught how to blend segments or sounds.
- If they are never taught how to blend these sounds, they struggle with putting sounds to print.
- If they’re not taught the sound spellings then they struggle with decoding.
- If they struggle with decoding then they’re never able to fluently read.
- Finally, if their fluency is low, they aren’t able to meet the benchmarks that they are expected to meet throughout the school year.
The problem that now arises is that if a student is not able to read fluently, then they won’t be reading at all. They won’t find enjoyment in reading and tend to avoid it. This limits their vocabulary as they’re not being constantly exposed to new words.
While all their classmates may move on to more advanced books, they will struggle with comprehending simple text. This creates what is called the Reading Gap. For example, if you’re a teacher or parent of a 4th or 5th grader who is struggling with reading, then they may be more behind than you realize. However, if you catch these problems early on, you’re able to close that gap much faster.
If these problems go unnoticed as they move through school, the gap becomes wider and wider between them and their classmates.
With this in mind, it’s imperative that when we wonder how to help a child struggling with reading, we come to the realization that we must give students a strong foundation in early skills like phonemic awareness and phonics.
Is Comprehension a Quick Fix?
In schools, teachers are often working very hard on comprehension. They assume that if a student is having trouble with reading it must be in the area of comprehension. Simply working on comprehension will not fill in all the missing gaps in their reading foundation.
If a student can’t decode or fluently read a text they won’t be able to comprehend it either. This becomes what is known as the Matthew Effect, which is taken from the bible and hones in on the concept of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Back in the 80’s, a reading researcher by the name of Keith Stanovich took this term and applied it to the process of reading and students:
- As students who have a solid foundation in these five areas are moving up and doing really well,students that struggle in any of these areas fall farther and farther behind.
The bottom line is, regardless of how much effort is put into comprehension, without these foundational skills, students will struggle to comprehend what they read.
If you have a student that needs help in fluency, but you’re providing them with help with their comprehension, you’re not addressing the issue.
What are the Solutions and ways for How to Help a Child Struggling with Reading?
So what do we do?
What we found to be helpful is to administer an oral reading fluency assessment to students. This helps us to determine exactly where they fall and assess what areas they need assistance in. If you assess children in fluency and they pass it, perhaps those students need help with vocabulary or comprehension. It’s important that you determine exactly what area each student needs help in and then focus on that area. For some students, it may be vocabulary and for others comprehension. Whatever it may be, don’t let their weaknesses get swept under the rug.
On the other hand, if students are unable to pass the fluency exam then perhaps a phonics survey would be best. This will help you to identify what phonics patterns students need and help them with controlled vowels or blending sounds. This will help you identify specific phonic gaps if they have them.
If then you have students who still do not pass the phonics survey, implementing small group instruction would be beneficial. You’ll be able to fill in the phonics gaps in the skills they are lacking.
If you are a parent or teacher that’s unaware of how to help your children, feel free to use the flowchart to go through and identify where your children land.. It’s a simple flowchart that will enable you to identify exactly where your student’s gaps are and what type of intervention you should be providing.
It will make a tremendous difference in their lives as well as yours.