How Parents Can Help Struggling Readers

The Literacy Journey

back_to_booksMaybe you don’t care why someone else’s Johnny can’t read you only care “Why can’t my Johnny Read?” You may find yourself frustrated with how much effort this whole learning to read journey is taking. Have you found yourself asking “Wasn’t it easy to get kids to read in the good old days?” Well, actually it has never been easy to get boys to read.

In reality, today our literacy rates are high when taking into consideration the history of literacy in the United States.

In the US in 1870 the illiteracy rate (those over 14 who could not read) of whites stood at 20%. For blacks in the it was at 79.9%. Then in 1950, the supposed “good old days” it dropped to 3.2% for whites and around 10% for blacks. By 1979 the illiteracy rate fell to .6% for whites and 1.6% for blacks. (National Center for Educational Statistics –

We should be thankful for the many tools we have which make learning to read “easier” today than at nearly any other time in our Nation’s history, right? Well, I am guessing since you are reading this article you already know we still face a large problem getting boys to read and “your Johnny” may be one of the boys struggling.

Let’s get a grip on the problem. As many educators know, a child has to be able to decode or recognize words. The bulk of K-2 is spent on this process.  Once decoding and recognizing words is being practiced with some degree of regularity (at least with “easy” words) schools begin to work on fluency. All of this work is in hopes that by 4th grade a child reads fast enough to keep the words and ideas he is reading in his short term memory so he can make sense of it all (aka – comprehension). Fifteen percent of children in 4th grade read less than 74 words per minute – the rate needed to comfortably keep those ideas in the short term memory and thereby easily comprehend what is read. If a child cannot read with fluency reading tends to be painful.

If your son is a struggling reader, either because he cannot recognize words or because he lacks fluency there is hope. The key job for you as parent is to keep hope alive in your son by working at providing a joy of stories and the ability to get needed information from texts while school intervention and maturity bring your son to a place where he can read fluently on his own.

Let me explain why this is key.

There are many factors that come together to help a child read. Here are needed skills* –

  • knowing the letters
  • decoding the letter sounds (typically through phonics, note: some words cannot be decoded and need to be memorized, something teachers call sight words)
  • word recognition
  • fluency
  • text comprehension
  • a desire (motivation) to read

So, here is our present day problem. The first 5 skills take practice and the last skill takes multiple experiences. For some boys reading may come very naturally. But for other children reading takes a large amount of practice. Frustration for parents of a son who struggles to read develops because a struggling reader is not likely to voluntarily practice reading. It most likely is a real challenge to get him to read at all! So the very act that will help him improve is resisted because of his need to improve. (I realize that some educators never acknowledge this very real parental frustration and as an educator, I apologize – I know it is a REAL struggle.)

books_boysIf you have a son that is struggling to read, as his parent you have the opportunity to play a vital role in getting him over the “I don’t want to read!” syndrome so that he in turn can get the practice he needs to improve.

The following advice is meant to be followed together with working closely with your school. When a child is struggling always seek help through your school district. Reading specialists will be able to determine if your child has a physical issue (poor eyesight, difficulty tracking, etc.) or a processing issue or a low ability, etc. After 30 years of experience with education I can tell you that there are very specific strategies which can be used to help the struggling reader no matter what is causing his problems. However, the strategies differ widely depending on what is preventing him from reading, so work with your school to find out what strategies will work for your son.

While the school will play an important role, don’t underestimate how important you are in working through your son’s reading issues. There are several steps parents can do at home to help boys with the all important “practice” and “experience” in reading he needs. And, I believe that parents who follow these steps will get a bonus. Like many generations before us, reading together and engaging in stories through books brings a special parent-child bonding experience, not easily duplicated through other activities. It is a bonding through working together, shared experiences and cooperative intellectual pursuits.  The type of bonding that will help parents be a major influence for years to come.

Following these steps is something I call the Literacy Journey. This journey is made up of following some consistent practices that will set the stage to motivate and enable your son to get the all important ingredient of “reading practice” in order to boost his ability to read and read well. Think of it as a literacy vitamin! The journey won’t produce miracles, but it most definitely helps!

#1 Supply Motivation Through a Mutual Love of Stories

First and most importantly – give your son a love for stories and a love for discovery! Then demonstrate how his love for stories and discovery can be met by reading books! You can do this by discovering together through books. To begin with, think about the types of stories your son loves. Is there something he wants to learn more about? At first you may need to sit down with him and interview him to find out what he is interested in. Once you find out, get together with your local librarian and let her know what you are looking for. Then read together. Which brings us to #2.

#2 Regularly Read to Your Son

When I was in undergraduate school a professor asked us what was the best indicator of whether or not a child would become a great reader. We all took our turn guessing what the indicator was. Some said “phonics curriculum” and another “a loving engaged teacher” yet another “wonderful books.” The teacher shook her head “no” and just smiled and smiled. Finally we all gave up. She told us – the number one indicator was whether or not the parents consistently read to the child from birth on. Yep, that was the number one indicator! This is especially important if your son is having difficulty. You want him to “enjoy” stories and discovery to keep the motivation going. So read to your son often.

#3 Purposely and Consistently Expand Your Son’s Vocabulary

Recently while attending the Philadelphia Read by 4th! launch meeting we were told of the vocabulary gap among inner city poor children. Typically 4 year olds have a vocabulary of between 4,000 and 6,000 words. Unfortunately those who are not nurtured, spoken to and read to often have less than half the expected vocabulary. When entering kindergarten they already have a word deficit which will turn into a reading deficit which then turns into a graduation deficit. Parents who spend time in meaningful conversations – about the world, about life, about whatever boys like to talk about, can naturally expand his vocabulary. The better the vocabulary, the easier reading will become. Make sure you spend time every day engaged in meaningful conversation with your son.

#4 Work Closely With Your Son’s School

two_boys_readingWhile reading methods are better researched and more and more effective, many schools are struggling with measurable results due to a lack of cohesiveness in implementing reading strategies. If your son has a reading specialist get together with her and his teacher to ask how everyone can work together. Offer to implement and support reading strategies at home. When the parents and school work together the well researched methods will be much more effective.

#5 Compensate for the Frustration Reading Causes Your Son

The value of compensating for frustration is often underestimated or even missed by teachers and reading specialists. In my 30 years as an educator, when I have seen this put into action it has been remarkably effective. The concept is simple. For many boys, Struggling to read leads to frustration. Frustration leads to discouragement and a lack of effort. Discouragement and lack of effort means less practice. Less practice compounds the problem. Parents, you can help stop the downward spiral. Compensate by making reading homework a bearable if not enjoyable experience and especially by creating non school related times of reading out loud to your son.. This can be done by giving comfort, love and whatever it takes to make it enjoyable. If you cannot think of how to do this, think about how you really bond with your son. You know your son best as to what makes him tick so a list from me is not helpful. But here are some suggestions to get you thinking. For boys who like to talk and reflect, spend time talking about the books after you are done reading. For boys who love physical touch, cuddle while reading. For boys who like to be silly, joke a bit when reading.

Don’t forget to work with your son’s school for specific compensatory strategies which will bring down his frustration. Three compensation strategies I have seen work: The adult reads the sentence first, then lets the child read. Read every other sentence with your son. Allow your son to practice before he reads. Remember, reading specialists are very helpful.

Perhaps most important, make sure you spend time reading “fun” books (not part of school curriculum) to your son. Compensate and make home reading times enjoyable. This will supply the motivation your son needs to keep fighting.

— A note here. Some have raised concerns that if compensatory strategies (education jargon for how you compensate) are used a child will become lazy and just depend on the strategies and will not work at learning to read. Honestly, this does happen at first. Some boys are so exhausted from the struggle of learning to read that once compensated for they simply stop working at it for a bit. But it has been my experience, that boys nearly always come back around and once they are no longer hating every moment they have to read, they begin to work at it again. Remember, if they resist every chance to read, they will not become proficient readers anyways. Giving them a respite, then encouraging them to work at it again, will not harm them any more than the present course of action.

#6 Never Give Up

Sometimes the battle is long and hard fought. It may mean you have to read Social Studies and Science texts to your son until his reading catches up. It may mean many more evenings of reading work than you would like. You may find yourself looking for specialists in the field to bring added insights. Through your struggles, keep the focus because the opportunities and the “freedom” reading will bring to your son will be well worth the effort. Even if it takes time. Don’t give up!


When a boy struggles to read some parents feel helpless. However, parents really do have an important role to play in getting their son to read. Don’t feel hopeless, instead roll up your sleeves and begin to implement the above strategies. Reading success won’t be instant, but over time you will be glad you did.


Mark Strohm is an educator with over 30 years experience and as a school principal has led schools in reforming reading curriculum and strategies and improving reading scores in the elementary grades.

*If you are a special education teacher, I know my “list of skills” is a list which assumes a child has normal executive function and processing skills. A parent dealing with a child who has these larger “special” needs will likely not be looking for advice from an article like this, though many of our recommendations could help them as well.

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Posted in 5-6 Year Olds, 7-8 Year Olds, 9-10 Year Olds, Blog, Parents, Pre-Kindergarten.

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