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Helping a Child Who Cannot Read

Watching a child who cannot read can be a heart-breaking scenario, particularly when they have been working at it and seem to be making little to no progress. Before you panic, step back, and look at the whole picture.

Things to Consider

How old is your child? While most children learn to read between the ages of six and seven, some children take longer and may not be ready until they are closer to eight.

Keep in mind that reading at the age of six does not equate to fluency. They should still be struggling at this point to sound things out and need help with unfamiliar words.  

Secondly, look at their library, do they have books that interest them? It could be your child’s book selection needs an interest or age-appropriate update.

While I knew my nine-year-old could read, it never seemed to be his passion like mine. I read every day and always have. It wasn’t until he discovered the series The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brailer that I saw him delve into books.

Additionally, kids have to be ready to read; if they are not developmentally ready, no amount pushing will help. My first-grader displayed no interest in reading last year; it was a struggle to get him to look at the required primer books his teacher sent home.

This year, he wants to read to me every night, even shushing me as he attempts to sound out the bigger and unfamiliar words.   

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Last, try and discover what area they seem to be struggling with most. If a child struggles with reading as they approach second grade, it could be due to a learning disability such as ADHD and Dyslexia or struggles with comprehension or phonics.

While most children catch up to their peers by the third grade, if your child is still struggling with age-appropriate reading as they reach the age of eight, it might be time to talk with their teacher and your pediatrician.   

Games at Home

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If your child is really struggling with reading, there are plenty of things you can do at home to make it more fun and enjoyable for them.

Children learn best through play, and the same goes for reading; if it feels like work, they will resist. Here is a list of fun activities you can try with your child at home.

  1. Letter searches around the house
  2. Finding objects that start with particular sounds or letters 
  3. Making letters out of playdough
  4. Playing rhyming games (nonsense words count!)
  5. Playing alliteration games (nonsense words count!)
  6. Magnetic poetry or letters
  7. Create a sight-word wall (add each new word on a post-it and hang it up)
  8. Sight word Go Fish
  9. ABCya! (an Excellent app for young kids)
  10. Use e-books or audiobooks with the text

Decoding

One of the largest areas children struggle with when reading is decoding. Sounding out, a new and unfamiliar word can be daunting.   

Here, give it a try: 

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

 It’s a real word; it means “the fear of long words,” somewhat comical, I think. The first time I saw that word, in a quiz book, I thought it was fake.

That is how children can feel at times with words that are sight words to adults. Think of the word restaurant. As an adult, you don’t need to sound that out anymore; to a six-year-old, that word is daunting.

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Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to help a child who is struggling with decoding. One of the best ways to help a child struggling with decoding is to give them letters to play with. The more they manipulate and play with the letters, the more familiar your child will become with each shape.

Decoding Activities

  1. Write letters on large beads and have them string words
  2. Write letters on Duplos and have them build words
  3. Drawing letters in shaving cream (on table or cookie sheet)
  4. Clapping out syllables, one clap for each syllable (Jen-ni-fer) 
  5. Use index cards and creat beginning and ending sounds for them to match. 
  • Beginning sounds: Ch, Sh, Sl, Sm, Sn, Sh, Th, Sp, Bl, Dr, Br, Fr, Gr, Gl
  • Ending sounds: at, an, am, ack, ing, ick, ock, op, ot, ut, un, en, in 

Meaningful Praise

One of the best things you can do for your child who is struggling is to praise their efforts and accomplishments. When a task is difficult or seems daunting, a little bit of meaningful praise can go a long way.

When praising your child, it needs to be specific; a simple “good job” won’t do the trick. Focus on precisely what your child did or attempted to do and use that as your foundation.

  • You are working very hard at sounding that word out.
  • I can see you are really focusing on identifying sight words.
  • You just read a new word! That’s excellent! 
  • It seems like that word was difficult, but I am so proud you figured it out!
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On the other side of things, if your child is having difficulty with a word, don’t be afraid to help them. You can calmly feed them the word, or you can ask if they want your help.

 It may also be beneficial to start sounding out the word for them. You can acknowledge their effort as well as their successes.  

  • That word does start with a T like “that,” but the word is actually “this.”    
  • I can see you are trying to sound it out. Would you like my help?
  • That is a very big word; let’s break it down together into smaller sounds.

Fluency & Comprehension

To help a child with fluency and comprehension, repeat phrases once they have worked at sounding it out. Meaning can get lost when they have to stop every other word to decode.

You can even model the phrase for them and have them repeat it back to you.

Repeatedly reading the same books can also help a child who is lagging in reading. The repetition of the words is one way they can begin to pick up sight words and familiar sounds.

Eventually, they will want to “read” the book themselves, and even if it begins as memorization, they will start to recognize those words in other contexts.    

Having a child who can’t read can feel like an insurmountable challenge, but it doesn’t have to feel hopeless.

If you are engaging in various activities and games with your child, they are interested in reading, and despite the effort, they are still struggling; it might be time to seek an evaluation. 

When to Seek Help

Here are some signs you may want to seek a professional evaluation:  

  • Delayed speech as a baby/toddler
  • Difficulty connecting letters with sounds by the time kindergarten starts
  • Cannot name ANY or only a few uppercase letters by the time kindergarten starts
  • Cannot identify their name by the time kindergarten starts
  • Difficulty rhyming words by the time kindergarten starts
  • Difficulty remembering or following directions
  • Confusing similar letter shapes b/d and p/q in second grade
  • Difficulty remembering sight words by the time they are in second grade
  • Something feels off or wrong.  You are their parent, if something doesn’t feel right it doesn’t hurt to talk to their teacher, pediatrician or seek an independent speech evaluation

Even children with learning or reading disabilities can learn to read. It may never be their favorite passion, but the ability is there.

The critical piece to any new skill is patience and support. If your child feels your willingness to help them through this struggle, they will be more willing to attempt.   

No matter what, keep reading to your child. Reading with your child is one of the most proven ways to develop an interest in the skill, and despite any struggles your child may have, it is a meaningful way to bond with them every day. 

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