EdCuration Blog: Learning in Action

5 Signs a Reader May Be Struggling (And How to Intervene)

Mar 8, 2021 12:27:36 PM / by EdCuration Staff Writer

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The learning day is grounded in language. Academically, we view language through four lenses: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Of these, reading has the greatest impact on academic outcomes. 

Unfortunately, literacy doesn’t always come naturally. Let’s look at five reasons a reader may be struggling- and how to help.

Foundational gaps

Reading is cumulative. Proficient readers have command over the foundations for literacy, such as alphabetic principle, phonemic awareness, and word segmentation. Missing or weak stones in this bedrock will create challenges for reading.

Bottom line: A reader is as strong as his/her/their weakest reading link.  

Strategies that work:

  • Play. Experiment with words and sound through rhyme, song, alliteration, tongue twisters, and pulling apart words. Or, try one of these tech-based options
  • Practice handwriting. Studies show that “guiding students to develop handwriting fluency is a powerful intervention for struggling readers.” (Hamman, 2019)
  • Use word maps. Word maps are semantic organizers that support vocabulary development and facilitate conceptualization of a word or its parts.

Oral language disconnects

Students who are strong in the areas of speaking and listening are more likely to be proficient readers. The inverse is also true; learners with less developed oral proficiency are more likely to struggle with reading.  

Reading is an extension of speaking. Early literacy builds upon our oral language experiences, including letter and word sounds, vocabulary, tone, context, and cultural nuance. Over time, the relationship becomes more reciprocal; reading expands oral language. 

Bottom line: Students will read and write the way they talk. Strong speakers are more likely to be strong readers. 

Strategies that work:

  • Keep a personal dictionary. Add new words as they are encountered in text, conversation, or auditory presentation. Return to personal dictionaries as anchors for reading and writing success.
  • Embed cooperative structures. Include activities that center intentional conversation, such as Think-Pair-Share, Inside-Outside Circle, or Numbered Heads.
  • Use sentence frames. Incorporate sentence stems or frames for speaking. Model the use of these tools and set clear and consistent expectations for their use.

Reading without Context

What is the most defining feature of a proficient reader? The ability to select the right tools for the job. To do this, a reader must be able to identify and understand the context for reading. After all, if we don’t know why we are reading, it’s much more difficult to choose appropriate literacy strategies.   

Reading changes with context. Strong readers can distinguish leisure text from functional text. They also “know how to size up the setting, text and purpose, and how to select the best reading strategies for that context.” (Learn Alberta) 

Bottom line: If students don’t know where they’re going with reading, it’s harder to get there. Context for reading acts as a road map, enabling students to select the most helpful strategies along the course. 

Strategies that work:

  • Clarify intention. Invite readers to consider the context for their reading (as whole text or within sections of text). Ask: Am I reading for enjoyment, to learn something, etc.?
  • Explicitly link strategies to context. Recording notes in a character map may be useful in reading a YA novel, but studying text features will be a better strategy for reading an article on polar ice caps. Intentionally model and think aloud strategy selections.
  • Spiral strategies. Revisit tools in different reading contexts. Prompt reflection about why and how specific strategies may be used in different situations. For example, a Venn diagram used while reading a science text or in comparing two graphic novels.

Under-resourced funds of knowledge 

Existing funds of knowledge- one’s historical collection of understandings and experiences- play an important role in reading. However, not all students readily “activate” this wisdom and apply it to what they are reading.   

“Background knowledge is essential to comprehension, to making connections, and to understanding the big ideas,” writes ASCD author ReLeah Cossett Lent. “Background knowledge is the glue that makes learning stick.”  

Bottom line: All students have built-in funds of knowledge. Understanding when and how to apply this wisdom to reading is a developed skill.

Strategies that work: 

  • Compartmentalize. Neuman, Kaefer, and Pinkham suggest teaching words by category (peninsulas, mountains, islands, valleys, and plateaus are all...landforms).
  • Increase exposure. Introduce weekly articles or passages to help grow or refresh students’ repertoire of background knowledge.
  • Make Connections. Many students have problems connecting what was read to other books, stories, or lived experiences. Engaging learners in making text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections can lead to richer reading experiences.

Sensory Processing Challenges

Some barriers to literacy are caused by sensory input challenges, including dyslexia. Aside from inadequate instruction, dyslexia is the most common cause of reading difficulties. It is estimated to affect between 15-20% of the population to some degree (The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, 2019). 

Our sensory processing mechanisms control perception. Disruptions to these systems can impair the way students perceive sounds, print, numbers, shapes, or a combination of these.  Dyslexia, for example, impacts a reader’s ability to decode words (Cell Press, 2016).

With timely and purposeful intervention, students with sensory processing challenges can learn to read.  IDL Literacy is one program showing positive results.  The software, which targets students with dyslexia and other struggling readers, shows an average 11-month increase in reading and spelling proficiency after only 26 hours of use. (They’ve offered a free trial, too!)

Bottom line: Literacy is impacted by the way the brain perceives auditory and print messages. Disruptions in sensory processing can be mediated through purposeful interventions.

Strategies that work:

  • Consider multi-sensory teaching/learning. Try having readers write words in shaving cream, build them with clay, type them out, or recreate passages through kinesthetic movement.
  • Integrate audiobooks. Audiobooks and ear reading show special promise for dyslexic students. The combination of reading and listening to a text can promote word recognition and correct pronunciation, while providing opportunities to practice other critical literacy skills like sequencing, inferring, and summarizing.  
  • Integrate systematic, evidence-based interventions. Optimal interventions focus on explicit skill instruction and engage students to build reading confidence. Comprehensive programs, like IDL Literacy, infuse a library of strategies and can accommodate a wide spectrum of readers.  

Each student has a unique relationship with literacy. Unfortunately, not all are positive ones.  By identifying struggling readers early and providing customized supports, we have a chance at turning that around. 


Topics: Literacy

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