Tips to Help Your Struggling Reader

How to find out if your child's reading level is lagging, and how you can help

Tips to Help Your Struggling ReaderOnly a few weeks into Grade 1, Sara Curtis’ daughter arrived home from school with a letter in her backpack, indicating she’d been selected for an after-school literacy program. The Toronto mom was flummoxed. Was this because she was advanced or because something was wrong? Alarmed, Curtis emailed her daughter’s teacher, only to find out that her daughter did need extra help. “My initial questions were “Did I do something wrong? Did the school?” she recalls. “You just want your kids to be okay. You know there will be challenges, but you want them to be happy and to do things well.”


“Being “behind’ is a relative term,” emphasizes Victoria Purcell-Gates, Canada research chair in early childhood literacy at the University of British Columbia. Is your child behind his peers in a private or high-performing public school? Is there a higher-than-normal student-to-teacher ratio in his class? Or does he have a late birthday, which makes him one of the younger students? These scenarios need to be taken into consideration, she says.

Children also vary significantly in their reading development, says Janette Pelletier, director of the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study in Toronto. However, by the end of Grade 1, it is reasonable to expect a student to be able to parse sounds: This means being able to hear the sounds within words (for example, the three sounds in c-a-t), recognize the letters and put the letters and sounds together.


Your child’s Grade 1 teacher should ideally inform you by the second term if he or she has concerns about your child’s reading and meet with you to discuss what you can do to complement what your child is learning at school. Schools can provide extra help, if needed, through a reading recovery program, in which students can get additional one-on-one reading help in class or in a small group outside the class.

It’s important for parents to know that Grade 1 is the time to pay attention to a child’s learning progress, says Purcell-Gates. “We used to think that children just emerged into readers and writers — that it was a developmental and biological process, something you grew into, and that pushing your child could be damaging. We now know that if kids don’t read satisfactorily by the end of first grade and the teacher thinks they are behind, it could be hard for them to catch up and they could continue to fall behind,” she says. However, if a child attends an alternative school where the emphasis on reading is not until Grade 3 or 4, then the year in which he is taught the skills is the one to pay attention to, says Purcell-Gates.


Not necessarily. Only about 10 percent of kids will actually have a learning disability, Purcell-Gates says. However, if there is evidence that the child is performing well in other areas and shows a discrepancy in one area or related areas, it may indicate a learning disability, explains Pelletier. In that case, an in-school review committee would decide whether your child should be referred for a psycho-educational assessment.


It may sound simple, but you need to make reading and writing fun, confirms Pelletier. Cozy up and read to your child; talk about books; engage in story retelling; and play word games, listening for rhymes, patterns and alliteration. And instead of punishing a child who is having trouble reading, parents need to be supportive and want to help, says Purcell-Gates.

If your child is still having difficulty and falling behind the rest of his class in skills such as identifying vowel sounds and blends such as “th” and “sh”, despite receiving good beginning reading/writing instruction at school, parents might want to consider a tutor or learning centre, says Purcell-Gates. (If the difficulty persists, the possibility of a learning disability arises, she adds).

Curtis made the decision to hire a tutor when her daughter was still struggling months after the note from the teacher. The result, she says, has been a huge leap in her daughter’s reading ability. “Her teacher says she’s now ahead of where she should be.”

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