Why Students Struggle and What to Do About It

Why Do Some Students Struggle With Reading?

Why do some students struggle with learning to read while others easily master the art of reading?

While our brains are hard-wired for language, they were never designed for reading or writing. Those are behaviors that we have added to the tasks that we ask the human brain to do in our society.

As a result, there are many reasons one child make not make as much progress in learning to read as another child may make.

How Does Reading Take Place?

Learning to read begins at birth or according to some experts, even while the child is still in the womb.

The background knowledge that a child brings to the schoolhouse door does make a difference  and has a direct correlation to how successful that child will be in school.

Researchers say that the two strongest predictors of school success are a child’s proficiency in phonemic awareness and the size of the child’s vocabulary.

We know that the gap between good readers and struggling readers develops as early as by the end of first grade.

Without effective and timely intervention, this gap will continue to grow until there may be a gap of 4-5 years or more by the child’s high school years.

Without targeted help, struggling readers will most likely never catch up with their peers. In many cases, they will either “tune out” or “act out” in classrooms all across the country.

Smiling female toddler with a book in her lap.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

All young readers must have a solid grasp of phonemic awareness to understand the “lilt” of the language. Phonemic awareness helps students recognize the sounds that various letters and letter combinations make.

Secondly, beginning readers must be able to decode the words they encounter by understanding how to apply the English phonetic system to words.

English is not an easy language to learn because there are many exceptions to the normal rules in our language.

Beginning readers commonly learn to identify initial sounds first, final sounds second and then learn to distinguish how medial sounds change the meaning of the word.

For example, the medial sounds in “book,” “back” and “beak” change the entire meaning of the word.

Children must quickly recognize the meaning of the word and then be able to make sense of the context in which the word appears.

Reading is about meaning out of the symbols on the page. If a child gets no meaning from the words, then reading has not taken place.

In the same way that math skills are cumulative, so too are reading skills. A child who has poor phonemic awareness skills will struggle with developing strong phonics skills.

A child who has poor decoding skills, will find it difficult to become a fluent reader with good comprehension skills.

The threads of reading must be woven around each child if they are to become capable readers. Teachers must use good assessment techniques to find the “holes” in a reader’s tapestry and then work to fill those holes with appropriate and targeted instruction.

When this does not happen, it is why students struggle with reading.

Until the holes preventing the student from mastering the level where they are “stuck” are filled, little progress will be made moving to the next level of reading mastery.

Young female toddler laying on a bed with her mother reading a book.
Exposure to books and the sounds of the language are important for beginning readers.

What Can Teachers Do to Help Struggling Readers?

Reading is a participation sport!

Like the tennis player or the golfer, students only become better readers when they practice reading. The more students practice reading, the more proficient they become.

Students learn to read by being read to regularly. Take time to model reading by reading orally to students whenever you can.

Capitalize on student interests to help them find books they want to read. By learning what interests our students, we can help them find text that is at the appropriate level of difficulty and motivating to read.

Without meaning and joy in reading, students will continue to struggle and fight attempts to help them become better readers.

Helping students develop strong vocabularies and good background knowledge is also essential so students can relate to the material they read.

Preschool children on a soccer field practicing kicking soccer balls.
Like learning to play a sport, readers must practice their reading to improve.

Reading is a Social Activity

Reading is a social activity.

As adult readers, we talk to our friends about books we have read or articles in our favorite magazines to reflect upon ideas or clarify meaning for ourselves.

Give students opportunities to talk about, think about and ask questions about the meaning of the text they read.

When we understand why students struggle with reading, we can help our students close gaps that prevent them from becoming proficient readers. By asking our students to read on a regular basis, our students will have the opportunity to become strong and proficient readers.

A young male child sitting on a parents lap looking at a picture book with the parent.
Children enjoy listening to a parent read to them from a young age.

If you would like more information on strengthening adolescent readers, see the article that I wrote called: How a concerted district approach with coherent strategies can strengthen adolescent readers

To read more on this topic see: Phases of Early Literacy Development for K-3 Students and 30 million Word Gap by Age 3

Early Literacy and Language Development

Language Development is Foundational for Literacy

Language development is a critical aspect of a child’s overall development. It starts very early, even before birth, and continues progressing through childhood and adolescence. Children learn to communicate in various ways, starting with cries and coos as infants, progressing to babbling, and eventually developing the ability to understand and use words.

Research has shown that the language skills children develop in their early years lay the foundation for their later success as oral communicators, readers, and writers. Therefore, providing young children with a rich language environment is crucial, encouraging them to learn and practice new words and concepts.

A child’s early experiences with language significantly impact their ability to develop literacy skills. Children exposed to different words and language structures at home will likely have strong literacy skills later. Conversely, children not exposed to language-rich environments may struggle with reading and writing as they age.

Stages of Literacy and Language Development

The first stage of literacy and language development is the exploratory stage. Children explore the print world during this stage and recognize letters and words. They may enjoy looking at books but do not yet understand the connection between the words on the page and the spoken language they hear.

In the experimental stage, children start to experiment with reading and writing. They may start to recognize some words and try to sound them out. They may also enjoy scribbling and drawing, which lays the foundation for writing.

The early literacy language stage is when children develop more advanced literacy skills. They begin to understand that letters represent sounds and that words have meaning. They may start recognizing some sight words and using phonics to sound out unfamiliar words.

In the transitional literacy stage, children become more independent in reading and writing. They can read simple texts independently and write simple sentences. They may also start to understand more complex grammar and sentence structures.

Finally, children become fluent readers and writers in the independent/productive reading stage. They can read and comprehend more complex texts and write longer, more detailed pieces.

It is important to note that children progress through these stages at different rates, and there is no set timeline for when a child should reach each stage. Some children may progress quickly, while others may need more time and support.

How Parents/Caregivers Can Help Language Development

Parents and caregivers can support a child’s language development and literacy skills by creating a language-rich environment at home. This can include reading to children, talking to them about their experiences, and providing them with opportunities to explore the written word through books, magazines, and other materials.

Additionally, parents and caregivers can encourage children to write and draw by providing them with paper and writing materials and praising their efforts. They can also model good writing and communication skills by writing notes or letters to their child or engaging in meaningful conversations with them.

In conclusion, language development and literacy skills are critical for a child’s overall development and success in school and beyond. Parents and caregivers play an essential role in supporting children’s language and literacy development by providing them with a rich language environment and opportunities to explore the written word. By doing so, they can help children develop the skills they need to become confident, competent communicators and learners.

If you enjoyed this article, you may like Identifying Letters and Sounds in Early Grades

Learn more strategies for working with early literacy in my book: The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development