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.
Humans are pre-wired for language but not for reading. Reading must be learned.

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 speak 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

Phases of Early Literacy Development for K-3 Students

We know from research that children begin their development with language as early as when they are developing in the womb. These language skills form the foundation of their ability to become oral communicators as well as good readers and writers. Children form their understandings about language, reading and writing from their home and environmental experiences with language and with the print they experience around them on a day to day basis. Click on the links below to see the characteristics of each stage of literacy development. You will find many great activities to do with children in each stage of literacy development in my book: Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development.

1. Exploratory Stage

2. Experimental Stage

3. Early Literacy Stage

4. Transitional Literacy Stage

5. Independent/Productive Reading Stage