How to Help a Slow Reader

a young boy reading a book

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Slow reading can lead to stress, overwhelming time spent on homework, poor grades, and loss of confidence. Students who read more slowly than peers will end up reading less over time – that’s just math. If you’re here wondering how to help a slow reader in your life, you have a big job ahead of you, but one that can be very rewarding!

Reasons for slow reading

What does it take to read fluently?

Listening to a young child read is painful. They are slow and they are working so hard for every word. It’s not until around second grade that the average child’s reading starts to sound like “reading.” For many children, this ability develops later, or they continue to struggle. For a child to read fluently, they need to be able to automatically recognize and blend all the different spellings of all the different sounds in English. They have to have a robust vocabulary to recognize words in context. They have to have sufficient knowledge of punctuation, sentence structure and stories to read sentences smoothly and anticipate what’s going to happen. They also need enough background knowlege about the topic to anticipate what’s coming. For a reader to be fluent, these elements need to come together all at once. There are lots of different things to go wrong, which means there are lots of options for how to help a slow reader.

Decoding issues

One reason kids read slowly is that they don’t know how to sound out words. We can memorize a certain number of words, but trying to memorize them all will lead to errors. Our brain stores words we read automatically in the language parts of our brain, not the visual parts. Think about though/through/thought/tough – they all look similar and our brain isn’t good at memorizing the details. If students aren’t able to connect each of those spelling “chunks” with sounds, they might mix up those look-alike words or other words with similar visual features.

Students need to learn how to decode words with all the many spelling patterns in English, as well as how to chunk words into syllables, or into root words and their prefixes and suffixes. Without the skills to segment words into syllables and individual sounds, students have to rely on their visual memory, which is not as detail-oriented as the language system for decoding words.

So if you are trying to figure out how to help a slow reader, one answer is you have to find out what is behind the slow reading. For many kids the cause is inefficient word recognition. What they need is some solid instruction in phonics and morphology (root words, prefixes and suffixes) and when that  need is met, their fluency will be just fine.

Bad habits lead to slow reading

Most kids I’ve taught read slowly because they were still learning to decode. But sometimes if you want to know how to help a slow reader, the answer is: read to them and read with them.

  1. Some kids read as fast as they can, not stopping at punctuation or varying their reading speed or tone. The result is flat, rushed reading and poor comprehension. And they may also skim over their errors without correcting them, so they miss important information. The solution is getting kids to think about “sounding like a storyteller” or an actor. 

How to fix it:

  • Take turns reading. Hearing you read every other page, or every other paragraph, Point out things you’re doing, like how you read a sentence with an exclamation point or question mark. 
  • Read a short selection a couple of times, and give them feedback after their practice. The goal is not to memorize the words and read it super fast. Comprehension and fluency support each other, so having a handle on the story will improve fluency. Repetition will also help them anticipate tricky sentences.
  • Record them, either on video or just audio. Have them read something they feel comfortable with out loud. Help them (kindly!) critique their reading. Pick one thing to focus on – like pausing at punctuation or not repeating words – and have them practice a bit and then record again. 
  1. Other students read accurately but very slowly. Sometimes this looks like a lack of confidence. But there’s usually something behind it. Either kids have learned to accurately decode, but they aren’t automatic yet. For that, keep offering practice at that same level, text they can decode. Sometimes slow reading is related to slow processing speed or inattention. For these kids, the strategies above help, but their progress might be slower. A few students with the greatest difficulty may never read at an average speed. But they can make progress and learn to read fast enough for comprehension.
  2. Another bad habit that some readers develop is pausing every time a thought pops into their heads, or pausing to ask questions about the story that will be answered by the end of the sentence! Remind them to “read all the way to the period, then ask” their question. For readers distracted by things other than the story, focus on a peaceful reading environment, picking a really good book, and gradually building up their stamina. At first, taking turns by paragraph or page will help them move through the story quickly enough to hold their interest.

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How to help a slow reader get through this book

Often, slow reading becomes a significant problem for older children. They may have gotten away with listening to teachers’ instruction, reading part of the text, or learning from talking to other students for years. But sooner or later, whether it’s 6th grade, high school, or freshman year of college, slow reading begins to catch up with them. There’s a book report due or a discussion to prepare for. 

The best option for giving a slow reader the gift of time is to provide the audiobook version of a text. These are widely available through local public libraries and from services like Audible. Many classic books are available from LibriVox . Some audiobooks, either commercially produced or read by teachers or other volunteers, are available on YouTube. Some of these uses violate copyright laws, so use your own best judgment when choosing this option.

How to help a slow reader in your life

No matter what stage of learning your slow reader is in, becoming a faster or more fluent reader will take time and practice. Whether it’s finishing their knowledge of sounding out words or practicing to make their reading sound smoother or more animated, slow readers will need lots of practice.

If the reader you are helping is your own child, make a point of keeping reading a fun, positive, family activity. Your child needs to practice consistently and that will be an uphill battle unless they begin to enjoy the process. Short periods of focused practice most days of the week – start with 10 minutes in the evening and work your way up – will benefit your child more than long sessions of drilling. 

For older readers who are already feeling the pressure of trying to keep up in school, offering them audiobooks can take a lot of the pressure off because it frees up their time for the hard working of thinking and writing about what they read. I recommend listening to a chapter first, then rereading to take notes or complete assignments. 

Helping a slow reader can be time consuming and challenging. But watching your child grow through consistent practice will make you both proud!

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