My child’s teacher says he is not reading at grade level

why is my child struggling with reading?

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Wait, what do you mean he’s not at grade level?

Many parents watch and worry as their children learn to read, making sure that everything is going as expected. Others trust the school’s process and believe that their children are doing fine as long as they do the homework the teacher gives and go to school each day. 

At this time of year, some parents receive the surprising (or maybe not totally surprising) news that their child isn’t progressing in reading like we hoped. Now what?

What does it mean to “read on grade level?”

Different measurements, different conclusions

Schools complete some kind of screening and progress monitoring assessments in reading throughout the early grades. Schools usually commit to one system of measuring reading success, such as the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment, with numerical scores) or the Guided Reading system (with levels from A-Z) or another system such as Lexiles, which assigns a 3 or 4 digit number to text based on its difficulty.

In addition, schools often measure reading fluency wit a tool like DIBELS or AIMSweb, designed to let teachers know how quickly and accurately students read text, compared to other students in the same grade, across the US. These scores can alert teachers that a child is not progressing as quickly as peers, but they don’t tell teachers why, or what to do about it. For example, one child might read beautifully and quickly with poor comprehension, while another reads slowly, stumbles over words, but understands the subtle points of a story. Both migh score below grade level, but they have different learning needs. 

So a reading score that’s “below grade level” should be the beginning of a process that helps us learn more about the student and figure out how to help. This should include additional assessments, trying out some interventions (like small group fluency practice or phonics lessons) and measuring progress, and conversations with parents about concerns and next steps.

Why is my child struggling with reading?

“OK, so that’s all good and well that the school has a process, but why is my child struggling with reading?” Fair question.

The short answer is they haven’t yet received enough of the reading instruction that they need, at a time they were ready to benefit from it.

Reading is a complex process that involves the development of oral language (speaking and listening), phonological knowledge (hearing the individual sounds /c/a/t/ in the spoken word cat), letter-sound knowledge, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Dr. Hollis Scarborough developed the model of “The Reading Rope.” to show how all these strands are woven together and develop alongside each other to contribute to skilled reading. 

If there is a gap or a breakdown in any of these areas, students might not be able to meet grade level reading expectations, until they get some support and practice. 

Another popular model, Nancy Young’s Ladder of Reading and Writing shows that while about half of young children develop reading skills pretty easily with decent teaching, the other half need “code-based, systematic and explicit” reading instruction. And not all schools offer that. In fact, a great number of schools in the US are still teaching what’s called the Guided Reading model, which promotes having children read leveled books, often with predictable patterns (I see a cat. I see a dog. I see a capybara) that rely on children looking at the pictures instead of mastering the spelling patterns and decoding the words. 

Some readers learn to read this way and it does not appear to harm them (though many have difficulty with spelling down the road because they haven’t learned letter-sound relationships in a systematic way). Lots of other children get stuck and need better instruction, with more careful assessment, and more explicit phonics teaching, to be successful.

For many readers, high-quality phonics instruction over a relatively short period of time is enough to get them over this barrier and they catch up rapidly. Other readers need specific instruction and extra practice to build fluency, or grow their vocabularies, or develop their oral language skills. 

How to help your child read at grade level

The best thing you can do for your struggling reader is make sure they get a solid grounding in phonics and that they can sound out words and break words into meaningful chunks (think-ing or un-think-able). This can important but not easy. One option is to advocate for your child at school. Learn about what program they are using and advocate for curriculum choices that are consistent with Science of Reading research about how kids learn to read. Ultimately, getting schools to improve thier instruction is what will make a long-term difference in reading outcomes for your community, but it’s overwhelming to take on on your own, whether you advocate for services as part of an IEP or for better classroom instruction.

If you want a reasonable way to supplement poor instruction at school, consider working through a book like Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. Even if you feel like you don’t know a lot about phonics, there are some great videos on YouTube to explain different phonics concepts.

If your child is able to sound out words and chunk them into syllables (most kids who struggle to read struggle with that part), you can help them work on fluency by taking turns reading, either reading the same text or alteranting pages in a book. Poems can be fun texts to do this with.

If your child’s reading sounds nice, but they have trouble remembering and explaining what they read, you can help them develop their oral vocabularies by talking about the story together. Ask questions like, “What was surprising in this chapter?” or “Where do you think they will look first for the lost dog?” Practice summarizing what you read. A great time to do this is when you pick up a book to read the next chapter. You can say, “I remember that when we left off yesterday, the robot had just rescued the bear cub but her foot came off. Let’s see how they solve that problem.” Asking and answering questions and summarizing are powerful ways to help a child think through what they read and understand it better. 

Don’t Panic, but Take Action

If conversations with your child’s teacher, or your own observations, have you wondering how to get your child to read better, the task can feel overwhelming. The good news is that almost every child (many models say 95% of kids) can learn to read if they get the right instruction. The bad news is getting the right instruction can be a major undertaking. 

But remember this: Reading ability does not correlate with intelligence. Even your smart, hard-working, creative child can struggle with reading if the teaching isn’t meeting their needs. But with the right instruction and resources, they can thrive!

If you are concerned about your child’s reading, contact us today to find out how we can help, with online structured literacy instruction using the Orton-Gillingham approach.

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