Struggling Readers

Struggling readers feel can feel sad and left out at school.

What Should the School Do?

We’re coming up on fall teacher conference season in my area. I’m going to see my child’s teacher in a few weeks to take a look at some of his work. I hope to hear the news about his progress and make plans for how I can support him at home. Usually, my son’s teacher and I are on the same page about what he’s great at and what he needs. But what if you go in with concerns about your struggling reader and the teacher doesn’t share them?

When to worry about your child’s reading

Learning to read in kindergarten, first and second grade can be a messy process. Students all come to school with different levels of skill and different language backgrounds. They are learning how to be students – how to line up, sit at desks, follow directions. And somewhere, in all of that, the teacher is tasked with teaching students how our system of written language works. Yet most kids are reading fluently and ready to take on new books by the end of grade 2! Nancy Young, creator of The Ladder of Reading & Writing model, estimates that about 45% of kids learn to read with relative ease. 

The other 55% of students (that’s more than half!) need consistent, explicit instruction in how reading and spelling work. Students must learn the sound represented by each grapheme (letter or group of letters that spells a sound). They need to learn to manipulate language sounds (phonemic awareness) and blend sounds together smoothly to form a recognizable word. They need to be able to chunk long words into syllables or units like prefixes and suffixes. If a reader is struggling with fluency or comprehension, we need to dig deeper. We examine their sound-level and word-level reading skills and look for problems there.

What Does This Mean?

So half of kids need explicit reading instruction. Within that group, 10-15% of all students will need lots and lots of intensive practice and teaching with phonics. This number correlates roughly with the number of dyslexic students. That doesn’t mean that all struggling readers are dyslexic. And it does not even mean that all dyslexic students will struggle to learn to read. But those numbers suggest that in a class of 20 first graders, at least 3 will need intensive reading instruction. If the core reading curriculum isn’t a good one, that number can be much higher.

What the School Does When Readers Struggle

Often, schools use a “response to intervention” approach to identify students with learning disabilities. (Dyslexia is an type of specific learning disability in reading and schools tend to use that term instead of dyslexia). RTI may involve putting students in small groups, giving them extra instruction where they struggle, or bringing in additional materials. Done well, this process can fill in skill gaps for students who struggle and also help to identify students who need the most help. Done poorly, this process can waste a child’s time with unfocused or ineffective instruction and delay testing and identification that gets them the support they need. If you request testing, or if the school suspects that your child has dyslexia or another learning disability, they are not allowed to use the RTI process to delay giving appropriate services.

Dyslexia is diagnosed by a qualified professional, through a combination of formal testing, observation, and review of educational history. Parents often find themselves driving this process when the school moves slowly. But deciding to “wait and see” can have grave consequences for children as the months and years tick by without their reading problems getting solved!

When Is Dyslexia Diagnosed?

Young children can be diagnosed before they ever try to learn to read. For most students, dyslexia isn’t identified until much later, in 3rd, 4th or even 5th grade. By that point, even the most devoted believers in “wait and see” start to sound alarms about a child who isn’t reading yet. And research shows that children who don’t learn to read until they are older often struggle all their lives. Reading instruction works at any age, but reading intervention is much quicker and more effective when students are younger, and the gaps are smaller.

Will dyslexia go away?


Dyslexia can be remediated. Struggling readers can learn the skills they lack. But a child with dyslexia grows up to be an adult with dyslexia. 

With the right teaching and plenty of support, many dyslexic adults are highly successful. They may choose careers where reading isn’t a barrier. They may also choose to tackle lots of challenging reading that is worth it to them because they are passionate about what they are learning. But they are still dyslexic. They will benefit from accommodations and tools like audio books, spellcheck, extended time, note-taking help, speech-to-text, and a family member or friend who will edit their written work. 

Will dyslexia go away for children whose needs aren’t met in school? 

Double nope. 

Doing nothing and hoping a struggling reader will “catch up” is harmful and unethical. It’s a practice leftover from the days of whole language teaching and it doesn’t work. Teachers used to think that if we just fostered a love of reading and read to kids enough, they would eventually catch on. Now we have an enormous amount of evidence about what kind of teaching works, and when it works best.

In many schools, these “late bloomers” don’t bloom at all. Poor readers in the early years become below average students later. They “miss a lot of details,” or“have a bad attitude” about schoolwork. Many become anxious, depressed, or disruptive in the classroom. And who can blame them? Kids wait years for their reading problems to be discovered and solved!

If this describes your child, contact us for a consultation today ! Find out how online Orton-Gillingham tutoring can help your struggling reader succeed!

What Should We Do For Struggling Readers?

If your child is struggling to learn to read, they need your love and support. They also need better instruction. Often, it falls to the parents to advocate for their children. This may begin with asking the teacher for data about your child’s reading, from classroom assessments. Be sure to get your child’s score and ask what the expectation is for students at this time of year.

It is important to know that “reading levels” – often a letter or number – are not accurate. Many schools require these tests, but they are a waste of time for teachers and students. Reading level assessments weren’t designed to help teach kids. They were designed to help teachers match kids with books. And they aren’t good for that, either. There are many better (and quicker!) ways to pinpoint the reading instruction a child needs. So if a teacher gives you a “reading level” for your child, ask for more information.

Next Steps

If your child is not making progress in reading, you can request a special education evaluation from the school district. Schools must find and evaluate students with suspected disabilities in the area they cover, even those who home school or attend private school.

Once the testing is complete, the school may offer an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan. This legal document lays out the instruction your child needs to make effective progress in the curriculum. It will include goals , accommodations and services, and will lay out specifically how often and where your child will receive help.

The IEP process is complex, but there are lots of resources out there to help you make sense of it. I recommend starting with your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter. Decoding Dyslexia is a network of parents and professionals working to improve education for students with dyslexia. They are an incredible resource for information and advocacy as you support your child.


Watching your child struggle with reading is disheartening and scary. We know how hard school can be, what challenges lie ahead. We picture them struggling to read a menu or a job application. In the evening, we hear them cry over homework. In the morning, we fight over getting ready for school.

Becoming an expert in dyslexia and reading challenges on top of parenting your child through her school years is a lot to take on. But the rewards are worth fighting for. The time and resources you invest now will pay educational dividends for years.

If your child is struggling to learn to read, contact us for a consultation today. Find out how online Orton-Gillingham tutoring can help your child succeed!

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