Many families have heard or used the advice that if your students is struggling to read, the “best thing you [parents] can do is read more.” While students certainly have to read to become better readers, students need specific skills to successfully read a book. Without those skills, trying to read a book is going to be painful.
I have informally observed this method being used by parents, and remember doing it myself as a child. Parents sit down with their struggling reader, and take 15 minutes to painfully sound out each individual word in the book. By the end, the child is fed up with reading, and the parent is at their wits end!
NOTE: If this happens to you, it is a clear sign that your reader is NOT ready to read that particular story. They don’t have the previous skill set needed to decode (or sound out, or find out) the words on the page.
What your student needs is to try an easier book, find a book with words your student can sound out, or “explicitly teach” the words and reading skills found within the book. Research shows that there are a portion of students who need to be taught specific rules and strategies for decoding words.
**Please note the cited research at the bottom of this article to support my claims.
Where To Start
Parents and teachers need to find out what their child already knows. If you’re a parent reading this article, you most likely do not have assessment or testing tools. That is alright! You can create your own assessments easily.
To assess what your child does know, take 3 or 4 words from a specific word list and mark which sounds your student misses. If they read all the words correctly, move on. If they miss the words, check and see what sounds they missed. Target those sounds. You may need to read more than 4 words to determine what sounds are actually causing problems.
For instance, if they missed the word “bloat,” but were able to find the sound “bl,” move on from the “bl” sounds. However, if the “oa” sound was missed, you may need to work on long vowel sounds with your student.
Use a couple words from these or other lists to find out what your child is successful and struggling with:
Sight Words (words that students need to memorize)
Use the missed words to help direct what types of words your student needs to be practicing.
How to Practice
Once you know what to practice, you can start making some flashcards. Start with the sounds that your student is missing. If they are struggling with the “ch” and “ck” sound, make those flash cards and practice the sounds together.
Make sure to use the teaching method I Do, We Do, You Do! This means you need to say the sound, then the student repeats it, and then the student can practice by just reading the sounds. If they miss the sound twice or more, go back to saying the sound together.
Once they have the sound successful. Pick some words from your lists that include the sound. Write those on the flashcards and practice reading them.
You should not introduce more than 2 or 3 sounds a day. Then if they can remember those sounds the next time you sit down to practice, you can introduce a new sound. This time period of practice will vary greatly from child to child.
A note on flashcards: Research shows that doing three new flashcards at a time is most helpful. Then just add one new one as the sounds/words are mastered. Do this up until about 7 flashcards, then let those sounds/words take a rest. Start over with three new ones. Then review the 7 old ones every couple practice sessions.
If you are looking for some scripted help with phonics and flashcards, check out my articles on educational interventions.
If you want some additional free tools to help your student, check out this website of free printable worksheets.
Tying Practice Into Reading
There are a two main ways to incorporate book reading into explicit reading instruction. First, you can find books that target the specific sounds you are working on (similar to Bob books or First Readers). Or you can pick a book that is around the student’s reading level (you’ll know this because it will have words in it that your student got correct on the assessment), and then review the hard words together BEFORE you start to read.
You can write the words down on a list, use flashcards, or whatever is easiest. Practice words pulled from a book should include specific vocabulary words, any words with sounds you have been practicing, and sight words that cannot be “sounded out” or decoded by your reader. Then go through the words with the I Do, We do, You Do method.
For instance, let’s pretend we are reading the book Green Eggs and Ham By Dr. Seuss. If the student was struggling with LONG vowel sounds, I would make sure to pull out: anywhere (sight word), here (sight word), there (sight word), mouse, house, train, rain, goat, boat, green, see, and maybe fox and box if the student has not encountered those sounds before.
After your student has practiced those words, it’s time to read! Practice this book until those tricky words have been read correctly.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Breaking down a book in these steps is a researched based method called explicit instruction. Many students can find reading success with just a little extra explicit instruction, but these steps are absolutely NOT a comprehensive guide of reading skill building exercises. If your student is still struggling after breaking down stories into these components, make sure to talk to a education or health professional right away. This might be an indicator of a learning disability.