4 Strategies for Struggling Readers

How to help struggling readers improve their reading

Previously we wrote about 9 Literacy Strategies for Reading Comprehension. It dealt with ways to help students understand what they were reading so that they could completely immerse themselves in the text. But what if you have a student who is struggling or is finding reading hard?

In this article, we focus on four main areas: Fluency, Phonological Awareness, Before/During/After Reading, and Word Analysis or Spelling.

Before we begin, we need to have a look into the difference between a student's independent reading level and their instructional reading level.


The Difference Between Independent Reading Level and Instructional Reading Level

You will often see the terms independent reading level and instructional reading level when doing research into how students learn to read. A students’ independent reading level is when they know most of the words and can comprehend the text without too much difficulty. These books are “just right” for a student because when they are read aloud it sounds fluent and is comfortable for the student to read. They do not extend their ability but solidify their reading through practice.

Instructional reading level is more challenging for students as it is at the edge of their ability. They are able to read the text, however, it may not be as fluent or comfortable for the student. It is not, however, too hard that they can not connect with it. A text of this level a student should still be able to read about 90% of the words. Consider instructional reading as a way to instruct the teacher as to what level the student should be on.

To help you determine a students’ reading level, simply have the student read an unread passage. If they can read it with 97% to 100% accuracy then that is their reading level. In general, a target rate of 85 words per minute for a second grade student, 110 words per minute for third grade, fourth grade is 120 words per minute and fifth grade should be around 130 words per minute. On average for all age groups, students should be improving at least two words each minute per week. If they are not, they will need some form of additional practice.

To monitor student progress, use a text that is one level above their current reading and instructional level. If they have improved, then alter their text accordingly. Regular monitoring is important to ensure students are progressing at their own pace and not being left behind.


Fluency is being able to decode text and read with accuracy, speed, and appropriate expression (ie. intonation, stress, and pauses). A student who can read fluently is able to focus more on the comprehension, rather than decoding. They can, therefore, interpret the text, draw their own conclusions as they read, and analyse concepts.

Repetition, or reading and rereading words or passages, is an easy way to develop fluency, as long as the text is appropriate to their reading level. The theory is, the more a student is exposed to reading, the better they will become. The words or passages chosen can include familiar texts, poems or word cards. For a struggling reader, building their confidence is essential. Playing word games like “Sight Word Slap” using Learning Solution’s Super Sight Word Bundle is an excellent way to help students feel at ease around words. There’s a variety of ways to play the game depending on the students' abilities.

Another amazing resource that focuses on fluency and reading comprehension is Let’s Practise Our Reading Comprehension by Guinea Pig Education. It is an excellent starting point for students to increase their oral and written skills.

Struggling readers need explicit teaching  Use Fry's sight word bundle to help student fluency

Phonological Awareness

Phonological Awareness refers to the awareness of the sounds in words. It includes the ability to identify and make rhymes as well as the ability to identify, blend, segment, and substitute words in sentences, syllables in words, onsets and rimes, and individual sounds in words (phonemes). It is difficult for a student to be fluent if they do not understand the sounds of letters and letter combinations. Generally, fluency and phonological awareness go hand in hand.

Phonological awareness activities are usually oral. Pictures may be used as an assistance tool, however, they should be used only as a last resort as they take the focus away from the letters and their sounds. A student will obviously use the image rather than the text to express meaning.

Students struggling with reading should be explicitly taught phonological awareness in a focused manner. Teachers must make clear to students such concepts as rhyming, syllabication, and segmentation of words into onsets-rimes and/or individual phonemes. Extra time must be given to allow students to adequately process the task and to provide responses. Teachers may also want to limit the focus of each lesson to only one or two skills in order to ensure student understanding and retention of the skill.

Again, Learning Solutions has you covered with a variety of intervention resources. The Race Day Phonics Games is a series of 18 games and a variety of activities designed specifically around teaching phonics. If you’re not sure what you need, this Free Literacy Mega Bundle has a heap of different games, activities, and screeners to assess progress.

Use games to help struggling readers understand phonics Help your struggling readers with a large collection of resources

Before/During/After Reading

Explicitly teaching the generalisation of word patterns and decoding strategies is essential for students with reading difficulties. A “decodable book” may be used to reinforce and transfer the reading of words with particular patterns from isolated cards to connected text to increase their word knowledge.

Pre-reading activities. These activities are an excellent way for students to have a general understanding of the text to help improve their comprehension as well as their ability to identify unknown words. Even as adults, we pick up a book, look at the cover, flick through the pages, maybe read the blurb, flick again and then decide whether the book will interest us. We make assumptions on the story such as the characters and the setting. “Walking” students through the book by looking at the pictures, talking about the title, and activating their background knowledge, means that when they come to read, they are more confident in the context for reading.

During reading. As students read, provide support in decoding and monitor their comprehension by asking simple questions about the text they have read. If the goal is to gain familiarity with a particular word pattern, then decodable books that focus on a pattern may be the best choice. However, if the goal is to have students use their knowledge of word analysis strategies, then choosing instructional-level books may be more appropriate. You may also want to keep a word bank of frequently missed words and have the students review the words. Once students have learned a particular decoding strategy or pattern, it is important to hold them accountable for reading the pattern whenever it appears.

After reading. An effective way of teaching students to use comprehension strategies, such as predicting, self-questioning, and summarising, is to model the use of the strategies. To allow time for discussion, identify appropriate breakpoints in longer texts and read them over several days. Finally, students benefit from rereading books; therefore, they need opportunities for independent practice. Teaching comprehension strategies through modeling, discussion, and checking for understanding is an integral part of instructional reading and should be part of every lesson.

The book Why Crocodiles Smile and the accompanying worksheets by debj, are an excellent way to introduce reading concepts to your students.

Cric Croc is an excellent book for students

Word Analysis/Spelling

This strategy focuses on very explicit instruction in the use of word analysis for both reading and writing. The main objective is to have students learn the rules of spelling and apply their knowledge of the alphabet in order to read words. Students’ reading and spelling levels will guide the level of instruction required. Lessons on word analysis will include the introduction or review of new spelling patterns, an explanation of the differences and similarities between patterns, and “exceptions to the rule”. For students with persistent reading difficulties, only one or two new patterns should be introduced at a time. The longer struggling readers have to practice and reinforce these patterns before learning a new one supports the retention and transfer of word patterns or decoding strategies. This will help students move from reading individual words and words in isolation to sentences and paragraphs. No matter the pattern taught, students must have learned the sounds of the letters within a pattern prior to teaching it. Word analysis and spelling can often be used on conjunction with Phonological Awareness or Instructional Reading activities. For example, the skills students use during word analysis to blend letter sounds to read words, or to segment words, are similar to the skills they use during phonological awareness.

Learning Solutions has developed a plethora of resources around phonological awareness that focus on using gameplay to increase student involvement, such as Prefixes, Suffixes, Latin/Greek Roots + 35 Card Games.

Homophones are part of learning reading

No matter how you teach a struggling reader, remember that time and patience are the best strategies. Is there a particular activity you like to do with your students who haven’t quite grasped reading yet?

Have a read of the 9 Literacy Strategies for Writing to help your students gain their written confidence as well or use our Questioning Techniques to help ascertain students understanding.