When older kids struggle with reading

Girl looking upset at the idea of not being able to read easily

At a glance

  • Kids who struggle to read often develop unhelpful strategies, which only worsen the problems.
  • If your child is struggling with reading, it's important to act on it immediately.
  • It can take up to 12 months of consistent support for kids to start reading fluently, and the involvement of a parent or close adult is crucial.
  • It's vital that kids have access to books or online reading material that they love.
  • If reading together is traumatic in your house, do it in a café, or under a tree.

If your child is still struggling to read and write and they're heading for high school, there are ways to get them on the right page.

When older kids struggle to read and write, the issue can become fraught for the whole family. Parents can lose their patience and blame the child or themselves and the child loses their confidence and begins shying away from reading at all. Grades fall and interest in school can flag.

Often the problem starts very early, says Hayley Macdonald, a literacy consultant with the education department.

"Children haven't grasped the basics of sounding out words. By the time they get to high school they're so far behind their self-esteem is crippled."

Kids who struggle to read often try to hide it from teachers and parents, and develop unhelpful strategies, which only exacerbate the problems.

It's the team approach that actually works with kids, feeling the parent is on their side.Hayley Thomas Kandos High School

"They become very good at listening to the person next to them and working out the context of what's going on. Once that occurs they lose the vocabulary to use in their own writing and the problem becomes two-fold," Hayley says.

What parents can do when their child is struggling to read

"There is no quick fix when it comes to dramatically improving a child's reading and writing skills," Hayley says.

If your child is struggling with reading, it's important to act on it immediately. However, it's a commitment to your time as well as your child's. It can take up to 12 months of consistent support for children to start reading fluently, and the involvement of a parent or close adult is crucial.

It takes persistence, Hayley says.

"It needs to be approached in terms of it being a project. It's the team approach that actually works with kids – feeling the parent is on their side," she says.

"Allocating a quiet time where you can sit down with the child one-on-one and read with them, or getting the child to read to young siblings so the level is easier but the speed has to be kept up are helpful strategies."

Right kinds of books

Choice of books is paramount. Parents can help kids to make careful choices about what they read, Hayley says.

"Kids go to a library and they are swamped, so you need to make sure they are reading something that's appropriate," she says.

The choice also has to be the child's, she says.

"You can't force books on to kids, so you're looking for things that are relevant."

Introducing Australian material that your child can relate to is helpful, as are graphic novels (books that combine cartoon-like graphics and written text).

It's vital that kids have access to books or online reading material that they love. Associate Professor Kaye Lowe University of Canberra

Ensuring books are pitched at the right level is also important. Your child may be stumbling over a couple of words but still should be able to get the meaning of the story. This is where a librarian can help, Hayley says.

Associate Professor Kaye Lowe, from the University of Canberra, who oversees the program U-CAN READ: Literacy Intervention, says it's vital that kids have access to books or online reading material that they love "because really it's about keying into where the child is at".

"You need to look at what a child is already good at and what they value in their lives, like skateboarding, music, cars or horses for instance. These interests are the bridge to literacy," she says.

Kaye says older children with reading problems often have misconceptions about how reading works and they need additional strategies to help them.

Ways to encourage effective reading in older children

  • Ask your child what subjects they would like to read about.
  • When reading with your child, limit reading time to 10 minutes of quality time – and make it fun.
  • If reading together is traumatic in your house, do it in a café, or under a tree.
  • Before reading aloud, orient your child to the text by talking about it beforehand. Look at unfamiliar words, for example.
  • Encourage your child to predict what a word could be based on the meaning.
  • Try ‘echo reading'. Depending on the text, read a sentence, paragraph or page aloud first, and then get your child to read it.
  • Try ‘shared reading'. Take turns reading sentences or paragraphs. You read the first sentence and your child the next.
  • Read aloud and encourage your child to mimic you by following along behind you. Trace your finger under the words in a fluent way to show where you are reading. Avoid reading word by word.
  • Praise the reading, not the reader – say things such as, "I liked how you read on to find more information."
  • Give older children opportunities to order from menus, read recipe books or select from the TV guide.
  • Make the most of emails and the internet, which also require reading and writing.
  • Take time to play word games such as Scrabble or Pictionary
  • Irrespective of a child's age, read to them regularly.
  • Celebrate their successes.

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