Help For an Older Child with Reading Problems

By Margie Gillis, Ed.D. with Sheryl Knapp, M.Ed., CIT/ASAP

At a glance

Middle and high-school children that struggle with reading benefit from explicit instruction in the same areas used to help younger children. The major difference is that the interventions are adjusted for age and experience • Areas for explicit instruction include phonemic awareness, word study, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension


Teenage girl studying with textbooksWhen it comes to adolescents with reading difficulties, research shows that interventions should consist of the core elements listed below. These are the same interventions used with younger struggling readers, however they’re adjusted for age and experience.

1. Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is the ability to blend and segment speech sounds (phonemes) in words. Reading is a language-based activity, making phonemic awareness a critical skill. Older struggling readers can benefit from explicit instruction in manipulating speech sounds, transferring this knowledge to reading.

2. Word Study
Students who have difficulty reading must be taught decoding skills, also known as phonics. Although the teaching of phonics continues to be controversial, research shows that skilled readers intuitively decode words, whether they have been taught to do it or not. Older struggling students must be given the tools to sound out unfamiliar words. They require instruction that includes:

  • Sound-symbol relationships. The English language contains 44 sounds, created from 26 letters. Readers must learn the sound(s) associated with each letter and letter combination.
  • Syllable types. Most words adolescents come across when they read contain more than one syllable. Struggling readers need to learn how to break words into syllables and to sound out each of these syllables.
  • Morphology. By learning to dissect words into their meaningful units (morphemes)—roots, prefixes, and suffixes—students become better able to decipher unfamiliar words.
  • Word attack. Students need to be taught that there are certain irregular words that they should not try to decode, such as “some” and “one.”

The above decoding concepts should be integrated with spelling concepts, as decoding and spelling patterns reinforce each other.

Finally, it is critical that older students learn to apply these word-study strategies to academic work, in order to understand content they read in their classes.

3. Fluency
Fluent readers read quickly, accurately, and with appropriate intonation. The decoding process is so skilled and automatic—like the snap of a finger, 250 milliseconds from eye to production—that it often appears that individual letters or words are skipped. Research shows that is not the case.

In contrast, non-fluent readers read slowly and laboriously, at times in a monotone voice or with punctuation omitted. This impacts comprehension as energy is spent on sounding out words as opposed to thinking about their meaning.

The best way to build fluency is to read as much as possible—a challenge when dealing with adolescents who have developed a dislike for reading.

4. Vocabulary
Knowing what words mean is a strong predictor of reading aptitude, affecting the ability to decode, read fluently, and comprehend. Although research regarding how to improve vocabulary is sparse, we do know that vocabulary can be taught via word study, or dissecting words into meaningful components (as described above). But ultimately, the best way to expose adolescents to new words is through reading: older students are exposed to more novel words when reading books, magazines or newspapers than when talking with peers or watching TV. To maintain vocabulary, students must use the words in conversation, writing assignments, etc.

5. Comprehension
Comprehension is the highest-level reading skill, with difficulties attributable to an array of problems, from poor decoding and fluency skills to language comprehension or attention difficulties. The first step in teaching comprehension to a struggling reader is to determine where the comprehension process breaks down. Comprehension strategies must be taught individually and systematically, and include extensive modeling and practice until the student “owns” them and can apply them in isolated situations.

Act Now
Teaching reading is urgent. If a student doesn’t get the help he needs, he will have to keep playing catch-up. It’s not unusual for a student to have to make up one to three years in a single year in order to close the gap.

The longer a student struggles, the greater are the motivational challenges. When it comes to reading, kids as young as first grade know when they are unsuccessful—and often avoid it like the plague, which impacts vocabulary development, reading fluency, comprehension and, ultimately, learning.

This article is based on a presentation by Margie Gillis, Ed.D., co-sponsored by Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities and NorwalkSEEKS, and written by Sheryl Knapp, President of Literacy Learning of Connecticut.

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