How to cope with reading difficulty

You've noticed your child has a specific problem with reading and already have a reading or speech therapist involved. The thing is that you may feel completely helpless because it feels like there is nothing YOU can do. The good news is that there is quite a bit you can do by just learning a few tips.

For each type of reading problem there are things you can do at home to help your child speed up their progress.

Comprehension difficulties

Children who battle with comprehension have difficulties remembering what they just read (details in the story, sequence of events, characters, etc.) The skills needed for comprehension are decoding what has been read, making connections between what they read and what they already know, and thinking deeply about what they read.  It is important that they understand the meanings of enough words (have a good vocabulary) too.

Signs of difficulty with comprehension:
  • Take a long time to read and seem confused at the end of the story
  • Battle to answer questions about what they just read
  • Are not sure what parts of the story were important
  • Can't create an image in their minds about what was going on
  • Focus on specific details but miss the point of the story as a whole

How to help:
  • Encourage your child to read stories in short sections and make sure they know what's going on before continuing.
  • Ask your child questions about what he just read and try and connect the events to his own life.  For example, "How would you feel if you were the main character?"
  • Help your child learn to make connections between what she reads and similar experiences she has felt, seen in a movie or read in another book.
Encourage your child to look up words he doesn't understand.

Slow reader

Children who read slowly all have one thing in common: they battle to recognise words. They get stuck on words they can't read or go back to re-read sentences when they don't understand what they just read.

Signs of a slow reader:
  • Often stop to try and sound out words
  • Don't recognise words they should know
  • Repeat sentences
  • Reading seems laboured
  • Skip words altogether
  • Read without expression
  • Read below their grade level in terms of speed (chart below)

How to help:
  • Ask your child if their eyes get tired when they read. Often a vision problem leads to eye strain which slows reading down. If you suspect a problem, have their eyes tested.
  • Use audio books (the ones that come with a book). For the first reading, ask your child to follow the story by pointing to the words as they are read out. For the second time round, have your child read along with the CD. If they get stuck, encourage them to just skip that part and keep going. Repeat this process until they are reading the story fluently and keeping up with the narrator. Now, have them read the book to you without the CD. By practising this with a number of books there will be a quick improvement.
  • Practice, practice, practice. The more your child reads, the faster he/she will get. This is because they will learn new words all the time and recognising them in the future becomes easier the more they practice.

Expected reading speeds for each grade (words per minute):

Grade    Words per minute
1                     75
2                    100
3                    120
4                    150
5                    170
6                    185
7                    195
8                    205
9                    215
10                  225
11                  235
12                  250
Adult              280

Spelling errors

One of the biggest reading nightmares for parents is when their children battle to spell.  Even good readers sometimes battle with spelling, because very often words aren't spelt the way they sound.
To spell well you need to have a good visual memory, know how to break words up into syllables and have loads of practice.

Signs of a spelling problem:
  • Spelling the same word incorrectly each time (incorrectly learned words)
  • Swopping letters around
  • Spelling words the way they sound, not the way they look
  • Writing too fast so that entire syllables are missed (called "telescoping")
  • Writing letters of the words in the wrong order
  • Battling to break words into their syllables

How to help:
  • Drilling - the more your child practices, the better they will be. Try and use as many senses as possible though. For example, instead of writing out words over and over, form the words with clay or in the sand, or ask you child to say the letters as they write the word.
  • Highlight the difficult parts. Some words are only hard in some parts (like the word 'beautiful'). Tell your child to make the hard part of the word a different colour when they practice. Or have them say that part of the word in a different accent or in an exaggerated way to help them memorise the spelling.
  • Have fun spelling tests. As you go through the day, randomly ask your child to spell words. For example, "Oh look, there's a bird.  How do you spell 'bird' again?"
  • Don't try to drill your child on more than 3 to 5 words a day. Rather practice the same ones over and over than trying to do too much at once. So don't let them study the night before for a big spelling test!
  • Play spelling games. For example, buy magnetic letters for the fridge and have your child not only make a new word every day, but spell a word incorrectly yourself and ask him to correct it.
  • Play word games like scrabble, hangman, word search, charades and crossword puzzles.
  • Teach visualisation skills. Start by having your child memorise four pictures of common items (playing cards are great), then have them close their eyes while you take all of the pictures away. When they open their eyes, hand them the pictures in a mixed-up order and have them put them in the order they saw them. Move on to five or six pictures, then try nonsense words, like, 'yob', 'guit' or 'derz'. Eventually, add real words into the sets. This exercise helps children increase their visual memory.

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