Reading is a fundamental skill in life. We read constantly to negotiate our way through the world even though we rarely realize we do it. Maps, signs, brochures, forms, email, texts, cereal boxes, junk mail. Each text we encounter requires us to read, comprehend and interpret the information presented nearly instantaneously.
And yet, reading is a skill many students will struggle with in school starting in kindergarten and progressing through high school and into college. As a teacher, it’s important to understand the biggest barriers students will face on their journey to becoming fluent readers who can work through and negotiate all manner and complexities of texts.
The three reasons given here for why a child will struggle with reading do not represent a comprehensive list. By knowing your learners and their needs, you can best assess how to work with readers to overcome their struggles.
A broad vocabulary has long been documented to affect reading skills in students. The bigger the vocabulary, the greater the academic success. Often, students who struggle to read also struggle to understand key academic vocabulary words and don’t have skills to attack new words to discover word meaning independently.
Vocabulary acquisition begins at an early age and research shows the impact socio-economic status has on that acquisition. Students from professional, middle-class families hear, on average, 11 million words per year, while students raised in poverty hear just 3 million words.
By exposing students with weak reading skills to high-level, academic vocabulary and teaching them skills to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words, teachers can help students overcome reading challenges at every grade level.
Students may also struggle to read because they lack the background knowledge about a topic to engage in a reading assignment or task. This barrier to reading mirrors the deficiencies in vocabulary a student experiences.
The more widely read a student is and the more vocabulary he knows, the more background knowledge he brings to assignments. Students with lower reading skills, not surprisingly, read less. Research shows top students read more than 8 million words per year while lower performing students read less than 60,000 words.
Teachers can overcome this obstacle by providing students with background knowledge about a subject before beginning reading. Students with higher levels benefit from pre-reading activities as well because it activates the prior knowledge they have and prepares them for the reading task, too.
Reading comprehension is also closely linked to students’ oral fluency. Oral fluency in the reading classroom has two key definitions. First, it indicates how many words a student can read aloud correctly. The higher the score, the higher the fluency.
Secondly, it also refers to what’s called emotional prosody, or the ability to read a passage of text emphatically, using speech, tone and pitch to read expressively and give a passage more meaning.
Students who struggle in reading usually struggle in both areas. They trip over words, mispronounce more common words and have lower word-per-minute scores. They also will read passages of text in a monotone, without attention to when and where they breathe, aiming for speed rather than expressiveness.
Finally, some students come to school with disabilities that get in the way of reading such as dyslexia, communication disorders and other concerns. Teachers should work with their special education departments to identify students with disabilities and craft individual education plans to meet their needs.
Reading is a fundamental skill all students need. Recognizing the most common struggles students face in reading can help you design lessons so students can overcome those barriers and find reading success. These principles are taught in early childhood classes for those interested in becoming an early childhood development professional.