How Do I Help My Hesitant Reader Feel Successful?

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned trying to help students with their reading and writing, it’s that they need to feel successful. Already successful ones and struggling ones all need to feel like they’re doing well.

Students who have support at home, or who already know about a topic feel successful because they know they can ask questions, or get help just by asking. They don’t feel dumb asking for help. They already have a level of confidence in an ability, so they don’t worry about losing status with other people.

According to my experience, it’s difficult for a student who feels lost on an assignment, or knows he can’t spell, to do an assignment all on his own. He knows he’s not up to par with his peers, particularly in middle school or high school when classes tend to move so quickly.

So what? What can be done? It’s too late right? She’s already supposed to know how to read and understand, and infer meaning. He’s already supposed to know how to form a logical argument, or write a great paragraph.

What you can do:

  • Take it slow. Practice. When it comes to reading, it’s okay to choose books that might be “too young”, so long as your reader is interested in the topic. The general rule is, if the reader is spending more time trying to decode unknown words than reading, the text is too difficult. A reader should be able to understand roughly 75% of what he or she is reading at grade level*.
  • Start small. If your reader is 12, you shouldn’t be tackling The Hobbit, or The Life of Pi. Maybe she would love the story, but we’re looking for opportunities to succeed. The BFG, Winnie the Pooh, or stories by Dr. Seuss are shorter and have more accessible vocabulary. Comic books like Bone, where pictures help tell the story, can help your reader feel successful.
  • Nursery rhymes might be the key. There’s something about rhymes and word learning. Nursery rhymes are easy to remember. Reading out loud to hear similar sounds can be fun, and there’s some confidence in being able to recite something from memory.
  • Take turns reading, and read out loud. If your reader is sitting down with you, don’t drag out the pain of pronouncing a word. Tell him what the word is. Say it once or twice, and move on. In order to learn a new name or a new word, we need to hear it and say it at least 7 times. The more your reader can hear and see the words, the more likely he’ll remember.
  • Be patient. The reading doesn’t get easier, the reader gets better at reading.

As a teacher, sometimes I grade for effort and not ability. If I know a student is struggling with reading or writing, I tell her my expectation, and then modify it based on her ability. I expect all of my students to read 2 to 3 books per term. Some of them feel overwhelmed by the idea of reading 2 books. I tell her individually and privately, that if the book is too hard, don’t waste time on it. Pick another one. If the book is really big, I might suggest something smaller, maybe something nonfiction, maybe some poetry. I should see growth, and she should feel accomplishment.

I really believe everyone likes to read; they just need to find the book that interests them enough to keep going.
Keep going. Keep reading. Be patient.





*Carver, Ronald P. “PERCENTAGE OF UNKNOWN VOCABULARY WORDS IN TEXT AS A                  FUNCTION OF THE RELATIVE DIFFICULTY OF THE TEXT: IMPLICATIONS FOR                       INSTRUCTION” Journal of Reading Behavior, 1994, Vol 26, No 4. Date Access Nov 5,              2018.

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