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Looking for help homeschooling a struggling reader.

Hi, I'm an Aussie mum with a son who is struggling to read. I wanted to give you some background and ask you advice. My son is in year four this year. When he began school, he went to a small, private school that had a strong phonics program. He was there for kindergarten and year one. His reading was progressing fine and he was shining in every area he attempted. That school closed and we had to change schools. This new school recognized phonics but did not work reinforcing phonics or going over the rules and how to sound out words. He was there for two years. Currently we are away from Australia and I have been homeschooling for a year now. I plan to continue this when we go home to Australia in October. My son has had his eyes tested before we left last year and the eye doctor found that his visual memory and visual sequencing were both very poor. I'm not sure exactly what this means but I know it does effect his reading. He is very good at math, in fact, last year he finished his grade 3 book, a grade 4 book and was ready to start the grade 5 book, but his reading has held him back severely. The doctor gave us some exercises to help. I have noticed that his eyes often drop below the line he is reading and also he constantly mixes up words like for/of, that/what, where/were, here/there etc… and really struggles to sound out new words. He's a bright boy and finds it very frustrating! What I thought, was that when we get home, to purchase a good phonics program and start again with how to pronounce different sounds etc… and also to go back to the eye doctor and see what he had to say. What would you advise? My son really hates writing, it's always a struggle to get him to write much more than four lines. He really likes drawing (stick figures, planes etc...) and he's very creative with his Lego. I would really appreciate your input. Thanks for your help.

Hello, Thanks for your email. Here are my thoughts: I am asking myself if your son is having difficulty because of incomplete phonics instruction or if he is having difficulty acquiring the skill of sounding out words. Children in Kindergarten and first grade (especially very bright children) may seem to read well because they memorize words easily and use the pictures and concept of the story line to help them figure out the words. These are good reading strategies when used in conjunction with sounding out words. Once a child gets to third grade, the quantity of reading gets so large that these tactics (with out the added skill of sounding out words) cannot suffice. I have worked with hundreds of kids and the majority of them have been in 3rd and 4th grade. Even a minor reading issue will become evident in third grade since this is where a student is required to read independently. In the United States, this expectation is extremely sudden. In second grade, the students are still reading picture books and learning to sound out words, the very next year they are required to read chapter books independently. A lot of the parents I have worked with report that their children seemed fine until third grade. "The teacher never said anything to us about his reading and now he is falling way behind." If you think that your son is having difficulty because he had incomplete phonics instruction, then perhaps some supplemental phonics might be a good idea. If you think that he has already had efficient phonics instruction and is still having difficulty with phonics, a full reading assessment would be suggested to identify any issues. Let's Go Learn, Inc. offers an on-line reading assessment. If you decide you want to pursue assessment and would rather have an assessment in person, look for someone in your area who specializes in reading assessment and instruction. Make sure any assessment you choose measures all parts of reading; sounding-out words, memorizing words, spelling, reading in context, reading comprehension, listening comprehension and vocabulary.

I have heard people say again and again that the child they are working with just needs "more phonics." Sometimes that is true, but sometimes the reason the student is not catching-on to phonics is not because of lack of instruction. I am remembering a student I worked with in Texas five years ago. She was a sixth grader; let's call her Stacey. Stacey was one of the smartest, brightest kids I ever worked with, she was almost senatorial. She could handle herself in a room full of adults, participating in the conversation, making witty comments etc. Stacey was attending a special education school. Stacey could not read. She had been in an intensive phonics program for four years with virtually undetectable progress. Stacey had extremely poor phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to distinguish sounds within words. Phonemic awareness is a major indicator for reading ability. A person with strong phonemic awareness will usually learn to read with just about any type of reading instruction. A person with poor phonemic awareness may have a very difficult time no matter what type of instruction. Phonemic awareness is a processing ability necessary for a student to learn how to sound out words.

If your son has phonemic awareness weakness, he will probably mix up words, stumble over sounding out words and spell poorly. This could be the reason that your son hates writing and gets fatigued after only a few lines. If he is putting a heap of cognitive effort into spelling each and every word, writing will be an exhaustive exercise. I find that these same kids often seem exhausted when just copying words from one page to another.  However, some of the instruction might be a little "young" for your son. You might have to modify it a bit. I have found that kids around the age of your son are becoming aware of being "cool", therefore I try to make the whatever lessons I am teaching seem hip. Best of luck to you, feel free to contact me with more questions. Happy Reading!

Tags: homeschool instruction, reading instruction, writing instruction, phonemic awareness

  1. Jenna
    Reply 11/06/11

    I am the mom of a struggling reader as well. We started out journey a long time ago. I tried many different things at home to help him improve reading such as - have him read out loud, NOT making him sit still, and using a timer to avoid power struggles. You can see them all here -’s-perspective/

    Again, I am not a reading expert but last year my son got very good grades and his reading has improved so much.

    Good luck

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