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Boosting Literacy: Fun and Effective Ways to Help Struggling Readers

April Lesh | January 29, 2024

I have been homeschooling for over a decade now, and if you asked me what aspects have been most rewarding, most intimidating, and most frustrating, my answer would be the same for all three: teaching kids how to read!

Reading feels a bit like magic. A bunch of symbols march neatly on a page, and as your eyes skim the lines, your brain rapidly decodes these squiggly little characters; lo and behold, you are suddenly experiencing emotions, living an adventure, formulating an argument, and agreeing or disagreeing with an author!

Teaching the Love of Reading

I remember gazing at my first preschooler, wondering how I was going to instill in him this magical reading power. And how could I bequeath not just the capability of decoding but the joy of reading? I didn’t want my children to simply understand the meaning, the pronunciation, and the context of a sentence. I wanted them to relish the smell of new books and the crackle of pages beneath their fingers, to feel the sand on their faces as they wrangled stallions in the Arabian deserts, to taste the salt spray as they sailed to Treasure Island, and to laugh and cry with the characters I had known as a child. I wanted them to love reading!

So began my quest to create a cozy and fun reading environment. (Full disclosure: an embarrassingly inordinate number of my reading lessons end with my blissful snoozing on the couch while a six-year-old impertinently whispers, “Mom? Mom!? Did you hear that word? C-A-T!” To which I hastily mumble, “Yes, your reading is fantastic… Reading practice is done now… go play…” You know those rare moments when you snag a few seconds of daytime REM sleep… well, they are simply indispensable for that boost you need to endure until Second Breakfast.) All that to say, maybe don’t make your reading lessons quite so cozy, or else you may suffer a similar slumbering fate. Below are my top tips for surviving and thriving while your child is learning to read.

Relax. There Is No Perfect Age for Learning to Read.

I have been awed to watch my children transition from the mutually excruciating ten-minute lessons of sounding out simple words to hours of absorption in difficult novels. I have nine children. Their learning styles have been as varied as their personalities. We have seen reading fluency at ages ranging from four to eleven. I cannot emphasize this enough: there is truly not a standard age by which reading mastery must be achieved. When your children are learning to read, your primary responsibility is to create a loving environment conducive to education. Nurture their love of reading, lay the phonics foundations, and then rest in the sovereignty of God. Learning to read can be challenging for a child, and teaching reading can be challenging for us moms! Be patient with your children; be patient with yourself.


Use the Orton-Gillingham Method.

If you have a struggling reader, and especially if you are dealing with dyslexia, research the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading. This method focuses on the learning needs of the individual and is direct and sequential. Children with dyslexia need more assistance sorting and understanding the language material, and the Orton-Gillingham style will provide the logical and systematic foundation they need. We have worked with dyslexia in our home, and I have found that these students, in particular, need structure and orderly sequencing, less new material at each lesson, and lots of extra review time.


Be Discerning. Is Your Child Genuinely Trying?

If your daughter is still struggling to read at age ten, she is where she is. Don’t pressure yourself, don’t pressure her, don’t reveal your inner frustration, and don’t lie awake at night wondering why you have failed as a homeschool mom. Ascertain first whether or not she is giving reasonable effort. If she is making a substantial effort, half the battle is won. You cannot ask more than what a child is capable of producing. She may simply be learning at her own pace. If, however, you observe that she isn’t exerting herself, pause and evaluate. What is working? What isn’t? Are you devoting adequate time to reading practice? Have you considered dyslexia? Vision problems? Is she discouraged?  Embarrassed? You cannot solve a problem until you have accurately diagnosed the source.


Be Brief. Be Consistent.

This is where I have struggled as a homeschool mom. Because we have a large family, and the interruptions are eternal, it is tempting for me to be swayed by the tyranny of the urgent. Whether it’s dirty diapers from the baby or sudden starvation from the four-year-old, it is easy for snacks or chores or playing referee in sibling battles to take precedence over the daily reading practice. I have had to fight for consistency. But I know from experience that reading skills improve more with ten-minute daily lessons than with a one-hour crash course that only occurs once a week. Make it short; make it feasible. When I was orchestrating lengthy lessons, I secretly dreaded them almost as much as my kids; you most assuredly will not get through those phonics charts if mom is dreading the assignment!

Here are some inexpensive and fun reading activities for kindergarten:

  •     Play Old Maid or Go Fish with letter cards.
  •     Spread letters or words on the floor and let the kids drive their toy cars or run their stuffed animals to each one you call out.
  •     Paint phonograms on wooden circles or blocks. Have the kids mix them up to make new words. (I cut an old branch crosswise and painted on each circle- it was free, and the letters were virtually indestructible.)
  •     Play hide and seek by hiding letters in the homeschool room.
  •     Use sensory play for the kinesthetic kids. Glue macaroni noodles in the shapes of each letter, draw words in moon sand or bins of rice, and color pictures of new phonograms and sight words.
  •     Reward them with a chocolate chip (or, for the crunchy moms, a healthier equivalent!) for each list of sight words they memorize.
  •     Reward them for each reading level they conquer. (Trips into town with mom work great around here because they often include a stop at a cafe or a treat at the store.)
  •     Hang up artistic creations of each new word learned. We once had paper trains of new letter sounds hanging across our dining room, and it was exciting for the little guys to see new boxcars added each day. (It did, however, throw off my vintage farmhouse decor vibe, so I can’t say the trains were long-lived!)
  •     For older children, play Scrabble (or the fast-paced variant, Squabble), Boggle, Bananagrams, or Word Bingo.
  •     For older readers who are still struggling, have them “teach” the younger siblings. This is a great way to sneak in extra review time and help them feel accomplished.

Do Not Compare. Comparison is the Thief of Joy.

You must not— indeed, I expressly forbid you to— compare your student to anyone else! Not his genius sibling, not that homeschool friend who speaks seven languages, not even the illiterate video game addict down the street (although that may bring a modicum of satisfaction.) Your child is on his own timetable. He is a unique individual created by God for the glory of God. And God has a plan for his life! If your first son is eagerly translating Shakespeare at age four— wonderful! But before you become puffed with pride in your mad homeschool skills, wait until son number six comes along and refuses to come within twelve yards of a textbook without copious bribes in the form of chocolate candies.


Make it Pleasant. Make it Fun.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, create a joyful reading atmosphere in your home. Clear the clutter, if possible, before reading time, and give the kids a clean space to focus. I read out loud to the children nearly every day. This typically involves treats: cookies and milk, muffins and hot tea, or popcorn and hot chocolate. I want to cultivate pleasant memories around reading time, because if they appreciate mom reading out loud, they will be motivated to read on their own even when mom is unavailable.

Although the learning process can be difficult, reading itself should not be viewed as a chore but a challenge. The best education takes place when children feel loved, accepted, secure, and encouraged. (Oh, yeah, and when they have full bellies.) If you can provide a cozy, comfortable home and a cheerful, calm attitude, you and your child are well on the way to enjoying this reading journey. (If you are reading this while a baby smashes oatmeal in your hair, a toddler gnaws your socks off, your preschoolers bash each other with couch cushions, and your homeschool environment is anything but clean and quiet… don’t despair!) Love your children, and take one day at a time. Build sweet relationships with your little readers, and I promise that education will follow. You’re a homeschooling mom; you’ve got this!