Overcome the 4 Common Problems in Learning to Read in English

It feels like every month, at least a few parents share their frustrations with me about how hard it is to improve their child’s reading.  “She doesn’t know many words.” “He reads very slowly.” “He can’t sit still.” “She just doesn’t like to read.” I don’t possess the perfect solution for every situation, but I can share some of the practices my wife and I use to encourage our two children to enjoy reading.  We have incorporated these principles into the experience at Everest Education as well.

It may feel like a quick win for Vietnamese parents to see their children first say “Hello!” in English to a foreigner, but real English mastery requires building effective reading comprehension skills.  Reading involves a subtle progression over a long period of time, but it is no less important than effective verbal communication. Serious learners of Academic English must develop all four skills together: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Reading specifically has been proven through research to be the most effective way to acquire new vocabulary.  It is not only the lynchpin to acquire linguistic fluency, but it also builds our knowledge of the world around us and is the foundation for learning all subjects.

We have found that children may struggle with reading for a variety of reasons, but below are the issues I hear about most frequently.

#1. “She doesn’t know many words.”

In most schools, students in one class are required to move as one group and read the same text. As a result, many children are not reading texts at the appropriate level, and inevitably reading this way becomes too hard.

Children will often try to skip ahead when they encounter words they don’t recognize, and when it is just one or two words in a sentence, students can use context to learn new words.  But the more words and phrases that students skip, the harder it is to understand the meaning. If students feel like this is a constant battle where they fail to make progress, their frustration will build quickly.

#2. “He reads very slowly.”

By middle school, being able to read quickly becomes increasingly important.  Students who read slowly face big uphill challenges when it is time to do homework or take tests.  Sounding out unfamiliar words becomes a more demanding task cognitively, and it requires students to hold more information in their short term memory just to understand the text.  This not only makes reading English challenging, but it can really hurt academic performance in other subjects too.

With slow reading comes slow processing speed.  Processing speed is the pace at which we take in information, make sense of it, and begin to respond. It has nothing to do with how smart children are – just how fast they can take in and use information. For example, when a child with slow processing speed sees the letters that make up the word aggressive, she may not immediately know what they mean. She has to figure out what strategy to use to decode the meaning of the letters. It’s not that she can’t read. It’s just that a process that’s quick and automatic for other students takes longer and requires more effort for her.

Let me repeat that for emphasis. Just because your child is a slow reader does not mean she can’t read or isn’t intelligent. We have found repeatedly how students who have weaknesses in their reading comprehension feel like they are “dumb” when they can’t follow along as quickly as others. The reality is often that they have not yet developed their reading processing speeds, and so processing information just takes more time. Fortunately, this is a skill that can be honed over time with targeted coaching and deliberate practice.

In high school, in college, and as a working adult, slow reading leads to more serious challenges to comprehend and retain text.  As a result, students will often have to re-read passages and pages. If slow reading is an issue for your child, develop a strategy immediately to arm her with the tools so that she doesn’t fall behind when the stakes are higher.

#3. “He can’t sit still.”

So my own son can’t sit still and really has never been able to. At the dinner table, he is constantly getting out of his seat. While doing homework, he needs to squirm on the ground or lean back on his chair. While doing bedtime reading, he climbs all over us. Yet I don’t think that is abnormal for children, especially boys of his age (or even adult age!).

The question is really whether he is able to focus, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised here. Most of the time, when we think he’s just goofing around, he actually still hears us and follows the story line. Not all the time, but much of the time. And that’s where we’ve drawn the line.

Many traditional educators may not like what I’m about to say…but if my son can stay focused, we don’t force him to sit still. We allow him freedom of movement. Why was “the way we learned” sitting at desks for hours studying and memorizing the right way? If offices all over the world are accepting of standing desks, why can’t my child move around and get more blood flowing through his body and to his brain? There is a growing body of research and our own experience that shows that physical movement and breaks are healthy for learning.

Now clearly my son can’t always be moving around, like in most situations at school.  And he has indeed struggled to stay attentive in some classroom settings that require him to be still.  Even if he’s focusing while moving, we’ve heard from his teachers how he has distracted other students. Fortunately, he is slowly gaining mastery over his impulses as he is getting older, but it is taking time.

#4. “She just doesn’t like to read.”

We believe that all students can develop a love for reading, but it doesn’t always happen at the same time or with the same methods for each child.  There is so much great material out there to read, but in today’s age, reading for enjoyment competes with iPhones, Instagram, and video games (and so much more) in ways that prior generations never had to contend with.

Every day our children (and we too) are bombarded by likes, notifications, and the instant gratification from today’s ubiquitous social media and games.  How can reading, which is less social and more reflective, compete with that?

The unfortunate reality with students is that once we have fallen into a routine that doesn’t have reading, it is extremely hard to add it in, especially in light of these additional demands for attention. I have yet to discover a cure once students have already built their routines based on passive media consumption, zoning out in video games, or pursuing social media attention. But it doesn’t mean we give in either.

How to turn your reluctant reader into a bookworm

There are no magic shortcuts to learning to read well in English.  But you can cultivate great habits. If you find your child struggling with one of the problems above, here is my suggested 7-step program to work through this.  Pick the parts that work for you, but you must start with Step 1.

Step 1: Establish reading habits as a family

My solution requires the proactive development of a love of reading early on. Make it a habit that starts from birth. Read books with your child every single day. Every. Single. Day. Curate a set of reading options, but let your children choose the books. When they are old enough to read independently, you may not need to read with them, but do your own reading alongside them.

What if my children have already established bad habits and don’t read? How do I undo these habits? This is hard, but if you are committed, you can change these habits.

“Children will not listen to everything you say, but they see everything you do.”

We have to demonstrate healthy reading habits if we want our children to emulate our behavior.  Be a good role model, and read every day yourself whether it is a newspaper article, a magazine, or a book.  Just do something more substantive than scroll mindlessly through social media.

Read bedtime stories with your young children.  (Telling bedtime stories with Math concepts is a great way to help your child improve both English and math fluency.)

Step 2: Create an inviting environment to read

Your child should have a comfortable and quiet place to read. Tempt your kids to read by having a large supply of appealing books and magazines at their reading level. Keep your reading area free of electronics, toys, art supplies or other things that could distract students from listening to or reading a story.

Step 3: Choose the RIGHT book to read

Choose books that fit your child’s reading level, interesting enough to hold their interest, and short enough to keep them engaged. Rather than telling kids what you’re going to read, ask them what they want to read. You can ask for suggestions or let them choose between two or three different books. When children are involved in the decision-making process, they feel more responsible and are more likely to stay focused.

By the way, it’s perfectly okay if she insists to read the same book over and over again.  In fact, that is a sign she is building joy in reading!

Step 4: Praise their effort

Children need to feel that they are making progress (actually adults do too!). Parents are in an ideal position to motivate their children, even if they have only basic English themselves.  Even better yet, children take to hear when they see their parents learning new things alongside them.

In Vietnamese families, we are often concerned about “saving face” and showing that parents know everything.  But I have found that being curious and saying “I don’t know” encourages my children to want to teach me. And trust me, when my son has an opportunity to explain how magma and lava from volcanoes are related, that becomes a moment of pride that he remembers long after.  It’s that small moment he sees that it’s ok for me to show that I don’t know everything, but that I can and will learn. I hope he then embraces that same growth mindset.

Step 5: Build up a vocabulary list

After reading a story at your child’s reading level, use some of the words from that story immediately afterward in a sentence. Write down new words on index cards. Use these cards to play a game like Memory.

Practicing sight words, also known as high-frequency words, with your kids is also one of the most important ways to speed reading processing times.  There are so many options out there, but one super simple one is these Rainbow Sight Words (they charge $3) based on Fry’s list of the first 300 words English learners should know. Print them out as flashcards and review them every day until it becomes second nature.

Step 6: Chunk reading times

Children also naturally have shorter attention spans than adults, so we try to keep the reading bursts short.  In kindergarten, we aim for 5-10 minutes (one or two short books), and in first grade, we are generally aiming for 10-15 minutes per session.  At Everest Education, we guide towards roughly 5 minutes of active reading per grade level, so a 5th grader would not be expected to read for more than 25 minutes in one sitting.

When children want to go over that, we are happy to oblige but we don’t force it. We believe it’s important to have consistent, focused reading every day to build habits and enjoyment.

Step 7: Limit electronic device time and encourage physical activities

Limit device time to only 30 minutes to an hour a day (and only in the living room or other common areas), and only after homework and reading are done. Children do need to be removed from the negative stimuli in order to focus.

Ideally, children get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day.  We find that when our children don’t get to run around or go to the park, they are way too hyper at home and reading with them becomes far more challenging.  But if you haven’t gotten that exercise yet and it’s bedtime, what do you do?

If you see your child’s energy sagging, don’t hesitate to change the energy level.  Put down the book and do ten-star jumps or run in place for 20 seconds.

There are a lot more…

I have a lot more on this topic, particularly on specific guided reading exercises you can do with your children to improve comprehension, but we’ll save that for a later article.



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