Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: How to Help Your Struggling Reader
By S. Jenkins, Ph.D., and Katina Taylor
As a reading professor, I am often asked by parents, “How can I help my
child to read on grade level?” Unfortunately, this simple question is
deceivingly complex. Here are a few lessons learned while working with one
former struggling reader.
During a phone conversation in October 2005, a longtime family friend Katina
Taylor explained how her third-grade son had continuously experienced
difficulty learning to read, and she asked me to recommend a reading tutor. Instead
of recommending one, I began to tutor her soft-spoken 9-year-old myself in
During our first parent/teacher conference, I learned that Tre’s school had
identified him as a special education candidate and had already begun the
placement process. Specifically, Tre had been referred to the school’s
Institutional Support Team for monitoring and assessment. His classroom teacher
had requested that he receive special education services, and several staff
members implied by that he would repeat the third grade. He had previously
repeated the first grade based upon low reading scores.
Fortunately, with additional support from his school, parents, and our weekly
tutorial lessons, Tre overcame the odds and successfully completed the 2005-06
school year. Due to our continued literacy work over the summer, he also began
the next school year in a regular education fourth grade class, reading on
With this level of success, we decided to continue the tutorial lessons for the
2006-07 school year. Once again, with everyone’s help, he was successfully
promoted to the fifth grade. Nonetheless, bringing and keeping Tre on grade
level has been an uphill battle. The most difficult aspect of this journey has
been simply finding the time to maintain contact with teachers and school staff
members, juggling our professional and familial responsibilities, and
maintaining our endurance through major life changes, such as the births and
deaths our families have encountered.
It is through our two years of successes and challenges that we have learned
the following lessons.
Five Important Lessons Learned
Lesson 1. Take precautions to prevent your child from ever becoming
a struggling reader. It is much easier to prevent your child from falling
behind than to help him or her catch up. We suggest that you regularly read to
and with your child from birth. Add reading to the set of skills that you
automatically teach your child, such as using a spoon or saying please and
Lesson 2. Do not rely upon the school
to teach your child to read. Many schools are overcrowded and understaffed;
many classroom teachers do not have the training necessary to assess, diagnose,
and instruct struggling readers. Therefore, it is critical that you teach your
child pre- and early literacy skills prior to entering school. Then, continue
to support his or her literacy development throughout his or her schooling
Your local library is the most comprehensive place to locate literacy-related
resources and information. Libraries have free book clubs, infant reading
times, after-school academic support, computer classes, lists of upcoming
events, and helpful librarians who will assist you in locating literacy-related
books and websites.
Additionally, The Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s website, www.pabook.libraries.psu.edu,
contains a family literacy link that provides a wealth of activities, programs,
and resources available for you to download.
Likewise, educators Carolyn Chapman and Rita King have written a series of
instructional strategy books that are helpful to both teachers and parents.
Check out their book that focuses on reading, Differentiated Instructional
Strategies for Reading in the Content Areas (Corwin Press, 2003).
Lesson 3. Teamwork makes the dream
work. We believe that Tre’s reading gains are largely the result of the team or
network that was formed—his parents, classroom teachers, after-school
staff, reading specialists, and reading tutor. Together, as the strongest
influences in his life, we worked as a united front to reinforce literacy
practices. We believe that, without knowledgeable people on his side every step
of the way, he would not have the confidence needed to remain on grade level.
We found the following steps helpful to forming our team:
Identify team members. At a minimum, they should include the student, the parents/guardians,
classroom teacher, and a trustworthy, knowledgeable family friend, mentor, or
influential person in the child’s life who is committed to providing weekly academic
assistance. Next, everyone needs to drop egos, titles, and any prejudices that
may exist and focus on how to work together to help the student to progress.
Stay in contact with team members (monthly, at a minimum). Stay connected
through formal or informal conferences, phone calls, emails, field trips,
school visits, or simply sharing lunch in the school cafeteria.
During each conversation with your team members, identify: 1) the student’s
reading strengths and weaknesses, 2) what is working and not working, and 3)
one monthly goal. This will help each team member to identify how he or she can
contribute to the team. For instance, if the goal was to improve Tre’s
vocabulary, his parents and tutor would volunteer to review his vocabulary
words with him twice each week while the classroom teacher agreed to email the
words to the team every Monday morning. Then, during our next meeting, we could
discuss the vocabulary progress that had been made and re-assess vocabulary as
a goal—therefore, initiating the communication cycle again.
Lesson 4. Re-read required
school books, materials, and activities—with a twist. One of the biggest
challenges for Tre is, in his words, “the long, boring stories” that he is
required to read in school. We attempted to remedy this issue by allotting time
in the tutorial lessons to read texts of interest to him and by re-reading
school stories and completing interactive projects.
Currently, Tre is editing a computer-generated story describing the life and
experiences of Anne Frank. While in school, Tre read the story of Anne Frank,
but he did not grasp the book’s subject matter. When asked, he could not define
key terms and people, such as concentration camps, Nazis, or Hitler, discuss
the main events of her life, or locate Germany on the map.
So, we began by doing Internet searches of Anne Frank, visiting websites, and
reading a variety of library texts.
Tre is now editing his book entitled, Anne Frank’s Life, which he
dedicates to his “teacher, classmates, and entire school.” As soon as the book
is bound, he plans to have the school librarian place a copy on the library
According to Tre, “It makes more sense to do this project than just reading the
Lesson 5. Discover the student’s
interests, passions, fears, dreams, extracurricular activities, and family
outings. Then, routinely use this subject matter to teach practical uses of
literacy, such as researching histories, making postcards, sending emails,
following arts and crafts directions, creating to-do lists, reading maps,
cooking recipes, and locating definitions of words.
For example, Tre’s family recently visited Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland.
To prepare, we visited several websites and used a real-time webcam to view the
lakes, mountains, and resorts. We also discussed related spelling/vocabulary words
and plotted the distance from home. This helped to increase Tre’s excitement
and confidence in his literacy skills.
Looking to the Future
Our journey together has taught us many
valuable lessons. First and foremost, we understand the importance of our team
continuing to work together to support Tre’s reading success. We sincerely hope
that our lessons will be of help you and your struggling reader, too. BC
S. Jenkins, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Coppin State University where
she teaches courses in the Masters Reading Program and conducts research with
struggling readers. Katina Taylor is the mother of a successful fifth grader
and works for the federal government.
New RIF Leading to Reading Website for Parents and Youngsters
Reading Is Fundamental, Inc. (RIF) has
launched a new, free educational website to help parents and caregivers develop
the language skills of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. RIF’s Leading to
Reading is a fun and interactive online resource featuring stories, games,
music, and other engaging activities for adults to experience together with
young children. Both English and Spanish versions are accessible at the website
“Since language develops far more rapidly during the first five years of life
than any other time, it is important that parents read and interact with their
young children as often as possible,” says Carol H. Rasco, RIF’s president and
CEO. “This site encourages children to discover the joy of reading at an early
The RIF Leading to Reading site is organized into three easy-to-navigate
sections: babies and toddlers (ages birth to 2), preschoolers (ages 3 to 5),
and grown-ups. Features of the site include:
a wide selection of animated and audio children’s stories; finger play
videos; interactive videos introducing children to age-appropriate subjects
such as animals, art, and geography; nursery rhymes and lullabies; online
coloring and doodling; and a sing-along songbook.
The grown-ups section features expert Q & A, a RIF Leading to Reading video
with literacy tips and activities, book search, and parent and caregiver
The RIF Leading to Reading website is compliant with all Internet safety
guidelines and is free of advertising. BC
© Baltimore's Child Inc. November 2007