How to help a struggling reader is a puzzle with many pieces. Before the learning difference is addressed, a struggling reader must be made aware that he is smart and capable of accomplishing anything he really wants to accomplish. Most struggling readers have taken a hit to their self esteem.
Another piece of the puzzle needed in how to help a struggling reader is to motivate him or her to reach success. How do we motivate a struggling reader to work extra hard at something that is extremely difficult for him? The best way is with positive reinforcement techniques. We reward him, not punish him. We focus on positive behavior, not negative behavior. We give the child something that is desired, not take something away .
Let us pretend that you have a job with a boss who gives you a very difficult assignment. You are working as hard as you can to complete this assignment but it is very difficult for you and you have to put in a lot of overtime. Even though you are working your hardest, your boss calls you into his office and berates you, and ridicules you, and calls you lazy because you still have not finished this simple assignment. You know that you are working your hardest and putting in long hours. How do you feel?
In this situation, you probably feel like quitting. You definitely do not feel like working extremely hard for a person who treats you this way. You might even think that since he does not appreciate the amount of hard work and effort you have put forth so far, why bother working this hard. You are not receiving any recognition for your effort, not to mind overtime pay, so why bother. You might decide to either discontinue putting forth all that effort or even quit the job completely.
I believe our struggling reader often times feel this way. He is working so hard to learn how to read, and it is extremely difficult for him. No one is acknowledging or recognizing this fact and it is hurtful. And to make matters worse, his friends may all learn effortlessly, while he struggles with the basics, regardless of how much effort he puts forth. On top of all this, he might even be called stupid or lazy by someone he respects, when actually the exact opposite is true.
Now, what if that same boss called you in and said how grateful he was for your hard work. How he noticed all the overtime you were putting in, and he really appreciated your effort. What if he said that he knew you were the only one who could complete this project and that is why he chose you out of the whole staff? What if he also even gave you a bonus or a raise? How would you feel then?
You would probably redouble your efforts to complete the project no matter what effort it took on your part. Your boss knew you could do it, so you would do it. Your boss appreciated your efforts and rewarded you with praise and a bonus or raise, which in turn motivated you to do your best.
This is exactly what we need to do for our children who have trouble learning to read. We need to praise them for all their hard work and encourage them to continue working hard. We need to acknowledge the effort they are putting forth and reward them for all the extra effort they need to put forth.
We need to continuously remind them of how smart they are because they are not going to feel smart at this time. This positive attitude will accomplish so much more, and in a shorter amount of time, than all the negative behaviors and attitudes. Plant the thought in your child that he is good and smart and capable, and these are the qualities that will develop and strengthen and grow. And rewarding him a little something does not hurt either.
Another way to help a struggling reader is with positive reinforcement techniques. How can you positively reinforce a struggling reader’s efforts in a way that will make him work extra hard for an extended period of time? This is easy. Reward him. What does your child love to do? Think of whatever he loves and plan a reward system around this object or activity.
For example, if a child loves horses then plan several rewards around a horse theme. Have a chart for every day of the week. Decide how much the child has to accomplish to earn a sticker for the chart. After he completes the work he puts the sticker on the chart. When he gets a certain amount of stickers, he earns the reward. You might decide that for every 5 stickers he can have a horseback riding lesson.
Or maybe when he completes up to a certain point in a reading program, he can attend a summer camp with horses.
The reward should be extremely personal. The child needs to pick it out and really want it for this to be a motivating force. You both need to sit down together and work out what the reward is and how much it “costs”. Costs meaning how much effort your child will have to put forth to achieve this reward. Usually this entails some bargaining and compromising on both sides. Eventually, you should be able to reach an end result which works for both of you.
Remember, you want the end result to motivate your child. So it is in your best interest to be flexible during negotiations if this result will be seen by your child as something extremely worthwhile or desirable.
A younger child is much easier to motivate. A treasure chest filled with small toys and candy always works well. Each prize in the treasure chest should have a sticker with a “price.” The child can receive a ticket for each reading session where he worked hard. Extra tickets can be given for extra work. The tickets can then be used to “buy” a prize from the treasure chest.
I used this both in a school setting and at home with my own children. It worked equally well in both situations. In the school, I held a “shopping” day once a week so it would not take up too much time. Whenever I purchased more prizes for the chest, I spread them out on a table so everyone could see what was available. They were given time to look it all over and decide what they wanted to “buy.” This gave every child motivation to work hard for me and cost me very little. Friday was our shopping day in the school setting. The children knew that I would give them time every Friday to purchase their prizes. If they wanted a certain item that cost more than they could “afford”, I would hold the item for them until they saved enough tickets. They always worked extra hard when there was a coveted item waiting for them.
I also used this at home for my daughters. I would fill the chest with items I knew they wanted. They would redeem their tickets whenever they had enough tickets to pay for it. I knew I had the right items in the chest when the child would ask me to do a reading lesson instead of me reminding her.
You know your child best. Choose a reward or prize that is best suited to him. If it is something like horseback riding lessons, cut up a picture of a horse, and post it in a prominent spot. Each time he completes whatever task you both previously agreed upon (maybe one lesson or one week of lessons), he can put one piece of the horse on the refrigerator. He earns the lessons when the whole horse is completed. You can do this with anything the child wants to earn. A visual helps to keep him motivated if it is a long term goal while tickets work well for short and long term goals.
This type of positive reinforcement makes the added work load more doable for a child, and as a consequence, more doable for you. The reward system makes working hard a little more fun. Just make sure you continue the verbal praise also. That is still the most crucial aspect of positive reinforcement.
Points to Remember When Helping a Struggling Reader
- The struggling reader must know he is smart and capable of accomplishing great things.
- Performance matches Expectations.
- A learning difference is NOT a disability, and usually disguises great gifts.
- A positive mental attitude in parent and child is crucial for success.
- Rewards work.