Can Your Students Comprehend Texts That They Cannot Read?

Absolutely! Students do understand texts that are read aloud to them that are above their independent reading level. But if they are struggling to read text on their own that is too difficult for them to decode, they will not have good comprehension.  SnipBlog100Struggling students in the upper grades are increasingly expected to read texts that are above their level of reading ability, because they need to learn complex subjects. This presents a problem. Does it make sense to require students to read texts that are above their independent reading level?

Some teachers understand the futility of requiring reading at a level that is above a student’s ability, so they look for and assign books at the students’ actual reading level.  These teachers sometimes endure criticism for doing what they believe is best for their students.

With so many struggling readers in our schools, we ought to be looking at why we have this problem. We first fail when teaching our children basic reading instruction. There are many reasons why children fail to learn to read, including bad reading programs and inconsistent attendance. But we continue to pass children who have not learned basic decoding skills on to the next grade level. Then we blame the teachers in the upper grades when their struggling students fail to progress.

Students need to learn to read well by the end of first grade!  If a student is not progressing, change the program.  Students who are not reading well by early to mid-first grade should be given a phonics reading program that includes all of the Orton-Gillingham phonograms, and that uses those phonograms in decodable stories. Nearly all struggling readers who are taught to read this way can learn to read.

Students can comprehend texts that they cannot read on their own. The short term fix may include reading grade level texts aloud to students who are struggling. But to be successful, students need to be able to read on their own. When students read texts independently, they will only comprehend what they can quickly and easily decode. We may provide accommodations for struggling readers, but we owe it to them to teach them how to read for themselves.


Common Core and Reading Assignments—What Are We Missing Here?

SnipBlog99What a concept! Some teachers assign books to their students that they can actually read instead of assigning them to read books that are far above their reading ability! Is this surprising? Is it a bad thing? Are policy-makers suggesting that students should be assigned to read books at an instructional level that they cannot read because those students are in a grade based on their age?

The Thomas B Fordham Institute published a report on October 22, 2013 titled, “Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments.” Here is a quote from the press release:

The CCSS emphasize the centrality of texts in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still report that their lessons are dominated by skills and are more likely to try to fit texts to skills…Indeed, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary school teachers and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text…

The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess. Specifically, the majority of elementary teachers (64 percent) make substantial efforts to match students with books that presumably align with their instructional reading levels…This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language in their schoolbooks.

It appears that because students need to be learning complex language, they had better be reading complex words. That is all fine and good if the student is a strong reader and can actually read those complex words. But many students are not strong readers due to poor instruction and through no fault of their own.  What are we to do?  Start where the student is, not where you want him to be.

Let’s say you go out to the mountains and you are just learning how to ski, so you can barely stay standing up on your skis. Your instructor takes you out to the bunny slope and gives you some tips on how to fall safely (because you are going to fall!) and how to point your ski tips and whatever else they teach a beginner. But the resort owner comes out and tells the instructor that you need to be practicing the giant slalom because that is what skiers should be doing at your age.  Wonder how well that’s going to work?

What are we to do? Start where the student is, not where you want him to be. You cannot start where you want them to be if they have not learned the skills needed to function at that skill level and expect them to be successful. That is a recipe for creating dropouts.

If students are reading at a first grade level, then they need to begin at that level and be taught the skills that will allow them to quickly improve their ability.  We have programs available that will do exactly that—but we aren’t using them nearly enough and our students are paying a high price.

We can teach students the complex language in higher level books—but we can’t expect them to read those texts on their own until we have taught the reading skills that they need to do so. We should not discourage struggling readers—we must start where the student is. We know that students learn much of their extensive vocabulary from reading a lot of books—but students who cannot read well have been left behind.

Instead of insisting that we force difficult or impossible reading assignments on our struggling readers, we need to put a much greater effort into first teaching students to read well. We need to think in terms of teaching students to read well by the end of first grade rather than by the end of third grade. But if that is not where they are—what are we to do? Start where the student is, not where you want him to be!



See the Thomas B Fordham Institute report  “Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments” here:               

Sound Bytes Reading helps struggling readers learn the basic skills they need to become strong and independent readers.

Learning to Talk and Learning to Read – Part 2

Learning to read is a process that involves both visual and auditory input.  Children must learn to match symbols to sounds and then connect those symbols to make words.  Some children have difficulty remembering the symbols if too many are taught at once.  Reading can be made easier by teaching only a few sound-symbols at a time and then using them to practice decoding simple words.  Students should practice reading short stories using the same words they are learning to decode.


Sound Bytes Reading: Top Ten Blogs in 2013—Part 2


6 – Diagnosing Children with Reading Problems

This blog post will begin to address the difficulties of struggling readers and how parents can begin to understand the problem and help their students.  Reading can break down at any of these points when students are not explicitly taught the sound patterns in English.  We will cover each step in the next few blog posts.  Part One in a Series of Five 

7 – Preparing Young Children to Learn

What makes children ready to learn? What can parents do to help prepare their children to learn?

Whether your children will be attending school or are homeschooled, they need to be prepared to learn.  Being prepared to learn involves many things.  This includes developing self control, learning to pay attention, managing your time so you can get assignments done, and a willingness to co-operate with others and take turns.  Educational leaders have labeled these things as “soft skills.” Read more here:

8 – Preparing to Learn—Teach Children How to Clean Up

Children appreciate cleanliness and a sense of order in their lives—but they don’t usually know how to achieve it. It is our job to teach our children how to clean up after they play and how to keep their things organized so they will be prepared to learn when they begin school. Read more:

9 – 12 Great Activities to Help Prepare Young Children for School

Child’s play is really child’s work.  You can easily provide your children a wide variety of fun activities that will help them develop small motor coordination and finger strength and dexterity. This will also help them be well prepared for school activities. Here is a list of 12 activities that can help your older preschoolers develop their skills and prepare them for more formal learning.  Read more:

10 – Why Is Reading So Difficult For My Child?

Does your child frequently guess at unknown words by saying another word that has the same beginning letter? Does your child look at the pictures for clues?  Were you told he/she has “eye-tracking” problems? After reading a passage, is your child unable to tell you what it’s about (low comprehension)?  Does he/she have problems with fluency (not reading smoothly)?  But this same child may be a whiz at math, easily remember in detail anything that you read aloud, and be highly skilled in other areas.  Why does your child have so much difficulty with reading?  Read more:

Bonus: You Can Teach Your Struggling Child to Read – Now!

Is your child a struggling reader?  Have you tried to help your child learn to read and it just doesn’t seem to click?  Learning to read does not come easily for many children, so you are not alone.  Many people will tell you that your child just needs to wait longer—but for most kids that’s just not true!  You can help your child become a strong competent reader.  Read more:


Why Is Reading So Difficult For My Child?

A friend has a child who is having difficulty learning to read.  So I asked my friend about her child.  Did he frequently guess at an unknown word by saying another word that had the same beginning letter? Was he looking at pictures for clues when he didn’t know a word?  Were you told he has “eye-tracking” problems? When he read a passage, was he unable to tell you what it was about (comprehension)?  Did he have problems with fluency (not reading smoothly)?  Yep—reading problems!

But this same child is a whiz at math, can easily remember in great detail anything that is read aloud to him, and is highly skilled in other areas.  Why does he have so much difficulty with reading?

It should be obvious that a child who is highly skilled in many other things and has a very good memory for math is not learning disabled.  A child who has genuine problems with memory will also have problems with math.

The real problem lies in how reading is taught.  Children are often taught to look at the first letter of a word they do not know and make a good “guess.” They are taught to look at the picture to help them figure out an unknown word.  They are taught to skip a word and go back later so they can use context to figure out the word. These things create so-called “eye-tracking” problems, because the child was taught to look all over the page.

These things also create problems with fluency and comprehension.  When children spend a lot of time trying to guess what a word is (and usually they are guessing wrong) they will lose track of what the reading passage is about.  Some of these kids appear to be pretty good readers because they have memorized a lot of words—but they cannot figure out new words without help—and so they struggle more and more as they get older.

The only solution is to teach struggling readers how to decode words by looking at all of the letters in the word and going from left-to right. It also helps if each new sound pattern (such as ou, ow, ea, etc.) is taught separately. Kids who think in a linear, logical way need to be taught to read in a sequential manner so that each new sound pattern they learn builds on previous knowledge. Reading material should use the sound patterns children have been taught.  Stories should not be filled with sound patterns they have not yet learned.

My friend is teaching her child to decode words phonetically now, and I hope to give you an update on their progress in a few weeks.

Parents, you can help your struggling reader become a confident and capable reader in just a few weeks. It’s easy, and everything you need is available in one book, including all of the reading material. Don’t wait—get a copy of Sound Bytes Reading from Rainbow Resource Center or at Amazon and watch your child begin to experience the joy of reading at last!


Reading Aloud Can Help Develop Your Child’s Vocabulary

In the article, Vocabulary Instruction Failing U.S. Students, published on January 24 of this year, a Michigan State University study takes a look at kindergarten reading curricula and concludes that students are not learning enough vocabulary words and that not enough attention is paid to make sure students understand the meanings of words. You can read the article here:

This is interesting because vocabulary acquisition really begins at home.  Children first learn words from their parents or other caregivers.  I have written about the importance of reading aloud to children because that is one of the best ways you can introduce children to new words.  Children also learn vocabulary from listening to parents and other adults talk.  They do not gain extensive vocabulary from watching TV or playing computer games.

Children should spend time doing things that will help them develop a broader vocabulary, encourage their creativity, and help them increase their focus and attention span so they will do well when formal instruction begins.  Time spent talking and doing things with adults is well spent.  Even very young children can use their expanded vocabulary to describe things.  A 2-year-old that I know recently looked up at the sky and exclaimed to his dad, “Birds.” His dad asked him, “How do you know those are birds?” and he answered, “Wings.”

The study found that common words are what is more likely to be taught to students. Try to use alternate words to describe things.  Once your child has learned a simple word like “little” to describe something, teach her words like “tiny,” “small,” “miniature,” and “minute.”

Why is vocabulary so important?

“Low vocabulary scores were associated with low reading comprehension scores…Wright said low-income children may start school with 10,000 fewer words than other students and are then exposed to reading programs that teach as few as two vocabulary words per week. She said more than 10 vocabulary words should be taught every week – not just in reading class but across all subject areas including math, science and social studies.”

Parents, be proactive in helping your children learn new words.  Don’t wait until your child is in school. Use lots of big, descriptive words when you talk to your children.  Nonfiction picture books are great tools for developing vocabulary. Talk to your child about the pictures and use lots of different descriptive words so your child will learn lots of new words to name and describe things.

Having a large vocabulary also helps students when they begin to learn to read. The more words they have heard and understand, the more words they will recognize when they are learning to sound out words. Recognizing words quickly and knowing what they mean makes reading easier and more enjoyable.

Teaching Beginning Reading – Reading Comprehension

What is reading comprehension? Reading comprehension means that students comprehend or understand the meaning of what they are reading.  This is why we read in the first place—so that we can learn about something from someone who is not physically present—through the medium of print.

 How do we teach reading comprehension?  When teaching beginning readers, if we try to teach reading comprehension first, we may not be totally successful in our efforts. We need to make sure our beginning readers have learned to decode words through explicit, systematic phonics instruction and are able to blend letter-sounds into words easily. We need to be sure beginning readers have also had appropriate vocabulary instruction so they will understand the words they are decoding. Then, instruction in reading comprehension will be much more effective.

Comprehension involves thinking about what we are reading, questioning it, judging the merits of it, understanding it, accepting or rejecting it, and comparing it to any prior knowledge we have about it.

Some reading comprehension strategies may include:

  • Thinking – Do I understand what I just read?
  • Comparing to Prior Knowledge – What do I already know about this?
  • Predicting – What might happen next?
  • Asking Questions – Why did that happen?
  • Summarizing – What happened? What was the main idea?


Reading comprehension begins before children learn to read, while listening to stories that are read to them.  We can enhance comprehension by talking to children about what happened in a story, whether they liked it or not and why, and what they might do differently.  As beginning readers begin to learn to decode and learn to read for themselves, we should continue to monitor their understanding by talking with them about what they read.

When teaching struggling readers—as with beginning readers—we must make sure they have been given enough phonics instruction to be able to decode words well, are given appropriate vocabulary instruction so they will understand the meanings of the words they are reading, have sufficient opportunity for repeated reading practice to gain fluency, and then provide targeted instruction in reading comprehension strategies.