To help struggling readers, we need to ensure that they have a secure foundation in the early reading foundational skills.
It can be helpful to remind ourselves what it is, that we are requiring of students when we ask them to ‘read’.
Try reading the sentence below:
When you stop and fully consider what is asked of early readers, is this not what we do? We present them with the alphabet (symbols) and then ask them to ‘read’? As readers, we make use of the many reading foundation skills automatically without having to consciously think about them. These skills now come with automaticity because we have had extensive practice over many, many years.
5 Components of Reading
The culprit behind early struggling readers, tends to lie in the foundational skills, more specifically phonological awareness and phonics. If students begin to fall behind, or gaps begin to form during these early stages of reading, they heavily impact the later skills of vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
Phonological Awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds in spoken words. Components of Phonological Awareness
- rhyme and alliteration
- sentence segmentation
- onsets and rimes
- phonemic awareness
The most complex of the foundational skills and where readers often begin to struggle is phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness includes:
- blending sounds (phonemes) into words
- segmenting words into sounds
- deleting and manipulating sounds in spoken words
Phonics is the idea that letters represent sounds of the spoken language or the alphabetical principle. They are very different skill sets, but interrelated skills.
Fluency is the ability to read accurately, with appropriate speed, and expression. I have discovered a solid foundation with sight words also helps students grow more successful in fluency. The majority of what is read (about 75%) is made up of sight words so it is imperative they have these memorized.
Vocabulary is closely connected to comprehension. The more words a student ‘knows’ the easier it will be for them to understand the text that they read.
Comprehension is the process students use to understand what they read.
This post will focus on how to help struggling readers gain a solid foundation in phonological awareness and phonics. Without a solid foundation in both of these, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension will suffer.
How to assess early struggling readers?
Most reading programs come equipped with several assessments for phonological awareness. If you do not have access to these screeners, you can print and use the Q-PAS or Quick Phonological Awareness Screening to assess your kiddos.
This post will focus mostly on Phonological Awareness interventions and phonics. A solid foundation in these early reading skills will prevent struggles in the later skills of fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
It is difficult to become a fluent reader if a child is struggling with letter sounds and blending. If a child is not fluently reading it leads to challenges with both Vocabulary and Comprehension.
Interventions for Struggling Readers
Once you have assessed students, you can then quickly begin interventions to fill in the gaps of the foundational skills that will help struggling readers get back on track!
The key to most of the success of these interventions is consistency and repetition. Remember the desired outcome is for these foundational skills to become ‘automatic’ for our budding readers.
A trick for these interventions or building blocks is to incorporate them frequently. Do not worry, you will not be adding to your already cumbersome workload. Most of these interventions can be done in short activities and repeated frequently throughout the day.
Below are a few interventions to help you get started:
You will notice that students typically will be able to identify rhyming words much more swiftly than they can generate them. Once your kiddos have mastered identifying rhyming words, do not forget to have them begin generating rhyming words!
- Read books with lots of rhyming words.
- Incorporate finger plays and rhyming games.
- Play songs and videos with lots of rhyming words in them. Nursery Rhymes are perfect! Don’t be afraid to get silly with it, and make up silly rhymes together!
- Develop quick signals for students to signal when they hear two words that rhyme. It can be as simple as two hands on top their head or two thumbs up. Remember to keep it simple the focus is to distiguish the rhyming words.
If students still struggle with rhyming words, be explicit. Teach kids that the middle and ending sounds must be the same.
A great physical tool for teaching students how to discern if words rhyme, is to use a marker with a different colored cap like below:
Point to the cap and say the beginning sounds, then point to the marker itself and slide your finger as you say the middle and ending sound of the word. This visual, as silly as it may sound, really works for those struggling with rhyming words!
Word Awareness Interventions
- Place familiar rhymes in pocket charts and let students take turns pointing to the words as the class recites the poem.
- Write sentences on sentences strips and have them cut the words apart. Have students count the words. Then they can reassemble the sentence. It is always a good idea to have the sentence visible as a whole for these activities. If you do not wish to use sentence strips you can always just type up the sentences on word and complete the same process.
Syllable Awareness Interventions
Once students understand that sentences are made up of words and words can be different lengths, they begin to break words down into chunks or ‘syllables’.
We are most familiar with the ‘clapping of syllables’ technique when someone brings up teaching syllables. This comes naturally to a lot of children, but can be an issue for a struggling reader because it is very abstract in the early stages.
If you have students struggling to count syllables try the ‘chin drop method‘. Your chin drops when a word makes a vowel sound.
Chin Drop for Syllables
The student places a hand flat palm down (or thumb under chin) lightly under the chin, touching the chin.
The student repeats the word while counting how many times their chin moves.
The chin will only move for each syllable (when a vowel sound is uttered) in the spoken word! It’s a fantastic alternative to clapping syllables for struggling readers!
Onset and Rime Interventions
‘Onsets’ are any consonants before the vowel and ‘Rimes’ begin with the first vowel and continue to the end of the syllable.
Word Onset Rime
cat c at
shine sh ine
rice r ice
Check out ReadingRockets for some great games to teach students about onsets and times.
Phonemic Awareness Interventions
Beginning phonemic awareness is all about ‘hearing’ sounds. We have 26 letters in our alphabet, but did you know that there are 44 speech sounds? Yes! Those 26 letters can make 44 different sounds when manipulated in particular ways!
Phonemic awareness is the more complex component of phonological awareness that specifically focuses on more in-depth manipulation of sounds in words. It is the foundation for reading and writing words.
6 Phonemic Awareness Skills:
- Isolation: Recognize individual sounds in words. Identify the beginning sounds, endings sounds, and middle sounds in words.
- Blending: Combining sounds to make a word.
- Segmentation: To break a word into seperate sounds and count the sounds they hear.
- Deletion: Remove a phoneme (sound) from a word to create a new word. (tap remove the /t/ and ‘at’ remains
- Addition: Make a new word by adding a phoneme (sound). Add /t/ to ap and you now have ‘tap’
- Substitution: Substitute one phoneme for another to make a new word. tap-map change the /t/ to a /m/
Elkonin Boxes for Sounds in Words
I recommend starting your phonemic awareness interventions utilizing Elkonin sound boxes.
You can print these boxes from We Are Teachers or simply draw them out quickly yourself. I cut them apart and make work mats for individual students. You can laminate them or just tuck them into a page protector for repeated use.
How to use Elkonin Boxes:
- Say the word slowly, be sure to stretch each sound
- Have the child repeat the word
- Have the child say the word slowly while pushing a counter into each box as they say each sound
- Slide your finger under the boxes to blend the sounds
To view a teacher using Elkonin Sound Boxes during an intervention lesson check out this Elkonin Sound Boxes video.
Phonics is essentially matching letters to their corresponding sounds and blending those sounds to make words.
Elkonin Boxes with Letters
Elkonin boxes are perfect for phonics intervention as well. Now that your kiddos have learned to ‘discriminate’ each sound in a word it’s time to associate those sounds to letters!
You follow the same steps above, except instead of using chips use corresponding letters. When your students are ready progress to having them ‘write’ the corresponding sounds in the boxes.
If your kiddos are just getting started with letter sounds or you need to target specific letter sounds, below are some ideas for interventions or extra practice:
Songs, music, and videos
Fluency and Fitness combines fluency with fitness! Get the kiddos moving while they practice letter names, letter sounds, and everything in between! Students respond to video slides practicing various skills such as letter names, letter sounds, and more. After a couple of slides, a ‘dance’ or ‘exercise’ slide pops up, and the kids participate in that before the slides return to the skillset chosen. This repeats throughout the videos.
Material Mix up and Repetition
Kids need repetition in order for these foundational skills to become automatic. Let’s face it this can quickly become boring. To keep students engaged, mix up the materials they are using for practice.
- Practice writing letters in shaving cream (it makes the room smell great and gets the surface areas clean)
- Write letters in sand, colored rice, salt, fingerpaints
- Build/make letters with legos, blocks, playdough, wikkisticks, pattern blocks, craft sticks
- Write letters on playground with sidewalk chalk
For more ways to help struggling readers, check out these helpful posts for Phonics Made Fun With Videos and 15 FREE Activities to Practice the Alphabet .