If your child is in elementary school and struggles to read at grade level, you are not alone. Despite schools’ and families’ tireless efforts to help children read, nearly 65% of incoming fourth graders across the country are at a basic or below basic reading level ( National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). This troubling statistic has not only barley changed over the past decade, but it is also alarmingly consistent across grades.

But if many schools and families prioritize reading, why are so many children still struggling to read? Do they need more books? Do they need more time? Or are they struggling with cognitive impairments that prevent them from learning to read altogether?

Research by psychologist Dr. Mark Seidenberg (2018) indicates that most children struggle to read not because families and schools aren’t making it a priority, but because children are often missing at least one foundational language or decoding skill that is vital to reading. Numerous scientists who study how the brain learns to read have also found that nearly every child can read with enough practice on foundational skills (Talbot, P. et al, 2018). Reading requires children to build brain connections between speech, language, symbols and meaning, which were not there before. In other words, if a child has not yet mastered one or more of these foundational skills, he/she will likely struggle with reading.

Parents play an essential role in fostering the foundational skills needed for reading. Although the process of learning to read is neurologically complex, the strategies to support reading development don’t necessarily have to be complicated. Below are four science-based strategies that you can use right away to support your child’s reading development:

Pay attention to and proactively support your child’s speech

Pay close attention to how well your child pronounces sounds and connects those sounds with symbols. If your child mixes or omits parts of words, they likely need additional support. The English language has a total of 44 distinct sounds—or phonemes—that are essential for reading. The moment you notice your child mispronouncing a sound or mixing up a sound, try to show your child how you correctly make the sound with your mouth. Also, help your child notice if the sound requires using your voice by seeing if there is a vibration in the throat when saying the sound. Then see if they can correct the sound. If your child still struggles to make the same sound(s) after multiple attempts, connect with a speech and language therapist to ensure your child gets the proper support they need.

Read your child books that introduce new topics, ideas, and cultures

Strong readers need two critical skills: word decoding and language comprehension. When children are first learning to read, their brains are usually hyper-focused on decoding words (connecting sounds and symbols). Until children become fluent readers, most early readers struggle to fully comprehend what they just read.

If your child is learning to decode, it does not mean that they cannot learn to comprehend. You can help build your child’s comprehension skills by reading books that introduce different topics, subjects, and cultures and discussing the themes. As your child grows familiar with different topics and cultures, your child will be better prepared to comprehend passages and stories about that topic in the future. Diverse books are an excellent way to expand background knowledge, which is essential for reading comprehension.

Ask more open-ended questions when conversing with your child

Questions have the potential to foster language development, which also impacts reading development. Instead of asking your child close-ended questions that result in one-word answers, try asking open-ended questions, such as “tell me about your day” or “tell me about what happened.” These types of questions require your child to practice organizing his/her thoughts into stories and articulating them. Giving your child opportunities to practice sequencing their thoughts during conversations is a great way to indirectly support reading and writing skills.

Celebrate small wins along the way

Your child’s sense of confidence and determination to learn to read can either accelerate or hinder their progress. Unfortunately, confidence can easily wane for early readers if they don’t feel a sense of success along the way. Therefore, it’s really important to elevate and celebrate your child’s reading accomplishments—however small they may be. Don’t limit celebrating reading progress for traditionally big milestones-such as finishing a book or moving to the next reading level. Instead, let your child know that you notice and feel proud of them when they make incremental progress—such as decoding a difficult word or finishing a challenging passage.

As adults, it is easy to forget what it feels like to learn to read for the first time. Recognizing and celebrating your child’s small wins not only improves his/her confidence, but also signals to your child that struggling is expected and persistence is key. The road to becoming a strong reader is rarely easy. But at the end of the day, confidence and encouragement are the underlying engines that will help propel your child toward reading success.


Talbot, P. et al (2018), Narrowing the Third Grade Reading Gap: Embracing the Science of Reading Research Brief, EAB.

Seidenberg, M (2018), Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It

Kilpatrick, D. (2015) “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties

The Nation’s Report Card (2019), NAEP Reading Results

More About Our Guest Blogger

Maria Wahlstrom is an Associate Director in an educational consulting firm. Her research has included: preparing students for careers, teacher recruitment and hiring, narrowing the early achievement gap, and developing school leaders.

Maria began her career as an elementary school teacher in Chicago. She then led the development and implementation of a global awareness curriculum and civic engagement program serving hundreds of elementary and middle school students. Maria conducted research with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to improve labor and learning environments for Burmese migrants. She also provided strategic planning and impact evaluation support for various foundations and nonprofit organizations seeking to improve health and education outcomes.

A big thank you to Maria for sharing this information.

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