Misunderstood Minds
Stories from the Documentary:
Nathan V. Lauren Sarah Lee Adam Nathan S.



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 Reading  READINGBasics | Difficulties | Responses


Where Do I Begin?
> Home and School Collaboration
> Parents and Teachers Communicating
> Talking with Children about Their Strengths and Weaknesses

What Can I Do?
> Suggestions - simple things you can do to help
> Strategies - targeting strengths and weaknesses

Where Do I Begin?

Home and School Collaboration

Living with or teaching a child with reading problems can be an emotionally charged experience. Frustration and confusion can complicate the conversation between parents and teachers about what to do. Respect for each other and open communication can reduce tension and enable parents and teachers to benefit from each other's expertise and knowledge of the child from different perspectives. Working as partners, parents, teachers, and the children themselves can inform one another on how best to address the child's needs.

Parents and Teachers Communicating about Reading

When you suspect a reading problem, schedule a parent-teacher meeting to share information about the child. The following "talking points" can help structure the discussion.

Share observations of the child's profile of reading skills and discuss where the breakdown is occurring. What are the worries or concerns? Is the breakdown in decoding, comprehension, or retention? Do difficulties in attention, language processing, or memory seem to affect the child's reading abilities?

Identify and discuss the child's strengths and interests. How can they be used to enhance his or her interest or skills in reading? For example, can a child who loves pandas or dinosaurs read about that topic for a book report? Can parents or teachers find books, magazines, or Web sites about the child's interests?

Clarify the instructional program. What reading program or text does the class use? Discuss how that approach is working for the child. Examine and evaluate accommodations and interventions, such as extra time or individualized instruction.

Acknowledge emotional reactions to the situation. Discuss how children who experience frustration or failure as a result of reading difficulties at school may become so fearful or anxious that they give up. Some children may then turn their energy to acting out. Share strategies that have worked in the classroom and at home to help the child cope.

Discuss appropriate next steps. Establish a plan for ongoing discussion and problem solving. How can you best advocate for the child?

When a problem with reading has been specified:
  • Learn more about the reading process from the school, reading organizations, print resources and Web sites. See the Resources section of this site to get started.
  • Seek assistance from colleagues and experienced parents, including asking for referrals through professional organizations and support groups.
  • Request that the school's special education teacher or learning specialist observe the child, then consult with you on strategies to use both in the classroom and at home.
  • Investigate the availability of professional help, such as pediatricians, reading specialists, speech-language pathologists, and others.

Talking with Children about Their Strengths and Weaknesses

Moments of frustration as well as exhilaration are common for children with reading problems and for the adults who work with them. Some children give up and see themselves as failures. Others may exhibit behavior problems that relate to their reading difficulties.

Dr. Mel Levine suggests using a process called demystification, which, through open discussion with supportive adults, helps children learn to clarify and specify their differences and understand that, like everyone else, they have strengths and weaknesses. This process creates a shared sense of optimism that the child and adult are working toward a common goal, and that learning problems can be successfully managed. The following suggestions can help as parents, teachers, and learning specialists work together to demystify children's difficulties with reading.

Eliminate any stigma. Empathy can reduce children's frustration and anxiety about their reading difficulties. Emphasize that no one is to blame, and that you know that often they need to work harder than others to read successfully. Explain that everyone, including able readers, have differences in the way they learn. Reassure children that you will help them find ways that work for them. Share an anecdote about how you handled a learning problem or an embarrassing mistake.

Discuss strengths and interests. Help children find their strengths. Use concrete examples but avoid false praise. To a child who describes a movie well, you might say, "I like the way you can remember the details that show how funny the movie was." Identify books, videos, Web sites, or places in the community that can help children build on their strengths and interests.

Discuss areas of weakness. Use plain language to explain what aspect of reading is difficult for the child. For example, you might say, "You may have difficulty understanding what you read because your attention drifts during reading, which causes you to miss details and lose your place."

Emphasize optimism. Help children realize that they can improve -- they can work on their weaknesses and make their strengths stronger. Point out future possibilities for success given their current strengths. Help children build a sense of control over their learning by encouraging them to be accountable for their own progress. A child with comprehension problems who learns to use Post-it® Notes to record important information from a reading selection can become responsible over time for remembering to use this strategy.

Identify an ally. Help children locate a mentor -- a favorite teacher, a tutor, an adolescent, or a neighbor -- who is available to work with and support them. Explain to children that they can help themselves by sharing with others how they learn best. Older children can explain the strategies that work for them, while younger ones may need adult support. Encourage children to be active partners with their allies.

Protect from humiliation. Help children strengthen self-esteem and maintain pride by protecting them from public humiliation related to their differences in learning. Always avoid criticizing children in public and protect them from embarrassment in front of siblings and classmates. For example, don't ask a child who has decoding problems to read aloud unfamiliar material.

What Can I Do?

Suggestions and Strategies

You may use the following suggestions and strategies to help children who are experiencing problems with decoding, comprehension, or reading retention. Many of those listed are accommodations -- they work around a child's differences by offering alternative approaches at home and at school. Learning the material through pictures before reading is one example of a suggestion that might help. Strategies -- more research-based methods -- are designed to specifically strengthen a weakness. For example, a child with memory difficulties might use memory aids, such as mnemonics, to remind himself of important information. From the strategies suggested below, select those that you and the child think might work best.

General Suggestions

Play word games. Word games and puzzles are fun and also build vocabulary and word understanding. Try crossword puzzles, word bingo, Scrabble®, or Boggle®.

Read aloud every day. Read and encourage children to read directions, labels, and signs in the classroom, at home, in the car, and at stores or shops. Have children take turns reading aloud with a classmate, parent, or sibling. Discuss in class or at home what you are reading.

Model reading as enjoyable. Let children see family members or teachers enjoying reading. You might informally discuss what you are reading. Have DEAR time several times a week where everyone "Drops Everything And Reads" for 20 minutes.

Put learning to use. Help children remember by having them explain, discuss, or apply information they have just read. You might have children teach you facts or ideas they have learned from their reading, or encourage them to act out characters from their reading selections.

Specific Strategies

Strategies for
> Decoding
> Comprehension
> Retention
> Production

Strategy Tips: Decide which strategies to try by observing the child and identifying the ways in which he or she learns best.
  • It may take several attempts to see positive results from one strategy. Don't give up too soon.
  • If the first few strategies you try do not improve the child's skills, try others.
  • Most of these strategies can be adapted for use with different age groups.


Build awareness of word sounds. Play rhyming games, such as having children finish sentences by filling in a rhyming word. For example, say, "I like to run. It's so much ____." For a variation on this game, say a word and have the child say one that rhymes with it.

Play listening games for letter-sound correspondence. Say a sentence and have the child clap when she hears a word that starts or ends with a particular consonant ( p ), or consonant blend ( st ).

Reinforce sight words. Use flashcards to reinforce commonly used words like the, and, to, and is.

Preview words. Call children's attention to the decoding of difficult words, and have them pronounce the words before they read them in a passage.

Play listening games for blending and segmenting sounds. Have a child say one-syllable words such as snow and ball, then blend them together to say the compound word snowball. Next, have the child break down a multi-syllable word like caterpillar, saying it slowly and clapping or tapping a finger for each syllable.

Play Missing sound games with preschool and primary students. For example, tell a child to say "picnic," then , say it without "pic." Say "sled." Now say it without the "l."

Involve several pathways. Read aloud together so children can see and hear the words being read. Use books on tape that allow children to read as they listen. Sing a song that uses words with the sounds that children are working on. Read the words to songs the children like.

Emphasize word families. Have children collect word families, such as words that end in ­ight or ­ash. Use them in a rap or other song for children to sing together.

Write using word families. Encourage children to write stories or poems using words in word families, such as ­op (mop, hop, stop, pop), that they are working on. Children might underline or highlight the repetitive pattern. Ask children to read their stories or poems aloud to you or to each other.

Teach rules. Some children benefit from learning rules about decoding (e.g., when there are two vowels together in a word, the first vowel often says its name and the second one is silent). Once children have learned the rule for a vowel combination, remind them to follow it when they encounter that vowel combination in their reading.

Foster decoding abilities. Provide opportunities for children to become fluent in their decoding of words, so they can focus on the meaning of what they read, rather than the decoding itself.


Use movement. Play charades to act out words. This activity can build vocabulary and word understanding.

Build on students' knowledge. Select reading topics that enhance subject matter previously covered in school or that reflect a child's interests. Encourage them to develop expertise in a subject and to read different types of texts about that subject, such as articles, books, and online materials.

Connect yesterday's reading to today's. Continue a story over several days. Have children make predictions about what they think will happen, then compare those predictions to what actually happens in the story.

Use self-questioning strategies. Have children develop a list of questions to answer after reading. These questions and answers can become the basis of classroom, small group, or parent-child discussions. Have students make a Think Aloud Bookmark. On the bookmark, have children write questions to ask themselves after each section. They can personalize it with decorations.

Connect reading to what children know. Have children discuss what they already know about a topic before reading. Then have them list the things they would like to learn about the topic, and make predictions about whether the assigned reading will include these things or not.

Help children get started. Read the first part of a story or passage to or with the child. Siblings and classmates can also participate by taking turns reading paragraphs or short sections.

Develop interest in words and concepts. Have children keep track of the times they see, hear, or use a new vocabulary word. (How many times can they find the word in a day or a week?) Encourage children to report their observations to the family or class.

Engage several pathways. Use pictures and diagrams to explain concepts; use stories on tape or tell stories; and encourage children to interpret stories through drawings, models, or other constructions. Teach children to "make movies" in their heads" as they read, visualizing the setting and events. Stop after a few paragraphs or pages and ask them to describe their "movie."

Focus on important information. Before children begin reading challenging material, offer an outline of the key ideas or help them make diagrams or charts that capture key concepts as they read.

Preview difficult vocabulary. Offer children a glossary of selection-related words and concepts to use while reading.

Read in stages. Break lengthy passages into short segments. Ask children to summarize each section as soon as they finish reading it, or have them write a brief summary for themselves at the end of each section.

Select a strategy. Before children begin reading, have them write down the reading comprehension strategy they plan to use. They might choose guiding questions, highlighting or underlining significant details, writing comments in the margin, or summarizing after each paragraph.

Help children locate main ideas and important details. Suggest that they think about the "5 Ws" as they read: Who? What? When? Where? Why? Post these questions on a wall or have children write them on a sheet of paper they keep nearby or use as a bookmark.

Encourage collaborative reading activities. Children who are all reading the same book might meet in small groups -- or with a sibling or friend -- to discuss what they have read, plan an oral report, design a mural, or work on a skit related to their reading.

Focus attention by using reading organizers. Mapping techniques and organizers such as a story outline help children become familiar with the structure of stories and keep track of story elements as they read. Make this a hands-on activity by using markers to identify each story element.

An Example Story Outline

Title: ___________
Setting: ___________
Characters: ___________
Problem: ___________
Event 1: ___________
Event 2: ___________
Event 3: ___________
Event 4: ___________
Outcome: ___________


Use rereading for remembering. Teach children how to highlight or underline as they read, then encourage them to reread what they have underlined. Have children separate reading a passage for meaning from rereading the same passage for remembering.

Model the processes you use to remember. Describe a picture you create in your mind to help you understand and remember what you read. Or show children how you remember what you read by making connections between the text and what you already know about the topic.

Find the reading pathway that works. Children might draw diagrams, storyboards, or timelines; record their own summaries into a tape recorder; act out the information; or use a combination of pathways. Have some book reports require drawing, some writing, some acting, some technology, or some that use a combination of pathways.

Suggest techniques for remembering. Use memory aids, called mnemonics, to help children remind themselves of information. One example is H.O.M.E.S., in which each letter represents one of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Other memory aids might include creating cartoons; using mental imagery; or constructing sentences with the first word from each concept, such as Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally for the order of mathematics operations: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction.

Summarize and review. Have children recap short passages or chapters, possibly recording key ideas on Post-it Notes or reading their summaries into a tape recorder. Continue a story over several days so children can summarize what happened each day, then recall this information before the next reading.

Build reading self-awareness. Increase children's awareness of reading strategies they already use. For example, do they visualize (form pictures in their minds while they read) or subvocalize (whisper important information under their breath)? Encourage them to build on their own preferred strategies.


Reading problems can affect a child's performance in all subjects. The following strategies are designed to help children improve their organization skills, work habits, and overall production.

Use assignment books. Teach children to use assignment books and "To Do" lists to keep track of their short- and long-term assignments, tests, and quizzes. Use peers to help monitor other children's assignment books. Also, most schools have a "homework hotline" on voicemail or homework posted on the school Web site. These resources provided by the school can help you support a student who does not yet record assignments consistently without reminders.

Provide models of assignments and criteria for success. Give children a clear sense of how a final product might look by showing examples (e.g., essays or drawings). For instance, make students' work from last year available and draw the children's attention to specific qualities of the work, such as a clear topic sentence. Do not, however, compare children's work with that of peers or siblings.

Schedule in planning time. Give children five minutes of planning time before beginning an assignment. Provide guidance in effective planning when necessary.

Use stepwise approaches. Require children to break down tasks into parts and write down the steps or stages. Compile steps of frequent tasks into a notebook for easy reference during work assignments. For long-term assignments, give a due date for each step of the assignment.

Teach proven strategies. Provide children with specific age-appropriate strategies for checking work. For example, use Dr. Donald D. Deshler's COPS (Capitalization-Organization-Punctuation-Spelling) for proofing written work. Children can create reminder cards to keep on their desks or in their assignment books for quick reference.

Stress the importance of organization. Have children preview an assignment and collect the materials they will need before starting it. Guide children in keeping their materials and notebooks organized and easily accessible. In middle and high school, conduct intermittent "notebook checks," and grade organization and completion. At the beginning of the school year and a week before each check, hand out a list of requirements. Emphasize the positive impact that organization and preplanning will have on the completed project or assignment. By grading organization, you will emphasize its value in the learning process.

Allow time for review. At least day before an assignment is due, have children review their work and read it to a parent. This final review can help children catch errors or add more information to produce better results in the end.

Encourage self-evaluation. Set a standard of work quality or criteria for success, and allow students to assess the quality of their work before turning it in. If the final grade matches the student's appraisal, give extra points for accurate self-assessment. A common method for self-assessment and grading the same assignment is a rubric, which lists expectations. For more information about rubrics, visit www.rubrics.com.

Set goals and record progress. Have children set a short-term goal, such as completing all homework for the week. Record, and share with the child, the daily progress toward the goal. Graphic recording, such as plotting their own line graphs, may be particularly reinforcing for some children. Also, reward improvement at home.

Practice estimating. Children may benefit from estimating answers to math problems and science experiments, before they find exact answers. Stress the real-life applications of estimating.

Eliminate incentives for frenetic pacing. Remove any positive reinforcement for finishing first. State the approximate amount of time a task should take. This time frame can down children who work too quickly and can speed up children who work too slowly.

Provide consistent feedback. Create a feedback system so children understand which behaviors, actions, or work products are acceptable and which are not. Use specifics to praise good work and to recognize when children use strategies effectively. For example, "I like the way you elaborated in this description," or "Asking to take a break really seemed to help you come back and focus."

Try a mentor. Some children may benefit from a mentor who will analyze their academic progress, brainstorm alternative strategies, and provide recognition of progress. The mentor must be seen as credible, and may be an individual from within the school or from outside the school.

READINGBasics | Difficulties | Responses

Nathan Van Hoy's Mom UP CLOSE:
One Parent's Advice

How Lois Geer responded to her son's reading problem

Q: For other parents who may be going through the same thing, or maybe just beginning this journey, what lessons have you learned?
A: [Parents] have to get involved. They have to speak up. They have to be active at school. They have to make their child's teachers their best friends. They have to empower their child, but also empower themselves -- to know that it's okay to ask for help; and when the first five people you ask aren't able to help you, know that there are still other options out there.

Q: Is there something you would have done differently?
A: I think I was quite hesitant to ask for help. I thought it was some thing that as a parent I should be able to take care of. And you learn really quick that you can't.

Q: One word of advice?
A: Be there with your children. You know, go through their book bags, know what they're doing. Have open communications with the teachers. But not just the teacher [of] the child; the supportive folks in the school. Sometimes the librarian is so important because she'll tell you things, or she'll say what books your child might be looking at. So, you run out and you buy all those books. Who cares if they're all army books? If Nathan will read them, I think that's great.

Q: Nathan is going into the fifth grade, now, and scored well on the end of year test.
A: [Yes,] the positive aspects of Nathan, his positive characteristics, his ability to verbalize himself, his keen memory, his attention to detail in a very paradoxical way scored him the highest score on the end-of-year writing test. That's success.
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