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How to Inspire and Support Struggling Readers

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Show Notes:

What you might not know about me is that I focused my PhD on this very topic: How to inspire and support young readers. Out of that research, I created what I believe is the very best literacy program out there to support young readers and writers.

Don’t worry, I’m not telling you this because I want to sell you anything. :-) In fact, this program (Dogs Help Kids Read & Succeed) is not even currently available because I’m completely re-vamping the entire program over the next couple of years. 

However, I have more than 3500 student graduates for this program and have earned literally over 1000 amazing reviews from kiddos, their parents, teachers, school and district administrators. If there’s one thing I've learned over the years, it’s that truly, I know how to inspire and motivate young readers and writers.

So today, I’m going to outline the five foundational pillars of what I know to work every single time to inspire and motivate your struggling readers and writers.

Did you know that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics:

“93 million adults in the U.S. read at or below the basic level needed to contribute successfully to society.”

 And, according to data collected by Reading is Fundamental,

 “The first three years of schooling are a critical time to learn the basic skills needed to tackle a more advanced curriculum yet many who enter fourth grade struggle with reading.

  • 65 percent of fourth graders read at or below the basic level.
  • As curriculum advances, these children will fall behind.”

These children spend much of their academic careers falling further and further behind their peers, feeling more and more like failures numerous times each day as the curriculum content material becomes increasingly more difficult until finally, they just give up. In fact,

  • “A lack of academic achievement is a key reason for students to drop out of high school.
  • More than 8,000 students quit high school every day, limiting their financial potential and ability to become strong members of the workforce.” (Reading is Fundamental).

But, I don’t have to tell you any of this, do I? You’re living this every day.

You don’t need me to tell you that likely between one third and one half of the students in your classroom are struggling in (or just couldn’t care less about) reading.

That’s why you’re here: You want some strategies that actually work.

So, let’s talk about how you can turn your struggling readers into voracious readers. I think you’re going to be surprised by how simple and how effective these five foundational pillars really are:

  1. Foundational Pillar #1:
    Help Your Students Find Their Chocolate.

    What do I mean by this?

    I learned this amazing phrase from one of my mentor teachers years ago when I was really frustrated by trying to figure out how to get one of my little guys in 2nd grade turned on to reading. He just simply did not care. At all. There were literally 101 things he would rather do than read, and it was driving me crazy.

    I’m sure you have one or eight of these kiddos in your classroom.

    As much as I hate to admit it now, I was complaining about him in the staff room because I was at the end of my rope and I just didn’t know what to do. He simply would not read.

    And Margorie Andrews, bless her heart, just laughed and with a wink and a smile she said, “Oh honey, you just need to help him find his chocolate.”

    The brilliance of those simple words have stayed with me for 20 years. What she meant, of course, was that it was my job to help him to discover a topic he absolutely loved – his chocolate – that *something* that he couldn’t get enough of and craved learning more about.

    It’s so simple, and yet we so often overlook this.

    The best way to get students engaged in learning is to give our students a reason to care about it.

    So I went back to my classroom and the next day, I gave my students an Interest Inventory. Based on the results of that inventory, I discovered that a whole handful of my boys who hadn’t really gotten into reading up until that point were OBSESSED with motorcycles.

    Who knew? Why 2nd grade kids cared at all about motorcycles is beyond me. But, that was their chocolate.

    So, I went to our school library and found a whole wack of books about motorcycles, and I set up a little display inside our reading corner featuring all sorts of books about motorcycles. And you wouldn’t believe those kids’ reactions. It was like dollar dinner night for seniors at the local restaurant.

    I’ve never seen them swarm the place like that before. My boys were suddenly fighting over books and negotiating with each other who would get each one after they were done with it. It was crazy. All this time, their “chocolate” had been right in our school library and I hadn’t even known it.

    By the way, if you want to get a copy of my Student Interest Inventory, it’s included in my 14 Fantastic First Week of School Activities product on TpT.

So, step #1 is to help your students to find their chocolate.
That’s so do-able, right? You can do that.

And by the way, even if you are required to teach a canned reading program like I was, I always made these super tantalizing books available for my students as a reward once they were done their required reading work.

I also found some really cool “How to draw” books that taught my students how to draw and label all of the coolest motorbikes, so that was a pretty hot free time activity with those boys...

  1. Foundational Pillar #2:
    Make Reading Relevant.

    I learned very early on that a child’s favorite question in the whole entire world is “But why?” and, I learned very early on in my teaching career that answering that question, “But why?” for everything I taught my students was the magic ingredient inside the secret sauce to engaging my students in learning as much as possible.

    Most of us are much more engaged in something if we know the reason for it, and I believe that the reason that so many students are NOT engaged in learning is in part, our own fault, because we don’t put enough emphasis on making learning relevant and giving learning a point.

    We are so busy satisfying curriculum standards and checking boxes that we sometimes forget that there is a six-year-old or a ten-year-old child behind all of it still asking, “But why?”

    I believe that it’s our responsibility to give them a reason why. And, I believe learning just for the sake of learning sometimes just doesn’t cut it, especially when you try to use that reasoning with a child.

So practically, how do we do this? How do we make learning relevant and how do we give reading a point?

Well, for example, so often we ask our students to read a paragraph or a story and then answer questions about it. And, so often, these stories and questions have nothing to do with them and so they often tune out.

A very simple (and fun) way of making these tasks more relevant is to simply change the names of the characters in the story to your own students’ names and feature them throughout each story.

If you are reading a text as a group, you can change the names by placing small, brightly colored sticky notes throughout the book. If you are photocopying a story for your students to read, simply white out and change the names before you you’re your copies, or have students actually cross out and change the names on their own copies.

Your kids will laugh their heads off because they will find themselves in all sorts of different scenarios that they hadn’t dreamed possible. It’s even better if there are pets involved and you can include their pets’ names in the stories as well.

Because children are ultimately egocentric (as we all are πŸ˜‰), when children can see themselves inside their reading experiences, they are immediately engaged. It’s so much fun, and so easy to do with any canned text!

Also, following up from the first pillar, “Help your students find their chocolate,” be sure to choose texts and topics whenever possible that can infuse your students’ interests throughout them.

Making reading relevant and giving it a point is to think outside of stories when you are working on reading skills with your students and consider combining reading and writing as we naturally do outside of school.

For example, writing thank you cards and letters to people they love, reading articles, both print and online, about topics they are interested in, scanning a webpage for important information, reading the directions in order to play a new game, and following a recipe are all important and practical uses for reading and writing that will help to engage your struggling readers.

Finally, when you think of reading for your students, don’t limit your thinking to “real” books. Cartoons, graphic novels, and board games all count. And this is all very do-able!

  1. Foundational Pillar #3:
    Give Them a Buddy & Take the Pressure Off.

Too often, children who are struggling in reading have already learned to associate reading with being something unpleasant.

Very often, these children have decided that it’s WAY too much pressure to read out loud because they find it really hard, and they also often feel very isolated and alone in their struggle. They tend to feel like they are dumb and “less than” their peers, so their self-confidence tends to be lower.

All of these things are only going to lead to even more struggle, so our job is to interrupt the pattern: To give children a fresh start, a re-set, and a different experience with reading than what they’re used to. An experience that is fun, one that takes the pressure off, and one that makes them feel supported and validated and less alone in their struggle.

There are many ways that we can accomplish this, but they all involve setting up a simple environment of support for our struggling readers.

When I was doing my PhD research, I learned that children experience reading and writing with a dog as a nonjudgmental form of acceptance. One of the reasons children love reading with a dog is because they "just listen." They don’t point out their mistakes, they don’t tell them what they’re doing wrong, and they don’t interrupt them when they are so busy and focused on trying to make meaning out of text.

Now, we can’t all bring a dog into our classrooms, but I accomplished a similar environment inside my program, Dogs Help Kids, by giving each child a little plush/stuffed dog that they got to name and “foster” at school while they practiced essential reading skills.

Hundreds of children who participated in this program commented on how they loved that their plush dog was such a good listener (now keep in mind that these are 2nd grade students) because children at this age permanently have one foot planted in reality and the other in imagination. πŸ’›

So, in your classroom, giving your young readers opportunities to read aloud to a stuffed animal is one way that you can provide ongoing practice of emerging literacy skills while taking the pressure off of reading aloud.

Inviting older students to read with younger students can be another wonderful way to give regular reading practice to your students.

In fact, one year, I worked it out with another 4th grade teacher to have several of her students who were struggling in 4th grade to read aloud every day after recess with several of my 2nd grade students.

It was pretty amazing to watch, because everyone benefitted. The 4th grade students felt like they were helping out in a big way while getting the reading practice they needed, and my 2nd grade students were getting daily reading practice (and attention) from an older student. It was a win-win for everyone!

  1. Foundational Pillar #4:
    Create a System for Regular Practice & Celebrate Small Successes.

    Let me give you an example of what I mean by this.

    One of the foundational pieces of my Dogs Help Kids program is something called a Tricky Trouble Words (Doggy) Bag.

    Now, this is just a brown paper lunch bag, and here’s how it works. I ask my students to read for 20 minutes every evening before bed with their Mom or Dad and/or their pet or stuffed animal, and as they’re reading, each time they come across a word they don’t know, they stop and write that word down on a small piece of paper and place it inside their Tricky Trouble Words Doggy Bag.

    I ask that they keep no more than 10 words in their bag at a time. Then, before they start reading each evening, they take out their words and they practice them. Each time they can read a word, lickety-split, no problem at all, they get to write a checkmark beside that word.

    Once they have 5 checkmarks beside that word, they get to take that word out of their bag and print it on what we call their “Bonework” or “Homework” page for the week.

    We set a goal for how many words each child will learn, and we keep track of all of the new words they learn at school. Once they reach their reading goal, they get to adopt their little plush dog that we give each child at the beginning of the program. It’s super motivating for our kiddos and they are so excited to be able to take home and keep their little plush dogs.

    Now, this is just one example of a system that I designed to inspire my students towards celebrating all of their weekly successes in reading. However you set this up inside your classroom, setting the expectation for students to practice their reading skills for 20 minutes every evening is one of the most important things you can do for your students.

    In fact, I created a great freebie for you that gives you not only a First Day of School Newsletter Template, but it outlines exactly how I set up my Home Reading Program for lower elementary as well as upper elementary, so it's appropriate for 1st to 5th grade, including ALL of the parent letters that you can send home to parents to get them involved. Just click below to get your copy now!

Just to be clear: Not having a book and not having someone to read with are NOT excuses for not reading.

Children can take books home from your school library to read every evening, and they practice a book at a lower level so they don’t need as much help from an adult if they have no one to read to.

Setting the expectation for reading every night is imperative, and modeling for your students that you too are reading outside of school every day by talking about books and articles you are reading will make a huge difference towards their motivation.

Also, putting an emphasis on celebrating their efforts and successes as they read is likely going to make a dramatic impact over time, but you have to be persistent and not just try something and then give up.

Involve your kids in asking them what they would work for in terms of a weekly reward for establishing this new habit and meeting their reading goals, and keep experimenting until you find out what works for you in your classroom. Just like discovering your students’ chocolate, you will need to be persistent, creative, and flexible in your thinking until you figure out what works for you and for your students.

Finally, one way that I managed to get in a whole lot of extra reading practice for my students was to keep a first name checklist of my students and a whole pile of high-engagement books at the back of my room at my Parent Volunteer center, and every time a parent came into my room, they knew to go to that center, and if I didn’t have anything else set out for them to do with students that needed doing, to take that pile of books and one student at a time, and read one-on-one with them outside in the hallway.

It worked like a charm, and I never had parents just sitting around in my classroom ever again!

Another super creative teacher I knew partnered with a local senior center and arranged for students who didn’t have anyone to read to to walk over there every day after school and read to seniors who just loved the extra company. Such a great idea!

Or, create an after or before-school reading club and invite older students to read with your kiddos and celebrate with a popsicle party once a month.

However it works for you, create a system to give your students regular reading practice. It makes all the difference in the world!

  1. Foundational Pillar #5:
    Great Expectations for All.

    Finally, this last pillar may be the most important one of all for your struggling readers.

    These kiddos have already discovered that reading is hard for them, and they may be questioning their own intelligence and their own ability to be successful at school.

    It’s our job to see in them what they can’t see in themselves – yet. It’s our job to envision possibilities for them and for their own lives that they haven’t even dreamed – yet.

    Too often, I see little ones’ lights dim far too early, most often because they don’t have someone in their life truly believing in them and seeing that they are special and that they can contribute.

    Children will rise or fall to meet the expectations that the adults in their lives have for them. You might have heard about the original Harvard study done by professor Robert Rosenthal who did an experiment in 1964 at an elementary school in northern California.

    I can’t imagine how this experiment would pass ethics standards in today’s world, but at that time, he gave the students an IQ test and told the teachers that this very special test could predict which students would experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.

    Without the teachers knowing, he randomly selected students and then told the teachers that these were special because they were on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom.

    Over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that “if teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ.”

 Upon deeper investigation, Rosenthal began to see a pattern that revealed WHY this happened, and it isn’t magic. Instead, he found that it was in teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with their students who they believed to be special were different than with those who they believed were average.

For the students that they had higher expectations for, these teachers smiled more, they gave these students more time to answer questions, they gave more approval, nods, and touches, and in general, gave these students more specific feedback and approval.

At first glance, it may seem like a small thing, but the thousands of tiny but very meaningful interactions with our students over time is what ultimately communicates what we believe about them.

And so, when it comes to our struggling readers, becoming more intentional and aware of how our positive expectations can help them to grow is ultimately empowering.

Your positive attention, your smile, those small touches on their arm, your warmth – in short, your positive expectations for their growth can be their ticket to ultimately becoming everything they hope to be.

And those, my friends, are the five pillars of how you can inspire and support your struggling readers in your classroom. I hope this has been helpful for you!

Please join the conversation by adding your comments below. I hope you have a wonderful week and remember - just because you are a beginning elementary teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one.

πŸ’› Lori

P.S. Have you grabbed your copy of my FREE Teacher Cheat Sheet? If you're struggling with differentiation in your classroom, get your free copy by clicking below. 

Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor

Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at and at

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