How to Support Overwhelmed Beginning Readers

Years ago, I decided to try out a step class at the gym. I arrived early and scouted out a front-row spot because, by golly, I’m a go-getter. The teacher was so friendly as she introduced herself and welcomed everyone to class. And then the horror began. With music blaring and commands flying, everyone knew the steps but me. When they were already onto the next move, I was struggling to replicate the last move. And I was in the front row. The front row. Everyone could see how much I was struggling, how much I was failing. It was mortifying. With almost a full hour of class remaining ahead of me, I gave up. I gathered my things and slunk out of there through a path of people effortlessly doing all of the moves that I just couldn’t figure out. 

No doubt, you’ve had some moment in your life when you felt yourself flailing like I did at step class. You know that feeling — the humiliation, the sense of being underwater, the injury to your confidence. 

Some of our beginning readers feel that way, too. But reading is a critical skill, so giving up and slinking out of class isn’t an option for them. Our job is to make it less overwhelming, to throw our kids the support they need to keep their heads above water.

Here are my real life tips for taking some of the tears and terror out of reading.       


Try Shared Reading Books

Shared reading books feature two-page spreads with one page to be read by the parent and a more simple page to be read by the child. Usborne offers some fiction shared reading selections in their Very First Reading Collection. In addition to fiction readers, the We Both Read series published by Treasure Bay offers some fantastic nonfiction selections at a variety of levels.


Be an Ally with Buddy Reading

When a child is struggling, opening up a book and seeing all of those words on all of those pages can feel defeating at the outset. Make the task feel smaller by taking turns with buddy reading. The child reads one page, you read the next page, the child reads the next page, and so on. Not only does buddy reading give the child a break, but when a child’s fluency is low, causing reading to be disjointed and jerky, the pages read by the parent can be a big comprehension help.


Find a Furry Audience

Lots of libraries have read-to-a-dog programs these days. When they’re done well and with a minimal audience aside from the dog, they really can be motivating for a child. At my house, we’ve also had success with our Humane Society’s Reading Team program. My kids have “work” shirts, they sign up for shifts, and they wear badges at the shelter that identify them as volunteers. In their orientation, they learned that reading to the shelter pets improves the animals’ socialization level, which makes the animals more adoptable. They take their job very seriously, and the results are real. While it can be a struggle for one of my kids to make it through half of a reader at home with me, the same book might be read twice in its entirety at a Reading Team shift. Win-win-win. 


Make Peace with Hitting the Pause Button

When our kids are struggling, we feel a lot of pressure to push, to get them caught up. The thing is, though, that if you’re pushing your child to continue beyond his or her point of frustration or exhaustion, you’re hurting more than you’re helping. It’s okay to be gentle, and it’s okay to push the pause button. Coming back to it hours later (or even the next day) will be much more fruitful. 


Lots of Pictures, Lots of Colors

If you have a spread of workbooks in front of you, which one are you most drawn to? One with crowded pages and lots of black and white text or one with lots of colors, pictures, and open (or negative) space that gives your eyes a place to rest? Just about all of us would pick up the colorful choice first, and we’re grownups. Pictures and colors are inviting. For a child who’s struggling, the importance of that can’t be overstated. 


Use GRL to Find Appropriate Books

Most books that you find on the early reader shelves at the bookstore or library are labeled with a 1-2-3-4 system, and it’s a system that a lot of us find fairly frustrating and misleading. How many times have you opened up a level 1 reader and wondered, “How in the world is a beginner supposed to know this word?” A system I find to be much more accurate is the GRL system, which uses a wider range of alphabetic leveling. In fact, when I when through our own collection of books and labeled each with a GRL level sticker to help my children find choices that would be accessible to them, I was surprised to find that some of our “Level 1” books were rated at the same GRL as some of our “Level 3” books. 

It’s fairly easy to find the GRL of most children’s books via Google search, and the Scholastic website also offers tools for finding a book’s GRL or browsing books by GRL.