Reading / Special Education / Ages 11-18

What If My Big Kid Struggles With Reading?

Here’s how to know if your child needs extra help in reading—and what you can do about it.

In early elementary school, there’s a lot of focus on teaching children to read. As they get older, though, they’ll be expected to read fluently across different subjects, and the window for learning to read starts to close. How do you know if your child needs extra help in reading—and what can you do about it?

There are a lot of reasons why the early elementary years are important for learning to read. By around third grade, most classrooms will shift from a focus on teaching students to read to expecting students to read fluently on their own in order to learn all kinds of other material. And that’s not just in English class: They’ll also be reading in math, science, and social studies.

This means that by the time they’re in upper elementary school and middle school, it becomes more and more challenging to keep up in class if you struggle to read.

Unfortunately, our schools aren’t always set up to make sure all kids learn to read well. Sometimes learning disabilities (like dyslexia and others) can go unnoticed, or be diagnosed later in school, after a child has already been struggling for a while. And other kids just might not be getting the kind of reading instruction they need. While some children will learn to read on their own, most kids need explicit instruction in phonics. This means they have to be taught how to break words up into groups of sounds, and then put those sounds together to read. Not all classrooms offer that kind of instruction.

This raises a few important questions for parents and caretakers. First, how do you know if your child needs extra help with reading? And second, how do you get them the support they need?

Here are some signs your older child might need extra help with reading:

  • You see them guessing at words. When they’re first learning to read, guessing is normal (and if they’re working on sounding out words, that’s great!). But if your child is older than third grade and still guessing or trying to use pictures as clues to figure out words, this can be a sign that they aren’t reading fluently.
  • They’re not interested in reading for pleasure. Not all kids love to read for fun. But if your child really resists reading, it could be a sign that it’s hard work for them. Have a conversation with them about how they feel when they read. Is it stressful for them? Do they feel like they know what’s going on in the story? Ask them to read aloud to you from an age-appropriate book, like something they’re reading in class or that you pick out from the library.
  • They’re bringing home consistently low grades. There are plenty of reasons why your child might get a bad grade here or there. But if they’re consistently performing poorly in their classes, it could be a sign that they’re having a hard time keeping up academically, and reading struggles could be at the root of that. (It also could mean they’re having a hard time with something else related to their studies!)
  • Their standardized test scores in reading are low. Their test scores won’t tell you everything, but it’s worth paying attention to them. Check in with their teacher to find out if their scores are consistent with the rest of their academic performance, which could be a sign that they are having a hard time reading.

What can you do if you have concerns about your older child’s reading?


Don’t panic.

Lots of people have learning disabilities. In fact, dyslexia—just one of many learning differences that can make reading hard—is incredibly common. Some experts estimate that up to 20 percent of the population exhibits signs of dyslexia. There’s nothing wrong with your child if they can’t read fluently: They just need some additional support to help them thrive as a reader.


Talk to school as soon as you can.

In elementary or middle school, your child’s English language arts teacher is the first person you’ll want to check in with if you have concerns about your kid’s reading. If your child is already in high school, their English teacher or even their homeroom teacher is a good first stop. You can also check in with their guidance counselor for advice. Their school probably has at least one literacy interventionist who can help figure out what’s going on. For older kids, these conversations should be handled with care: They might feel self-conscious and not want to broadcast to their peers that an adult is getting involved. But this isn’t a reason to avoid these tough conversations. When you reach out to school, don’t be shy about your concerns. If your child needs help learning to read fluently, now is the time to get that help.


Ask for an evaluation.

It’s important that your child is evaluated for a learning disability at this stage, if they haven’t been already. A formal diagnosis—if there is one—is the first step toward getting accommodations that will help make sure your child is able to thrive in school. (This will continue to be true in college.) For example, your child might need extra time on their assignments or in standardized tests. They might need tutoring from a literacy interventionist. Here are some formal steps you’ll need to take to request an evaluation.


Talk to a Navigator.

Finally, if you have concerns about your child’s reading—or anything else related to their learning—you can always reach out to us for support. Our Navigators are here to do just that—help you navigate your way through the challenges of school.

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