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When your child struggles with reading

By Kim Jaworski, Homeschool Resource Specialist

Your child may have learned the alphabet and the sounds each letter makes, but then reading stalled as vowel combinations came into play. This is quite typical. Not all children read easily by 2nd grade. In fact, a full third of third graders don’t read at grade level (these are statistics from the MN Dept of Education on public school kids). For children who don’t take readily to reading (reluctant readers) it can take until 4th and even 5th grade for reading to emerge from the shadows. They typically excel at Math, but reading is a challenge. You might be worried about a learning disability, but the truth is that it’s too soon to diagnose that. Even the specialists prefer to wait until after 4th grade to see if a child outgrows the difficulty. This approach will help even if there is an underlying learning disability, so why not give your child the foundation skills he/she needs?

Imprinting is a little trick our brains do to increase efficiency. And this little trick is the key to reading fluently. If your child still has to sound out each letter in every word, slowing their reading to a painful process, then a little extra time is needed to ramp up the imprinting. Some of us imprint readily, and others need a little more focused repetition to tip the scales in their favor. You’ll be amazed what a difference it makes.

Imprinting is your brain’s underlying auto-pilot. As an example, imagine that I have given you a long list of phone numbers and the list includes your number. Your own phone number will practically jump off the page at you. Not because you read them all and found it, but because your brain has imprinted that combination and a simple scan down the list will reveal it. In a similar fashion, your name will jump off the page at you if it happens to be included in a magazine article or memo.

Children with a slower imprinting rate typically start to struggle with reading when vowel sounds start to be combined (ea, ie, ai, ay etc). You can help by spending time working with a designated word family until the basic pattern imprints. Then the words in that family will all be recognized readily and reading will become fluent. This isn’t hard to do and you don’t need any expensive curriculum.

Simply begin each week with a list of the words that follow a given pattern (take one pattern per week to ensure enough time for slower imprinters) and have the child create flashcards for each word on the list. If you’re working on AI words, you’ll have rain, train, drain, pain, tail, sail, fail, pail, etc. You can add prefixes and suffixes to basic words and include them as well, so your list will also include raining, sailing, refrain, retain, etc. When you have your list made, sit with your child and read down the list moving your finger to each word as you say it, then have your child read down the list, aloud.  Flashcards can be made on recipe cards, old business cards, or whatever’s handy. The children can write the words in marker, colored ink or whatever interests them. Now each day, twice a day, remind your to child flip through the stack of flashcards and say each word. This doesn’t require intensive studying or memorizing of each word. Just a simple run through of the stack with the child murmuring each word as it appears on the card. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon or evening should be sufficient. This will trigger the imprinting threshold. You don’t need to supervise this step. Just remind the child to shuffle the cards each time. The stack can be kept in the car, if there are frequent trips to lessons or appts, as the child can use that time to do the flashcards. As long as it’s twice each day, it should be enough.

(You can find word lists online or pull them from a phonics workbook).

Each day your child should do the flash card practice and another activity with the word list- writing words on black construction paper with chalk, or writing the words in a sand tray or shaving cream, playing with the scrabble letter tiles or bananagram tiles to make the words, writing on a window with wipe off markers. The idea is to have a different medium each day so that the brain pays attention and it’s a bigger memory with textures and more sensory input than just words on a page.

These activities build an imprinted memory of the word pattern and create speedy recognition and reading fluency. If books and printed pages seem to make your child cringe, stick to these activities until things seem to flow better.  Mix up these activities so you are doing something different with the words each day of the week.

Another activity is to make chalk circles the size of dinner plates all over the sidewalk or driveway and put one capital letter in each circle until you have the whole alphabet. Then call out one word from the list and challenge your child to step (or hop) on the letters in the right order to spell the word.  For indoor fun, you can use the mat that comes with a ‘Twister’ game and put your letters on in permanent marker. Do this ‘Twisted Spelling’ at the end of the week when the words will be easier for your child to imagine in a printed form.

The next week means a new family of words. Maybe OY or EA words. And each week will be another set of words to play with. It will feel like baby steps, but 3 months from now you’ll be amazed how much ground you have covered. It was just 3 months into this strategy with my son when he said “now it feels like I can read and not just ‘sound out’ words.” Before I knew it, he was actually checking out books at the library.

When you start this process, it’s helpful to begin with word groups your child is mostly getting right but not always, to smooth out fluency. Then work on word groups they struggle with. Some weeks you will have a big pile of words to work with, and other weeks there won’t be many that follow the vowel pattern. With short stacks of words, we went through them 2 or 3 times instead of just once through each time. And remember to use not only the root words, but add prefixes and suffixes, too. Your list should include bright, sight, fight and fright, and also delight, fighting, frighten, delightful and frightening.

Here are some games you can play with your stack of flashcards on different days of the week:

 Deal them out like you would for any card game, 5 or 7 to each player. Lay one word down on the table and then your child plays a card from their hand that rhymes with the start word. If you don’t have a word that rhymes, you have to draw from the draw pile. Shuffle in a few “switch” cards that will give you the chance to select a new base word for rhyming.  

You can also play another version of this game where you have to play another word that starts with the same sound as the card on the table. And the “switch” cards will let you change words.

You can also lay out 3 or 4 word cards on the table and then say one of the words and your child picks it out from the line up.

Or take turns playing a card and using it in a sentence. The funnier the sentence the better, but the word usage should be correct.

Other games can be played with the word tiles. Put out one word from the list in tiles on the table and see if you can make it into another word by changing just one letter. Let your child use the word stack as reference. You can also try to create a crossword puzzle type formation on the table using all of the words in this week’s list.

 It’s ok for you to do the reading that might be needed in other subjects- or use videos (kids’ documentaries, Magic schoolbus, National Geographic, etc) to cover science and social studies topics until your child’s reading skills are up to the task. Netflix and youtube have a wide selection, and your library will, too.

If your child is struggling, give this a try for just 3 months and see if you don’t notice improvement. Or do it over the summer and see how things improve by the start of your next school year. As with any subject that causes stress or serious struggle for your child, don’t be afraid to slow down or even put it aside for a week or 2 and come back to it. The beauty of homeschooling is that we can do what makes sense. We can march to our own drummer. And so can our children.


To use this approach you’ll need (check your local dollar store or even thrift stores):

Construction paper in a variety of colors, regular chalk, sidewalk chalk, wipe off markers, colored pens, colored pencils, gel pens, crayons, recipe cards (cut in half works well)  or old business cards, Banana gram tiles (or scrabble tiles or Upwords tiles- games easily found at thrift stores), an old cookie sheet, a small amount of sand, a can of shaving cream. I had a basket of writing implements for my son to choose from so we didn’t have to scramble each week and find what he wanted to make his flashcards with.

Each week, create a list of words that follow the phonics rule for a vowel combination (AI, AY, OI, EA, AW, OW, OU, EE, IE, UE, etc). It’s best if you do this on a computer and print it off. That way you can make the words all in capital letters if your child struggles with lower case variations (as most do). And you can print them large enough to be easily worked with. (I did this on Sunday evenings).

On Monday, read down the list with your child, then have your child read down the list. The next project is for your child to print each word onto a flashcard. Don’t buy flashcards as this writing practice is important to the process. Gel pens, colored pencils, crayons,-- let your child choose the writing implement of their choice. My son several times made the targeted vowel pattern in purple crayon and the rest of the word in another color. Just make sure they didn’t misspell a word or they will learn it wrong.

Now, each day of the week (Mon through Fri), your child will flip through their flashcard stack and just say each word briefly (mumbling is fine) in the morning and again later in day or even just before bed. At bedtime I would say “did you do your words two times today? And if he had forgotten, he’d grab them and do it right then.

Also each day, you’ll do another activity or game with the list of words, but not the same activity each day. Mix it up. Choose something from this list:

Writing words on colored construction paper with chalk -your child flips one of the flashcards over and then copies it on the construction paper, creating a list as he goes.

Writing the words in a sand tray  -your child flips one of the flashcards over and then copies it in the sand, easily erasing between words.

Writing the words in shaving cream on an old cookie sheet -your child flips one of the flashcards over and then copies it in the shaving cream, easily erasing between words.

Playing with the scrabble letter tiles or bananagram tiles to make the words -your child flips one of the flashcards over and then makes that word with the tiles.

Writing on a window with wipe off markers  -your child flips one of the flashcards over and then copies it on the window, creating a list as he goes. (make sure they are wipe off markers- window is WAY more fun than a white board).

Twisted Spelling (using the Twister Mat with the alphabet on the circles or outside with sidewalk chalk)- You call out a word from the set and the child steps on the letters in the right order to spell the word.

Card games using the flashcards for the week:  ‘Rhyming words’ game, or ‘Starts with the same sound’ game or ‘Which One Says…’ game,  or ‘Funny Sentences’ game. 

Games played with the word tiles: Put out one word from the group in tiles on the table and see if you can make it into another word by changing just one letter. Let your child use the word stack as reference if necessary. Or create a crossword puzzle type formation on the table trying to use all of the words in this week’s list.


NOTE: When a word pattern can make more than one sound, take one sound set in one week, and a few weeks later bring out the next sound for that pattern. This is less confusing than trying to learn more than one sound in the same week. They will learn that the pattern can make 2 different sounds, so when they hit a word with that pattern, they can try both sounds to figure out the word.  Like EA in peach and EA in bear. Those would be in different weeks with words that make the same EA sound.  Do EA in peach week, and then move on to other patterns like AI, or OA, and then come to the EA in bear week.

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