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Why Johnny Can't and Won't Read

Find out why your son struggles with reading and what to do about it.


I have recently received letters from parents who are concerned about:

  • A 7th grade boy reading below grade level; getting him to read "is like pulling teeth"
  • An 11-year-old boy reading below grade level; not motivated and no longer getting extra help
  • A boy who doesn't finish his homework, and his mom doesn't want to "ground him every day"
  • A son who is very good in math but "struggling" in reading
  • A son who reads well but has trouble understanding and summarizing
  • A 9-year-old boy with a severe comprehension weakness
  • An 11-year-old boy, doing well in school except for his weak comprehension skills
  • A 10-year-old boy who doesn't like to read and "forgets" to do his homework
What do these concerned parents have in common? Their boys can't read well, won't read, or both. These concerns echo the results of a National Assessment of Educational Progress report which showed that "in 2003, female students scored higher on average than male students by 7 points at grade 4 and by 11 points at grade 8."

While I want to highlight the problem of boys and reading, my recommendations work for girls with reading difficulties, too. For all students with problems, you must not skip my first recommendation, which is:

  1. Get an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Just as you would want to know exactly what was wrong if your child had a fever, you want to know why he's struggling with reading. A reading physical should include an assessment of phonemic awareness (the sounds of language), phonics (the speech/print connection), fluency (reading at an appropriate pace, accurately and with expression), vocabulary (the words needed for understanding a text), and comprehension (ability to get meaning from text).

    Your child's teacher is the best source of testing information. If you can't get the needed info from the teacher, work with the school to have your child tested. There are two good sources for seeing that your child is tested:

  2. Get help. Once you know where help is needed, ask the principal or teacher how the school plans to intervene. There are well-researched intervention programs, such as Scholastic's READ 180, and tutoring programs provided by the school district and others. Find out what your child's school will do and how you can help. Get a plan in place and stick to it.

  3. Read aloud — the one sure thing every parent can do to help. Most of us stop reading aloud to our children way too soon. Reading aloud has value through high school. It's especially important for struggling readers as they just don't read enough to gain the vocabulary and the world knowledge necessary to understand text. When kids listen to books read aloud, they're exposed to good models of reading and to important ideas. Don't have the time or just not comfortable reading aloud? Get books on tape from the bookstore or library.

  4. He just doesn't get it? Now let's assume your child can read but doesn't understand what he's reading. Try these tips for improving comprehension:

    • Ask your child to provide you with news reports or updates after reading a chapter.

    • Remind him to read over a part he doesn't understand or to read ahead so he can get more information. Rereading, reading back, and reading ahead help solidify meaning.

    • Make a chapter chart to keep track of events.

  5. Celebrate success. I have a favorite saying: "Success is built on successive successes." It's important for a kid who's having difficulty to experience success one step at a time. If you are trying to lose 10 pounds, it can be motivating to celebrate each one you lose. For kids, new words learned, improved spelling test scores, or books and other materials read should be noted. When your child makes reading progress, let him choose what's for dinner or pick a TV show or movie to watch. You know your child best, so select an appropriate reward.

    It's also important to notice the positive things — like if your son's a good brother, does well in sports, or is good in math, like one of the boys whose dad wrote about his reading. You don't want your child to just see the minuses or weaknesses, but also to identify his plusses and strengths.

  6. Reading, Reading, Rah, Rah, Rah! Celebrating success is one way to get your child motivated to read. Another idea is to let kids choose their own materials — and don't forget that reading doesn't have to be confined to books. It also includes reading closed captioning on the television, newspapers, magazines, and reading text online from carefully selected sources (like's kids area). It really helps to set aside time for the whole family to read. You can use the time to catch up on your own reading and your child won't be distracted by other activities.

It's hard to see your child struggle at anything. Students who do not read well at this age are going to have more problems with school and beyond. You will both be investing great effort in to these reading improvement strategies and you will see positive results.

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