How to Help a Struggling Reader and Other Kids in a Pandemic

Topics: Reading
Photo of dancers

I thought at first I would write of our school experience this fall and why we made huge changes we never before considered with our fourth grader.

It turns out that I don’t want to write about how painful it’s been. I only want to write to you about what I’ve discovered about my kid and maybe other kids, too.

My son struggles to read. He has struggled for years and I have struggled alongside him. The pandemic did not make this worse and it certainly didn’t help by itself. But in some ways, the school closures and attempts to offer remote learning made it better because his dad and I have had to really dig in to figure out what to do.

Here is what we discovered:

Having a tutor to meet one-on-one in video chat is an absolute God-send. I think this would be true even if he weren’t challenged to learn reading. It’s especially true for us. I recommend Wired for Reading as a program for dyslexic kids because of the research-based multi-sensory methods that work when nothing else does. We have met together since before the pandemic and our tutor is phenomenal. Having her to guide us through this in a consistent fashion is absolutely priceless.

Movement and routines are crucial. If you do nothing else for your kids learning at home, find a way they like to exercise intensely and have them to do that at least 10 minutes before they have to do any sort of focus work. My sister was a fourth grade teacher and says the best class day ever was right after field day when her kids had run for an hour straight and came straggling into her room exhausted. Brains love that sort of thing and the focus improvement is dramatic each and every time I get my kid to exercise first. We either walk outside or crank up the music and dance like loons in the living room with our bird. (The cats look on with dismay and scorn. The dachshund barks at us. It’s pretty much chaos.)

I’ll be darned if it doesn’t help my brain, too.

For my son, movement also adds to whatever small thing he is learning. If we step to the vowels, for example, and use the alphabet sign language for the letters, he remembers in a way that staring at the page or simply hearing things explained never does for him.

Vision therapy is amazing and if your kids are struggling to read, they may benefit from this even if they do not need glasses. This involves a sort of occupational therapy treatment with exercises that work to help kids (or adults) get their eyes to work together and to track across the page. This is one of the best things we’ve started doing that we got in place right at the start of the pandemic. Our therapist is amazing and I would definitely recommend Vision Care Associates if you live in my area.

Consider homeschooling options. We are now doing this with only requests for special services. This means that he sees his resource room teacher for a total of 2 hours a week in video chat with 2 or 3 other kids. They meet 4 days a week in reading and math for half an hour. He sees the school OT for 30 minutes a week online. And I work with him for about 30 minutes a day on reading and math, sending him to daycare with paper worksheets while I go to work in the limited labs at my school. Along with that, we read books for fun, look for science projects on the weekend with his dad, and are writing a book together.

There are no hour long sessions 3 times a day in classes with almost 40 other squirming fourth graders and a teacher who makes my heart hurt just to imagine what she is experiencing from her computer screen.

It was so hard to take that leap to say no to that and the material that won’t work for him. The fear that he will fall further behind or that I was not able to do it or that I would be fussing constantly at him was enormous. I never would have done it if it weren’t so terribly apparent that the school district’s system would kill both of us off.

Now, I look at the other kids on their computers at his daycare in sympathy. I feel the same pain for their teachers out there in a world where we are all struggling to figure this out.

The essence of what I’ve learned about helping a struggling reader is really, I think, the essence of what I hope all kids would get from school:

  • Offer clear and effective instruction in their areas of weaknesses.
  • Provide challenging fun in their areas of strengths like storytelling and hands-on bee projects.
  • Be creative and search for ways that work rather than bogging down on what is clearly not working. This is tricky because sometimes you need to knuckle-down and try something for a while to see if it will work and until you can figure out what does.
  • Remember you don’t have to do this alone even if you don’t stay locked into the school system. There is a whole village all around you to help. Our piano teacher even jumped into the deep end with us. She now video chats our lessons with sparkle filters and all.

And dancing helps for all of this, we have found. Do that often. Like loons. That part is super important. Barking dachshunds are optional.

Break dancer in blue with pink background


About the author: Karrie Zylstra Myton is a blogger, essayist, and aspiring author who writes for the wild joy it brings on the best days and the hard lessons she learns about life on the worst. After crafting stories in the ridiculously early morning hours, she chases her two sons, cuddles with cats, and laughs with her husband about how crazy life can get in middle age.

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