How to jump-start struggling readers

By Lynn Esser, Former Educator & Administrator

Imagine reading a sentence, but not understanding its context. You can read each individual word fine, but the sentence itself doesn’t make sense. Imagine praying, crossing your fingers, and hoping that your teacher doesn’t call on you to read aloud in class. Knowing in the back of your head that you understood the words in your science book, but can’t quite figure out what they really mean. Wishing you could just do simple math equations because you know your facts but everything gets mixed up when you come across a story problem. Struggling to complete classwork and homework. Feeling less than your peers who find reading so easy, making your self-confidence plummet. Realizing there are five months of school still left. Dreading the next hour, the next class, the remaining eight years of school. Can you imagine?

My son, Cannon, was in kindergarten when he started feeling anxious about school. Even at age 6, he was comparing himself to others and felt he didn’t measure up when it came to reading.

When I taught in an inner-city middle school, many of my students had already mentally checked out of school after years of struggle. They hadn’t discovered the magic of a story. They hadn’t grown up in a household full of books. When money is tight, books are a luxury. When parents are working two jobs, there isn’t time (or energy) to go to the library. When kids get off to a slow start, it can be hard to catch them up.

Catching struggling readers up

But there is a way to catch kids up. Renaissance’s annual What Kids Are Reading research report includes powerful evidence. The key to jump-starting struggling readers? Jan Bryan touched on in a recent post. It’s reading practice, and lots of it, with books at an appropriate level so students can read successfully with comprehension.

The graphic below shows struggling third- and sixth-grade students. Those who began the year as struggling readers but met end-of-year benchmarks read more words, read more minutes per day, and experienced higher rates of comprehension.


Finding the right content

So how, then, do you get struggling kids to practice more? Start with engaging content—real books, real articles—that they choose. Let your students take some ownership of their practice.

For Cannon, Diary of a Wimpy Kid proved irresistible. He heard about the hilarious antics of the main character, Greg Heffley, from his classmates. I downloaded the audiobook to entice him to read by listening to the audio and following along with the text. He was hooked and is now reading the other books independently. And let me tell you, after watching him struggle, almost nothing gives me as much pleasure as seeing him curled up with a book and laughing out loud.

And apparently, Cannon and his classmates are not alone. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is a chart topper in grades 3-9 in What Kids Are Reading and has held top spots for years. Greg Heffley compels countless kids to read.

For my middle schoolers, I found a book called Drive-By by Lynne Ewing at a school book fair. It told a harrowing story of 12-year-old Tito, who while helping to care for his little sister, struggled to find his way in the aftermath of his brother’s death in a gang-related shooting. I read it aloud and they were hanging on my every word. They begged me to continue reading. This book resonated with them—and sadly, many could identify with it. They learned how enjoyable reading could be. They learned there were books out there that could appeal to them. They looked for other books by that author. They looked for other stories about urban life. They learned to be readers.

It IS possible to jump-start struggling readers. Real aloud. Make a wide variety of books and articles available. Do book talks. Display books. Provide plenty of time for practice. And check out What Kids Are Reading to see what books and nonfiction articles are popular with kids nationwide. 

Lynn Esser, Former Educator & Administrator
Lynn Esser, Former Educator & Administrator
In addition to her tenure at Renaissance, Lynn worked in the Milwaukee Public School District as a middle school reading and social studies teacher for five years and then as a school administrator for four years.


  1. Dvawn Maza says:

    I use many of the strategies that are mentioned in this article and lots of praise is given!!!

  2. Rita Platt says:

    Love the data! So nice to see kids making growth! If you want to be a good reader, you have to read, read, read!

  3. Renee Graham says:

    It’s all about time spent reading. It is so simple, sometimes parents can’t comprehend it! It’s not worksheets or computer programs. It is actually reading. That’s it. Reading to, reading with and reading independently. Reading. Just do it!

    • Carolina says:

      Love it! And that is why we librarians are important helping push the READ, READ, READ, and sharing some of our favorite books in hopes that they will become theirs too!

  4. P R says:

    In order to be a good reader, a person needs to read……………PERIOD! Read to, read with, and discuss the independent reading with students. Read to, read with, and discuss the independent reading with your child.

  5. Susan Connick says:

    It’s so hard as an interventionist; I see kids for 30 minutes a day, 4 times a week. We do pull from Read and I’m thinking I can start letting the kids pick their own articles?

    • Lynn Esser, Former Educator & Administrator Lynn Esser, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360 says:

      Hi, Susan. It can be tough trying to balance practice and instruction while keeping students engaged. Choosing articles may make sense depending on your instructional goals. Perhaps consider allowing students articles to determine how it impacts motivation and learning goals and go from there. Good luck!

  6. Stacey Painter says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. My 4th graders love it when I read to them and it helps to build their excitement and love for reading on their own.

  7. Micah Chatterton says:

    I work hard to get students those first few powerful tastes of success (100% for a book in the low end of their ZPD) and really reward them with praise, recognition and prizes. The most lasting effect, though, is budding confidence. In my experience, fear of failure is as much an obstacle to quizzing as actual reading deficiencies, especially when students are allowed to find enjoyable books WITHIN their ZPD.

  8. Virginia Travis says:

    I read out loud to my kids every day and we spend the first 45 minutes of the day with AR and reading log review. I monitor very closely and I make sure my children are reading in their ZPD.

  9. Carly says:

    We provide a daily 30 minute reading period, which provides time for me to walk around and confer with students about their goals. Knowing my students and what they are reading is critical. I can encourage students to move beyond their comfort zones by trying nonfiction or a chapter book. I can also help students who are struggling with strategies such as rereading to encourage better scores with their tests. I loved the audio book idea. I’ve been known to record books for students to listen to, especially helpful for students who don’t have someone reading to them at home. Having students record themselves reading and listening to themselves is another useful strategy.

  10. Lloyd says:

    We start with small ability based books to build confidence, then set short term achievable goals, and slowly increase rigor and difficulty. Success breeds success and it snowballs with the kids.

  11. Redeana says:

    Great post!
    Practice, practice, practice!
    And choice, choice, choice!

  12. Carly says:

    Looking at the data and daily conferencing with struggling readers is a must. Have them talk about their book. Encourage reading picture books more then once or twice. Partner students for reading. I use many of the Daily 5 reading strategies for partner reading.

  13. Melissa Robles says:

    Thank you for sharing this great information!

  14. JoAnn Mayfield says:

    I love starting my class time with a read-aloud. The kids love to listen to stories and I’m modeling good fluency and expression. I try to pick books in a series or from an author with many books so it is easy to direct students to new titles.

  15. Francine Canarios says:

    From the first day of school, I tell my students that there is a magic formula for becoming a better reader… First, you have to spend time reading, Then you have to read some more, and finally you must READ, READ, READ!!!

    If I have one student who see,ms to be struggling, I will try to find out what really interests them and make sure I have books on that topic.

  16. Shannon says:

    I make sure to get books in the hands of EVERY student daily. I get to know them so that I know what interests them.

  17. Ryan McKinnon says:

    We are walking a line at our school with teachers who find AR unmotivational and those that do. We are installing some non-negotiables that we believe will help in the second half of the year. But at the end of the day, it takes a high quality teacher who knows how to get kids motivated the right way. Thanks for sharing this article.

    • Lynn Esser, Former Educator & Administrator Lynn Esser, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360 says:

      Hi, Ryan. Great point—teachers play a key role in the implementation of Renaissance Accelerated Reader/Accelerated Reader 360. Schools that focus on setting personalized goals and celebrate success when kids meet those goals see greater benefits and motivation than schools who use Accelerated Reader/Accelerated Reader 360 as a point competition. Thank you for sharing your experience. Good luck!

  18. Katherine Williams says:

    I think that finding the right book (subject and reading level) is really the key for struggling readers. If they don’t like what they are reading or if they cannot make meaning of what they are reading, the process will be a struggle.

  19. Keita Brooks says:

    We have drop everything and read out of the blue the students never know when I will call it and it seems to be a game and they love it. I encourage my students to visit our media center daily to check out books they like and when I read aloud text I find text two levels above grade level to create interest.

  20. Nancy Jackson says:

    As librarian, I am encouraging every homeroom to meet the Royal Renaissance qualifications by sending notes weekly with the diagnostic report, giving the homerooms who meet the qualifications popsicles at the end of the year, and having a drawing for teachers whose classes qualify at the end of the year. I received a free gift at Christmas in the library and a drawing for it with a fourth grade teacher winning. I am trying to get the cups by doing the challenges and will have these as prizes. (Our teachers didn’t want to do the challenges but, I am doing them and passing on information they need.)

  21. Laura says:

    I will now will my library with all the diary of a wimpy kid books.

    • Lynn Esser, Former Educator & Administrator Lynn Esser, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360 says:

      Let us know if your students enjoy the series!

  22. Jena says:

    Strugglers are hard work. I have found that having a one-on-one conversation with them helps to find their interest. Then I do some searching and try to find a book and some time to work with the student. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

  23. Belinda Escamilla says:

    Great information. Thank you for sharing.

  24. Emily Carlisi says:

    Sometimes I have my struggling readers “help me” by reading to another student. Rarely do they realize they are helping themselves…not me!

  25. Anne says:

    Connecting struggling readers with books they enjoy is really important. It’s nice to see this data that connects the extra reading to growth.

  26. Natalie Hardegree says:

    I partner with a sixth grade teacher and her students volunteer to read with my struggling readers. Reading with a partner boosts their desire to read.