10 Traits of Struggling Readers & How You Can Help

Say I am a typical classroom teacher. It’s the weekend and I’m getting started on my reading lesson plans for next week, with the district-required list of sight words at my elbow. I scan the list of words I am supposed to get my students to master this quarter, but what I see even more clearly are the faces of the children who are already struggling to learn sight words. The further into the quarter we get, the further behind they fall! I wish I could persuade myself that learning a list of sight words isn't all that critical, except that I know it is! If children can’t learn those high frequency words, about 85% of the words that appear in the books they read will be unreadable! So what can I do?

It helps to understand ahead of time what will be hard for struggling readers. After working with struggling readers for several years and taking the time to consider what they have in common, I have come up with a list of skills that are hard for them.

Specific skills that struggling readers have trouble with

The following areas are not going to all hold true for all struggling readers, but are the most common skills they struggle with.

Struggling readers may: 

  1. Not be primarily auditory. This means that telling them what a word says and even teaching a little lesson in which they write the word and read the word aloud many times might not result in learning. Doing this will take up a lot of time and will leave both of you more discouraged than before. So don’t rely on words to teach them with the expectation of new and great results.
  2. Need hooks for learning and remembering. Pictures are one of the best connections between words and meaning I’ve found. This is because a picture is captured instantly. It doesn't have to be explained. It’s instant. A word embedded in an image that shows the meaning of the word is magical to these children. For a visual learner, images are everything.
  3. Benefit from body motions that match the meaning of the words. Many children that struggle are tactile or kinesthetic learners, and when you give them a gesture or body motion that matches the meaning of the word, they have a body-felt hook to memory and this makes all the difference for them.
  4. Have trouble handling a lot of details while learning. If a child struggles to read, it is likely that giving them lots of rules to follow for deciphering a word will stand in their way rather than helping them out. It is more likely that they will do much better being told the whole word, especially if it is embedded in a picture. Once they can get used to viewing the word as an image rather than as a string of letters, they will improve. Once they can recognize the word, then you can teach phonics skills that pertain to the word. If you are working with a visual learner, it is great to know that these children learn best from whole to part and not the other way around. (whole words and then letter sequence, for example).
  5. Not have their basic sounds down pat. The most basic building blocks for words are sounds. If a child is shaky on sounds, this will frequently halt progress in learning to read. The most common culprits are vowel sounds. It is essential that they know their sounds well. When I work with older students (middle schoolers reading on a lower elementary level) I always check their knowledge of vowel sounds first.
  6. Mix up the sequence of letters in words. Struggling readers frequently haven’t discovered the patterns in our language. They view each word as an individual word in the vast ocean of words in our language. If they have a chance to see words arranged by patterns they have in common, it would make so much more sense to them!
  7. Omit a sound or add one that is not in the word. Again, when children do this sort of thing, it is because they don’t understand the structure of our words. While English is a horrendously inconsistent language, there are ways to teach words using the chunks they have in common. For some reason, struggling readers can remember words when they are grouped with words that have an element in common.
  8. Successfully sound out a word but not recall having done so a line or two later. Children who struggle to read too often become focused on the technical aspects of sounding out words and don’t seem to understand that reading is more than sounding out strings of letters (words). They think they are reading when they can sound out a word, and then the next word, and so forth.
  9. Try to sound out every word they come to. Children that haven’t purposefully visualized whole words will of course not remember them next time they see them.
  10. Confuse words that look very similar to each other. There are many words that look like each other (ie: the beginnings and endings are the same) and some words that are flipped to each other (ie: saw and was, no and on).

Yikes! Traditional ways of teaching reading are just not friendly for struggling readers. There is a way to reach these children and have them succeed beyond our wildest expectations.

A good alternative:

SnapWords® evolved out of the years I spent working with struggling learners. The strengths these struggling readers had in common were that they were highly visual children, and very frequently were tactile and kinesthetic. Here are the benefits of using SnapWords® right after teaching basic sounds:

  1. SnapWords® provide a colorful, engaging image that reflects the meaning of the word. The image gives the child the ability to snap a mental picture of the word and also makes the child focus on the entirety of the word and away from the chore of sounding out. This mental capture of a visual utilizes the visual learner’s primary learning strength: capturing and storing images.
  2. There is a sentence the children learn to say (that is related to the picture on the front of the card). This is significant because it makes the child focus immediately on the meaning of the word they are reading and away from the skill of sounding out.
  3. The included body motion reflects also the meaning of the word to give that extra hook for active and tactile children. When we combine images and body motions or gestures, we are harnessing two regions in the brain that are mostly untapped when using traditional teaching methods.

SnapWords® sight words with pictures and movement SnapWords® sight words with pictures and movement

Over time, as I worked with children who struggled to read, I realized that visual learners just don’t remember the same way non-visual learners do. It is hard for me to understand how non-visual people remember because I am highly visual myself. Let me assure you, the concepts I remember easily are most frequently attached to a strong visual and a setting (story).

Here’s an approach that works well for visual and kinesthetic learners:

So, now picture me sitting here preparing for lessons. This time I am armed with my district word list, but I have my packs of SnapWords® at the ready, my copy of SnapWords® Mini-Lessons (dog-eared!) and I am good to go. My Mini-Lessons will walk me through how to teach each word.


  • Show the SnapWords® version of the word. (To get the image of the word into my head).
  • Talk about what we see in the picture. (To make sure comprehension is there).
  • Close our eyes and “see” the word inside the picture in our minds. (To put the image into long term memory).
  • Open our eyes and write the word from what we can still see in our minds. (I learn to focus on what I can remember visually rather than relying on memorization).
  • Compare this word to other words that have sound spellings in common (Ex: nail, pail, pain, stain, etc.) (To include phonics concepts).
  • Use the word in a sentence (To take the word into writing and reading).

Once I have taught a good array of SnapWords® high frequency words, I reach for The Illustrated Book of Sounds & Their Spelling Patterns in order to teach my formerly struggling readers the amazing patterns in our language. This book is a gold mine because it addresses all the sounds in our language, homophones, plurals, and much more. Now included with the book is a download of all the lessons so you can print and use immediately!

Opting for these two very non-traditional tools might make a good teacher feel squirmy, but if you give it a chance, you will be a believer!

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