I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed (for the third time!) by Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin on their podcast Tests and the Rest. During the course of what ended up being a marathon conversation about how to help struggling older readers—Amy and Mike ended up having to split our discussion into two parts!—we covered a wide range of topics, and it was only after we had finished that I realized I hadn’t gotten in quite as many practical tips as I would have liked. So obviously I had to post my top ones here instead. And if you’re interested in the full webinar (covering the basics of what’s come to be known as “the science of reading” and walking you through a full, age-appropriate phonics program for teenage readers), you can find it at video.thecriticalreader.com.

1) Have students put their finger on the page and follow along with the text as they read

I’ve written about this in a number of posts over the years, but this is one strategy I truly cannot emphasize enough. For students who habitually remove their eyes from the page, it is absolutely crucial to improving comprehension. You cannot understand what a text literally says if you’re not looking at the words!

To the greatest extent possible, the student’s finger should be under the word they are reading at any given time—it should not lag behind, trail off, or suddenly jump ahead. Hand-eye coordination: it’s not just for sports.

2) Have students practice keeping their eyes on the page for a few seconds after they finish reading the passage/question/answer choices

Very often, students are so eager to get to/answer the questions that they ignore key information at the end of a question or answer choice. Having students keep their gaze on the text for a few extra seconds prevents them from missing important words that happen to fall at the end of a sentence, and reminds them that the answer is not written on your face or on the wall across the room.

3) Focus on tricky vowel combinations

Most college-bound students will reliably be able to identify consonant sounds (although with severely struggling readers, that is not necessarily a given). Vowels, however, are often a different story. They make many different sounds (18 total) in many different combinations, some of which students may never have been explicitly taught. While most beginning readers learn high-frequency vowel “teams” such as “ee” and “ea”, they may not cover more advanced patterns such as “eu” as the beginning of a word (“yoo” as in Eugene), or even moderately common ones such as “oi”.

If you are working with struggling readers, please do not assume that they know these things.

Some children who are not taught these combinations will figure them out on their own, but many will simply memorize words that contain them without connecting the vowel combination to the sound. When students are gifted memorizers, this can go on for years.

If you want to do a quick check a student’s knowledge of vowels, you can use this sheet. Students should read each vowel or vowel combination, going either across or down, at a reasonable clip. They don’t need to try to go fast, but it’ll be obvious if they’re really struggling.

You should then teach and continue to review any combination that a student cannot read confidently. This does not need to take a lot of time—you can spend a couple of minutes at the start of each session quizzing them on sounds and having them read list of words that contain them. In addition, you should make sure to draw attention to words that contain these patterns within passages. While this type of work obviously cannot compensate for years of non-reading, it can help fill gaps and allow certain students to decode unfamiliar words more easily and confidently.

4) Do repeated read-alouds to build fluency

Note that this is most effective when students do not have serious decoding difficulties; it is ideal for improving “mechanical” or “robotic” reading that lacks normal conversational intonation and is accompanied by comprehension difficulties. For students who cannot naturally connect print and speech—often in part because they have little experience hearing language that sounds like advanced-level text spoken aloud (e.g., in lectures)—this can be a very helpful exercise.

It should be done with a relatively short amount of text, perhaps 300 words, and has three parts:

I. Student reads text aloud independently
II. Tutor and student alternate reading sentences aloud (tutor goes first)
III. Student reads text aloud independently again

In most cases, the student will begin to naturally imitate the tutor’s intonation during the second read-aloud, and will demonstrate improvement at the beginning of the third (independent) read-aloud as well. Over time, students should begin to read with more natural phrasing for longer stretches.

5) Use prefixes, roots, and suffixes to help students apply word-attack (decoding) skills to advanced vocabulary

I think it’s safe to assume that many tutors already make a point of discussing roots with their SAT and ACT students, but I’m guessing that most of them do it from a meaning perspective (which is of course great). However, if a student reads slowly and frequently stumbles, this is just as important to do from a decoding perspective, especially with non-phonetic chunks such as -ture, -ive, and -tial. (Click here to download a list of common prefixes and suffixes.)

Weaker readers often get tripped up by long, multi-syllable words—and even if it is unnecessary to understand those terms to answer the questions, they can drag down a student’s overall performance by causing them to get stuck, get anxious, and stop paying attention to the overall meaning of the passage (which is necessary to answer the questions).

Now obviously, understanding all the words in a passage is the goal; however, a student who can quickly string together the syllables in a word like diminutive (which involves knowing that the ending -ive is pronounced “iv”) will have a much larger advantage in terms of grasping the overall meaning of a text than will a reader who sits and stares at that word for 10 or 15 seconds, and then stares at the ceiling puzzling it over some more—even if the former student does not know the literal definition of diminutive.