Unfortunately, many children with reading disabilities feel hopeless and helpless about learning to read. They believe it’s better to give up than to try and fail. Several of the struggling readers I’ve evaluated made it clear: "I can’t do it. I won’t do it. I hate it."

Years ago, Jules Abrams, an astute professor of psychology, poignantly described this underlying dynamic:

"It is almost inevitable that a child who is experiencing severe difficulty in reading will develop intense feelings of frustration. As reading failure continues, many symptoms of social and emotional maladjustment will appear. Children, increasingly bewildered by their inability to meet the expectations of their parents, their teachers and their peers develop a hypersensitivity to the possibility of failure. This fear of further wounds to their pride exacerbates the problem simply because children cannot risk any further humiliation. Instead, all too often, children act out aggressively, withdraw, become depressed or choose any one of many other maladaptive solutions."

Fortunately, by working together, teachers and parents can often multiply their positive influence and daily effectiveness. Together, they can help struggling readers minimize and perhaps abandon their beliefs that they’ll never learn to read.

Only by helping struggling readers to start to believe that they can learn to read will they start working to become motivated, competent readers.

Change Beliefs

Patrick McCabe, Ph.D., of Manhattan’s Mercy College has dedicated his career to answering the question, How can we change struggling readers’ beliefs that they’ll never learn to read into beliefs that they’ll succeed if they try?”

From the massive body of research on self-efficacy, the beliefs that people have about their ability to succeed on specific tasks, like learning to decode unfamiliar words, McCabe has woven together a set of everyday principles that teachers and parents can use to create and strengthen struggling readers’ beliefs that they can become successful readers. Here are three of his principles.

1. Stack the Deck for Success.

Whenever teachers give your child new work, they need to show him carefully and explicitly (or her) how it resembles work he recently succeeded on. If, for example, his teacher gives him a task and booklet to read for homework, she should show him how both resemble what he recently succeeded on.

She might review the vocabulary with him, point to several words in the booklet he’s recently mastered, and ask him to softly read them aloud. To ensure his success when he works alone, without anyone else’s help, she should ensure that all his independent reading is at his independent level, a comfort level at which he can quickly and independently recognize 99 percent of the words and readily understand 90 percent of what he reads.

Despite independent level materials and tasks, struggling readers often procrastinate, hoping to ward off failure. To prevent or minimize this, the teacher should ensure that the work is short and clear enough to look straightforwardly doable and short enough to prevent fatigue.

If she’s directly teaching him to read something new, when he’s alone or with other students, she should demonstrate it, explain it, and make clear that she will provide support.

To ensure his comfort and success, she should give him tasks and materials on which he can quickly, without painstaking decoding, recognize 95 to 98 percent of the words and understand 70 to 89 percent of what he’s reading — before instruction even starts. This helps ensure that he’ll avoid frustration and correctly practice nearly everything.

Professor Richard Allington, former President of the International Literacy Association (formerly the International Reading Association), pinpointed the need for stacking the deck for success:

"Most adults consider texts they can read with only 98% accuracy as hard texts. Most adults will work to avoid reading any such difficult text. They will look for alternative texts, texts that are easier — texts they can read accurately without using their decoding abilities…. Struggling readers just participate in too little high-success reading activity every day. This is one reason so few struggling readers ever become achieving readers."

Unfortunately for struggling readers, Allington was right on so many accounts, including classwork and homework. Too many struggling readers face too many frustration-level classwork and homework assignments that weaken their self-efficacy, depress their motivation, and fuel their loathing for reading while reinforcing and solidifying their errors.

For example, on a frustration-level homework assignment, Francisco might silently mispronounce "this" as "those" eight times, reinforcing and solidifying his error. Adding Francisco’s "this" error to his other mispronunciations on the assignment, it’s easy to see that frustration-level homework will intensify, not lessen his struggles.

2. Offer Well-Deserved Praise.

You and your child’s teacher should praise him for reasonable efforts and for correctly using the right learning strategy. "Rick, not only did you work hard, you also used the ‘Find and Circle Them’ strategy to identify the words that confused you and then you understood the two paragraphs. You can be proud of yourself."

And if Rick tried hard, but stumbled, he should be praised for his effort and again shown how to use the learning strategy: "Rick, you worked hard on this. Nice going. But to get it right, you need to use the ‘Find and Circle Them’ strategy that your teacher taught me. Watch me. First, I’ll find all the words in the paragraph that I might not know. Then I’ll circle them.... Now you try it."

3. Offer Persuasive Comments.

If your child views his teachers and you as trustworthy, competent, and knowledgeable adults who care about him, what you and his teachers tell him can boost his confidence before he starts the work, if…. If the tasks and materials are at his proper independent or instructional levels.

Here are two slightly altered examples from Dr. McCabe’s article on convincing students of their ability to learn.

Example 1: "Because yesterday you carefully watched me use the root strategy, you identified the root words. Watch me again and sure that you’ll do just as good a job."

Example 2: "Because you studied the root words, you figured out their meanings. If you use the same strategy to study these new root words for ten minutes, you should be just as successful. Let’s try and see what happens."

Alone, Dr. McCabe’s principles can help many struggling readers feel safe and emotionally confident. It can also encourage them to make sustained efforts to improve their reading, if…. If the principles are implemented caringly, knowledgeably, skillfully, and continuously. And if all his teachers have a firm grip on the principles and harmonize them to reflect how they’re used by his other teachers.

If your child has an IEP or Section 504 program, request his case manager to discuss and demonstrate these principles with all his teachers and include them in his IEP or Section 504 plan. This will also help your child from becoming confused if he has different teachers for different subjects.


Some struggling readers, however, will need more than these principles. They may need twice-weekly counseling, daily peer tutoring with classmates they admire and enjoy working with, and a strong program of applied behavior analysis that focuses on procrastination, effort, self-monitoring, self-reinforcement, voluntary reading, and the correct use of specific learning strategies.

Whatever they need, they’re also going to need what we discussed: Teachers who stack the deck for success, offer well-deserved praise, and make persuasive comments.

Like most people, they may also need a safe, motivating, and supportive environment that reflects the basics of the closely-related EARSS acronym, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming article.

But here are a few hints. Easy, but moderately challenging; Attractive enough to try; Relevant to the struggling reader’s interests and goals; and Socially Supported throughout the day.

Helpful Resources

Howard Margolis and Patrick McCabe, (2006) Improving Self-Efficacy and Motivation: What to Do, What to Say. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, #4, pp 218-227.

Patrick McCabe, (2006). Convincing students they can learn to read: Crafting self-efficacy prompts. The Clearing House, 79(6), 252-257.

Patrick McCabe, (2009). Enhancing adolescent self-efficacy for literacy. In K. D. Wood & W. E. Blanton (Eds.), Literacy instruction for adolescents: Research-based practices. New York: Guilford, pp. 54-76).