As students start returning to school, many will face the Herculean task of becoming proficient readers. Some will be first-graders, some fourth-graders, and so on. And many of them, as their parents and guardians suspect, will face enormous struggles. If you're one of these parents or guardians who suspect that your child will struggle with reading, now is the time for action.

Action alone, however, will not be enough. It's critical that you know what to request and what to avoid. This article focuses on a major aspect of what's critical: Getting a comprehensive reading evaluation.

Do three things

If you see your child struggling with reading, stay calm and do three things:

  1. Learn all you can about reading difficulties and disabilities from trustworthy sources. Keep in mind that difficulties are less severe and less debilitating than disabilities.
  2. Learn about Response to Intervention (RTI).
  3. Make specific written requests, by both email and the USPS.

(To make this article easier to read, and because the terms reading difficulties and disabilities are somewhat murky, we’ll frequently refer to these students as struggling readers.)

Learn all you can. By learning all you can about reading problems and how to use state and federal education laws, rules, and regulations to help your child, the better you can help her.

Reputable, helpful resources abound. They include the Learning Disabilities Association of America (, The Reading League (, the International Dyslexia Association (, the International Literacy Association (, the US Department of Education (, and the federally funded What Works Clearinghouse (

Having considerable knowledge about struggles with reading will help you make relevant, focused requests and will help you monitor your child’s progress.

Knowing the intent and the provisions of the laws governing special education and their rules and regulations will improve your child’s chances of getting the services she needs, especially if her school refuses to provide them. When dealing with reading struggles, knowledge is as essential as air — you need it to support your child’s academic, social, and emotional success. (

Ask about Response to Intervention (RTI). Although RTI is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA), it serves both students with and without well-defined struggles with reading.

In part, RTI’s purpose is to prevent both learning disabilities and unnecessary referrals to special education. It does this by screening all young students for learning disabilities, such as reading disabilities, and instructing students at-risk for learning disabilities with scientifically-based interventions targeted at remediating their difficulties.

As such, RTI requires participating schools to frequently monitor the effects of such instruction on each student’s progress and, if progress is poor, to provide them with more intensive services, such as extra instruction, instruction in small groups, or individual tutoring. Thus, to receive RTI services, your young child does not have to be eligible for special education.

IDEA does not require all schools to offer RTI services. Nor does it require schools to use the same RTI model, eligibility standards for services, and instructional strategies. Consequently, it’s important to ask school personnel, including school principals, if their school offers RTI and to explain how it works.

If the school offers RTI, we suggest that you consider RTI as part of a reading evaluation, but not a substitute for a comprehensive reading evaluation.

Though RTI is a great idea, it’s fraught with potential problems. Nevertheless, it has one major advantage over the old way that were typically used to evaluated reading disabilities.

The old way had students fail for many years before providing reading evaluations and interventions. (“Let’s hold off. She’ll probably grow out of it.”)

Ideally, RTI immediately offers quality interventions, evaluates their effectiveness, adjusts instruction to overcome unforeseen difficulties. During this period, the student can also receive a formal reading evaluation from a reading specialist.

Make written requests. Request a comprehensive reading evaluation for your child that includes diagnostic teaching and in-class observations of her during reading and related instruction (e.g., science).

Comprehensive means more than testing and testing and more testing. It includes diagnostic teaching to identify which instructional strategies might meaningfully benefit your child.

It also includes observations to identify specific environmental and instructional factors that might impede your child’s learning as well as factors that might improve it. For example, observations might make clear that your child may well benefit from more frequent breaks, shorter assignments, and more personally-relevant topics for reading.

Also request that a qualified reading specialist provide extra reading instruction daily. This is not premature as it may take more than a month to complete a comprehensive reading evaluation. In the meantime, your child may languish.

Moreover, the results of instruction can provide valuable information to the evaluator, such as your child’s interests, attention span, confidence, and responses to different instructional strategies and situations.

For your child to get the most out of this instruction, it must be coordinated with what’s taught and how it’s taught to her in her general or special education class. Failure to coordinate extra reading instruction with in-class instruction may confuse her, hindering progress.

If you cannot get the direct teaching services of a reading specialist, ask that one routinely observe and monitor your child’s program and frequently meet with her teachers to modify and plan instruction.

Instruction must focus on improving all underlying factors currently contributing to your child’s difficulties (e.g., difficulties with phonemic awareness and expressive language) and her specific struggles with reading (e.g., not quickly and accurately sounding out previously unrecognized words).

The concept of extra daily reading instruction is important. Some schools, for example, offer pull-out reading instruction in which struggling readers leave their general or special education class for reading instruction. Often, this is not extra instruction; it’s substitute or replacement instruction.

At-risk students and struggling readers need much more than this. They need in-class reading instruction that effectively focuses on their needs, with materials they can comfortably handle, and extra reading instruction that’s interesting and extends in-class instruction.

Waiting to see if reading improves by itself — without an evaluation and extra instruction that’s carefully coordinated with your child’s in-class reading instruction — wastes precious time. Children do not outgrow struggles with reading; without immediate help, they continue to fall further behind their peers.

Moreover, as at-risk children and struggling readers see their peers achieving and they see themselves falling further and further behind, negative emotions — like anger, demoralization, and self-loathing — begin to dominate, diminishing the likelihood of success with reading. As the late Carrie Rozelle, founder of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said of her son:

“Because he couldn’t read, he developed emotional problems…. He had difficulties with his brothers…. His books were torn up. There were lots of tears, lots of shouting, lots of anger. (

Simply put — don’t wait. Make formal written requests for a comprehensive reading evaluation and for extra instruction.

Keep in mind

We recommend that you keep in mind two warnings. Though they may sound counterintuitive and counterproductive, they’ll save you lots of time and grief.

Simply put, don’t waste time looking for the original cause of your child’s struggles with reading and don’t waste time advocating for the one reading method or program your friend said was “amazing.”

Don’t waste time looking for the original cause. Professionals rarely know the original or exact cause of a student’s struggles with reading. The “why” is simple. Most struggles with reading have multiple causes, including invisible and historical ones. And rarely is it possible for examiners to get an accurate picture of what occurred — day by day, hour by hour — in your child’s old classes

Despite strong feelings that you ought to know, it’s rarely critical. Surgeons don’t need to know how an arm was broken to set it and reading specialists don’t need to know the original causes of a child’s struggles with reading to help her become a highly proficient reader. Conversely, it’s important to know precisely what your child can do today — quickly, accurately, and routinely — and what she struggles with.

To establish rapid rates of learning, reading specialists and teachers need to design reading programs that match struggling readers current abilities, needs, and interests. If, for example, your child has strong listening comprehension abilities, but struggles to quickly, accurately, and routinely decode (i.e., identify, sound out) common, regularly spelled words that he knows by ear but not by sight (e.g., basket), instruction should emphasize decoding. Instruction, however, should continue to include topics that interest him (e.g., sports and science) while substantially addressing his other needs, such as his frequent need for physical exercise.

As reading is not one giant monolithic subject, it’s important to assess reading’s many areas. These include, but are not limited to phonemic analysis, phonics, orthography, automaticity of word recognition, vocabulary development, listening comprehension, reading comprehension, study skills, self-regulation, and writing.

To ensure progress, reading specialists and teachers need to continuously monitor your child’s progress and, at the first sign of difficulty, make precise, responsive adjustments. This is far more important than knowing the original causes of her struggles.

Understand that no reading program or method is infallible. What substantially helps eight children in a group of 10 may not substantially help the other two. Why? Because children differ from one another, as do teachers and circumstances. Consider this analogy: A medication that worked well for Jill didn’t work for Sarah.

You may have read a newspaper story that reading program “T” is terrible but programs “G” is great: “G” worked wonders for Nadine’s child. But this simple logic — it’s great because it worked for one child — is flawed. It ignores a variety of critical facts:

  1. In educationally relevant ways, such as the ability to discern the sounds of vowels (phonemic awareness), your child may differ from Nadine’s. Moreover, newspaper and television stories rarely identify the percent of struggling learners who made little to no progress with highly touted reading programs.
  2. Program “G” may not match the teacher’s beliefs. Forcing a teacher to use the new “G” program may demoralize him and unconsciously provoke resistance.
  3. The teacher may not be knowledgeable about or skilled in using program “G.” For a teacher highly motivated to master “G”, developing adequate knowledge and skill may take a few months.
  4. Research has yet to prove the absolute, ubiquitous, and sustainable superiority of any single program for all struggling readers. That’s why it’s so important to continuously monitor progress and, if needed, make instructional adjustments that match the struggling reader’s immediate needs. (

Moreover, program popularity — “Schools everywhere use it” — doesn’t equal effectiveness. Thus, it’s not surprising that a 2019 headline in Education Weekly pronounced, “The Most Popular Reading Programs Aren’t Backed by Science.”

Although many struggling readers have benefitted from particular programs and methods, all programs and methods have weaknesses, weaknesses that require teachers to adapt them to the individual reader’s immediate needs. (Thus, the I in Individualized Education Program says individualized, not identical.).

Although reading (and writing) programs and methods are important, they’re only part of the picture. Progress also depends on other factors critical to the success of countless struggling readers. These include teachers who:

  • Build on and expand the struggling reader’s comfort levels.
  • Match instruction and independent activities to the reader’s proper independent and instructional levels.
  • Build on the reader’s friendships, social abilities, and social interests (e.g., cooperative learning).
  • Provide abundant opportunities for the struggling reader to experience success, feel it emotionally and physically, and learn that whenever she makes a reasonable effort to use the right strategy, in the right way, at the right time, she has an excellent chance to succeed.
  • Help and encouraging struggling readers whenever they’re in need.
  • Build strong, positive, and motivating relationship with struggling readers. (

Expect progress. Kind, structured, emphatic, knowledgeable, and skilled teachers, strongly assisted by administrators and expert support staff — counselors, reading specialists, school psychologists, and speech and language specialists — promote substantial academic, social, and emotional progress.

Sometimes, however, more is needed. More may well include daily tutoring that’s coordinated with in-class instruction.

Such a program, if carefully monitored to quickly overcome any unforeseen barriers, should dramatically increase your child’s chances of success and satisfaction.