Though many struggling readers want to succeed in reading, writing and other schoolwork, they don't know how. Many have learned to think they're "stupid" though they're not. Many have abandoned hope of becoming successful readers and writers.

To short circuit the frustration, struggle and humiliation of "striking out" in reading, some of them will create disruptions. Some will try to succeed, but quickly quit, and others will mindlessly go through the motions, wishing for relief from the endless "purgatory" of the lesson.

Our job, as parents, teachers, support staff and administrators, is to change such mindsets. To do so and to accelerate learning — in reading and writing, as well as math, social studies, and so on — requires us to show readers how to succeed. This requires us to create moderately challenging situations in which readers routinely succeed and make occasional errors, and help them believe they can succeed if they use the right strategies, in the right ways, at the right times. (See resources below: Enhancing the self‑efficacy of struggling readers.)

To help readers, I've provided brief suggestions that can point you in the right direction.

Will these suggestions guarantee that every reader will succeed? No. But following and building upon these suggestions will substantially increase their odds of success.

Make Them Want It

To help readers make the effort needed, it's critical that each lesson's topics and or teaching strategies interest them. The more this is so, the less they'll need to engage willpower a quickly exhausted and often unreliable influence.

The more the topics and teaching strategies interest readers, the more likely they'll attend to the tasks, focus on them and sustain their focus.

"Interest is a powerful motivational process that energizes learning, guides academic and career trajectories, and is essential to academic success. Interest is both a psychological state of attention and affect toward a particular object or topic, and an enduring predisposition to reengage over time."

In other words, the topics and teaching strategies that readers find interesting can open new doors for those who thought success was meaningless or impossible.

Consider Sally, a high school senior who desperately wants to become a nurse. Which story would she rather read: "Getting Into Nursing School" or "New Ways to Increase the Size of Dill Pickles in Belarus"?

Make Sure They Know It

They know the strategy. They know each step. They know the sequence.

For example, teach specific, step-by-step strategies. Show readers how to use a simple step-by-step strategy to achieve success on a specific type of task. Simultaneously describe what you're demonstrating, making each step explicit. For example, if readers need to improve their reading comprehension, demonstrate and describe Ellis' paraphrasing reading strategy, or "RAP":

  • Read a paragraph.
  • Ask yourself what the paragraph was about.
  • Put the main idea and two details in your own words.

Explicitly explain and show how RAP will improve their reading comprehension, which will benefit them in school and in daily life.

Be sure to frequently review and practice the strategy with them. Encourage them to use it with materials at their proper instructional level. If they get stuck, explain and demonstrate how to use it again.

When correcting mistakes, briefly balance corrections with concurrent examples of their successes.

Help Them Visualize It

The more Readers visualize themselves succeeding on what they value, the more effort they're likely to make.

When they physically hold their successes in their hands or remember and visualize similar assignments on which they succeeded, the greater their willingness to attend, focus, and engage new topics and activities.

By teachers showing and discussing similar work on which the readers previously succeeded and asking them to briefly close their eyes to imagine how they'll again succeed on new but similar work, teachers can help readers believe that they can again succeed. For these readers, as for just about anyone, belief leads to action, action commensurate with their belief.

Make Sure They See It (Part 1)

They see it in videos that show what they did — step-by step — to succeed.

Teachers and parents, with their smart phones, can make 2-to-3-minute videos of readers using the right strategy, at the right time, in the right way. Once the video is finished, teachers and parents can privately show and discuss it with the reader, emphasizing and discussing what he (or she) did to succeed. Here, the teacher or parent can ask him to explain what he did to achieve success.

Make Sure They See It (Part 2)

Teachers, parents and readers can assemble a "Success Book" of assignments and photos that memorialize the reader's successes. Together, they frequently review the book, focusing on what worked, why it worked, and how they can continue to succeed on slightly different but slightly more challenging objectives.

Together, the history of success, the videos and the Success Books help to create expectations of future success. They illustrate the importance of building on readers' successes.

Teach Them To Expect It

For readers to fully engage themselves in a lesson, they need to expect considerable — not perfect — success.

"When we perceive ourselves as innately weak and incapable of improving in a particular area, our desire to participate in the activity tends to be low. Few people are motivated to engage in activities that they perceive are their inherent weaknesses. Why try to improve when we expect to fail?" (Maximizing Motivation for Literacy Learning, Marinak, Gambrell, & Mazzoni, 2013. NY: The Guilford Press, p.37).

In contrast, when struggling readers succeed by using the right strategy, at the right time, in the right way, sometimes, when successful, we all have made a few mistakes. They need to be prepared for this. They need to know that a World Series winning baseball team can lose three games, and still be proud of winning four, or winning the World Series.

Unfortunately, like many people, many struggling readers become upset when they make a mistake. Some tell themselves "See, I'm stupid. This proved it. Smart people don't make mistakes." Thus, early on, it's important that teachers and parents make one thing clear: Everyone makes mistakes.

Just telling readers that everyone makes mistakes does not always suffice. If so, show them proof. If they like baseball, show them a newspaper story about how their favorite player made two errors. Have them interview two other teachers. Let them ask the teachers if they ever made a mistake, and if so, would they share it with the class. As unsophisticated as these ideas may sound, such ideas often work.

For readers to expect success, the lesson should be challenging, but not confusing, overwhelming or frustrating. When they use the right strategy and make a moderate effort, they should routinely comprehend 90% of written materials. When identifying words in paragraphs, it's 95%. This requires them to challenge themselves by stepping just a few inches beyond their comfort zone.

Help Them Correct It

When learning something new, most readers (and professors like me) will make mistakes. Generally, this is not a problem if the materials and assignment are well within their instructional level — a comfortable level, a level they can succeed on if they make a moderate effort.

When errors are noted, teachers need to clearly, sensitively and convincingly help readers identify and correct their mistakes. By helping them identify and correct small numbers of mistakes, and treating them as opportunities for enhancing learning, teachers can enhance current and future learning.

By treating mistakes as natural opportunities for learning (as opposed to catastrophes), parents and teachers can instill a lifelong lesson: When you make an important mistake, figure out how to correct it. Then, correct it. Help them to understand that all people make mistakes. And all computers make mistakes: They crash.

"Carnegie Mellon psychologist Robert Siegler … has delved deeply into the best way to give feedback on student errors. He has shown, for instance, that asking third and fourth graders to explain how someone got the wrong answer and also how someone got the right answer is enormously effective – more so than just asking the child to explain the correct procedure."

Let Them Do It

Once it appears that readers have learned something important, such as how to apply a new decoding strategy for identifying unknown words, they need to routinely use it until it's as automatic as breathing.

Once it's clear that they've just about mastered the strategy, it's often helpful for them to explain and demonstrate it to other readers and peers. Successfully doing so helps to cement the strategy in their minds, increase their confidence, and spur motivation. It can also help their peers.

Make Them Feel It

Readers, like all of us, need to believe they can succeed. Though belief is cognitive, at times it’s also visceral. If earlier they succeeded on similar tasks, and they now see and touch papers and photos and books and teachers’ notes documenting their successes, their gut instinct, their somatic learning — whatever you want to call it — may well propel them to focus and succeed. After all, our minds and bodies exert a powerful influence on what we value and want to achieve.

This suggests the need for helping readers develop and recognize a history of success, which in turn requires materials and assignments at their proper independent and instructional levels. (Click here for more information about these levels.)

The bottom line? Stack the deck for success. Build upon readers' strengths and successes. Ensure that they not only hear it, but also see it, handle it, and feel it. Remember that motivation is often propelled by a learned belief that "I've succeeded before, I can succeed again/it's important."

Don't Let Them Forget It

Like all of us, readers will sometimes forget. To lessen the likelihood that they'll forget what's important, it's helpful to employ the suggestions below.

  • Ask them to explain it to their peers.
  • Ask them to demonstrate it.
  • Ask them to occasionally review and practice it.
  • Ask them to use it frequently.
  • Ask them to teach it to one another.
  • Ask them to teach it to small groups who are just learning it.
  • Ask them to make short instructional videos for their peers or parents.

Find many other strategies to enhance their memories here:

What These Simple Ideas Can Yield

By focusing on readers' strengths to overcome their reading, writing, and related problems, teachers, support staff, and parents can help readers feel more confident and optimistic.

These feelings, coupled with frequent and ongoing progress monitoring, independent and instructionally appropriate lessons, and responsive and supportive teachers can accelerate readers' progress.

A question that's often raised about this — "How do I know it will work?" — has a simple answer: You don't know until you try. So, try.

Helpful Resources

Progress Monitoring:

Step-by step Teaching: McCabe, P. P., and Howard Margolis (2001). Enhancing the self‑efficacy of struggling readers. The Clearing House, 75(1), 45-49.