Tips and Strategies for Supporting Students with Reading Disabilities

Written by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

Reading disabilities are learning challenges that impact an individual's ability to read words accurately and at an average speed. Reading disabilities fall under three main challenges: difficulty with correctly reading words, difficulty with reading comprehension, and difficulty with reading fluency. Without appropriate diagnosis and accommodations, these students can get stuck and fall behind in their schoolwork. To support students with reading disabilities, it is important for teachers to educate themselves on reading disabilities and how they can implement differentiated instruction to teach their students effectively.

Types of Reading Disabilities

While dyslexia is the most common term used to describe reading disabilities, not all reading challenges are considered dyslexia. Additionally, students may have overlapping reading disabilities, with challenges in more than one area. Those with reading disabilities may also have other learning challenges, such as attention disorders, anxiety, and difficulty understanding spoken language.

Difficulty with Correctly Reading Words

Those who struggle with reading words correctly have a hard time with the decoding process. They may not be able to match written symbols with spoken sounds, a skill called phonological awareness. These students usually also have poor spelling skills. This is what is commonly known as dyslexia.

Difficulty with Reading Comprehension

Individuals who have difficulty with reading comprehension struggle to understand and remember what they read. They may or may not be able to decode words properly, but even if they can read the words, the information either isn't understood or retained in their brain. They may have a language disorder where they have difficulty understanding verbal and written words, or they might have working memory deficits, which makes it harder to remember what has been read. Children with social-linguistic disabilities such as autism may also struggle in this area.

Difficulty with Reading Fluency

Reading fluency means being able to read accurately at a reasonable speed. Students may have difficulty recognizing words by sight. Reading fluency also means being able to add the appropriate inflection to words. Those who struggle with reading frequency may read without emotion when reading aloud. Difficulty with reading fluency is common in those who have dyslexia.

The Impact of Reading Difficulties on Students

Children with reading difficulties may struggle both academically and socially. In school, children may fall behind in all their subjects if they cannot read at grade level. This is especially true in fourth grade and later when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn most of their subjects. If they don't receive appropriate accommodations, these students can get stuck, always behind in their schoolwork, and never catch up. They will likely have poor academic grades. This may even lead to some students dropping out of school.

Socially, they may have self-esteem issues, feeling bad about themselves because of their reading difficulties. Other students may pick on them for being unable to read or for not understanding the material, making their struggles with self-esteem even worse.

As they move forward in life, students with reading difficulties may have difficulty finding meaningful employment as so many jobs require reading and writing skills.

How to Help a Child with Reading Difficulties

Scholars and educators have conducted research studies to determine best practices for learning disability intervention to help a child with reading difficulties. Some of these include:

  • Early intervention: Intervention should start as soon as a child shows signs of struggling with phonemic awareness and word recognition. The sooner a child receives needed instruction and extra help, the sooner that child can read at an appropriate level.
  • Direct instruction: Students who have difficulty with word recognition will need direct instruction involving drill, repetition, and practice. This may be done individually or in a small group setting. Some studies indicate that small groups may actually be more effective for helping a child with reading difficulties than one-on-one instruction. This direct instruction should include a review of previous instruction as well as new work on sounding out words and blending sounds together.
  • Strategy instruction: Children who do not understand what they read need to be provided strategies to help them acquire this skill. Teachers can help this process by engaging students in dialogue about the material that has been read. They can ask questions and encourage students to ask questions about what has been read. It is important to focus on short activities and have lessons that progress from easy to more difficult. Teachers can model various strategies to engage with the reading so that students can have a toolbox to work with in helping with their own reading comprehension when reading on their own.

Comprehension Strategies for Special Education Students

Students who have a reading comprehension disability need special tools to help them understand what they read.

Direct Instruction

Some students easily learn to read and understand what they read. Those with reading disabilities can have difficulty with this area. They may be able to read the words on the page, but they lack understanding or struggle with retaining the information they read. These students need direct instruction to provide them with the tools they need to help them better understand and retain the meaning of what they read.

Direct instruction can also involve a teacher working with a student or group of students as they make their way through a written text. The teacher can ask questions about the reading material to prompt recall and understanding. They can clarify confusing passages before a student loses track of what is happening in a text. Students can also be encouraged to ask questions about what they are reading. This dialogue can help with reading comprehension.

Strategy Instruction

Strategy instruction offers various tools for understanding written text. The more tools a student has to use when reading a text, the more likely they are to be able to understand and remember what they read. Comprehension strategies for special education students (as well as anyone who has difficulty with reading comprehension) can include theme identification, using graphic organizers, chunking, visualization, and mnemonic tools.

Theme identification refers to discovering the main purpose of what is being read. For fiction, students can be encouraged to ask themselves questions about the main character, the problem that the character is facing, actions that happen in the story, and what the conclusion of the story is. For nonfiction, students will want to consider the author's purpose in writing the piece. What are key pieces of information to take away from the essay or article?

A graphic organizer can be used to create a visual representation of what is happening in a story or the information conveyed in nonfiction work. Students can be encouraged to take notes while they read. They can organize this information in shapes using a Venn diagram or flow chart. They could also make a list of events or important facts. These graphic organizers can be used to visualize relationships between characters or information. Students can be encouraged to use whatever type of organizer works best for them.

Chunking refers to breaking long work into smaller sections. Long work can be hard for anyone to remember. This is even more true for those with a reading comprehension disability. Reading a short passage, perhaps a page or a few paragraphs, and then reflecting on it provides a greater opportunity for understanding and recall.

Visualization means imagining what is read. Students can be encouraged to form a mental picture of what they are reading. For a work of fiction, students can imagine the characters and what they are doing, forming a movie-type image in their minds. For nonfiction works, if students do not have a mental picture of what they are reading about due to a lack of prior knowledge, they may wish to consult other resources to develop a mental picture. For example, looking up various types of fish spoken about in a science lesson about aquatic life.

Mnemonic tools can help students remember the steps to engage with their reading. For example, RCRC stands for Read, Cover, Retell, and Check. A student can remember these steps, using them to read a short passage, cover that passage to narrate what it is talking about, and then check to see if they recalled correctly. Another mnemonic is SQ3R which stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. A student glances at the material and forms a question or two about what they are going to read. They then read the material, recite the key points of information conveyed, and review the material to check if they were right.

Reading Resources for Students: Developing Word Recognition Skills

There are several techniques and reading resources for students to help develop word recognition skills.

Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction is key to helping students develop an awareness of the alphabetic principle, that letters and letter combinations stand for certain sounds in the English language. It helps them learn the relationship between letters and sets of letters and sounds. While some children seem to pick up this concept easily (sometimes even without any direct instruction), students with reading difficulties often struggle in this area.

The most basic element of phonics instruction is letter recognition. Students need to recognize and know the names of both lower-case and upper-case letters.

Phonemic awareness is a person's ability to make the connection between a letter or group of letters and their corresponding sounds. Some tools to help students develop these skills include identifying rhyming words and making up rhymes; clapping out syllables to segment words; identifying beginning, middle, and ending sounds in words; and learning how to blend sounds to create words. Students must learn to sound out real words as opposed to nonsense words.

Multisensory phonics instruction can be an effective reading resource for students. For example, children learning letter recognition can draw out letters in sand or shaving cream on a tray. Having tiles with individual letters or letter combinations that students can manipulate to form words can help students learn phenomes and how letters and letter combinations work together to form words. Students can use gestures for some basic sounds so that when they identify the sound, they also use the gesture, adding a physical component to aid recognition. Students can also use a pencil or their fingers to point out the various sounds in a word, sliding their fingers as they blend the sounds to make a word.

Sight Word Recognition

Some words in the English language do not follow phonemic rules and must simply be learned through repeated exposure to written text. Students can use the context of sentences to help recognize these words.

Advanced Organizers

Teachers working with students on learning to read should encourage them to look over the material to be covered at the beginning of the lesson. They should provide the children with information about the expected tasks to be covered in that lesson and what the objective of the lesson will be.


Long lessons can often feel overwhelming to students who struggle with reading. It is important to break down long lessons into manageable chunks that a student can manage. Short lessons focused on one skill or topic are often more effective in cultivating retention and learning than having a long lesson that covers several skills.

Segmentation in reading can also refer to breaking down words into smaller parts, into syllables, and then into the individual sounds that make up each syllable. This is a key skill in learning to sound out words.


Teachers should move from easy lessons to more difficult ones. They need to work at the level the student is at, providing work that provides a learning opportunity but that does not frustrate the student. Providing step-by-step instructions for the reading task at hand can help students understand and have a better chance of learning the lesson. Teachers can begin by offering prompts or cues to the student but then gradually allow the student to take on more responsibility for the work. This scaffolding helps students feel secure in their skills and knowledge and provides them with a sense of accomplishment they can build on as they move forward with reading instruction.

Additional Strategies and Tools for Reading Instruction

Some other tools for reading instruction that may be useful for students with reading difficulties include using prior knowledge, utilizing reading circles, vocabulary development, and targeting different learning styles in reading instruction.

Make Use of Prior Knowledge

Making use of prior knowledge is key in any learning environment. Students learn best when they build on what they already know. Word recognition means using sounds and words that students do recognize while introducing new sounds and words. For reading comprehension, students can relate stories to previous stories that they have read or listened to. They can use information that they already know about a topic as a basis for learning more in nonfiction work.

Implement Reading Circles

In a reading circle, small groups of students work together to read and discuss the same work. Each student is given a particular task in the group, such as a discussion leader or illustrator. The students can learn from each other while having a sense of responsibility to the group for their particular task. Discussing the work in a group can help aid in retention. It also provides additional insights and information that an individual student may not have picked up on their own. This can also help with a student's sense of belonging in the classroom. Students with reading disabilities may struggle with self-esteem. This allows them to share their knowledge and be seen as a vital part of the community. Teachers may need to spend some time modeling how to engage in this type of group dynamic respectfully so that all students can contribute and feel that what they have to say has value.

Focus on Vocabulary Development

For students to understand what they read, they must have the necessary vocabulary. While all students encounter unfamiliar words, reading material with too many unknown words is frustrating and limits understanding. Children learn a great deal of vocabulary through conversation but being read to regularly exposes them to many words not used in everyday speech. Hence, it is important to read books to students that are beyond their reading ability to help build their vocabularies. Students can also use tools to help them figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words, such as using context clues to figure out the meaning from the rest of the sentence. When introducing new vocabulary to students, teachers can use visual aid or have them act out the meaning of a word. Teachers can use riddles and other word games to help teach the meaning of words, especially words that may have multiple distinct meanings.

Multisensory Instruction for Differing Learning Styles

Multisensory instruction is important for those with various learning styles. This method of differentiated learning offers students with reading disabilities an alternate method of processing learning materials. For example, some students may learn and understand material best when they are read to (either with an audiobook or by a live person). They may wish to follow along in a printed book while being read to help their reading skills. Some students may remember material if they can draw a graphic organizer or illustrate what is going on in a story, or process the information in nonfiction work. Sometimes students may wish to act out a story to help them remember the events. Visual aids can also be helpful. Pictures in stories and textbooks can aid in understanding and encourage students to ask questions about the material.

How to Evaluate a Reading Program for Kids

Parents and teachers should look for details on how reading is taught when evaluating a reading program for kids who have reading difficulties. Parents should feel comfortable asking teachers or school administrators for this information as it is their right as parents to have access to the materials being used to instruct their children.

They should look for programs that have:

  • Research supporting their effectiveness, especially for students with reading disabilities
  • An emphasis on phonemic awareness, decoding skills, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary
  • Decodable texts at the student's reading level so that the student can have the feeling of reading success
  • Interesting and informational texts to help build student vocabulary and interest
  • Step-by-step instructions and prompts
  • Stated clear objectives
  • Teachers and students having a dialogue about what is being read
  • Teachers providing demonstrations and steps needed to solve problems
  • Teachers offering students assistance when needed
  • Tasks progressing from simple to more challenging
  • Students in control of the level of difficulty
  • Break long lessons into manageable parts so that students do not feel overwhelmed
  • Short activities
  • Repetition so that lessons and word recognition can be reinforced
  • Small group instruction
  • Strategies students can use when decoding words or working on comprehension
  • Multisensory presentation to help engage different styles of learners, including those who learn best visually, auditorily, or kinesthetically
  • Access and availability of any media or technology tools needed for optimal presentation of material
  • A variety of assessment tools to enable teachers to evaluate where students need extra help and what progress is being made
  • Stated measurable learning goals for each student
  • Instructional support and ongoing professional development for teachers so that teachers can be more effective and troubleshoot challenges when teaching reading

While no one reading program for kids may have all of these features, this list provides a comprehensive way to evaluate and compare various programs to determine which program might be most effective to help a student's particular reading difficulties.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What interventions would be used for a child with a learning disorder?

    Interventions used for children with a learning disorder can include additional direct instruction, often in a small group setting. Multisensory learning can also be a great help. Interventions will be targeted to help the particular area of learning difficulty.

  • What are examples of effective teaching strategies for a student with a learning disability?

    Effective teaching strategies for a student with a learning disability can include using a multisensory approach, direct instruction, providing short lessons that focus on a single skill, and targeting lessons to the student's skill level.

  • What causes a child to struggle to read?

    A child can struggle to read for a variety of reasons including difficulties with decoding words and phenome awareness. They may also be able to correctly read the words but struggle with understanding or retaining what they read. They may also have difficulty with working memory.

  • What resources can one use to help a student with reading difficulties?

    Resources one can use to help students with reading difficulties include utilizing a reading program that emphasizes phenomic awareness and reinforcing skills with direct instruction. Reading circles and teaching students strategies for understanding what they read can also be helpful.

  • What are common reading disabilities?

    Reading disabilities fall under three main categories. Some students struggle with correctly reading words. This is commonly known as dyslexia. Others struggle with reading comprehension, understanding what is read. Still others may have difficulty with reading fluency, reading at an appropriate rate of speed. Many people have difficulty in more than one area.

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