The Struggling Reader caught my attention at a recent homeschool conference because they offer a do-it-yourself solution for reading problems that diagnoses the problem and provides materials for parents to use to help overcome problems. I have to provide a disclaimer that I am not a learning disabilities specialist, so I review this without any special expertise. However, I have looked at a number of resources for identifying and overcoming learning disabilities over the years, and this looks like one of the most promising.
The Struggling Reader system was developed in 2006 by a husband and wife team with clinical and classroom experience as well as homeschooling experience. The program is research based and has been field-tested both in traditional and homeschool settings.
Since children often have problems in some areas and not others, the system is set up in five modules: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Sight Words, Comprehension, and Fluency. Phonics diagnoses problems with basic decoding—identifying letters and sounds then accurately reading words. Phonemic Awareness covers a number of tasks such as identifying the consonant sound at the beginning or end of a word, blending phonemes, creating a rhyming word, and adding a phoneme to the end of a word then saying the new word—it’s about hearing the sounds, manipulating them in their mind, and saying them apart from actually reading letters or even knowing the alphabet. You might use one or more of the modules depending upon your situation and concerns.
For each of the Phonics, Phonemic Awareness, and Comprehension modules there are a diagnostic inventory book and an instructional activities book. In addition, the Phonics and Phonemic Awareness modules each have a set of flashcards that are essential to the program. Sight Words and Fluency modules each contain both assessments and instructional activities in one book. Each of these two modules also has a set of flashcards. Each assessment book has an audio CD at the back that helps explain that module. You can figure it out without listening to the CD, but I found them very helpful, and they are relatively brief. Permission is given to photocopy the note taking pages in the Scoring Guides as well as some other items in the books that are likely to prove helpful. This means you can reuse the materials with multiple children.
The program begins with assessment using the assessment (or diagnostic inventory) books (or that section of the Sight Words or Fluency books). Since the assessments are administered by parents and need not be completed in one sitting, parents can be sensitive to each child’s attention span to ensure accurate assessment results. Assessments are not at all like standardized tests. Much of the work is oral rather than written. Assessment results help you identify particular problems your child is experiencing.
Phonemic Awareness assesses a child’s ability to auditorially identify and manipulate phonemes at levels K through second grade where these skills are typically acquired. Older students beyond second grade level with reading difficulties should use this assessment. Phonemic Awareness seems to me the most challenging of the assessments to administer since the tasks differ somewhat on each page and the examiner must carefully enunciate the phonemes and words while paying attention to the child’s responses. Still this is very manageable by untrained parents as long as they take the time to get familiar with the material. The CD is particularly helpful for this assessment as well as for the instructional activities. The examiner notes the child’s score on each page before going on to the next page. At the conclusion, the examiner copies those scores onto a “Score Summary” chart. Score analysis information is included at the front of the book.
The Phonics assessment differs from the others in that it is heavily based on the use of the set of 254 cards that come with the set. The diagnostic inventory book is primarily for the assessor to make notes and for scoring the results. The cards must be used in order, and the cards themselves include instructions cards every so often. An instruction card might say, “Ask your student to tell you the sounds these letters make.” This card is followed by a number of cards, each with a single letter. Cards begin with letters of the alphabet and move on to consonant digraphs, short-vowel words, and long-vowel words. From there they continue through more challenging words such as “caught, large, know,” and “match.” Nonsense words like “jate” are included to test a student’s ability to apply basic phonetic rules such as CVCe (consonant-vowel-consonant-silent e) with words like “jate.” This helps to alert parents or teachers when children have become proficient sight readers yet have not learned phonics.
The goal of the Comprehension assessment is to identify the independent, instructional, and frustration levels of their reading ability. There are three sets of stories arranged in order from grades one through eight. Beginning a few grades below his or her actual grade level, a child will read each story aloud then answer questions presented orally by the examiner. These tests are very straightforward and easy to administer although it will be important to notice if you need to take breaks or ease a child’s tension. Unlike with standardized tests, there is leeway to stop in the middle of a story if a child is simply not interested in a particular story or otherwise has a problem simply because of the story’s content. You can begin again with a story from one of the other sets. Reading levels are determined by scores on the comprehension questions. You will stop when a child reaches frustration level. Note that the Comprehension assessment includes “Personal Profile” questions that might be important for someone to use if they do not know the child being tested well in advance. In most homeschooling situations you would skip these.
Sight Words has a set of 300 flashcards numbered in order from the most-frequently occurring word “and” through the less-frequently-used “body.” Students are asked to try to read each word as it is flashed fairly quickly. You don’t want students to have time to try to decode these words since the point is to test for immediate recognition of sight words.
The Fluency assessment involves recording the student’s reading speed as well as more subjective evaluation of their prosody or how well they read while grasping and expressing the sense of the material they are reading. One story is provided for each grade level for grades 1 through 8. You might have students read the same story twice recording both scores to see whether reading speed improves with familiarity.
Once you have administered and evaluated the assessments, the instructional activities for each module help you address problem areas. Most of the instructional activities are multi-sensory to make learning more effective.
If your child has already been assessed in some other fashion and you know exactly what problems need to be addressed, you can skip the assessments and use only the instructional activities. However, the instructional activities assume that you have the flashcards used with the assessments, so you would need to purchase those.
The Phonemic Awareness Instructional Activities book includes instructional strategies for the 21 skills tested with the assessment book. Ten activities are provided for each skill. You will need to have taken careful notes regarding student errors with the assessment to accurately pinpoint which activities will be most useful. A set of picture cards is used with some of the instructional activities.
In this book (but not in the others) the activities are identified for individuals or for groups—five for each. “Group” means two or more children, and you can have multiple children in your family participate in the activities “just for fun” whether or not they have problems with reading. In addition, some group activities can be adapted for use with an individual child. Even if you use only the individual activities, there should be plenty since most can be used over and over again. Activities generally do not require much time to use, although a few of them will take a little extra preparation. Activities might be simple games such as one where children try to identify rhyming words from the flashcards or they might be like the “Fishing for Fun” game where you create a fishing pole with a magnet on a string and attach paper clips or magnetic tape to picture cards that students will catch. When they catch them they are to name the object then pronounce the final sound in that word. They keep their “fish” if they answer correctly. The CD in the assessment book points out that some of the information you need for presenting activities—e.g., a list of groups of words from which children select those that have the same initial phoneme—is at the back of the book.
The Phonics Instructional Activities book has a concise primer on phonics at the beginning that also shows which concepts are typically learned at which levels. This is especially helpful for parents with a weak background in phonics. It’s fairly easy to identify which activities to use based on assessment results since the assessment book identifies which of the skills are addressed by which assessment items. Activities are presented in groups of ten activities each under the headings: consonant blends, consonant digraphs, vowel digraphs, vowel diphthongs, R or L controlled vowels, and silent E. While activities are not clearly designated as being suitable for individual students or groups as in Phonemic Awareness Instructional Activities, you will find some of both here. Phonics instructional activities generally involve reading and sometimes writing, but no worksheets or typical schoolwork. Most activities include some sort of play or game element. For example, one activity for R or L controlled words has the teacher create four rectangle-shaped areas on the floor with masking tape, labeling each with one of the suggested vowel/consonant combinations provided in the instructions. The teacher then reads a word from a list provided at the back of the book, and the student has to jump to the rectangle that they think has the vowel/consonant combination heard in that word. Word lists that are used with many of the activities such as this are found at the back of the book.
Comprehension Instructional Activities are not tied directly to specific assessment results. If the assessment shows that a child comprehends below grade level, then you will want to use some of the instructional activities to help them improve comprehension. Some activities are as simple as narration (an important strategy in the Charlotte Mason approach to education) while others might be pre-reading interest builders, mid-reading questions, or post-reading response generators. For example, with “Picture Walk,” using a heavily-illustrated storybook, you and your child first examine the cover, guessing what the story might be about. Then looking through the pictures in the book, your child relates what he thinks is going on and compares it to his prediction. He or she might adjust his prediction from what he sees in the pictures. Then you go back and read the story and compare your child’s picture-based version to the actual story. All of this is very child-centered—your child is the one coming up with ideas as you prompt their thinking by asking questions. An example of an activity that might be better for an older student would be after reading a story, coming up with ten questions that they would ask the main character if they were going to do a personal interview. Some activities involve creating games or arts-and-crafts. There are 26 activities and strategies presented in this book with most being suitable for readers of all ages.
Sight words and Fluency instructional activities are each included in their respective combined assessment/activities books. Sight words activities are designed to help students have instant recognition of commonly-used words. You will know which words to work on from those not readily recognized in the assessment. Activities are designed to be used with whichever words you choose. You can select only those words from the sight word flashcard set when flashcards are used. Activities are more game oriented than in the other books with a scavenger hunt, tic-tac-toe, bingo, trashcan basketball, bean bag toss, and much more.
Fluency instructional activities, or “fluency-building activities,” have children do a great deal of reading aloud. These tend to be strategies more often than games. You will likely find that a few of the strategies are particularly effective with your child, and you will use those strategies over and over.
Strategies are sometimes as simple as repeated reading of the same material so that the child becomes familiar with it and learns what it feels like to read aloud fluently. Examples of other strategies are practicing reading dialogues, reading three-word sentences while emphasizing a different word each time, and making facial expressions while reading to indicate the emotion being conveyed or experienced. A set of phrase cards that comes with the Fluency set is used with some of the activities. The stories used in the assessment are also presented again at the end of the book, but this time there are phrase division markers that might make it easier for a child to read the phrases with understanding and expression. You are encouraged to mark up your own choice of reading material with phrase markings as is explained in one of the strategies. Fourteen strategies are presented in the book.
You can purchase items individually, as sets for each module, in other set configurations, or as a complete bundle.
The assessments and learning activities in The Struggling Reader seem to me to be what a school reading specialist would provide if they were able to have enough one-on-one teaching time. The program doesn't get into specific causes of reading problems such as dyslexia, tracking issues, or vision difficulties which might require other therapies, but it does use multi-sensory learning strategies that are commonly used in such situations. You might want to check with a specialist if your child has serious issues that really require more extensive diagnosis and treatment. However, for the many children who simply lag behind in their reading skills for reasons that are not always obvious, The Struggling Reader might well provide the help you need. I especially appreciate that it is in a format with which you can experiment and that you can manage yourself to discover which instructional activities are most effective for your child.