The Emotional Experience of a Child who Can’t Read

Reading isn't easy for everyone

Reading isn't easy for all children
Reading isn’t easy for all children

Outside:  “I’m just fine!”  and then inside:  “I’m stupid!”

Each year there will be one, or two or three children in the class who really struggle. For these children, the usual process of reading instruction is an exercise in frustration. Students who can’t read are keenly aware of their situation. Although they are often taken from the ranks of those who are physically overactive and sometimes disruptive, many other students who can’t read sit quietly and pretend they understand because they don’t want anyone to know that they don’t. I have seen this phenomenon in children as young as 5 and 6 years old.

Children know very soon when others understand a concept and they don’t. One common response is to disrupt the class because that is something they can do. Other young children keep hoping they are just about to understand and will generally claim they do understand.

With common methods of reading instruction (one-sound worksheets, choral reading, sight-word look-say), these students often find ways of covering up their lack of knowledge, such as copying worksheet assignments and mouthing responses that they don’t actually know.

By third and fourth grade poor readers are adept at pretending they did work they didn’t do and pretending to read passages they can’t read. If a teacher decides to try to instruct them at their level with exercises that address their learning needs, many at first will be rebellious because by this time they believe they are hopeless.  But when they see that they finally understand the work they will often be happy and begin to manifest enjoyment of the work.

Students who struggle with reading need more time to learn the skills of reading than other students.  Still, every student can be helped and it is just about the most rewarding teaching you will ever do.   Without a dedicated reading teacher of some variety these students will not “just get it on their own” some day. Sometimes it is a parent or other family member who finally figures out what is wrong and takes the time to create the understanding, but usually it is the child’s teacher. For more information about what you can do to help a child who can’t read, visit Teach Reading Classically.

2 thoughts on “The Emotional Experience of a Child who Can’t Read”

  1. This is a fantastic, heartfelt article! It uses keen insight and vast experience to explain the common reactions of children who become adept at masking their reading struggles. There is hope, however, and the kids in need– both disruptive and distant– are waiting for a capable, compassionate teacher to move them forward.

  2. So true!! and the tests constantly reinforce feelings of inferiority.

    It’s not necessarily true that kids who are poor readers in 3rd grade will never catch up.

    And, other things are significant also.

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