Reluctant Readers Part 2

Recently my girlfriends and I got together for a pedicure, and the question was

“I wish I knew how . . Is my kid behind? What can I do to help?”

In my previous blog, I have explained the vital research that backs up 3 core principals that are required for children to learn: self-efficacy/collective efficacy, background culture of belonging, and social cognitive excitement about learning. These are basic core components backed up by research that improve student learning.

The next series will focus on teaching Reluctant Readers HOW to read. To quote the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s or OHRC they are worried about our kids learning to read. “According to recent Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) results, more than one-quarter of Grade 3 students, and 53% of Grade 3 students with special education needs, did not meet the provincial standard for reading. Life-long consequences can include under-employment, homelessness, involvement with the criminal justice system, and even suicide.”

“Reading is the foundation for success in school, work and life,” said former OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane. “Learning to read is not a privilege, it is a human right.”

OHRC’s inquiry RIGHT TO READ, explains how students learn to read.

the best way to teach all students to read words is through direct, explicit, systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills. Beginning in Kindergarten, this includes explicit instruction in phonemic awareness [the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds (or phonemes) in spoken words], phonics (which teaches letter-sound associations, also known as grapheme-phoneme correspondences and using these to “sound-out” words and to spell words). From about Grade 2, explicit instruction focuses on more advanced knowledge and skills, such as increased study of word structures and patterns (for example prefixes, word roots and suffixes), and how word spellings relate to one another. From beginning to teach these decoding skills, students also practice reading words in stories to build word-reading accuracy and speed.”

So, how can we help our Reluctant Reader learn to read? let’s start with the first step. Kids learn to read by direct, sequenced sound identification, moving these phonemic sounds around in the words to learn and practice sound and symbol relationships.

Linnea Ehri in her text, explains its best to start with s, m, n, f, l, r, r, w, y, z , a, t, that stretch out in order to make the same sound ‘mmmmmmmmm.’ For example, start with vowel consonant words like ‘aaaaaaatttttttt’ and stretch them out so that the student hears the complete sound. Show them the /a/t/ in blue magnetic vowels and practice other VC words by stretching them out. Substitute the second letter for ‘aaaaaaaaannnnnn’ so your child has a chance to truly hear and pick out that lower case vowel using blue for consonants and red for vowels.

/c/a/t/ moving to /c/a/p/

Once the two letter extended sounds are truly captivated by play, and your child has had success; then move to the ‘stop’ consonant / vowel / consonant words that can’t be stretched out like /c/a/t/.

Have the child move and say the sounds using red and blue chips in each box by having them identify the letter/sounds in the word cat as /c/a/t/, playing with these sounds to make the word /c/a/p/.

Hands on toys really help, especially when you move from blue and red chips to magnetic letters or letters printed on paper to make the word. Basically, choose a object or toy; then associate each letter sound you make with an alphabet letter. Research suggests you begin with small CVC words (consonant vowel consonant or 3 letter words). Say each sound and have your child find the letter that corresponds. Place each letter/sound in a small box as you make each sound. It is generally best to begin with 2 soft vowels with 5 or 6 other consonants to create these CVC words. For more info, see the links in the works cited section.

E.g., example from Reading Rockets citation

Here is an example of the these lovely squares or boxes or ‘Elkonin boxes’ with the move and say strategy.

Practice with your child as he or she places each red and blue chip into each box /c/a/t into the box while moving and saying each sound. Aha! Making or articulating each letter sound verbally will help your child to create newfound cognitive connections in his or her brain!

I bought a set of magnetic letters because Willy Blevins in A to Z A Fresh Look at Phonics encourages parents and teachers to use blue for consonants, red for vowels.You can make your own letters with paper, or buy some of these things in the local discount store.

Colouring the background of printed letters on paper with red or green crayons is a free resource. Again, Ehri and Blevins suggest working with the stretch consonants first and then move to the stop consonants so that makes sense to your child.

Blevins also uses some unique terms such ‘chin dropper’ to describe those ‘red’ vowels because when you make those sounds, your chin drops! My students in Gr. 3, loved to play and imitate the ‘chin-drop’ of each vowel sound. We often over emphasize and practice each of these different ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ vowel sounds. For example, the soft ‘e’ sound such as ‘b e d.’

You can see in this photo, Ehri’s suggestion that once students practice and KNOW the phoneme (letter) and grapheme (combined letter sounds) to create one or two rhyming words, and then change one sound at a time working with three to five words. Begin with one rhyming word, then change either the beginning (onset), middle (medial) or final sounds, taking it one step at a time to make words. This sparks your child’s memory and assists them in remembering sight words. Guess what — its called orthographic memory! This helps the child see that sounds change and represent different letters, not always relying on making a single rhyming word pattern. I’ve always done this, but I didn’t know it was best practice until I read about it in Blevins, Ehri’s and Kilpatrick’s work! Kilpatrick also mentions that you can begin indirect support at ages 3 to 4, but direct systematic instruction should begin at ages 5 to 7. He also encourages everyone that at ANYTIME (P. 18) is the best time for those students who are older, and even adults can benefit from systematically learning these sounds. I can remember at age 16, my high school teacher teaching my dad at age 50 by using this method. Using Elkonin boxes or sound / bites, my dad learned to represent phonemes with the different sounds and learned to write his name.

I’ve made it a practice to include silly or nonsense words when using letters. If you’re asking which sounds to begin with, buy Blevins book to see which consonant and vowels or follow Ehri’s suggests to deepen your focus on phonemic awareness and letter sound knowledge. Up above you can see where this student moved from I’ve used magnets as Elkonin boxes, or I’ve created a ten frame with a silver felt pen. You can even enjoy making the letters and small Elkonin boxes with your child.

Furthermore, please observe the child’s energy and tension. To close gaps in your child’s learning one would want to remain in the middle area to of the Thayer Matrix ( to benefit from this work.

Additionally, each of my next few blogs will focus on that step by step process to teach your child to read. I utilize all of these steps in my early morning language practice; the total time is fluent between a half hour lasting no longer than 50 minutes before breaking into small groups. This first step should only take you about 5 minutes or less. Keep the first small mini-lesson quick. Increase the amount of words each day. Social engagement is everything as you enjoy the relationship between you and the child.

Keep your eyes peeled here for the next few blogs!

Remember, your Reluctant Reader wants to have fun!

Works Cited

Capacity Building Series

Ontario Human Rights Commission

March 2010, Capacity Building Series Reading Fluency

Elkonin Boxes

Ehri, D. Sight Word Learning Supported by Systematic Phonics Instruction.

Linnea C. Ehri (2014) Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:1, 5–21, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356 Taylor & Routalege Taylor and Francis Group. Retrieved January 2014, May 2021, June 2022.

Blevins, W. Fresh Look at Phonics (2019)

Self-Regulation Thayer Matrix k

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2013). Equipped for Reading Success Corwin. Retrieved May 2021 & June 2022.




Tina teaches with HPEDSB in Ontario as an elementary educator.

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Tina Bergman

Tina teaches with HPEDSB in Ontario as an elementary educator.