Post: How to build confidence in struggling readers



How to build confidence in struggling readers

Few skills are more important in today’s world than reading. Yet, even though it is crucial, reading literacy has tracked downwards in New Zealand in the last 20 years. So how can we support struggling readers and build reading confidence?
How to build confidence in struggling readers

Reading confidence and skill opens the door to success for struggling readers. They underpin not only academic achievement but also positive outcomes after school such as earning potential and health. 

For this reason, teachers must build reading confidence in their students – especially those who are reluctant or struggling readers. To build confidence in struggling readers is easier said than done, however.

Before exploring how to build confidence in struggling readers, let’s look in more detail at why reading skills and confidence are critical.

Why reading skills and building confidence in struggling readers are important

When today’s children enter the adult world, their need to read and write will be greater than for humans at any other time in our history.

As the International Reading Association (Moore et al 1999) observes:

They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imaginations, so they can create the world of the future. In a complex, and sometimes dangerous world, the ability to read can be crucial.

Progress in many subject areas students encounter at school depends on their reading ability. In English and social sciences, for instance, students read many texts. Their ability to process and understand what they have read can either boost or hold back their success.

For example, students struggling with reading will find it difficult to summarise and analyse the information they encounter. This limitation will, in turn, hinder their understanding and progress.

The benefits of reading extend beyond formal education. A study from the United Kingdom (Bynner 2001) found that individuals with “functional literacy” (a reading age of 11 years or above) earn 16% more than those with lower literacy levels. This link was apparent even after controlling for factors such as socioeconomic status and the school people attended.

The same study also highlighted how poor reading and number skills are linked to difficulties with getting jobs and staying in them.

Similarly, reading and other literacy skills are linked to health outcomes in various ways. Simply looking after your health often entails reading and understanding technical information. Those who struggle to do so – for example, when reading information forms from their doctor – suffer poorer health outcomes.

Reading for pleasure, for as little as six minutes a day, has been shown to ease tension and lower heart rates. Further, researchers report it is 700% better for reducing stress than playing video games.

Key steps in building confidence in struggling readers
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Key steps in building confidence in struggling readers

There is no quick fix for building confidence in struggling readers. However, if teachers can engage students, empower them with reading skills and reinforce learning, they can have a meaningful impact.

Engage the reader

Before you can address the weaknesses of struggling readers, you need to spark their interest in reading. With this spark, students can gain confidence and become motivated to improve their skills.

A range of factors may motivate children and adolescents such as:

  • the need to belong
  • the desire to have fun
  • the wish for power
  • the desire for independence.

Knowing which combination of these applies to individual students will help you to engage them in reading.

The Essential Resources series Story Seekers is based on three approaches to effective literacy support. The first of these is to engage struggling readers.

Story Seekers features high-interest topics that match the age of the struggling readers. The language and vocabulary align to their reading level.

Choosing the right topic can also aid in improving students’ reading comprehension. Widespread evidence shows students have better reading comprehension when they have existing knowledge of a subject.

Build confidence in struggling readers
Image by Freepik

Model reading

Positive reading role models are key to overcoming reluctance and building confidence in struggling readers.

Modelling by reading aloud teaches children it is okay to make mistakes and demonstrate reading behaviours that students can imitate. For example, you can show it can be helpful to skip unknown words, like names that do not follow phonetic rules.

You can also model how to use contexts to understand texts. In Story Seekers, the illustrations, photographs and maps provide readers with visual cues for interpreting the words.

Modelling helps improve students’ reading comprehension by giving them a foundation of text experiences they can use when reading independently. Text experiences can make them more familiar with, for example, the structure of stories and sentences.

Shared reading

Shared reading is an effective way of boosting confidence in students who have reading difficulties.

Shared reading supports struggling readers to become familiar with the text by following along to begin with. As they become more confident, the students can join in with their own reading.

Similarly to modelling, shared reading develops students’ reading skills by:

  • expanding their vocabulary
  • demonstrating decoding and comprehension skills
  • teaching phonics and phonemic awareness.
Story Seekers for struggling readers
Image by pressfoto on Freepik

Develop reading comprehension

The research is clear. For students to have accurate reading comprehension, they need strong decoding skills and linguistic comprehension (Gough and Tunmer 1986).

Struggling readers not only have trouble working out and decoding words. Often they also have difficulty with linguistic comprehension – understanding the vocabulary and sentences.

The Story Seekers books have been designed to address these challenges.

The books take an integrated literacy approach by:

  • reinforcing the alphabetic code to increase reading accuracy
  • repeating less familiar vocabulary or phrases to improve linguistic comprehension
  • wrapping up with literacy activities, including a decoding activity to build phonemic awareness.

Summing up how to help struggling readers

The importance of reading is beyond doubt. Today’s students will need to be confident readers to navigate adult life in the future.

Building reading confidence is not easy – particularly where you are teaching struggling readers.

However, you can boost your students’ reading confidence by choosing engaging texts, modelling and sharing reading, and developing reading comprehension.

And to help, we have a new series of Story Seekers coming out soon! Head over to the Essential Resources website to learn more.


Bynner, JM (2001) Improving Adult Basic Skills: Benefits to the individual and to society. London: Department for Education and Employment.

Gough, P and Tunmer, W (1986) Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7: 6–10.

Moore, DW, Bean, TW, Birdyshaw, D and Rycik, JA (1999) Adolescent Literacy: A Position Statement for the Commission on Adolescent Literacy of the International Reading Association. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


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