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Helping Struggling Students at Partners for Learning

Parents are often very eager to teach their children but aren't always sure how best to prepare for it and what questions to ask. The following ideas may help a parent to know how to participate and obtain valuable information and insights about their child as a learner.

Understanding Your Child's Reading Levels

All children have different reading levels depending on their purpose for reading. The easiest level is known as their independent reading level. Material at this level can be read by the child without any help from an adult, be it pronouncing words or understanding the story very well. The next level is more difficult and is known as the instructional reading level. Children who read at their instructional reading level may have difficulty with pronouncing some words and understanding the material but can be successful with the help of a teacher.

There is also a level of reading where success cannot be attained because the level of the book is too hard and is beyond the current capabilities of the child. A student working at their frustration reading level is at a disadvantage for maximizing their academic growth and developing their self-concept as a successful reader. A fourth level includes a student's listening reading level. Books here are too hard for the child to read but can be understood when someone reads to the student.

Getting Familiar with the Language

Parents need to be familiar with these levels of reading with their children so they can help them select books where successful reading experiences occur on a regular and frequent basis. Books for a school project, for example, should be within their independent reading level as should all materials for recreational reading. All reading materials in all subjects at school should be within a child's instructional reading level for maximum academic progress to occur. Students who are not reading at their current grade level (ie, a child in grade six who is required to read grade six material but who reads instructionally at a grade four level) often become overwhelmed with the number of difficult words and concepts being studied.

If required to continue to read within their frustration reading level they are more likely to "turn off" their thinking during the reading process, focus successfully (or unsuccessfully) on simply saying the words and develop a belief system which sends defeatist messages such as "I'm not smart”. “Reading is hard”… “I can't do this...” Once a child believes he can't read successfully, learning becomes more complicated and self-esteem plummets.

Characteristics of Successful Students and Study Skills

Successful learners utilize a better plan of action. They are able to synthesize the information into their own words, thereby ensuring appropriate comprehension, before attempting to commit it to memory. They are able to recall the information read and can easily talk about key facts or write about it. They have a sense of the time required to be ready for a test and know various strategies to use, depending on the situation at hand. In particular, they approach learning with an engaged behavior and are able to take ownership of the situation because they are familiar with the necessary strategies.

Independent Reading Level

  • The easiest level of reading.
  • The student can pronounce almost all of the words both accurately and independently.
  • The student understands what has been read with no extra help.
  • Reading at this level is an easy and successful experience every time.
  • Reading at this level develops sight words (words that can be pronounced automatically), self- confidence as a reader and the ability to see how story ideas relate.
  • The purpose for reading at this level is to provide practice through recreational reading as well as to read for projects and other independent work.
  • Students know that reading at this level is "really easy for me to read by myself."

Instructional Reading Level

  • A more difficult level than independent reading.
  • Student can pronounce about 95% of the words independently and accurately and requires help with about 5 per cent.
  • Student understands at least 75% of the story independently and requires teacher supports in understanding key ideas and concepts.
  • The purpose for reading at this level is to provide an opportunity to develop skills and strategies through teacher modeling and guided practice.
  • Strategic reading skills are developed at this level.
  • Students know this level as "a little bit hard but not too hard and the teacher can help me when I have trouble.”

Frustrational Reading Level

  • A level or reading where meaning is minimal or lost.
  • The student spends a lot of time and energy pronouncing words and does not get a satisfactory level of understanding of the material being read.
  • Reading at this level is hard, errors are repeated frequently and success is not experienced.
  • Strategic reading skills cannot be easily developed at this level as the student often feels too overwhelmed and confused to think and problem solve the way successful readers can and do.

Listening Reading Level

  • A level of reading that is too hard for the student to read but is within his ability to understand when the material is read to him.
  • The student easily understands the contents of the story and can comment on information when someone reads and he/she listens.
  • The student listens actively, not passively, and he can interact with the text in an engaged manner. Comprehension is enhanced through active listening.
  • The student readily reacts to the text through questions and discussions.
  • Level of reading lets a student see how story ideas are organized and how they are connected to enhance meaning.

Parent's Dilemma: Why is My Child Getting Poor Grades at School?

Many children, at some time during their schooling, experience problems with learning. Sometimes it is just a matter of attending more closely to a problem for a short period of time so that the child can then begin to experience success in that subject. When this happens, a parent or friend can be of help to review the math problem, for example, and to demonstrate how to use the appropriate strategies to solve the problem. For many other children, however, the problem is more complex and there is no quick and easy fix.

These children need more time to process and understand the concept or strategy being taught than their peers. They may need more practice time to take the strategy to mastery level where it can be used easily and independently. When this occurs, the child begins to lag behind their peers. Once a child realizes on some level that they are behind, their self-confidence is affected and they begin to believe that they cannot be successful with their learning. Then the problem is compounded.

Missing Fundamental Skills

When children are missing fundamental skills in reading, writing or mathematics, they begin to form a weak foundation for future skills development in later grades. A child who does not understand the concept of place value with numbers may then have difficulty with the concept of subtraction and borrowing. As the subtraction questions become more difficult at each grade level, the child will not successfully understand what he is doing as he continues to borrow with questions that involve decimals and money. Or, a child who cannot write a suitable essay may not understand how to write an appropriate paragraph or maybe even a complete and persuasive sentence. The child may not have a solid understanding of the writing process and may not see the necessity of pre-planning before beginning the first draft.

A parent can take steps as soon as a problem is detected. Even if told that your child will "catch up", a parent should see that an assessment is provided by a qualified professional as this is the only way to ensure that any missing skills or strategies have been correctly identified. Once the problem has been identified, an instructional plan of action can be created to include the resource teacher, classroom teacher, aide and any professional involved. Any tutoring supports outside the school system should be included in this plan. Parents should request copies of all reports or minutes of planning meetings and these can be kept in a file for future reference. Once a plan has been instituted a parent can stay informed by requesting regular update meetings and should come prepared with pertinent questions and observations.

Undetected Learning Problems

Sometimes poor grades are blamed on a lack of motivation, poor attitude or other behavioral issues, when in fact, a learning problem exists. If undetected or improperly supported, a child may experience some limitations to their educational future or vocational choices.

Your child may need the services of a reading clinician, a psychologist, a speech and language pathologist or other professional in order to assess what, if any, learning problems exist and from there, to decide on a collaborative plan of action to facilitate the child's educational needs. This plan may include an adapted program for reading and written work. It may require individualized supports beyond the classroom that engage the child's learning style and needs.

Avoidance of Academics Due to Poor Self-Esteem

Children who are struggling with academics can have poor self-esteem. They tend to avoid situations in which they will be confronted with evidence of their weaknesses. They deal with academic problems by not completing homework, failing to hand in assignments, missing classes or by misbehaving at school and/or at home. In some ways they might rather be seen as lazy or a behavior problem rather than risk being seen as not smart and unable to do the required work.

These children need frequent and ongoing opportunities for success with academic activities and this can only happen when appropriate supports and guidance are provided by a trained teacher. Self-esteem issues related to academic success are complicated and require a learning environment that enables the child to work successfully on an ongoing basis so that they actually begin to believe that they have the ability to solve each school related problem.

Poor Study Habits

The term "study skills" refers to a student's ability to read and to comprehend/understand, to remember and to demonstrate what has been learned either through writing (exams, term papers, reports) or through discussion (oral presentations, class discussions). It also involves the efficient use of note-taking, effective study techniques as well as organizational and time management strategies. Successful students know how to manage their time well when they have more than one assignment or test taking place in a short period of time.

They know how to process what they learned in class that day and to identify any difficult or questionable information and then deal with it right away. They know how to prepare for a test or exam and they network with other successful peers as well as their teachers in the process. Successful students know that studying is more than just memorization a series of facts because teachers rarely require them to "spit out" facts from a list. They realize that learning requires them to fully understand what they are studying so they can use this information when the teacher requires them to adapt or to apply what they've learned into a new setting.

Coping with Learning Problems

Students with learning problems may also be poor readers who do not fully understand how to read to remember, to see how ideas are related, to see the main idea and supporting facts. They read to get the job done and rarely reflect on what has just been read. They often resort to less effective study strategies such as rote learning and may not be reading at their current grade level, thereby making the task of reading that much more difficult. On some level they know that their efforts won't make enough of a difference and will often use avoidance strategies, hoping that the problem will just go away.

Effective study skills can be learned. All students would benefit from participating in a program that addresses the required skills and strategies through teacher modeling and sufficient guided practice. Students who are reading below their current grade level will need ongoing guided supports from a qualified adult as they attempt various projects, reports, tests and exams over the school year.

Parents should inquire about study skills programs that may be available either in or outside of their child's school. Remember though, students with learning difficulties will benefit from extra supports to help them apply what they have learned from the program to school assignments and tests over the course of the school year.

What to Do When You Think Your Child Has a Problem at School

Some parents just know when something is not right with their child at school. The report card or teacher feedback may look and sound reassuring; "he's a late bloomer, give him time, she tries so hard...". All parents want to hear that their child is doing well at school. Sometimes a comment that hints at the existence of a problem can cause a tendency to put one's head in the sand and "hope the problem will just go away". However, a parent knows their child better than anyone and if you feel there may be a problem, don't wait. Check it out as soon as you feel concerned. There is peace of mind in knowing either way, and if a learning problem does exist, you can begin sooner than later with a process of investigation that will facilitate your child's learning.

The Process

Once you suspect there may be an academic problem at school, or if the report card marks and comments identify areas of difficulty for your child, you need to begin a process of intervention with the school and other professionals involved. This may require diplomacy, understanding and perseverance to accomplish what you feel your child needs to succeed at school.

Getting started with this process can be helped by reflecting on the following ideas:

  • Identify your concerns. Remember that areas of learning overlap, so that a problem in writing may be related to a reading difficulty.
  • Review specific work samples and other examples that show what you believe to be the problem.
  • With older children, look for a pattern around tests, term marks etc.

Identifying the Problem

Once you feel organized with your concerns, plan a meeting with school personnel who are involved with your child to discuss your concerns, school work samples and test results related to the problem. Specific information is needed in order to plan an appropriate intervention. For example, your child may be having difficulty with solving problems in math but the more fundamental issue may involve a reading problem where the child cannot easily or adequately understand what is being asked of him in the problem. How to solve the problem mathematically may or may not be a secondary problem but helping the child learn how to add or subtract will not address the basic issue of reading or understanding what to do with this task.

The best way to identify a problem with learning is through an assessment that is completed by a professional in the field. Each professional offers different kinds of testing and their involvement may depend on what kind of diagnostic information is required to help the child. A psychologist, for example, can provide valuable information on details about how a child learns.

A speech and language clinician can identify problems and recommendations related to language and how it affects learning while a reading clinician can identify a child's instructional reading level, strengths and weaknesses in necessary skills and strategies that facilitate and promote learning as well as an instructional plan of action that relates to curricular standards in one's province.

Keeping Parents Involved

Parents need to know what testing the classroom and resource teachers are doing, their findings and interventions that have been tried. At this point further, more in-depth testing may be required by other professionals such as a psychologist or reading clinician. Parents need to ask for timelines for the testing as well as options they may have if the assessment can't be completed soon. Remember, no one was ever cured with an assessment. The testing is needed to identify details around the problem so that an instructional plan can be put into place. Once completed, parents should be involved in a meeting so that the results can be interpreted and a plan of action discussed. Be sure and ask for a copy of all assessment reports as well as any minutes for the meetings as these may not be automatically provided.

Designing an Instructional Plan of Action

Test results and all diagnostic information need to be coordinated into an instructional plan of action for the child. For example, the psychologist may find that the child has a weak short term memory, needs to receive concise and clear instruction and be seated near the teacher if there is an attention concern. The speech and language clinician may find that language is an area of strength.

The reading clinician may recommend that the child needs to practice his sight words more often than his peers in order to commit the words to his long term memory. Reading comprehension may be enhanced through specific discussion of the contents, as language is a strength for learning. The instruction may need to be concise and clear in order to keep the child actively engaged during the teaching. In this way, valuable information from all professionals is coordinated into a well-planned and detailed program that not only identifies specific areas of concern but also how best to maximize learning.

Parents may wish to consider the following questions as they participate in the planning:

  • What are my child's strengths and weaknesses?
  • What level is my child working at compared to grade expectations?
  • What are the instructional goals of the program and how will they address my child's areas of weakness?
  • What professionals will be teaching my child other that the class teacher?
  • Will other people be involved with my child such as aides, volunteers, older students? What will their roles be and who will supervise and train them?
  • How can we as parents support the program at home?
  • What are realistic goals for the remainder of the year?
  • How often should we meet to discuss growth and adapt the program?

Evaluating Growth

Once a program has been implemented for a child, it is extremely important that progress be evaluated on a regular basis. Programs often need to be adjusted along the way, sometimes because of progress made by the child and sometimes because an unforeseen problem has complicated the situation. For whatever reason, a child's program needs to be visited regularly so that problems can be solved and changes made as the child progresses.

Parents may wish to consider the following questions as they participate in meetings related to their child's progress at school:

  • When and how often will my child's academic progress be reassessed to measure growth?
  • How often should we all meet to discuss growth, set new goals and deal with any problems that may arise?
  • Will someone be taking minutes of the meeting to record important information, assigned roles and responsibilities and decisions made?
  • What should happen over the summer so that my child won't regress?
  • What process needs to be in place so that next year's teacher will be able to participate in my child's adapted program?

Learning difficulties are often complex and require long term commitment. Parents need to remember that there is no quick fix to a learning problem and these children need an adapted program, specific goals, instruction by professionals and a plan of action that continues into the next school year. Parents play a vital role as their child's advocate and supporter as well as "the case manager" who actively participates as a member of the school team and helps with the continuity over the year, during the summer months and into the next school year.

What a Struggling Learner Needs From a Parent

Children who struggle academically at school do so for different reasons. Some children haven't learned what they need to know and once taught, they can absorb the instruction and make the necessary gains, given an appropriate amount of time to make the transaction. Other children struggle because they have learning difficulties and need help in figuring out how they can make academic progress. For these children, the "wiring" in their brains may not be equally developed. Some may have more difficulty learning visually while others may struggle because of weaker language skills. Whatever the case, these weaker wires in their brains make learning and academic progress more difficult, especially if they are expected to learn primarily one way. Still other children find learning hard in general and they require realistic goals and ongoing adult support as they learn at their own pace.

The Psyche of Struggling Learners

Children are often the first to sense or to know that they are having problems at school and usually feel terrible about it. As a result they may demonstrate their feelings in a number of ways. Some are prepared to be noticed as the class clown rather than a poor student while others are grateful to slip between the cracks whenever they can. All children who struggle academically suffer from poor self-esteem issues and this only serves to compound the learning problems.

Struggling learners need help from caring adults and need to reconstruct their mental tapes to play positive and empowering messages. Younger children need to listen to a tape inside their heads that plays "I'm going to be okay. There are people in my life who know how to help me". Older children need to feel "There are people who can help me solve my problems so I can succeed. I can do this". These mental tapes, of course, are subtle but very powerful in providing children with the kind of feedback that enables them to take the necessary risks with their learning, to not be afraid of making mistakes and to know what it feels like to succeed.

So what does a child who is struggling at school need from a parent in order to succeed?


Children with learning difficulties need time. They need time to process what they are being taught and time for practice which provides mastery learning. Children who are able to understand what they have read, for example, are able to talk about the information and demonstrate their ability on tests and exams. Children with reading difficulties may have trouble understanding at an appropriate level and often rely on rote learning, a strategy that often compounds the problem.

There is no quick fix to a learning difficulty and parents need to realize that their child may require long term, ongoing academic supports in order to meet the greater demands of each new grade. This means making a commitment that includes determining where your child's learning needs fit into family activities and then working to keep it a balanced priority. Parental commitment may also mean becoming a case manager for your child as you co-ordinate and encourage planning with professionals including teachers, psychologists, speech and language specialists, reading clinicians and other professionals.

Compassion and Understanding

Learning problems are never simple and straight forward. They often are complex beneath the surface because learning is complex. Learning problems can be further complicated due to family, emotional or social issues which the child brings with him or her to school and to the learning environment. When a child realizes on some level that he or she is not succeeding the way they should, they often display their fears through emotional, behavioral or social characteristics.

Parents and teachers need to remember that underneath a non-compliant adolescent is a great deal of fear and frustration and that the best way to help the child involves compassion and understanding. Struggling learners don't need adults who argue on and on with them, thereby keeping the issue alive but unresolved. They don't need to be rescued from their problems. The ripple effect of such reactions can be substantial and does little to help solve the problem.

Treat the Whole Child

It is obvious that, when a child needs help in learning how to solve math problems, he needs help and guided practice in that particular area. Yet it is essential that help comes in the form that treats the whole child and not just the symptom. Children who are struggling at school may also be struggling with a lack of regular and frequent successes in other parts of their lives and so may feel sad or angry about many things. This is so with all ages but especially noticeable with adolescents.

A Clear Plan of Action

Children with learning difficulties need a realistic and effective plan of action. An assessment is necessary in order to identify strengths and weaknesses and one's current instructional levels in reading or math, for example. A teacher needs to have a clear understanding of what skills and strategies need to be taught and the sequence as needed. An effective plan will require some changes within the learning environment. Academic progress and the ability to narrow the gap between a child's current achievement levels and where they need to be for grade expectations often require much more than a few tweaks to classroom learning.

Professionals need to be clear about instructional goals, appropriate teaching strategies to use, the frequency of extra supports and who delivers the remedial help. Much of the instructional supports require cognitive coaching, where the child learns through modeling and guided supports how to think their way through a challenging learning situation. Once a child understands the thinking process required and has been given sufficient guided practice, a child can learn how to apply these strategies independently both at home and at school. This is the ultimate goal of all remedial intervention and supports.

A New Mind Set

We all recognize that we have an inner voice or mental tape that speaks to us at all times in our lives. Children who are successful at school, for example, have tapes that replay positive messages such as "Reading is easy...I am good at math...I love to write stories...” Such messages encourage children to build on their achievements and also help to create healthy self-images as successful learners. Children with learning difficulties have tapes that replay negative and defeatist messages such as "I'm dumb...I can't do this....I'm bored with math...I hate my teacher...". An even deeper message that may be at a subconscious level includes "There must be something wrong with me". These children never consider that they may be required to complete work that is well into their frustration level for learning. It is way too hard for them to do.

Children who have learning difficulties need new mental tapes and this requires them to be immersed in successful learning experiences, day in and day out. These tapes then play messages to the child that reflects his pleasure in succeeding; "Reading is fun... I can do this...Look how many books I can read...". On a deeper level children begin to experience what it really feels like to be successful at school it is a new feeling that needs to be nurtured with ongoing academic successes so that they believe it happens because of themselves and not just luck.

Appropriate instructional supports can't make a learning problem disappear but a child can feel a sense of hope as he works towards becoming the best learner he can possibly be as he tastes success over and over again. Parents play a vital role in providing their children with all the necessary supports and encouragement so they can succeed and achieve to the best of their ability at school.

In conclusion, children with learning difficulties struggle for different reasons, and it is essential that they receive the necessary supports as soon as possible. They also need realistic goals to work towards with teacher modeling, guided practice and working at a level that facilitates successful experiences.

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