Ask Tara–My son can read the words but he can’t understand them


comprehension problem
What do you do when the words have no meaning?

Recently a reader wrote in to ask about her 9-year-old son. She shared:

“He is very bright and his fluency and decoding skills are fantastic and he can basically read anything and at a very fast pace (the speed in which he reads could also be part of the problem). He struggles with comprehension and inferring the text. Any advice on how to work with this?”

My reply…

So your son can read the words with ease, but he doesn’t get any meaning from those words, correct? This is definitely a less common reading challenge–many kids struggle at the word level. But it is not uncommon.

In fact, it is possible that his skill in “reading” the actual words has created the comprehension problem. By that, I mean that kids who show strong skills early on get praise for being “good readers.” And sometimes those kids come to think that reading is only about saying the words. Therefore, they take a very passive approach to reading. Of course, this is a problem because reading requires very active strategies.

So you can check to see if he is lacking “active” reading strategies. One essential strategy is “visualization.” You can easily model this strategy and see how he responds. I have a link to a VISUALIZATION activity for parents on my resources page. You can access that page here:

It’s possible that when you model visualization for him, the light bulb will go off and he will be on his way! I have definitely seen that happen, and I have my fingers crossed for you.

However, if you see no positive response, then it would make sense to do a little detective work with a professional to see what is interfering with his comprehension.

The one thing I would urge you to consider is his response relative to his age. As a nine-year-old, the text demands will be increasing, so working to secure his comprehension is time sensitive.


Has anyone experienced this with a child? What did you do? How did it turn out? Come tell us in our Facebook group  Nurturing Literacy Talking with Tara!

CONCERNED ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S READING?   Take the quiz. Find out if your child is on the path to reading success.

read aloud screen time tween teen reading

Read to my Tween??

My first guest post! 🙂

Should we still read aloud to our tweens and teens? Yes! And for struggling readers, there are great text-to-speech apps to help with independent reading as well. Find out about three of these tech hacks, including the “Cadillac” of text-to-speech apps in my guest post at Teachers With Apps.

CONCERNED ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S READING?   Take the quiz. Find out if your child is on the path to reading success.

Got questions? Get them answered! I go live in our Facebook group to answer your questions. Check out Nurturing Literacy Talking with Tara!


Dyslexia dyslexic reader brain

How Old is TOO OLD for Reading Aloud?

When I see a child trying to read a book that is beyond reach, Dylan comes to mind. I first met Dylan when he was a second grader. He was a very smart boy and a strong reader–as long as he didn’t have to read the actual words himself.

Of course, reading the actual words is the most obvious part of reading. It’s the way children are judged as reader–by teachers and by themselves! And the sad truth is that the smarter a child is, the harsher that self-judgement can be. This was the case for Dylan, who was acutely aware of his fellow second graders’ reading progress relative to his own. He used one heart-wrenching word to describe himself: “stupid.”

reading aloud Struggling readers dyslexia dyslexics
For struggling readers–including dyslexic readers–reading aloud is crucial.

Dylan had a comprehensive literacy evaluation, and it revealed that he was a classic dyslexic. Over time, he did respond to Orton-Gillingham-based instruction to help him “crack the code.” This was a crucial element in bringing about real growth as a reader for Dylan. But perhaps what had the greatest impact initially was looking at pictures of brains. Not ordinary pictures, of course, but fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) pictures of brains during the act of reading. The pictures showed two types of brains: typical readers and dyslexic readers. The differences were obvious–and illuminating. Again because he was so smart, Dylan was able to appreciate that his brain was different in how it processed print. Not stupid, just different. And as he began to make progress in remediation, he started to believe this more and more. Whew.

Of course, he still couldn’t “read” books that were at  his level of thinking because his “print skills” had not yet caught up with his “comprehension skills.”

What was the single most important thing Dylan’s parents could do at home? Give him access to books at his level of comprehension. How to do that? By stepping back to an earlier time. By getting back to reading aloud to him.

Dylan’s mom was worried about this. “But if I keep reading to him, how will he develop as a reader? Doesn’t he need practice sounding out the words?”

I understood her  question. But I was looking at it from a different perspective. To me, it was more a question of “If you DON’T keep reading to Dylan, how will he develop as a reader?”

Because really, what is the end goal of all reading instruction and experiences? Is it having skill in sounding out words? No, that is just a means to an end.The end goal is to build a reader, a kid who will pick up a book because it brings enjoyment to him. And if we give a child positive experiences and the knowledge base needed for comprehension, we are working toward that goal. That is how we really build a life-long love of reading.

In other words, on a child’s journey as a life-long reader, “print skills” are the entrance ramp, but “comprehension” is the freeway itself. Reading aloud to your child puts him on the freeway, even if his “print skills” have left him stalled on the entrance lamp. (And in Dylan’s case, his O-G tutor would provide specific materials for Dylan to provide practice his “print skill” development. This would allow him to edge forward on the entrance ramp.)

So the next question (hopefully!) is…

How do you choose books to read aloud?

  1. Let your child’s interests lead the way. If your child shows an interest, try it!
  2. Try some of the “tried and true” read alouds. One EXCELLENT source is The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It’s now in it’s seventh edition(!), and I have yet to meet a child who was not enraptured by at least one of these stories!

The Read-Aloud Handbook: Seventh Edition


CONCERNED ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S READING?   Take the quiz. Find out if your child is on the path to reading success.

Got questions? Get them answered! I go live in our Facebook group to answer your questions. Check out Nurturing Literacy Talking with Tara!


Sounding Out a Word…and Shutting Down

When I see a child struggling while sounding out a word, I think of Carly. She was a lovely little third grader who wanted so badly to read. But she was short on resilience after struggling to keep up with her classmates for the last couple of years.

She hates readingSounding out a word

Carly had recently started working with a skilled tutor to address her decoding needs–and they could already see some progress. And yet at home, mom reported that Carly would “shut down” as she tried to read the books that she herself had borrowed from the library.

“What can I do?” Carly’s mom asked. “All she says is that she hates reading! I’ve tried to sit with her while she reads, but it doesn’t help. And she needs the practice!”

Mom was right-readers need practice. But Carly was getting something else–frustration. And when someone is frustrated, there is no skill building. More importantly, Carly also needs more than “skill building in sounding out words” in order to continue to grow as a reader. She needs exposure to the vocabulary and the content that will allow her to understand what she reads. And she needs access to what interests her (not simply what she can “sound out”). After all, that’s why Carly picked these books!

Help Her Have Success with More Than Sounding Out a Word

So I told mom the top thing she could do for Carly as she tried to read these books: help her have success with them. Specifically, let her know that if she needs help while reading, she can ask for two things:

  1. a word (If Carly says, “Word, please,” mom would supply the word.)
  2. a “reading break” (If Carly says, “Reading break,” mom would take over and read aloud)

Mom wasn’t entirely convinced that taking over was in Carly’s best interest. So we talked about what occurs in that moment when a child asks for a “reading break.” There are three main things:

  1. the frustration subsides, and reading can again be a good experience (especially if you snuggle while you read!);
  2. your child gets to hear all the vocabulary and content, which helps to build a rich storehouse that will make continued comprehension growth possible; and
  3. your child gets the experience of being in charge of his own learning and being an active problem solver–both of which may be even more important than reading itself!

The secret lies in first letting the child know what help is available, and then waiting for the child to ask.

Carly’s mom said she would give it a try. A few weeks later, she told me that reading Carly’s books was going much better. She had been following Carly’s lead and giving words when she said, “Word, please” and also taking over whenever Carly asked.

Then she told me with a smile. “One day, Carly was struggling with a word. I thought she would ask me, so I said, “Do you want me to give you that word?”

To her mom’s delight, Carly said, “No, Mom. I want to try.” And she figured it out and continued reading. Mom told me how relieved she was. She had been worried that Carly would just stop trying and ask her mom to read all the time.

So why didn’t Carly give up? When kids know they have help available, the burden feels a lot lighter. The frustration doesn’t build up to the point that it causes “shut down.” That can help kids stick with it. And that’s critical on the long road to becoming a proficient reader.Sounding out a word

Click here to learn more about using “Word, Please.” It’s easy and effective!

TELL US! Has your child ever “shut down” while reading aloud? Join us in our Facebook group  Nurturing Literacy Talking with Tara!

CONCERNED ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S READING?   Take the quiz. Find out if your child is on the path to reading success.

Storing Words in Our Brains

When I see a child who can read a word like “elephant” but mixes up “a” and “the,” I know her parents are wondering why, just like Emma’s mom was.

“Please tell me how Emma can read the big words but struggle with the little words. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” she asked.

Storing words in our brains elephantYes, big words words should be harder than little words. But it really depends on how meaningful the word is to the child. Meaning helps with storing it–and retrieving it later. For example, Emma told me how she remembers the word “elephant”:

“The “p” hangs down like a trunk!”

I can tell you that I was impressed! She had come up with a great mnemonic to make this word meaningful. When I asked her how she could remember the word “the,” though, all I got was a blank stare.

Storing Words in Our Brains

That’s because “the” (and all the other “function” words) are not memorable. Essential, yes, but not memorable. Fortunately, the majority of readers will not have lasting problems with these non-meaningful words. If they see the word enough times, they will be able to store it in their “sight memory.”

That’s because “Neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks — using what could be called a visual dictionary,” said Maximilian Riesenhuber, PhD.

But what about a reader who has an impairment in this small area of the brain? Is that what caused Emma’s persistent difficulty with those less memorable words? No one can say for sure unless Emma were to undergo fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) testing. And that is reserved for research, as in Dr. Riesenhuber’s study on how our brains see words as pictures.

What If We’re Not Storing Words

Yet we can say for sure that extra effort will be required for readers like Emma to store whole words away. That is precisely what makes “multisensory instruction” essential for all struggling readers. And while the “why” of multisensory instruction is, if you pardon the pun, a “no-brainer,” the “how” is indeed the tricky part. What is the right combination of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile inputs for each individual child? The clear answer is that it depends.

In graduate school, one of my professors described her experience with one particular student, a fourth grader who could not read. After a couple of tutoring sessions, it became clear to the professor that the student was most engaged while writing. So the professor increased the “kinesthetic” element of the multisensory equation. She incorporated elements of a very old methodology called the “Fernald” method, essentially asking the child to write everything as they worked. It slowed the session down to a snail’s pace, and the professor told us how she herself felt like she would collapse from boredom. But one day, the child said, “It’s helping me.” Of course, that changed everything for my professor.

And what was my professor’s point in telling us this story? To instill in us the necessity of:

  • building a toolbox replete with methods and strategies
  • attentively tracking a student’s response to instruction, and
  • deftly revising to find the combination that makes things “click” for that particular student.

“Always remember,” she said. “Reading programs do not teach kids to read. Teachers do.”

Get the Best Help You Can

So if your child is struggling with reading, what should you do? Get the best help you can for your child. Interview reading professionals to find one who:

  • has wide and deep knowledge of reading remediation and multisensory instruction
  • can effectively monitor your child’s progress
  • is willing and able to “tweak” instruction to meet your child’s individual needs, both instructionally and motivationally.

And the next time your child confuses “of” and “for” but reads “alligator” (or squirrel?) without skipping a beat, perhaps you can find some comfort in not having to wonder why.

Storing words in our brains alligator squirrel


CONCERNED ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S READING?   Take the quiz. Find out if your child is on the path to reading success.

Got questions? Get them answered! I go live in our Facebook group to answer your questions. Check out Nurturing Literacy Talking with Tara!



Emotional Booster Shots for Struggling Readers?

When I see a child struggling with reading, I can generally pinpoint the best “in-the-moment” support to offer. (I’ve been working with kids for more than twenty years, so I should be able to do so!) But sometimes what a child needs most, quite simply, is some emotional support: a chance to release the frustration that comes with reading challenges.

And I know how easy it is to miss that need. My most poignant lesson came when my son was three.

He called from the playroom with alarm in his voice, “Mama, I cut my knee!” I ran to the playroom, feeling the same sense of alarm I had heard in his voice. How bad was it?? And right behind that: How did it happen?? (I cleaned that room myself to make sure it was SAFE!)

As I entered the room, I could see a very small line of blood dripping from his knee.  Whew, no trip to the ER…just a bandaid! But my mind was still racing, trying to figure out what could have injured my little boy. He looked right at me and, with a quiver in his voice, repeated that he had cut his knee.

I kneeled in front of him and asked “Where?” I was hoping to figure out how I could make the playroom safe again for him.

“Right here,” he said as he pointed his little finger at his knee.

He had missed my question, of course. I knew where on his BODY he had cut himself. I could see the blood!

After another moment, though, I realized that it was actually I who had missed him. He wasn’t calling out to me because he needed me to make the playroom safe again. He was calling out to me because he needed me. Period.

But in my shock and desire to protect him, I had immediately launched into problem-solving mode. Luckily, his response helped me catch myself, and I was able to give him the TLC he needed so he could get back to feeling good.

And that’s what happens so often to our struggling readers. Learning to read is a struggle, and they are frustrated. As parents, we want to “fix the problem” so our children are not hurting. So we ask them to practice reading out loud. We encourage them to sound out the word, despite their increasing frustration. We tell them they are doing a great job-even though they feel anything but successful.

But maybe what will help most in that moment of frustration is if we meet that child right where he or she is:

  • Acknowledge that reading is hard work.
  • Remind them that it’s ok to take a break.
  • Offer hugs liberally.

In other words, put the “band aids” away for a moment, and offer your struggling reader an emotional booster shot. It can go a long way on the journey to becoming a proficient reader.


Writing about this topic of “being in the moment” reminds me of one of my favorite books. It’s a beautifully illustrated story (based on a Tolstoy story!) called “The Three Questions.” A boy sets out to get answers to three seemingly simple questions. He does get his answers–through an exciting twist in the story–and the answers are profound.


The Three Questions [Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy]

I love this book because it is accessible on several levels–a perfect read aloud for the whole family!



CONCERNED ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S READING?   Take the quiz. Find out if your child is on the path to reading success.

Got questions? Get them answered! I go live in our Facebook group to answer your questions. Check out Nurturing Literacy Talking with Tara!