Literacy -- the ability to read and write -- is one of the most important skills a child will learn in school. Unless a student understands what they read, it’s impossible to do well in school. Sadly, many public school students are years behind in reading. Too many young people make it to middle and high school without the basic skills they need to read school texts. These skills are the key to success in all academic areas, including math, science, social studies, and the arts. Researchers have found huge gaps in literacy skills based on students’ race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and disability status. This is not because these students can't learn to read and write, but because they've had little experience in literacy-rich environments, had instruction in their classrooms that wasn't effective, and/or their teachers had little to no training in teaching reading and writing.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Research shows that schools can successfully teach students with a wide range of needs to read when schools and teachers have the resources, training, and support they need.
On this webpage, you’ll find:
- A short introduction to key ideas in teaching literacy;
- Information and resources for struggling readers and students with disabilities;
- Information on the New York City Department of Education (DOE)’s current literacy goals; and
- Ways to become involved in your child’s learning to read.
Some of this information is for all students, but much is specific to those in New York City. If you live somewhere else, you should look at local policies and services. If you don't know where to start, you can reach out to the parent center for your area.
Literacy 101: The basics of teaching reading
In 2000, the National Reading Panel -- a team of educators, scientists, and other experts, brought together by Congress to find the best ways to teach children to read -- issued an important report [PDF] about the “five pillars” of literacy instruction. These five pillars are phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Direct teaching in each of these areas, seen below, is especially important for struggling readers.
Students need to be taught literacy skills throughout their years in school-- from preschool through the end of high school.
- In pre-K, children develop pre-reading, or "emergent literacy," skills that they will need to become successful readers in the future.
- In kindergarten and first grade, children break the "code" that links print and spoken language, learning how written letters go with the sounds those letters represent.
- From second to fifth grade, children boost decoding skills and their ability to recognize words quickly and easily. They also learn strategies for making sense of what they read.
- From sixth to twelfth grade, students continue to develop vocabulary and reading comprehension skills as they read more and more difficult texts.
The process of learning to read and write starts at birth. Even as babies, children are developing the early language skills that will help them become successful readers in the future.
When children are read to and have early experiences with books, they learn that print has meaning and books tell stories. They learn how to hold a book and when to turn the page, and that words are read from left to right and from the top of the page to the bottom.
They also learn the ABC's. Children who recognize the letters of the alphabet are better prepared to become readers.
For more information on early literacy and tips for reading with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, check out Get Ready to Read!, Zero to Three, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Phonological and phonemic awareness
Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and use the sounds of spoken language, like syllables and rhymes. Before children can learn how letters and sounds go together, they must first understand that the words can be broken down into smaller "chunks." Children develop phonological awareness through activities like:
- Identifying words that start or end with the same sound. (For example: "What sound is the same in book, bike, and ball? What other words start with that sound?")
- Recognizing rhyming words and making new rhymes. (For example: "Which word doesn't belong -- cat, rat, dog? What’s a word that does rhyme with dog?")
- Breaking words into smaller chunks (For example: "What smaller words do you hear in pancake?") and making new words by adding smaller words together (For example: "What new word can we make from cow and boy?").
- Clapping out the syllables in words.
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a spoken word that makes a difference to the word’s meaning. English consists of 44 phonemes, which combine to form syllables and words.
The word bat is composed of three phonemes (three sounds) which we represent as /b/, /a/, and /t/. Changing the first phoneme from /b/ to /h/ changes the word from bat to hat.
Phonemic awareness is a type of phonological awareness. It is the ability to hear, set apart, and shape the individual sounds (phonemes) that make up spoken words. Activities that build this skill include:
- Blending sounds to make new words, and breaking words apart into their individual sounds. (For example: "I’m going to stretch the sounds in a word, and then you tell me what the word is when you say it the fast way: /mmm/ /aaa/ /t/.")
- Adding or deleting phonemes to create new words. (For example: "What happens if you add the /mmm/ sound to the word ice? What new word do you get if you take the /s/ sound off of small?")
Check out Reading Rockets for more information on phonological and phonemic awareness.
Phonics teaches children how to connect the sounds of spoken language with the letters of written language. Some children will figure out the "rules" of language on their own, most need to be taught rules such as:
Some words do not follow the rules of phonics and must be memorized. These are often called "sight words" -- words that are easily recognized because the student has seen them many times before.
Phonics programs teach students about the useful parts of words, like prefixes, suffixes, base words and roots. Beginning readers learn how breaking words into smaller chunks can help them figure out what words mean and how to pronounce them.
Fluency is the ability to read easily, correctly, and with proper expression and speed. Fluent readers recognize words right away, without having to sound them out each time. When they read out loud, it sounds natural and smooth (they don't get "stuck"). Fluency comes with practice.
Vocabulary refers to the words we know and use. It is easier for beginning readers to sound out words that they have already heard and said many times before. A large vocabulary is important for comprehension -- in order to understand what we read, we first have to know what the words mean and how they can be used.
The word bug is the name of an animal ("There's a bug crawling on my arm!") and can also be used as a verb ("My mom keeps bugging me to clean my room"), so we have to look at the whole sentence in order to know what bug means.
Comprehension is the ability to understand what one is reading -- to make connections between what is read and already known and to be able to draw conclusions. It requires asking questions like "what's the most important point?" and "why did things happen that way?".
It is important to note that there are many ways to process text. Whether a student turns the pages of a book, listens to an audiobook, or scrolls through an e-book on a tablet, they still enjoy the exact same story. Students who struggle with decoding and fluency may benefit from assistive technology (AT), which can help them access and understand material that is at their intellectual level.
You may have seen that your child's school organizes classroom books by "levels." These levels help children pick out books on their own and help teachers track student progress. Levels are based on things like the total number of words used (in each sentence, on each page, and in the whole book); how many different words are used, and how many get repeated; and how much pictures are used to help the reader understand what is written.
Schools choose their own ways of leveling books, but one of the most used scales is called Fountas & Pinnell. The Fountas & Pinnell chart [PDF] gives guidelines for reading goals by grade level. If your child is reading below the "meets expectations" level for their grade, they may need extra help.
Your child’s school may use a different reading level system than the one seen here. Ask your child’s teacher how their reading level is measured, and how their progress compares to others in their class, the school, and across the country.
To learn more...
- Advocates for Children's 2016 report A is for All: Meeting the Literacy Needs of Students with and without Disabilities in the New York City Public Schools gives information on how children learn to read and what research tells us about teaching reading.
- Colorín Colorado offers literacy resources for families of English Language Learners.
- Get Ready to Read! provides resources and information on helping toddlers and preschoolers build early literacy skills and prepare for success in kindergarten.
- The National Institute for Literacy's A Child Becomes A Reader: Proven Ideas from Research for Parents talks about developmental milestones and gives lots of specific examples for how you can help your child become a successful reader. There's one handbook covering birth through preschool [PDF] and one covering grades K-3 [PDF].
- PBS Parents also gives information on developmental milestones and tips for parents on supporting language and literacy learning at every age.
- Reading is Fundamental offers tips and tools, including "reading check-ups" parents can use to see if their child is on track developmentally.
- Reading Rockets has a ton of resources for parents in helping their children. Be sure to check out their "Target the Problem" guide for practical suggestions for helping your student overcome reading difficulties.
Help for struggling readers
Learning to read does not come naturally for many children. In fact, most literacy experts think that about one in every five children will have serious trouble with learning to read and write. Students struggle for different reasons. Some common ones include:
- Schools that don't cover one or more of the five pillars of reading, or that don't do so using evidence-based programs.
- Trouble with memory, focus, or attention.
- Disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, visual disabilities, speech and language impairments, or autism.
- For English Language Learners (ELLs), the added challenge of learning a new language.
If you believe your child is struggling with reading and writing, you should talk to someone at their school right away. Signs of trouble in kindergarten and first grade should be taken seriously. Don't expect children to "grow out" of reading struggles without help. With early intervention, students can usually be saved from falling further behind their peers in reading.
There are many intervention programs for reading. Because every child is different, there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to reading difficulties. Individual schools may offer a few intervention programs for students who fall behind in reading, but no school can offer every possible program. The most important thing is that interventions are provided by a well-trained, informed teacher or specialist, who has the support and resources they need to be able to do their job well.
Response to Intervention
New York City schools use an approach called Response to Intervention (RtI) to help students develop literacy skills. RtI is NOT a specific teaching method or curriculum, and it is NOT the same as special education. RtI is a process for measuring every student's progress and making sure that every student who needs extra help gets it. Under RtI, schools screen all students to see their skills and progress, and students get support at three levels, or "tiers," based on those assessments.
All students are taught core reading skills in the general classroom. Teachers provide some extra help and individualized support. Students may work in smaller groups within the classroom based on their ability levels and learning styles.
Students who are having trouble mastering skills get more targeted teaching in small groups. These interventions are in addition to regular classroom learning, they are not a replacement for it.
Students who don't show progress in Tier 2 get even more intensive and targeted support. This might mean intervention sessions happen more often or are one-on-one with a trained teacher in a separate location.
If you think your child may need special education services, ask for an evaluation -- you don’t have to wait until they have gone through all the levels of RtI first.
Some common programs provided as part of RtI include: Wilson Fundations, Reading Recovery, Reading Rescue, Great Leaps, and Really Great Reading's Phonics Blast.
To learn more about RtI and how it works, check out Understood.org, Reading Rockets, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities' Parent's Guide to RtI [PDF].
Students with disabilities
While not every child who struggles to read has a disability, many students with disabilities struggle with reading and writing. If your student is struggling to learn to read and write, or is falling behind grade level, they may benefit from special education services. If your child is not getting special education services, speak to someone at your school about starting the evaluation process to figure out whether your child has a disability that’s getting in the way of their progress. If your child is already getting special education services, you and the school should work to make sure he or she is getting the best services to address their learning needs.
See below for more information on the types of disabilities that can impact reading, the rights of students with disabilities, and types of services and supports.
Children who don't get the support they need to develop basic literacy skills when they are young will continue to struggle in higher grades. Students struggling to read, even if they are already in middle or high school, still need to be taught foundational skills so they will be able to read longer, more difficult material. However, it's important to give teen readers age-appropriate books, so they won't become frustrated and lose interest in school. For example, if you ask a teenager to read about "Spot the Dog," it's likely that they’ll walk away from the lesson.
Some tips for helping struggling teen readers include:
- Using AT to allow students to access grade-level materials that they are unable to decode.
- Providing intensive and specific tutoring outside the classroom to build foundational skills.
- Offering reading materials that match student interests, even if they're not "academic" -- for example, magazines or comics -- and encouraging older youth to focus on their own improvement.
Some common intervention programs for adolescents include Wilson Just Words, the Strategic Adolescent Reading Intervention (STARI), and Really Great Reading's Phonics Blitz and Phonics Boost.
For more information on adolescent literacy and resources for parents and educators working with struggling older students, see AdLit.org and the Alliance for Excellent Education.
Disabilities that can impact reading
Dyslexia is a specific language-based learning disability that makes it more difficult but not impossible to learn how to read. Dyslexia is NOT a problem with vision, and it has nothing to do with intelligence. It means the brain is "wired" differently than a non-dyslexic brain.
Children with dyslexia tend to have trouble hearing the individual sounds in words (phonemic awareness), connecting letters with sounds, and decoding words correctly. They are able to learn how to read, but they will likely need extra help to master these skills. Many people with dyslexia also have dysgraphia, which is a specific learning disability that affects written expression.
For more information, including the signs and symptoms of dyslexia, how dyslexia is diagnosed, and the teaching methods that tend to help students with dyslexia, check out the International Dyslexia Association (IDA)'s Dyslexia Handbook: What Every Family Should Know, Understood.org's dyslexia and dysgraphia resources, the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity's parent resources, and Dyslexia Help at the University of Michigan.
Speech and language disorders
Speech impairments affect a child's ability to make certain sounds and form spoken words. Language disorders make it hard for students to understand what people are saying to them, and/or to find the right words and form sentences to express their own thoughts and feelings in conversation. Students with language disorders may struggle with vocabulary, reading comprehension, or writing. It's important for children to get help for speech and language difficulties as early as possible. To learn more about speech and language disorders and how speech-language therapy can help, check out Understood.org.
Vision can affect a child's ability to read. A child with poor eyesight, for example, needs glasses to be able to read. Vision therapy may help students with visual disabilities improve their reading and writing. To learn more, check out Understood.org and Wishes of Literacy.
Autism spectrum disorder
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability that affects social skills, language and communication, and behavior. Signs of ASD tend to appear in early childhood, and can include:
For more information on developmental milestones, diagnosis, and services and therapies for children with autism, check out the Center for Disease Control & Prevention's autism spectrum disorder webpage and the Child Mind Institute's Guide to ASD.
The rights of students with disabilities
Students with disabilities have specific rights and protections under federal, state, and local law and policy. These rights apply if your child is already getting special education services, or if you want your child to be evaluated to see if special education could be helpful. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law which lays out those rights and protections, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also protects students with disabilities from discrimination.
If your child is struggling to learn to read and you think they may have a disability, you have the right to have your child evaluated. Evaluations are the first step in learning what help your child needs. Evaluations can help figure out:
- If your child has a disability;
- Whether special education services are likely to help them;
- What supports and services are likely to help your child the most; and
- Ways school staff can help your child build needed skills.
For more information on evaluations, see Understood.org and Advocates for Children's fact sheet on evaluations [PDF].
The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the document that has your child’s educational needs and the services your child has the right to get, and the IEP team is the group of people that writes and reviews the IEP. As a parent, you are one of the most important members of the IEP team. You have the right to attend all IEP meetings and to bring others with you, and you must have the opportunity to fully participate in decision-making with the other team members. For more information on IEPs, see Understood.org and INCLUDEnyc's tip sheet on the IEP team.
If you're considering special education support for your child who is struggling to learn to read you may want to think about:
Accommodations and modifications
Accommodations are changes to how class material is presented so that students with disabilities are, as much as possible, taught the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers. Some examples of accommodations that can help students who are struggling to read and write include:
>> How information is presented to the student:
>> Changes to the student’s classroom setting:
>> How the student shares information:
The Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and IDEA all require schools to provide students with reasonable accommodations.
Modifications are changes to what is taught to and expected of a student with a disability. Some students with disabilities may struggle to learn the same material as their peers and at the same speed. These students may benefit from modifications to the material they are expected to learn. However, modifications should only be used when absolutely necessary.
Modifications for students struggling with reading and writing might include:
- Shortening or changing classroom text to include words that are easier to read
- Giving fewer reading and writing assignments to students
- Allowing students to read books and materials on lower grade levels
- Giving a student fewer and easier spelling words to learn
- Allowing students to write shorter essays and assignments than other peers
See Understood.org for more information on common accommodations and modifications and what parents should know.
Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS)
SETSS allows a child to work closely, either one-to-one or in a small group, with a special education teacher. SETSS instructors can provide direct teaching in basic areas where a student needs more help, such as in foundational reading and writing skills. The goal of SETSS remediation as a literary support is to help a child catch back up to their peers in grade level standards.
Assistive Technology (AT)
Students struggling to read and write may benefit from AT. AT is any device or service that helps an individual student learn. For example, instead of reading printed text, students can learn and share information by listening, using other texts like Braille, or using communication devices.
Bookshare and Learning Ally are two non-profit organizations that provide free audiobooks to students with print disabilities, including dyslexia, blindness, and vision impairments. In New York City, the Andrew Heiskell Library also offers free audiobooks and Braille service for those with disabilities that impact reading.
For help with getting AT for your student, see Disability Rights New York’s Protection and Advocacy for Assistive Technology (PAAT) program.
For more information and videos on AT devices and services, we urge you to look at our page on AT.
Structured, multisensory reading instruction
Effective reading interventions for students with disabilities need to be structured, multisensory, and evidence-based.
- Structured reading interventions follow a clear, logical, and planned order of teaching. Easier concepts must be taught before harder ones, and each new lesson builds on what students know already. Everything is explained in a direct way. Students never have to guess at what they should know or do.
- Multisensory instruction uses all of a child’s senses, including sight, sound and touch, so the child can learn by experiencing the same material in many ways. For example, the teacher might have a student write a letter in sand or shaving cream with their finger, while saying the sound the letter makes out loud.
- Evidence-based instruction refers to programs and practices that have been tested and are strongly supported by impartial studies.
There are a number of structured, multisensory programs that have been developed to teach struggling readers, based on what is called the Orton-Gillingham approach. Two well-known programs based on Orton-Gillingham are the Wilson Reading System and the Spalding Method. Your child may need to be in a classroom with staff specially trained to use one of these evidence-based programs, or they may need to work one-on-one with a reading specialist who is an expert in one or more evidence-based programs.
For more information on evidence-based programs and structured, multisensory reading instruction, see the International Dyslexia Association and Reading Rockets.
Support outside of school
Some students may need more help outside of school to become able readers. This is true especially if schools have failed to teach them to read and write for a long time. Students with severe reading delays may benefit from outside tutoring from an evidence-based, multisensory, and structured reading remediation program.
To learn more...
This is not a complete list of supports and services, and it’s important to note that every student is different and has unique needs. As a parent, you should work with your child's school to ensure that your child gets the services they need to make progress in reading. In addition to the links above:
- See Advocates for Children’s Questions and Answers about Literacy [PDF] for more information on your rights and options surrounding your child learning to read.
- For more information on students' rights under Section 504, see Advocates for Children's Guide to Section 504 [PDF], Parent to Parent’s Section 504 resources page, and the DOE's Section 504 FAQs.
- For more information about the special education process in New York City, see Advocates for Children's Guide to Special Education [PDF], INCLUDEnyc’s special education resources page, and the DOE’s Family Guide to Special Education Services for School-Age Children.
- The National Center on Improving Literacy, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, provides information on literacy-related disabilities and evidence-based interventions.
The NYC Department of Education's literacy initiatives
Instructional programs in the classroom
DOE schools use a number of evidence-based programs to teach students of a range of ages and disabilities to read. Those include Orton-Gillingham and Wilson programs. These programs work for many, but not all students, and it is important that teachers have enough training and support to be able to use them right.
City-wide universal literacy initiative
As part of NYC’s Equity and Excellence for All initiative announced in 2015, the DOE is aiming to have all students reading on grade level by the end of 2nd grade by the year 2026. To reach this goal, every elementary school gets support from a reading coach trained and supported by the DOE's Office of Early Childhood Education.
Will these coaches work with my child?
The DOE’s main goal for the reading coaches is to train and support early grade teachers (Kindergarten – 2nd grade) to provide core literacy teaching and support to a wide range of students, with and without special education needs. The coaches will work with the teachers, rather than directly with the students.
What if my child is in an elementary school and I think they need more help in learning to read? Who should I speak with?
Start with your classroom teacher and work your way up to the District Office for your school. Ask about the coaches and how they’re supporting the teachers. Ask about how teachers are supporting all the students and your child in particular.
City-wide special education initiatives
The DOE’s Office of Special Education offers literacy support for students with disabilities that affect reading and writing. In Districts 1-32, these supports focus on intensive interventions for kindergarten-12 grade students who benefit from multisensory, structured instruction. Programs used and supported by DSISS include Orton-Gillingham based programs such as Recipe for Reading, Spire, and Rewards.
DSISS also supports students with disabilities in District 75 schools and programs. In addition to traditional literacy programs, District 75 uses other programs to teach literacy that rely on specific multisensory instruction. Those include Structured Methods in Language Education (SMiLE), First Author, Attainment, and Language Links to Literacy.
Currently, DSISS is working on two key citywide initiatives:
This program provides training to students in early grades in phonological awareness as a key foundation for other literacy instruction. The program requires kindergarten and 1st-grade classroom teachers and Speech and Language Providers to work together with the speech and language providers. Also by supporting them through the use of programs such as Sounds in Motion and Fundations.
(2) IEP teacher
960 NYC public schools with high numbers of students with IEPs have IEP teachers on staff. IEP teachers are learning specialists. An important part of their job is to work with students to improve academic skills and make sure referrals for special education services only happen when needed. They are expected to provide specialized and individualized literacy instruction and intervention to students as well as keep track of students progress, changing interventions when needed. IEP teachers also go to IEP meetings.
How can I help my child?
Parents play an important role in helping children become successful readers. Research shows that students whose families are involved in their education learn to read sooner than their peers whose families are less involved.
Here are a few things we recommend that you can do to get more involved in your child’s reading development in school and at home:
Speak to your child’s teacher
The best resource for learning about your child’s progress in reading is your child’s classroom teacher. Go to parent-teacher conferences, and reach out if you're worried your child isn't making progress. Advocates for Children has a list of important questions to ask your child’s teacher [PDF] about how well your child is learning to read or write. A few important ones include:
- What should my child be able to do by the end of this year with respect to reading and writing? Are they on track to do that? How do you know?
- Are there any skills they seem to be struggling with? What can I do to support my child's growth in these important skill areas?
- How will you keep me updated on my child’s progress in reading and writing?
- How can I make reading more enjoyable and meaningful for my child?
- What extra help or support do you provide for students who are having trouble learning to read and write?
- Does this school use Response to Intervention (RtI) for reading or provide any interventions, either inside or outside of the classroom?
- Is my child currently getting any extra help or interventions? If yes, what program or strategy is being used? Can you give me more information about how the program works?
See also INCLUDEnyc's tip sheet on parent-teacher conferences and Reading Rockets' back-to-school page for more on learning what’s going on in your child’s classroom.
Become involved in your child’s classroom
Some ideas include:
- Volunteer to read to your child's class.
- Go to reading intervention sessions with your child (including tutoring and special education services) to get a sense of what is being done.
- Ask your school's parent coordinator to put on workshops for families on topics related to reading instruction, like the specific program the school is using or how to get extra help for your child.
- Work with your child's teacher to make a "literacy day" at school for parents and students.
At-home literacy practices
Learning to read does not begin or end in the classroom -- good literacy habits at home are important, too. At-home and family literacy practices help to strengthen reading skills that students are learning during the school day. These skills are important for students at all ages and reading levels, not just young children first learning to read.
Home literacy practices should be fun for everyone. There are many resources for families looking for tips and ideas; here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Sing songs and make up silly rhymes and tongue-twisters with your child.
- Visit the library together. The New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Public Library all have lots of free events and programs for kids, teens, and their families.
- Get library cards for everyone in the household and borrow books that your child is excited about.
- Build a home library and encourage your child to read on their own. Many pediatricians give free books to babies, toddlers, and preschoolers through a program called Reach Out & Read -- ask your child's doctor if they participate.
- Listen to audiobooks together.
- Add closed captioning to your TV to encourage children at every age to read as they watch.
- Play games with your children that support reading and build vocabulary.
- Download educational apps that support literacy learning in fun ways.
- If your child's school uses online textbooks, ask for access so you can follow along at home. If your child uses AT in school, make sure their IEP allows them to bring their devices home, too.