The 2nd-Grade Reading Stumble

Reading problems often arise in 2nd grade, when children confront harder books with fewer pictures.

By Wiley Blevins

Learning to read involves a long journey, beginning with the ABCs and ending with (we hope) a lifelong love and interest in books. Many children experience a few bumps along the road as they develop into skilled readers. Often a problem arises in 2nd grade, when children are faced with more challenging material. Some kids have trouble now because (1) they are still having decoding difficulties; (2) they have weak reading fluency (speed), or (3) the text is just too difficult.

1. Weak Decoding. In 1st grade, some children do well by memorizing most words by sight, rather than sounding them out. This strategy begins to break down in grades 2 and 3 when the number of words increases and there is less repetition, making it more difficult to learn words by sight. One of the quickest ways to determine if your child is over-relying on reading words by sight is the Nonsense Word Test below. These words are made up, but can be sounded out with early phonics skills. You child needs to be able to read these words by 2nd grade. If he can sound them out, then decoding isn't the issue. If he uses one or two letters of the word to guess another word, decoding issues exist. More phonics work, including learning basic phonics skills and reading lots of simple phonics books, will help.

Nonsense Word Test

Tell your child that these words are made-up words, and ask him to read them to you.

  • lat (rhymes with "cat")
  • rud (rhymes with "mud")
  • chab (rhymes with "grab")
  • stot (rhymes with "hot")
  • mabe (rhymes with "babe")
  • flay (rhymes with "play")
  • weam (rhymes with "team")
  • jern (rhymes with "fern")
  • froom (rhymes with "broom")
  • prouch (rhymes with "couch")

2. Weak Fluency. In order to understand what we read, we have to read at a speed appropriate for making meaning from the text (comprehension). A 2nd grader should be reading 50-60 words a minute at the beginning of the school year and 90 words per minute by the end of the year. To test this, give your child a story from her reading book that she has not read. Have her read for one minute, and count the number of words she reads correctly in that time. If it's below the expected fluency levels noted above, then fluency is a problem. Make sure she has lots of experiences reading simple books. Repeated readings of stories she's already read in class will help. This rereading provides the multiple exposures and decoding opportunities she needs to develop fluency.

3. Text Difficulty. Your child needs lots of reading practice in stories that are not too hard. That is, he should be able to recognize over 90 percent of the words in his books without your help. If you need to assist your child more frequently, then the story is too tough for him. Stories at this level — his frustration level — do not advance his reading skills. They make comprehension difficult because he is stopping so frequently to figure out words. These constant stops break the flow of reading and don't allow him to focus on the meaning of the story.

After you find books that are at your child's "just right" reading level, provide him with lots of practice reading and rereading these books. Listen in and help as needed. Stop him only two or three times during the reading to ask questions such as "What has happened so far? Tell me in your own words," or "What do you think will happen next? Why?" These questions will provide you with a quick check on your child's understanding of the story. If he can't answer them, then he may need to reread, or you may need to model an appropriate answer.

If you still can't determine why your child is struggling with reading, ask her teacher to have the school's reading specialist run some tests to determine what the issue might be. Identifying the problem early and forming a plan of attack will greatly assist your child in becoming a skilled, successful reader who enjoys books.