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Why Does My Student Struggle to Read Their Class Materials?


The Nature of Reading

Despite the vast areas of adult and professional life that rely on literacy, reading English is not easy. Reading requires multiple skills, such as the decryption of discipline-specific lingo, knowledge of grammatical and structural standards, and the practiced ability to analyze and interpret separate layers of meaning and the various implications of the text. Adding to this difficulty is the propensity of the English language to break its own rules, be subject to changes in cultural and political usage, and borrow words from other languages with abandon. Furthermore, while the vast diversity of English texts available to students has many genres, the attitudes about these different strains of literature can make entire genres of works inaccessible or unwelcoming. With all these various adversities, it is no wonder that so many students are uncomfortable reading and do not demonstrate an eagerness to read all the many documents their school might assign them.

This article is written to dissect and understand the general adversities that bring about reading difficulties, as knowledge breeds familiarity, and familiarity brings comfort in facing challenges. When an AJ tutor is helping a student struggling with reading, they might use a similar system to better understand the student’s needs, though not all nuances and techniques of a professional reading tutor can be captured here. If the tutor is successful, the student will believe that it is possible for the student to develop reading comfort, and that these adversities can be overcome.

Comfort Comes from Confidence and Confidence Comes from Comfort

Like in many forms of agency, comfort in reading is heavily benefited by a feeling of confidence in reading, while confidence in reading is much enriched by feeling comfortable. This cyclical pattern may appear to have no entrance for students experiencing neither, therefore it is encouraging to keep in mind that confidence and comfort can be nurtured by many other factors. In general, these factors align to the types of adversities a reader might face, as every form of adversity indicates the path by which it can be overcome. The adversities to be covered in this article are vocabulary, content, structure, learning disabilities, and environmental factors. Each of these can provide their own difficulties as well as a source of accomplishment, if the difficulties are taken seriously and the solutions include the student’s earnest input. Student’s do not choose these adversities, even when it seems as if they are providing an adversity.

Remember, there is no action more essential in education than giving students another chance. A student who feels isolated and unheard in their academic issues has no reason to work with their parents and education team, no matter the solution agreed upon by those adults. We can only help students by listening to their self-advocated experience of their academic problems. It is the role of the adults in a student’s life to provide hope in the student’s progress and capacity to learn and grow, as  the student lacks the experience with which to provide these motivators to themselves. All learning is the product of cooperation between student and educator, to struggle against the student is to fail to educate before you’ve begun the greater portion of the work. 


To begin, let us consider the role vocabulary plays in reading: elemental and exclusionary. As all reading requires knowledge of the situational/discipline-relevant meaning of the words in the text, simply being unfamiliar with vocabulary can keep documents completely out of a student’s intellectual reach. However, learning new material requires interaction with new concepts and usage of vocabulary, and so it is essential for students to develop their grasp of vocabulary as they read. Students who will be taking standardized tests with language portions are sure to need practice in the vocabulary valued by the test creators. Our standardized test prep tutors can help a student become more familiar with the vocabulary featured in their specific test. Many people find vocabulary to be a progressive study, in which each new word paves the way to more easily understanding more complex and difficult words.

While many elementary classes are engaged with introducing students to new words and testing them on the use and spelling of these words, vocabulary growth does not end at secondary education. Depending on their learning style, continuing the introduction and testing of new vocabulary can benefit any student, and tutoring can be a useful support space for continuing this practice. However, many students do not learn vocabulary most effectively in this manner. Practiced use of new vocabulary in speech and writing is a more universal method, and does not require giving students additional work, as they can insert new words into their assignments and make notes of a handful of academic language to insert into their verbal presentations. At the very least, we recommend that students keep a section of their class journal for the logging of unfamiliar words, so that they can later be researched and the documents in which they appeared re-read. 

Once a student is comfortable researching and using new vocabulary, this disorienting confusion of unfamiliar language will be less and less debilitating for a reader. It is often necessary, however, to remind students that understanding the meaning behind most academic language begins with a dictionary, but does not end there. Dictionaries offer technical understanding, but often leave out nuance, historical and cultural usage, and many of the contextual meanings of the word. Academia is often in the process of debating the fair or accurate usage of terms, so it is important to keep in mind that language is descriptive of usage, not prescriptive of how words “should” be used.


Once the meanings of words are accessible to a student, the student is ready to think about and develop a relationship with those meanings. These two disciplines are not one and the same, as a student might understand the technical meaning of a word without being able or comfortable in discussing the subject matter that the meaning entails. By way of a more specific example, a student may know that the word “veto” means an authoritative power to reject a decision or proposal made by a separate authoritative body, but that knowledge does not confer a historical understanding of how the power of the veto was established, used, and what contemporary use of a veto means for the student’s life. 

 Much like vocabulary, helping as students advance in their engagement with the context of documents is progressive; mastery of more basic concepts helps the student to then tackle the concepts that rely on or are derived from those basics. Each student’s journey through the ideas held by class documents is unique and often not describable as a “straight line.” Students may intuit a more complex understanding before they master intermediary concepts and may be ready to engage with complex ideas while still holding on to a misunderstanding of a prerequisite concept.  It is important to not hold the student back, to be able to facilitate any necessary re-tracing of steps, and (above all) to listen and understand where the student’s understanding currently is. 

There are many methods to develop a better grasp of content. Students developing their understanding of the concepts behind a document may find it helpful to draw the situation being discussed or to render conceptual relationships in the form of a graphic organizer, table, or other image. Students receiving tutoring often benefit from teaching the tutor” what the student has grasped, as explaining a concept verbally allows students to listen to and reflect on their own understanding, as well as adapt to the questions and challenges presented by the tutor. Additionally, breaking concepts into smaller prerequisite conceits can help students identify “sticking points’ that they need to explore and practice using in order to master the whole. There are as many ways to digest content as there are students, who should never feel limited by the text in how they process the information provided therein.



As any defender of the Oxford comma can tell you, the structure of a document can have a great impact on its meaning! The rules we teach at elementary grades are much simpler and straightforward than the professional standards of writing style taught in high school, and not every student has had the benefit of a mindful transition between the two. Without practice, the long-winded and complex sentences found in some secondary education texts can completely block a student with little practice with those forms of writing structure.  What do our Tudors do to help such students?

Practice is a panacea, once the specific use of structure is isolated as confusing to the student. With guidance on the intended meaning of the structure and practice using that structure themselves, students can take greater confidence in approaching difficult texts. Student can now access English language style guides, historically purchased as physical texts privately, which are quite useful as a reference. Beyond writing practice, mechanically minded students (especially those who enjoy puzzles) can be tutored by focusing on a large block of meaningful text and separating its sentences from each other and into their interacting clauses. Translating a piece of text into structures appropriate for various online speech such as social media postings and email formatting can also help students familiarize themselves in the structural norms of various document types, helping students to code-switch as they consider various forms of text.

Learning Disabilities

The State of California recognizes many broad categories and instances of learning disability a student might experience, for whom traditional classroom norms and expectations may be ill suited for teaching reading comfort. It is essential that a student’s adult support structure be unprejudiced, accepting, and supportive of students with learning disabilities. Unfortunately, the stigma feared by many families can make it difficult for them to recognize a learning disability in their student, which can slow the student getting the support they need to achieve academic excellence. However, when learning disabilities are seen as giving students their unique and meaningful perspectives with which they approach learning, free of stigma, self-confidence will follow. 

If a student is living with a learning disability, diagnosing the exact nature of their situation and working with them to create effective means of participating in learning is quite necessary. A student can have great mastery over both vocabulary and grammar, but if they cannot read the board from their seat without glasses, the student cannot access the same reading experience as the rest of the class. Such is the case for any learning disability, without the tools to bring about learning equity. Tutors keep in mind that the experience of their student when trying to read may not match their own. Things that are difficult or overwhelming for one person may not be such for another. But when one person’s strengths help to stabilize another person’s struggles, both can achieve the goal held in common. 

Environmental Factors

Almost as diverse as the minds and experiences of students are the classroom and administrative settings in which they learn. The context of a student’s learning environment can have a profound effect on their comfort. If the class recently changes teachers, the student could be trying to acquaint themselves with the new teacher’s expectations and classroom norms. If a student is being bullied for reading too comfortably, they might develop a self-consciousness that hides their abilities. If the class is being taught in a language that your student is still learning, lagging behind their peers in literacy is to be expected. Any number of administrative and teaching factors can destabilize a classroom environment, and some students are more sensitive to uncertain conditions than others. 

Many students seek tutoring to equalize the learning environment at their school, and get outside support. Tutoring can give a student one on one time with an educator when conditions are otherwise cramped, provide a space free of judgment and distractions, and give the student a dependable time to complete assignments when other aspects of their life are overwhelming. In short, tutoring can give students a replenished amount of whatever their school environment cannot offer them. Outside of tutoring, parents or guardians can provide an excellent homework and academic support structure for their students, using the same techniques professional tutors use. Articles on the AJ blog, like this one, can support an adult offering academic help to their struggling reader. Getting deeply engaged in your student’s learning experience is an excellent way to show your student that they are not alone in their struggles, that the adults in their lives can be trusted to give judgement-free support.


While the path to gaining reading confidence can be slow and many-stepped, do not be discouraged. Once progress is made, such success can be fuel to build the student’s further confidence, leading to greater comfort when facing difficult texts. Students who know that they have the capacity to improve are encouraged to not simply label themselves as “bad readers” or “lost causes.” Remember, the most essential way that we can support the education of a child is by giving them another chance. A student turned off of or exhausted from reading one day, if given rest, can pick that same text up another day. While some people do develop greater when under greater pressure, many more students, we have noticed, are like bread, in that they will rise when given the time and opportunity to do so. Space, trust, and unwavering support all greatly contribute to building comfort in new experiences. When students see that adversity and struggle do not elicit negative feedback, but encouragement and support, they will be more motivated to confront difficulty instead of writing off the endeavor as failed. Many students come to AJ tutoring for help with reading, once the tutor is able to diagnose their specific source of struggle, and works in partnership with the student to enact new attitudes, approaches, and skills appropriate to meeting that specific difficulty, we generally see the confidence of those students rise along with their aspirations.

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