Reading Programs for Struggling Kids

A search of the best reading programs out there can leave parents even more confused than they were to start with. What kind of program does your child need? Are some more effective than others? How to tell which is the best?

Types of Reading Programs

There are two main schools of thought about learning to read. One approach is called the whole language approach, and is widely used in the schools. If you have seen giant word walls on your child's classroom bulletin board, there is some degree of whole language instruction going on. The other is referred to as phonics.

The whole language approach focuses on meaning and strategies over decoding skills (sounding out the words). Whole language approaches embed phonics principles into other types of instructions instead of teaching the rules on their own. Kids read regular, off-the-shelf books. This means that some of the words can't be sounded out easily, and need to either be memorized or figured out from context. Kids are encouraged to figure out meaning using a variety of reading strategies: looking at pictures, thinking about context, finding word patterns (also known as word families), recognizing sight words, and more.

Phonics programs, in contrast, give their greatest focus to learning how to decode words. They offer a very structured approach to learning that does not assume kids will automatically pick up on patterns or rules, but teaches them in a step-by-step, logical format. Phonics programs use basal readers, which are specially written to help kids learn certain phonics rules. One of the great strengths of phonics approaches is that a child who masters the rules has the tools to sound out any word, regardless whether he has ever seen it before.

Which Type of Reading Program Is Best?

Some children pick up reading easily and can thrive in a whole-language program. However, if a child has a learning disability or is struggling with reading, the structure and clarity of a good phonics program is a better bet. Here is why:

Frustration With Learning To Read
  1. When a child is struggling to master a concept, we need to back up a little and make it simpler. Focus on just one thing and teach it thoroughly and well. Contextual, meaningful teaching is great—but save it for later, when your child understands the basics and can begin to see related patterns in words.
  2. Some kids just think in a different way. There are kids, especially kids with certain disabilities such as autism or dyslexia, who learn best through systematic, logical instruction.
  3. Following a systematic, sequential program of learning will make it easier for parents to make a real difference in kids' reading abilities, even parents who do not have teaching experience.

For these reasons, when kids are struggling and parents are looking for ways they might help, I recommend they find a good phonics program.

Isn't Phonics Boring?

In the past, a common and legitimate criticism of phonics was that it was boring, while whole language activities were more fun. Happily, this has changed in recent years. There are cartoony computer games, action-packed songs, sticker-filled workbooks and many other fun tools that make phonics reading programs a lot more fun.

Phonics books are also a lot better these days. Phonics instruction includes the use of basal readers, which are books that are specially designed to support phonics instruction and let kids be successful no matter what their reading level. These are no longer the boring Dick-and-Jane stories of yesteryear, but are often funny, colorful, engaging stories that just happen to have easy-to-read text. Bob Books and Now I'm Reading! are two popular examples of phonics readers that are great for introducing kids to reading on their own. In addition, the complete reading programs often offer or include a library of engaging basal readers.

Here are my top picks of solid reading programs. Each has specific strengths and weaknesses. As you explore them, consider your child's interests and learning styles. I believe them all to be quality programs, but each one differs in the ways they might be able to meet your child's, and family's, needs.

Best Inexpensive Reading Programs

Alpha Phonics Reading Program

Alpha-Phonics , by Samuel L. Blumenfeld, $23. This is a simple but effective little book. Letter combinations are presented in a logical order so that in the first day or so your child is already reading short sentences without help. These progress in a way that build on each other, so kids are able to connect patterns. After each lesson is a list of words that your child should then be able to read.

Explode the Code Reading Program

Explode the Code , by Nancy Hall, around $8 per book in the series. These are structured phonics workbooks that combine reading, writing, and puzzle-like activities. All the books are also available in interactive online format for a subscription of $65 per year.

Both of these books are well-organized and complete, and the price is quite reasonable. They are also clear and easy to use. Do be warned that there is little particularly fun or engaging about these books, aside from the significant motivation of progress and developing skill. Depending on your child, you may want to supplement these with more hands-on reading activities or a selection of phonics books.

Most Appealing Computer Phonics

ClickN KIDS Beginning Reading & Spelling Programs

Click N' Kids software, available for $59, will appeal to kids' love of color and animation. They have a spaceship-themed version of their phonics software (Click N' Read), and an alternate Loony Tunes version of the same content. Click N' Read offers a good selection of phonics lessons, though it is not a strictly phonics-based program, and does have other language elements. They offer a free trial and a 60 day money back guarantee.

Most Thorough Phonics Learning System

Discover Intensive Phonics, $299 for the grades 1-3 kit, is extremely complete. They have broken down all the phonics rules into five phonetic skills, Reading Horizons at Home - Awarded
and present these in small chunks that are easy to master. They also have an interesting and unique marking system that helps kids identify types of vowels, break words into syllables, and more in a multisensory way. They follow the Orton-Gillingham Approach*. They offer an online component to their program for $199 as well.

Discover Intensive Phonics, Orton-Gillingham Method

*The Orton-Gillingham Approach is a proven, multisensory method of reading that systematically teaches phonics rules before moving on to meaning. It has been shown to be very effective with struggling kids and those with learning disabilities.

Most Engaging Complete Reading Kit

Hooked On Phonics, $200-$215.
I was surprised by how much I liked the new incarnation of this well-known product. Kids are taught phonics rules on an interactive DVD and practice in a colorful workbook that even has motivating stickers. There are activities for kids to read and do, such as cooking or putting together a toy. My favorite part is the set of high-quality phonics books, specially commissioned from mainstream children's book authors. Do note, however, that the program does seem to rely heavily on word families, and so is not as clearly phonics-based as other reading programs, despite the name. They offer a 30 day money-back guarantee and monthly payment options.


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“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself. ”
~John Dewey