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College Success Resources for Faculty: I Have a Student Who Has Difficulty Reading

I Have a Student Who Has Difficulty Reading

The Reading Center in the ESSC in the library also has a number of resources available to help students who are struggling with college level reading. Also, on this College Success Website there are some great resources linked on the right hand side of the first page under "Reading Strategies" you could refer students to.

Reading is one of the first academic skills American children learn. By the time young people reach college age, they have known how to read for so long and have spent so many hours doing so that it rarely occurs to them that their academic struggles result from an inability to read well.

In reality, many incoming students suffer from an inability to read well. If a student approaches you and expresses concern about his or her grade in your class, here are some questions you can ask him or her to determine if reading might be the problem.

  • Can I see your reading notes?

Students who don't read well either won't take notes at all or their notes will consist of nothing more than a term followed by a carefully copied definition.

  • Can you tell me what ______ means?

A good reader will remember terms and concepts well enough to give a reasonable answer, while a poor one will almost always say, "I can't answer that without looking at my notes."

  • How do you read?

The following chart shows common responses and a "translation."

Student Answer


I read the chapter at least twice.

I don't read well enough the first time so I read it again.

I highlight and go over what I high lighted.

I can pick out WHAT is important. I may not know WHY it is important. When I "go over" high lighted material, I'm actually memorizing it.

I read the whole chapter at once, three or four days before the exam.

Either I'm a procrastinator, or I'm afraid that if I read the chapter too far in advance, I'm going to forget what I read.

I try to learn the definitions.

I spend a lot of time memorizing the definitions word for word, but I don't necessarily pay attention to context.

  • How do you know when you are ready for a test?

Poor readers will often say they never know when they are ready, or they will say, "When I know (or can recite) definitions from the book." Students will often follow a statement like this up with "When I get to the test, I'm so disappointed because the questions are all worded weird." What they usually mean is that the questions are not what they were expecting because they are not word for word straight out of the book.

  • Can you tell me how X and Y relate?

Students who struggle with reading typically focus on facts, definitions and names. They typically don't notice how concepts relate. It may not occur to students that they don't understand what they are reading. They may just see studying as an exercise in memorization.

  • What sorts of questions do you think will be on the exam?

Poor readers will either be unable to answer this question at all, or they will say something like, "I think X, Y and Z will be on the exam." A sophisticated reader would answer this question by saying, "I bet we'll have to know how X impacts Y and I bet there will be something about how Z was created as a result of what happened to Y during the 1960's."

Way to Respond (and Not to Respond) to Poor Readers

  • What can I do to improve my grade?

Ineffective Response

You'll have to work harder to be prepared for the next exam.

Faculty often assume students who earn low grades don't study, but it is not uncommon for poor readers to actually spend more time preparing for exams than A students because they spend so much energy memorizing.

Effective Response

Describe how you study. Maybe I can give you some pointers.


It sounds like you're working really hard in this course but things aren't going as you had hoped. Would you consider making an appointment at the Reading Center? I think someone over there can help you reduce your stress and help you achieve your goals.

  • What do we need to know for the next test?

Ineffective Response

You really should be familiar with X, Y and Z.

Poor readers interpret this as "Memorize everything there is to know about X, Y and Z."

Effective Response

Can you describe how X and Y caused Z? You'll need to understand that relationship.


What do YOU think will be on the test? Can you give me an example of the kind of question you expect to answer?

  • I study and study in your class and I'm still not doing well.

Ineffective Response

You might have a reading disability.

This comment devastates students. Besides, it is more likely that poor readers simply lack skills. Most students, even if they do have a reading disability, can be taught to read more effectively through programs at the Academic Assistance Center.

Effective Response

That sounds really frustrating and stressful. Let's discuss how you study.


Would you consider signing up for a tutor or meeting with someone in the Reading Center? I think they can help you study more efficiently, which will reduce your stress.

  • I just don't know what's wrong. This is the third test I've bombed.

Ineffective Response

Maybe college just isn’t for you.

Students who get help early with reading difficulties often make great gains. Some students, after one or two sessions with a tutor or with Reading staff, earn as much as two grade levels higher on the next exam. Many improve enough to stay above C level.

Effective Response

I hear that the Reading Center staff can help students figure out why they aren't getting the grades they think they should be. Maybe you'd like to make an appointment with them.

  • Will This be on the test?

Ineffective Response

Of course it will be on the test. I'm not going over it for fun!

When students ask this artless question, they are often trying to reassure themselves that they will be successful. They often are legitimately confused about what information is important and how to think about it, and they want some direction from you. Others feel so overwhelmed by their courses that they don't know where to begin studying.

Effective Response

Well, it is important stuff. Let's talk a bit about why. Do you have your notes from yesterday's lecture? Can you see how what we did today fit into it?