It’s summer time. Soon children are going to be signing up for summer reading programs at the library.

Here’s a radical idea. Let’s work on improving low-performing students’ reading skills without a book this summer.

Here’s why I say this. I was watching The Secret Millionaire last Sunday to get my weekly dose of reality TV. (Don’t judge).

What Does Reading Support Look Like?

It was a story about an afterschool sports program in an inner-city neighborhood where the coach and his staff made sure the kids in the program spent time improving their reading skills. The camera cuts to the kids and the staff in a room after practice, reading together in pairs.

Real cute, right?

It zooms in on an African-American boy who looks to be in middle school reading out loud with his mentor. He is struggling with the words. He’s tracking with his finger. The boy is reading in that monotone, herky-jerky way struggling readers do. The guy sitting with him is “helping” by simply telling him the word when he can’t decode it.

Freeze frame. Cue the scratched record sound effect.

Is that how we “help” struggling readers? Unfortunately, I think it’s pretty common. I used to train reading tutors and afterschool enrichment staff. That was pretty much their go-to move when I met them. We are going to see a lot of this sort of “help” this summer.

But in reality this move won’t improve reading much for struggling readers, and just reading more at their current level won’t get them better either. The fastest reading improvement comes from helping students improve their accuracy and automaticity with sound/spelling correspondences, sight words, and word parts.

Train Like An Athlete

Instead, we need to train our readers like we train our athletes during the summer, only with a high fun factor. Just like we get athletes ready by conditioning with drills, we need to get children to high levels of accuracy and automaticity with their core reading skills. While it sounds boring, there are fun, engaging ways to build skills so that when the child is reading a book, he knows the Code and the strategies to unlock the words from the page and engage with the author’s message.

I know. I know. The idea of doing “drills” is taboo in literacy development, forever linked to the phrase “drill and kill”. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Think of this as deliberate practice, not drill and kill.

The trick is to gamify it. You can turbo charge learning when you apply game mechanics to deliberate practice. Playing skill-building games for 15-20 minutes everyday is all it takes.


Here are some ideas for improving reading skills without a book.


Build quick matching of sound/spelling correspondences. In order to be a good reader, a person first has to know by heart the 44 core sound/spelling correspondences. Keep it simple. Start with the long vowels. Teach two at a time.

Try these:

  • Go Fish, Rummy or Old Maid card games
  • Board Games


Do speed drills to build automaticity. After a child knows the sound/spelling correspondences with some accuracy, it’s time to get faster recognizing which sound to say when he sees a particular letter.

Try these:


Engage in Word Play for Vocabulary Building. Spark curiosity with fun ways to think about how words work and build word attack skills.

Try these:


Once kids start to feel a bit of success, they will be begging for books to read.

How do you help children improve their reading skills during the summer?

How do you incorporate games into reading time?