5 Steps to Take When Your Teen Can't Read

father helping son
Caiaiamage/Tom Merton/ Getty Images

Life is very difficult for teens and older children who are behind their peers in reading skills, or who can't read at all. Fortunately, even older teens who lack basic reading skills can become successful readers. All it takes is a combination of support from a caring adult like you, your child's school, and the right learning program.

Meet With Your Teen's or Older Child's Teachers 

Collaborating with your child's teachers is a great place to start. Explain exactly what concerns you have about your child's reading ability to the teachers. Be prepared to provide specific examples of times when your child wasn't able to read or struggled with reading. Explain how this affects your child's ability to complete homework and other tasks. 

Providing examples or stories about your teen's reading efforts will help your child's teachers understand exactly how reading struggles may be influencing your child's school work.

You can also find out from the teachers what they have noticed about your teen's reading. Teacher observations may provide more insight that will help you work together to help your child improve their reading and school performance. 

This meeting would also be a good time to talk to teachers about ways that they can adjust assignments or provide work strategies to help your child complete work and gain missing skills. Teachers may be able to modify assignments, called "differentiating" in educator lingo, to help your teen continue learning grade-level material while improving reading skills.

Find Out Which Reading Skills Your Child Needs 

Reading isn't just one skill, it is an activity made up of several different skills. Does your child have the skill of knowing what letters make which sounds (phonemic awareness)? Does your child have dyslexia, causing them to reverse letters and words? Is your child able to sound out words, yet has no understanding of what was read? Do they read yet frequently miss words, with their eyes skipping all over the page? Each of these is symptomatic of a missing reading skill piece. 

Consider Getting Your Child an Eye Exam

Vision problems can make learning to read challenging. If you have an older child who has had regular school attendance and still is not reading, get a full eye exam to check for problems.

A simple vision test, such as a basic screening that is done at school, does not look for other eye or perceptive conditions. A thorough eye exam will check for these other conditions, and help identify if there is a specific condition interfering with your teen's ability to read.

If your teen is found to be experiencing an eye or perceptive issue, keep in mind that this diagnoses will bring you closer to finding a solution to help your teen with reading. 

Consider Testing for Special Education 

Sometimes it can be difficult to motivate teens to do their work, and other times there are underlying causes that children or teens simply cannot control. It is a difference of can't do something versus won't do something. If you are suspicious that your teen can't overcome their reading difficulties on their own, it may be time to consider testing for disability.

A parent can request that their public school evaluate a child for special education. During the evaluation, you will want to supply as much information as possible about your child's history that relates to your concerns about their struggle with reading. This could be medical information, other school evaluations, report cards, work samples, and other community agency reports. 

Children who are have a disability that meets one of 13 categories may qualify for special education services. Special education services for school-age children with disabilities that attend public schools or are homeschooled are mandated by federal law.

These programs are designed to provide a free and appropriate education for students who have behavioral, physical, mental or cognitive needs that prevent a child from gaining any benefit from a regular public education classroom. 

If your child attends a private school you will still need to contact the public school where your child's private school is located in order for your teen to be evaluated for special education services. 

Consider Consulting a Language Specialist

If your child or teen's reading skills are more than two grade levels below their actual grade level and your child either does not qualify for special education or your child is still able to spend more time working on their reading outside of the school day, a language specialist may be able to provide suggestions and tutoring that will speed up your teen's learning to read process 

Unfortunately, most insurance does not cover the services of language specialists. If your insurance does not cover language services, check for service organizations in your community that provide access to these services. Scottish Rite centers are an example of one organization that provides speech and language services.

Provide Support Outside of School 

Once you know exactly which skills your child needs to build in order to become a successful reader, you can look for ways to support reading outside of school.

This step might include you teaching your teen with additional reading programs recommended by educational professionals. Or, it may include finding a mentor who can work on reading with your child. 

Be sure to look for age and level appropriate reading material that your teen finds interesting. Check with your local librarian for suggestions. You can also check with your local community reading council agency. In many communities, these agencies advertise their services to adults. These agencies can suggest community resources for your teen or older child.

Final Thoughts

There are many possible causes and situations that may interfere with learning to read. There are teens who finally get individualized help and instruction to become confident readers. If you care for a teen who is still struggling with reading, your patience and support can help make the difference in finally mastering this complex and rewarding skill.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Raghuram A, Hunter DG, Gowrisankaran S, Waber DP. Self-reported visual symptoms in children with developmental dyslexiaVision Res. 2019;155:11-16. doi:10.1016/j.visres.2018.11.007

  2. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with disabilities act. Section 1401.

By Lisa Linnell-Olsen
Lisa Linnell-Olsen has worked as a support staff educator, and is well-versed in issues of education policy and parenting issues.