Strategies for Building Successful Readers


Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Jun 13, 2024

by Katherine Johnson Martinko

“Reading is a vehicle for gaining knowledge, but it’s also a vehicle for developing vocabulary. If there is one thing that we as parents can do, it is set up an environment in which language is key.”

Dr. Joseph Lockavitch is a firm believer in the power of reading to set kids on a successful course in life.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is an educator, a former classroom teacher, university professor, and special education director, Dr. Joe Lockavitch is also a school psychologist, applied reading researcher, author and father of five. He is the president of failure free reading, described as a groundbreaking reading approach. Dr. Lockavitch joins us today from Concord, North Carolina. Thank you so much for being here. Well, thank you. I can’t tell you how excited I am to talk to you, Leanne, and talk to your your audience I very, very much looking forward to this.

Well, and so am i because we’re talking about something that is pertinent to all of us. And in recent years, decades, certainly, it has gone fundamental changes, we’re talking about reading and literacy. So what concerns you most Dr. Joe, as you look at where reading levels are today, generally, among young people among students as a whole? Well, what concerns me is a lot of times people don’t realize the good news and the bad news. The good news is contrary to to a lot of public belief and what you hear in the in the journals.

The kids that are reading successfully today are reading at a much higher standard than then 20 years ago, and definitely 40 years ago. So a lot of times when when we look at, quote, The crisis in in in reading, we don’t put it in a proper perspective, what we really have is a dichotomy. And that dichotomy is we got a lot of kids who are doing really, really, really great things in the area of reading far better than has ever been done before, at their grade level, and at that state in time. But we also have a significant number of students who are, who are testing are well below the 25th percentile. And as, as one superintendent said, he said, Dr. GioI, my issue is not with the kids that are below Basic. He said we have below basics, where we’re the one of the largest school districts in the nation. But he said my real issue and he said we’re touching the kids that are below Basic, we’re touching the kids that are close to proficiency. So I said, well, then what’s your issue? He said, I concerned about the CFPB. And I said, Okay, I’m by what’s, what’s f BB? And he said far below Basic. And and that’s, that’s where I come in Lianne.

Let’s talk about what are some of the contributing factors to kids in that category?

Um, yeah, in my book, which is, I’m getting ready for a second edition, but the failure free methodology, new hope for non readers, I talked about the three characteristics of chronic chronically struggling students, and for lack of a better term, I said that they were PD, Ed, and Lt. Now PD in today’s state and time is the most still the most controversial part of my,

my program and the one that gets me a lot of times into the biggest amount of

hot water because people don’t understand where I’m coming from. And let me digress before I get to it, but I promise you, I’ll get to it. Lian, reading his most research topic, in all of education. Yet. If I were to take the 1214 16 leading reading, researchers put them in a in one room with but one entrance and one entrance, I’ll put a war of put up, put an armed guard at that door and told them that they couldn’t come out until a they had a definition of what reading is that they universally accepted and be how it should be taught. Then they’d starve to death before they ever came out the room. So to say that there’s a broad range of opinion

is an understatement. But But if there is a universal fact that one can draw and that I operate on, it’s all reading programs work, but they don’t work for all students. And my argument has been the reason why I is because it violates the principle of neurodiversity.

I am a believer that we should spend less time on the remediation of a deficit, and more time on the capitalization of strengths.

Everybody comes into this world with strengths and weaknesses. And what we need to look at is if your child or if your student is failing, you have to ask what are the conditions in which they’re failing? And if that’s the case, what can we do to competency in the sense of what can we do to circumvent it? What can we do to provide an alternative? How do we get past that? That was a long winded

explanation. I’ll take a deep breath. And see if you have any questions for me right now is a lot to unpack and what you said certainly, but let me just start by saying that in 2024, we have had the smartphone around now since 2007. So 17 years, and many parents with kids that have been you know, in that, in that generation will say that you know, what, they’re just not reading as much their reading skills aren’t where they need to be the reading comprehension. We’re all scanning and skimming. And I am excerpt and texting. What is your response to that to parents?

Firstly? Well, I think you’re I think they’re absolutely correct. And so I think I think the most important thing is as a parent, now, by the way, I have five of my own all my kids went to Title One schools, they have all graduated from college, I’m a second generation

American who was the first in my family to, to graduate from college. So education to me is extremely important. And, and I now have or getting ready for our 14th grandchild. And I’ve been blessed in the sense that all of them live within a five mile radius. So I, I’m still actively involved and I see what they have to go through.

If there is an issue, or if there is one thing that a parent can do, to enhance reading, and to enhance their, their overall success in life, I’m going to give parents a one word clue that you can start from I started with my five kids from the womb, and have never looked back. This one word will allow parents to know in my opinion, what is the most successful and most important thing that they can do for their child? Would you say that it’s worth it to listen to me run my mouth so to speak?

Absolutely. Okay. You ready?


vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. Reading is a vehicle for gaining knowledge, but it’s also a vehicle for developing vocabulary. If there is one thing that we as parents can do is we can set up an environment in which language is key. And that, that, that we set up conditions in which our kids are immersed in language, immersed in vocabulary, because that is the we’re a highly verbal society. But again, we’re judge sadly, the moment we open up our mouth, the more articulate we are, the more we’re going to be able to succeed in life. And that’s just that’s just a given. So reading is a vehicle for that now. So if you have kids, who are spending a tremendous amount of time texting on the smartphone doing that not reading as much as we would like them to read, while we can’t control that all the time, what we can’t control the way in which we talk to them, the way in which we expand their vocabulary and the way in which we can we can give them the tools in which they can be successful as as they had for in life. But let me pick up on that point. How would you suggest a parent help their child expand their vocabulary? And let’s focus on kids, you know, tweens, teens, that age group? Yeah. Okay. Well, the first thing is, is that you can use books to enhance it. So they’re, they’re not.

They’re not opposed to each other. In fact, one enhances the other. So one of the things that you can do is to is to look at number one

Let’s look at what they bring home, forget, forget what they do on their own, let’s look in terms of what they bring home and how we can expand that.

We’ve got tweens who are in sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, we’re involved in a project right now in North Carolina,

thanks to the North Carolina State Legislature, in which we are trying to accelerate the vocabulary review of chronically struggling students in grades six, seven and eight, because we know that if you elevate their vocabulary, you’re going to elevate their comprehension, you’re going to elevate their performance. And when I do these training, I and talk with teachers, I always say you have to remember we’re spending too much time treating symptom and not enough time treating disease. They’ll look at me and I said, What do you mean by that? And I’d say,

more reading, or comprehension is only symptomatic of a greater disease and that disease is language. So elevate their language, and you will elevate their performance, for example, and I’ll give you a statistic that’s, that’s kind of frightening. But researchers have found that highest performing third graders have a vocabulary superior to lowest performing 12th graders.

Kind of amazing, isn’t it? So what can we do? Well, when I talk to teachers, I will state after I say that I say from this moment on, and I want you to remember this, you are a language teacher, first, you are a reading teacher. Second, you are a content teacher. Third, and you can’t change the order.

To which someone will say I’m a math teacher, I don’t teach reading. To which I say,

yes, you’re a math teach, and you don’t teach reading. But in order to understand math, you have to teach the language of math, you have to teach the terminology involved in math. So when you send a book home with a with a child, as a parent, when you receive it, and you ask them to read out loud, you may find that there’s terms in there, they don’t understand.

And if they can’t relate to it, then they’re not going to be able to read it with my definition of reading, which is gaining meaning from the printed page.

So one of the things that that I suggest always, as a parent is, if you can, one look at what it is they’re being asked to do. And then look in terms of what I call

looking for the roadblocks to reading comprehension. Now, you’re probably going to ask roadblocks reading comprehension.

And if you did, which I know you do. That’s a wonderful question. And what do I mean by roadblocks through reading comprehension? But what we found is when it comes to our kids, that’s free to Ebert says, in California, University of California said text does matter in the teaching of reading texts does matter in the teaching of reading. And not all text is comprehensible. And it’s and the reason why it isn’t comprehensible is because there are actually roadblocks reading comprehension that authors don’t think of. And we as parents haven’t been taught to look for our teachers. So what are some of those roadblocks to comprehension? Well, the first is one that I just talked about uncommon names, dates, places and terms.

If you if they can’t relate to it, they can’t read it. And what what good is sounding it out if they don’t know what what it means. The second is

abundant idiomatic expressions, figurative speech that are extremely confusing for many of our kids. And we live in a highly figurative language. And for for some of the kids

express expressions that we take for granted.

Our kids don’t know. The best thing is, is read aloud and ask them. Do you know what this means? You’d be surprised at?

They don’t know it. No. The next is the way in which it’s written. Not all, not all sentences are written in the most comprehensible format. reacher researchers have found that there are really four, four components to a two the most comprehensible sayings simple, positive, active declarative, let me ask you a question. I’m gonna read two sentences.

Out Loud, I’ll say him out loud and then we’ll

we’ll look at in terms of grammar, the man drove the car.

The car was driven by the man

in terms of the meaning, just the meaning that is trying to be conveyed. Is there any difference in meaning between the man drove the car and the car was driven by the man? No, no identical.

Which one will be readies your

man drove the car? Absolutely why? Because the simple positive act of declarative sentence, same object action orientation, the man is driving a car. And the second one is a passive sentence. And all of a sudden the car was driven by the man. So when you look at that, simply because the author chairs to us more awkward sentence structure, the deep meaning that they’re trying to convey

is being blocked, or is confusing to a particular set of kids. So when you look at some of the literature, for example, that kids are being asked to their English literature, you may find a sentence that that is 2425 30 words long with phrases and the cause. So it has to be translated, you translate it for them, then you can ask them to read it. And in many cases, I asked when we’re getting to tweens and teens, I kind of asked that, that we use the book. We don’t use the book to introduce we use the book to reinforce something that we introduced prior to it. Does that make sense?

So let me break that up a little bit and ask you, for kids today, let’s say again, tweens, teens, you know, adolescents, who are living in the smartphone age who are living in the age that we described earlier, who maybe don’t have a reading level where it needs to be in order to survive and thrive, as they get older, into post secondary, etc, etc. What would you say to a parent to help that child who’s living in a world of texting and short forms and acronyms and every other thing to help them get on the right path. In a perfect world, in a perfect world,

with the smartphone away,

and let them know that we are going to reserve

30 minutes in which the two of us are going to sit down. And I’m going to share my joy of reading.

As we read together.

Now, we now know in my in my research and then the work that I’m doing in North Carolina.

I have the students they are working self pacing for the most part online software in which they work 30 minutes a day, five days a week, enhancing their vocabulary reading passages. And we found that that that’s for the lowest performing kids, we found kids in one particular school kids who were who were testing on a standardized end of grade North Carolina and the break test the year before they tested on average at the fifth percentile, which means you can’t get any lower than that means if you’re testing at the fifth percentile 95% of the kids are testing about

that on the basis of this truncated intense 30 minutes a day session for

1520 to 30 days. This year, their their average percentile ranking was in the mid 20s.

That’s pretty significant. That’s almost a 400% increase. And when we ran statistics on it, it showed that it was statistically significant.

So 30 minutes a day ain’t bad. It’s very and it gives you an opportunity to spend time quality time with with your child. And there are still a lot of good books out there. That frankly, just reading into them aloud and using it as a vehicle to explain to discuss to create terminology would go a long way. Is this helpful to you? Yes. And let me ask you, the 30 minute a day approach what age should ideally start at and is it always 30 minutes regardless of age? I O

It’s not it’s not I’m talking about. I’m talking about a good, a good medium. But if you can’t for that there’s some situations. Let’s start it. Let’s start at

15 minutes of quality. Let’s just let me read half a page or a page. And then let’s just discuss it for a little while. Let’s put the because because some of the kids, some of the kids don’t have that attention span right now. That’s one of the things. That’s why they like smartphones. That’s why I like it. I mean, you don’t have you’re on tic tac, you’re on anything. Look at Instagram, shorts, you YouTube short, what are they 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds. So let’s build on what they’re used to. But hopefully, if we are, if we are going to get them excited, then maybe the next day, it’s going to be 16 minutes or 17 minutes and build our way up to 30 or 40, or even an hour. The point is, the point is to make it enjoyable. And to let them know that this is our time. This is a quality time now.

That we made a long way. Yeah, absolutely. You develop the failure free reading approach and 1988. What would you say?

What would you say are some of the key differentiators of that approach? You alluded earlier to a strengths based focus rather than deficit based focus. But what are some of the other key differentiators of failure free reading

is what I what I found was a failure free is a step one program, it’s designed to jumpstart those kids with with dead reading batteries. And to show them that they can do faster, they can do higher and they can do more. Because right now, if they’re struggling, for the most part, what they’re getting is an RD intervention rather than a CS intervention. rd is that we’re going to remediate the deficit. So what we’re going to do is we’re going we’re going to believe that if you’re if you’re behind right now, then what we’re going to do is we’re going to give you slower lower unless, but you know, catch up with slower lower and less a CS, which is what I base everything on, is capitalize on the strength. If if kids are struggling, for example, with with letters and letter sounds, and they don’t have a good ear for sounds.

There are viable site based alternatives that will allow those kids to be successful.

Because one of the things that we realized, by the way, the last thing, the most important thing and that roadblock to reading comprehension, I totally forgot about and that is repetition. What we found was this, Chuck Hargis University of Tennessee, many, many years ago,

did a study in which he looked at is there a there variable? Is there is there a skill from a statistical standpoint that as the literacy level drops, the need for this skill proportionately increases, and he found there was almost a direct correlation, the lower the literacy level, the greater the greater you need this. And you know what that skill was only in repetition, repetition. And right now, in many ways, repetition has become a more as become a

negative word, because people will know how to read, forget the importance of repetition. So when they’re when they’re in something that’s highly redundant.

They’re saying, Oh, my God, this is terrible, how many times you’re gonna say the same thing. But when you’re struggling,

this, this amount of repetition is a boring, it’s the mother of learning if done properly. So one of the things that I found, and what I would do is I would go out across the country. And I would literally come. And I’d say, I like to do a live demonstration, whether it was a middle school or high school or prison, a youth facility, an elementary school, I didn’t care, it didn’t make any difference. I was only coming on two conditions. The first condition is I only want to work with the kid the greatest difficulty with the second condition is if you don’t see dramatic change in their ability within a 30 minute period, I’m walking out the door. Now I’ve given this 1000 times across the nation and asked me how many times I’ve walked out the door. None. And the reason why is because I set the conditions that were allowing them to be successful. I took nothing for granted. I was predicated on a three word philosophy, which is reading is relating. I made sure that that the content that I was presenting in front of them was content that they could understand that so I previewed the material, I introduced the vocabulary. I read that part of

story to them. I curbed the use of multiple meaning words idiomatic expressions, figurative speech, I made sure that I use what was called Space learning. So I started with simple, active declarative sentences where I introduced

the vocabulary. And then I introduced that into into sentences and the sentences into paragraphs. And what was on paragraph one led to paragraph two, which then led to paragraph three, was highly structured once they understood what was expected in the first lesson. The next lesson other than the content was, was identical. And I couldn’t, and I worked with clients with all with with IQs as low as 4550.

And I couldn’t have I never met one that didn’t have a successful reading experience when I control control for those variables. Not to show can you take us through some of the telltale signs of briefly, telltale signs that a child and adolescent a tween might be struggling with reading?

Well, number one, great.

You got these, you’ve got X behaviors. You know, one of the things that you got a lot of kids that that I know we’re in the world of book packs. But before that used to have what I call the biggest book theory. And that was, those were kids that will walk down the, in the in the hallway with with the biggest book when they couldn’t read it, but they didn’t want anybody else to know that they couldn’t read it. So this was their, this was their facade. A lot of times you’ll see, you’ll see the kids

overly aggressive, acting out, being thrown out of class, because they learned frankly, that it’s a lot easier to go one on one with the assistant principal than it is making a fool out of yourself in front of peers. But let me also say that though those are kids who are smart enough to realize how to get out of the class.

Things like, like being told that they can’t sustain. They can’t work by themselves. They can’t work for for one period for short periods of times. Then, then I look at, you know, the tangibles are looking at their writing samples. Can they write in sentences that their spelling is this darling? Bizarre. You can look at those performance situations and then listen to them. Are they for some kids, because we’re running a spectrum. Some of our kids are socially naive some of our kids, when you compare their vocabulary to compare to vocabulary, their peers, that’s a whole different ballgame. Quick tips for parents on how to foster a love of reading and children and what ideally should not start at what age NUMBER ONE demonstrated. Demonstrated yourself. I mean, well, how can you tell me to stop the smartphone and why you got your well while your nose is in the smartphone, you have to you have to set a time you have to discuss it, you have to share with them your love of literature, and they’re going to watch you they’re going to see what you do.

Develop that vocabulary. That’s, that’s wonderful. Set aside a reading time. Sit down with them. And if they look at their science, their social studies, they’re mad. Ask the teacher, if you’re talking tweens and teenagers just ask Is there any way that I can that I can have his have his assignments the week before so that I can sit down with them and go over them all before he comes into class the next day? At two ton of listen to read a passage through them and then ask them Do they know what they do they know what this means. lots to think about. Certainly lots of tips for parents. Dr. Joe Lockavitch, educator, president of failure free reading thank you so much for your time and insight today. Well, thank you i I thoroughly enjoyed it.

“We’re a highly verbal society. We are judged, sadly, from the moment we open our mouths. The more articulate we are, the more we’re going to be able to succeed in life.”

A long-time educator, university professor, and school psychologist, Lockatvitch is also creator of the Failure Free Reading method. He spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, from his home in Concord, North Carolina.

Dr. Lockavitch describes an alarming new divide when it comes to students’ reading abilities. Those who are reading successfully are reading at a far higher level than 20 or 40 years ago. But a significant number of students are falling far behind, testing well
below the 25th percentile. That’s where Lockavitch’s work comes in. His goal is to help those struggling students learn by tapping into what they’re naturally good at and using it to shape how they are taught.

He tells Castelino: “If there is a universal fact that one can draw and that I operate on, it’s that all reading programs work, but they don’t work for all students. The reason why is because it violates the principle of neurodiversity. I believe that we should spend less time on the remediation of a deficit and more time on the capitalization of strengths.”


Parents can support struggling readers by recognizing roadblocks to comprehension. These could be things like uncommon names, places, and terms; abundant idiomatic expressions and highly figurative language that a child cannot comprehend; or an unnecessarily complicated writing style, i.e., passive sentences rather than active ones.

He urges parents to get kids to put away smartphones and spend 30 minutes of quality time each day reading and discussing it to maximize comprehension. Modeling behavior is critical, as well; parents must demonstrate an interest in reading if they expect their child to develop it.

Imitating what a teen would say to their parent, Lockavitch says, “‘How can you tell me to stop [with] the smartphone while your nose is in your smartphone?’ You have to set aside time [to read]. You have to discuss it. You have to share with them your love of literature, and they’re going to watch you. They’re going to see what you do.”


As for recognizing if a child is struggling with reading, Lockavitch offers some telltale signs for observant parents. These include grades, disruptive behaviors to get out of class, an inability to focus or work by themselves, bizarre spellings, and even social naivete when it comes to vocabulary, i.e., not knowing the same words as their classmates.

Lockavitch offers a hopeful message for parents who may be worried about their child’s reading ability, along with some practical takeaways to improve.

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