How to Help Struggling Readers Read to Self

Teaching silent reading voices to struggling readers (or all readers!) is a powerful tool to increase reading comprehension and fluency. As your students approach the upper grades, most reading time is spent reading to self. We teachers always emphasize the importance of letting students choose their own books and read to self, but what happens when students struggle with this skill?

If your students struggle to read to self, they may not be reading with an interacting silent reading voice (also known as your inner reading voice). For the purpose of this blog, I use inner voices, but when teaching students, I use the kid-friendly term silent reading voices.

What are Silent Reading Voices?

The Interacting Voice

Students who have an interacting inner voice while they read are actively engaged with their text. They might, for example, create a movie in their mind as they read, ask questions, visualize the characters in their story, and even create voices for the characters. Another part of this interaction is that students begin to infer, they stop to summarize, they notice cool words and phrases, they imagine the setting, and they even feel like they are a part of the story.

Most struggling readers haven’t developed an interacting voice and are stuck in the distracting voice or the reciting inner voice as they silent read.

The Distracting Voice

Students who have a distracting inner voice are often not engaged or focused on story. They forgot what they just read, they keep reading the same page over and over, they think of something else instead of the story, they skim or skip sections, they lose their place while reading, and they sometimes avoid reading time by asking to use the restroom.

The Reciting Voice

Students who have a reciting inner voice are sitting and reading the words, but they do not have an inner voice (typically because they don’t know how). They hear a narrator reading the story in their mind, but they just hear the words. Often, as the story unfolds, all the characters sound alike.


Why Some Students Haven’t Yet Developed an Interacting Inner Voice

Some students who haven’t naturally developed an interacting inner voice haven’t been taught what it is and haven’t had enough time to practice it. Most students start their reading journey by first learning to read out loud in the lower grades. As they read out loud, their reading fluency and comprehension are orally discussed with a teacher, and it’s the teacher who monitors or adjusts the student’s comprehension. However, as students get older, they are required to spend more time reading silently (without being taught the skills to do so in many cases). In addition, some struggling readers are not getting a lot of time to practice read to self due to interventions that occur during that time in the ELA block. Most intervention periods are spent reading aloud with the struggling reader. Pull-outs, push-ins, and small group interventions are usually teacher-led. Whether it’s a small group or an individual intervention, most of these students are required to read aloud with the adult. The reason for that is so that the adult can monitor fluency and oral comprehension. While this type of intervention is important, we also need to make sure that our struggling readers have sufficient time to practice their silent reading.

Reading silently with comprehension is the goal of every teacher. However, if you think about it, reading silently is an extremely complex task.

To understand the complexity of reading silently, it’s important to understand that comprehension while reading silently requires an integration of numerous skills and processes. These include word decoding and recognition (self explanatory), whole-text print processing (think inner voice, fluency, and prosody), and applying before, during, and after comprehension strategies (everything from activating prior knowledge to synthesizing the text).

So here’s the thing…when a struggling reader is in our classroom, there is a myriad of things we do to provide interventions. We typically provide them with interventions that include word recognition and decoding strategies. We offer many opportunities to practice fluency. I have even meticulously taught students every reading comprehension strategy that they should use before they read, while they read, and after they read. None of this is wrong. These are all very important interventions (or just great teaching) that you really must continue for all readers.

However, after further research, I realized one important step I was missing – explicitly teaching students about their inner reading voice. Personally, I think this is one of the first things students should be taught before you even give them the opportunity to start reading silently. They need to understand that their brains have a job to do while they read silently.

Most struggling readers don’t understand that reading is an active process.

How to Explicitly Teach Students to Turn On Their Interacting Inner Voice

The key to explicitly teaching students about their interacting inner voice is awareness. Students need to know that their inner voice is within them, they just need to turn it on.

To teach students about their inner reading voice (or silent reading voice), I explicitly model what each voice looks like.

-For the distracting voice, I model the student who is looking around the room and who re-reads the same page over and over. I share aloud things that would be going through a distracted brain (like what I am eating for dinner tonight, how I am going to do at my baseball game, etc.). Tell them exactly where you zoned out and started thinking about your baseball game. I explicitly teach all of this to students so that they understand what a distracting voice looks and feels like.

-Once I feel that students understand what a distracting voice would feel like in their own head, I move on to reciting voice. For this, the student may appear to be reading and comprehending on the outside, but it’s whats going on inside their brain that you need to emphasize. Talk to students about the fact that you are just reading the words. You are not visualizing or stopping to have a conversation with the text.

*For the above two voices, you may want to emphasize that:

  • The inner voice inside the reader’s head has stopped or never started.
  • Only the reader’s voice is heard pronouncing the words.
  • The movie inside the reader’s head has stopped or never started.
  • The reader is no longer visualizing what’s happening.
  • The reader’s mind begins to wander.
  • The reader starts thinking about things that have nothing to do with the text.
  • The reader can’t remember what they read.
  • The reader can’t retell what they read.
  • The reader can’t remember the characters, even though they are reappearing throughout the text.

-Last, explicitly teach and model for students what the interacting voice looks and sounds like. Get a short passage out and read it for students. Stop at different parts and explain to them the movie you are making in your mind. Imagine what the setting might look like, start wondering things out loud so that they can hear you, notice cool words and phrases or figurative language at certain parts, give the characters voices, talk about what you think the character might be wearing, thinking, feeling, etc. Do all of this out loud, but explain to students that this is what happens quietly inside their brain.

For some students this may come automatically, but for many, this needs to be explicitly taught. As you release responsibility to your students, grab those struggling readers and let them silent read near you. Stop them at certain times and ask them what their inner voice was saying to them at that moment. You can even start small by focusing first on making the movie in their mind, then moving on to questioning, a character’s physical traits, a character’s personality traits, and then slowly work your way toward asking them about cool words and phrases and some of the higher-level thinking strategies like inferring and synthesizing.

Here are some questions you should ask your students to see if they have a working inner voice while they read silently:

  • What pictures do you see in your mind as you read?
  • What’s the setting of your story? Can you explain where your characters are at right now?
  • What’s the main characters name? What is he wearing right now?
  • How is the main character different from the other characters?
  • Do your characters talk differently? Do any of them have accents?
  • What questions do you have about what you just read?
  • What are you wondering right now?
  • What do you think is going to happen next?
  • Why do you think that just happened?
  • Can you tell me 5 things that just happened?
  • What do you think the characters are going to do next?
  • How will the characters solve their problem? What makes you think that?
  • Did you notice any cool words while you were reading?

The conversations you can have with your students to encourage their inner voice are endless.



  1. Carolyn Topliff says:

    What suggestions do you have for adult readers and the development of silent reading skills? Is it the same as for children?

    1. Kristine Nannini says:

      Hi Carolyn- Thanks for your comment! Yes, I do believe that all of the same strategies apply to adults. It’s important to interact with the text while you silent read.

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