I admit it. I have an addiction to audio books. Sure, this may have something to do with the fact that I'm in the car for an average of three hours a day, but there is something about being read to that makes the time fly by. Now, I have met many children who are struggling to read, and many parents who are just as determined to push their student into the mainstream as quickly as possible. I have seen this take the form of "the only way you get to see the movie is if you read the book first yourself." Parents become so determined that their child learns to read that they forget the bigger picture: books, in all their forms, open new worlds, avenues of thought, and perspectives that children are otherwise deprived.
I am not saying that you should just throw the reading lessons out the window, as repetition and constant reinforcement are what is going to help those struggling. However, consider a fifth grader still reading at a second or third grade level. The books that he is able to read and comprehend are going to be written not for his vocabulary level, but for the vocabulary level of those two to three years younger. And yes, while any form of reading is beneficial, something more needs to be done. One of the main ways students learn new vocabulary is from reading in context. If this skill is not developed, it can affect a child's inferencing skills as well as his overall vocabulary.
One of the coolest classes I took at Harvard was called Deep Comprehension. There, we learned that in order to comprehend a text, you must understand 95% of the words on a page. Theoretically, even you don't know 5% of the words, you are able to figure out their relative meaning from context. With less than that, the use of context becomes very difficult. Look at this sample, provided my one of my professors:
Now, chances are that there is really only one word in that paragraph that you don't recognize. Because unless you work in manufacturing of medical supplies, I doubt you are familiar with the phrase "autoclave." Honestly, without a good picture of an autoclave, the above is all but nonsense.
So imagine you were listening to this in class as an eighth grader, but instead of the word "autoclave," the teacher keeps on saying "retentive" or "voracious" or "stoic." It would be hard to keep up with the lesson, even if the child is a skilled comprehender. This is why it is so important to encourage struggling readers (and older struggling readers especially) to listen to audiobooks at or above their grade level. Vocabulary is such a huge piece of comprehension, and you only learn words truly once you have been exposed to them in different situations at least 12 times. And let's be honest--no kid in the world wants to sit down and do vocabulary drills. (Unless they're me and really just enjoyed studying for that GRE...)
If you can't find a way to make sure your student is reading for at least 15 minutes a day (trust me, I know a few who would rather throw a tantrum than sit and voluntarily read for 15 minutes), try audiobooks. Might I recommend Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (grade 1+), Redwall by Brian Jacques (grade 3+), His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman (grade 4/5+), The Song of the Lionness series by Tamora Pierce (grade 7+), The Books of Beginning series by John Stevens (grade 4+), or The Giver by Lois Lowry (grade 5+). Honestly, there are so many great books out there to help increase kids' vocabulary (how could I forget A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket?) that it's hard to make a concise list. So, if you're finding it hard to get your kid to read, give them audiobooks. They may not be interested in reading, but hopefully they'll start to find joy in stories.
It is important to realize too that some students might not have the auditory comprehension necessary to enjoy or get wrapped up in a story. Make sure to realize if they are A) having trouble focusing, B) simply don't like the story, C) are having trouble following the plot of the book, or D) some combination of above. It's okay if audiobooks don't seem to work, but try and discover the reasoning behind the reluctance. Feel free to reach out to me if you have questions!