Why is my child struggling with reading?
The 5 key reasons children struggle with reading
“Why can’t my child read”… it’s the first response of any caring parent who starts to notice their child is struggling with reading and falling below literacy benchmarks for their year-level.
If your child is struggling with reading, the first step is to understand the root cause of their struggles so you can develop an effective response. This article will help you do that.
But first, there is good news to bear in mind. If you can identify why your child is struggling with reading in the early years of school, the evidence tells us they will most likely avoid longer term reading struggles.
The key is understanding why a child is struggling to read and then acting fast. The longer they struggle, the harder the reading difficulties become to address.
So why do children struggle with reading?
Recent research shows that 28% of children have significant difficulties learning to read. A common reason for such difficulties is of course dyslexia, but many other children will also be challenged by the reading process.
For a large portion of children struggling with reading, the issue will be difficulties with ‘phonemic awareness’ and/or the time it takes for them to learn phonics skills. While for others a language delay is the the root cause.
In some cases limited exposure to books in the home, as well as opportunities to develop a solid vocabulary, are underlying reasons. And, for many children, struggles with reading arise simply because they haven’t been exposed to high quality literacy instruction from their teacher(s).
So let’s unpack each of these in turn to identify whether they are a particular area of concern for your child.
Child Struggling With Reading Reason #1: Phonemic Awareness Difficulties
Research shows again and again that phonemic awareness is the crucial prerequisite skill that supports reading success. In fact one large study showed it was the single biggest predictor of reading success.
Phonemic awareness is simply a child’s ability to identify and manipulate the individual sounds in oral language, called ‘phonemes’. (NB: phonemes are just the smallest units of sound in language, like the /a/ sound in the word /mat/. Manipulation means playing with those sounds, e.g. changing the /a/ sound in /mat/ to an /i/ and knowing that the new word is /mit/).
Some children find the concept of playing with and manipulating sounds difficult and need much more practise in order to grasp these skills.
When should phonemic awareness skills present in a typically developing child? See our phonemic awareness benchmark guide below.
If a child hasn’t acquired these phonemic awareness skills, they are likely to struggle with reading at school. Why? Because school quickly moves into the world of phonics, which is matching sounds (phonemes) to their corresponding letters in order to read and spell.
But if a child hasn’t absolutely mastered the sounds in language to begin with, it is near impossible for them to connect those sounds to the correct letters of the alphabet.
How do we know if reading difficulties come from poor phonemic awareness skills?
For children who have started learning to read, phonemic awareness is a likely cause of their reading difficulties if they:
1. Find it difficult to clap syllables in words
2. Struggle to listen and call out the beginning, middle and end sounds in a word
3. Struggle to sound out words when trying to read
4. Confuse the middle vowel sounds of a word
5. Find it hard to identify the sounds produced by each letter
Child Struggling With Reading Reason #2: Extra Time Needed to Grasp Phonics Skills
While phonemic awareness is a critical pillar of the reading development process, it does not help a child read until they are able to match the sounds to letters.
For this, children must develop phonics skills – the ability to match the sounds in words to their corresponding letter symbols in order to read and write.
Phonics is often a particular area of struggle for dyslexic children. Dyslexia is of course a brain-based condition that makes it hard to recognise letters and recall which sounds those letters make in a given word.
Some children find it very hard to make the connection between written letters in words and the sounds they. These children usually need more time and targeted instruction to understand these letter-sound relationships, as it doesn’t come easily or automatically for them.
This is where dedicated intervention phonics programs are used to address gaps in a child’s phonics skills. However, if the difficulties are not identified and addressed, the gaps widen with time causing significant reading struggles in future years.
There is nothing more detrimental than moving a child onto complex phonics e.g. words with /igh/ in them such as /right/ if they still haven’t grasped the basic initial sounds like /a/ in /mat/.
How do we know if phonics is a specific area of weakness? Any of the following would indicate the possibility of poor phonics skills in a child:
1. Guessing at certain words on the page
2. Reading that is laboured and slow
3. An inability to take much meaning from the text
4. A child who knows the alphabet and the common sounds the letters make, but struggle to put it all together to sound out words
5. A child who gets frustrated or upset when asked to take their time and ‘sound the word out’
Child Struggling With Reading Reason #3: Lack of Literacy Exposure at Home
The foundations for learning to read are set well before a child enters formal education at school.
Countless studies have shown that children with literacy rich homes gain a competitive advantage in vocabulary development and phonemic awareness skill development – which are both critical early skills needed for reading success.
Many children who ultimately struggle with reading, commence school with a deficiency in these foundational skills.
It is often true that children who find reading hard have not been exposed sufficiently to shared book reading at home and therefore do not have an understanding of sounds in words, patterns in spoken language or the concept of reading. See our article on how to read with your child.
These early experiences are the difference between arriving at school with a head start in reading or well behind the pack. And, once there is even a small gap between a child and their peers, it can be very hard to make up.
Teaching children to read cannot be left to the classroom alone. If a child doesn’t have actively involved parents who engage in real book reading, it is possible that the child will struggle with learning to read at school.
The fantastic news here is that with just a few well selected books it is easy for any parent to actively support their child’s reading progress.
Child Struggling With Reading Reason #4: Oral Language Difficulties
Well before a child starts school, they learn the basics of language in their very early formative years. Unlike learning to read, this process occurs naturally; a child, like all humans, is born to speak.
For the vast majority of children, this language development process is innate and efficient. However for some, development of speaking and hearing skills is not a seamless process.
If a child struggles developing these skills, they will most likely struggle with learning to read. In fact studies show these children are four times more likely to struggle with learning to read than their peers.
Oral language impairment impedes a child’s development of key phonemic awareness skills (covered earlier in this article), which in turn undermines their ability to use phonics to decode unfamiliar words on the page. It will also limit their oral vocabulary word bank, which in turn impedes reading comprehension.
So, well-developed oral language skills are not only important for reading unfamiliar words on a page, but they also provide the skills needed for reading comprehension.
How do we know if a child has an oral language difficulty? Any of the following would indicate the possibility of oral language impairment:
1. If a child struggles to hear what is being said to them
2. If adults find it difficult to understand what a child says
3. Or, if a child isn’t meeting oral language benchmarks for their age (e.g. first word by 18 months and detailed sentences by 5 years)
If any of these are true for your child, it might be worth seeking advice from an expert such as a speech pathologist.
Child Struggling With Reading Reason #5: lack of Evidence Based Literacy Instruction
So, we’ve gone through some specific individual learning difficulties that might be underpinning a child’s struggles with reading. But the reality is many children struggle with reading purely due to external issues out of their control.
Children do not learn to read naturally or incidentally. In fact, for children who find reading hard, getting high quality, explicit instruction is critical if they are to crack the reading code.
Unfortunately an overwhelming number of schools and teachers in the UK, Australia, US, New Zealand and Canada still teach children how to read using ‘whole language’ approaches.
What does this mean? Whole language approaches teach children to read words by memory or ‘sight’ rather than sounding words out bit by bit using phonics skills.
This approach believes literacy is ‘caught not taught’. It’s a misguided belief that was, to the detriment of our young readers, taught to the majority of our current teaching workforce at university.
Decades of scientific research on how children learn to read supports the need to explicitly teach the 5 pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocab, fluency and comprehension.
Children shouldn’t be told to guess at words. The emphasis should be on proper decoding techniques. Often children who rely on guesswork in the early years (when there are other cues like pictures in books) really struggle in the later years as the gaps in their phonics skills start to be exposed.
How do we know if there is an issue with the quality of the literacy instruction a child is receiving?
A child’s classroom should not be filled with repetitive or predictable books, this in an indication that whole language approaches are being used. Instead, you would want to see an abundance of decodable phonics texts.
If a child’s classroom teacher can’t tell you about the ‘phonics sequence’ the school use, this is also a cause for concern. There should be a specific phonics sequence that is taught across the school. Without this, there is no easy way of knowing whether a child has difficulty learning a certain phonics skill, or if they simply haven’t been taught it yet.
Parents have a right to feel cheated and frustrated when their child’s reading struggles can be attributed (in full or in part) to poor teaching…
Children struggle with reading for a variety of different reasons. Nevertheless they all have one thing in common. The difficulties usually appear in the very first year of instruction at school (or earlier) and they produce gaps in a child’s literacy development.
As the rest of the class moves forward with the curriculum, struggling readers fall further behind and the ‘gap’ widens. We (parents, schools, educators, policymakers) must work together to:
1. Identify children who are struggling with reading early (e.g. through a year 1 phonics screening check);
2. Identify why those children are struggling with reading; and
3. Put in place an effective intervention strategy to address the specific areas a child is struggling with
If we do this right, almost every child will breakthrough to literacy.
Is your child struggling with reading? What do you think is behind their struggles and what strategies are you using to help? We’d love to hear from you.