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The Early Warning Signs of Reading Difficulty

by Laura Gordon | 10 April 2019
When I dropped my son off for his first day of kindergarten, I had one hope above all others: that my son would learn to read and come to love reading.

Most parents and teachers share this view that literacy is what matters most. A series of polls conducted in the 1990s found that more than half of parents (62%) and teachers (70%) alike ranked reading as the most important skill.

But what can you do when you find that your child is still struggling to read, despite their hard work in school? How can you advocate for your child’s reading?

Is my child falling behind?

As parents, we all know that it’s our job to advocate for our children. Often, what we don’t know is what to look for or what to do.

Once you’re aware of the signs to watch out for, and how to act on them, there are important ways that you can help children catch up.

Below are three key tips for school-aged children.

1. Keep an Eye Out for Early Reading Warning Signs

As parents, there are a number of simple warning signs that can indicate a reading problem. It can be tempting to brush little problems aside when children are young.

However, University of Chicago professor and literacy expert Timothy Shanahan writes that when a “kindergarten child confuses letters, associates the wrong sound with a letter, or cannot distinguish a rhyme, it usually has nothing to do with social maturity.” Instead, he writes that these can be an early warning flag that a child will need extra instruction to become readers.

The Main Warning Signs

Kid’s Health offers a useful list of signs to look out for in young children, which we provide with only minor changes below. According to their site, dyslexic children and children with reading difficulties often struggle with the following:

  • Identifying and generating words that rhyme
  • Remembering sequences, like the sequence of the alphabet or numbers from one to ten
  • Recalling the names of letters and the sounds they make
  • Identifying syllables (cow–boy in cowboy) and speech sounds (phonemes: b-a-t in bat) in words
  • Sounding out simple words
  • Using the correct letter sequence to read words and spell them (now/won)
  • Mastering handwriting and fine-motor coordination

These children might also have problems learning to talk and pronouncing longer words when they are very young. By the time they are older, reading difficulties manifest as a dislike of reading. Keep an eye out for reading and spelling that is well below grade level, as well as anxiety and avoidance behaviors around reading and writing.

Look for the specific cause of difficulty

To give your child the best chance of catching up, try to match their symptoms to a specific cause of reading difficulty. We track 9 possible causes, which are laid out plainly on this page. Once you understand precisely what’s going on, it is much easier to help.

Most importantly, make sure to look out for guessing short words or making surprising mistakes while reading. This is typical of optilexia, the number 1 cause of reading difficulty. It should not be ignored.

2. Don’t Wait.

The research is clear. Many children who struggle to read early don’t “catch up.” Instead, poor reading skills as early as third grade can predict years of academic struggles. In a landmark study that followed children from early grade school through graduation, Donald J. Hernandez found that children struggling to read in third grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school. Indeed, reading-related academic problems weren’t seen only in English class. Without the ability to understand math prompts, science books, and literature, students simply couldn’t keep up in any subject.

If you notice that your child is falling behind, DON’T WAIT. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “95 percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive effective help early”. By taking steps to intervene early on behalf of your child, you can make a real difference in how well they read.

The effects of leaving it too late

In contrast, waiting can have dire, long-term effects. The longer you wait to address a child’s reading problems, the less likely it is that they will catch up. NIH research shows that among children with reading difficulties, 90% of those who received an intervention by first grade go on to achieve grade level in reading. On the other hand, a devastating 75% of those children who did not receive reading help before the age of 9 continue to struggle throughout their school careers.

44% of parents wait for at least a year to get help for their struggling reader. But time matters when it comes to helping your child’s reading. Don’t wait. If your child is falling behind their peers, take action. By addressing gaps in a child’s literacy awareness early, you can help reduce the likelihood they have problems later on.

Act now to start achieving change

If you think your child is showing signs of an early problems, trust your instincts and take action. The longer you wait to intervene, the longer it takes for children to show measurable progress. The NIH studies show that children who receive help in fourth grade take “four times as long to improve the same skills by the same amount” as children who receive help in kindergarten. If your child is falling behind their peers, take action. By addressing gaps in a child’s literacy awareness early, you can help reduce the likelihood they have problems later on.

That said – there is hope for all readers, regardless of their age. If your older child is showing signs of reading struggles, or even if you know an adult who still has reading frustrations, there are still effective interventions they can use to make real gains.

3. Decode, decode, decode

For the majority of children, the solution to early reading struggles is an intervention that focuses on phonological awareness and decoding. Or, in other words, the best interventions work on helping children master the connection between the letters in words and the sounds they make.

Literacy expert Tim Shanahan notes that for 86% of children who struggle to read, phonological awareness and are at the heart of the reading issue. Doctor Sally Shaywitz, co-founder of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, agrees. She explains that most children with reading problems “have trouble matching the letters they see on the page with the sounds those letters and combinations of letters make.”

Decoding is a critical skill for children with reading struggles. That’s why at Helping Children to Read, decoding is central to our strategy. By using an innovative set of Trainertext images, we change the way that children approach words on the page.

Tested Success

We have tested the solutions with thousands of children. Through an easy, fun set of games and reading exercises, the learners on our Easyread System are able to rebuild their understanding of written language, and move from struggling readers to confident ones.

Whatever method you choose for your child, be sure that it focuses on these fundamental skill sets – phonological awareness and decoding. With an effective decoding intervention, offered as early as possible, you can give your child the best chance at reading well.

Laura Gordon was a lecturer in English literature at the University of Maryland and editor for Public Health. She is a mother of two children and is now an Easyread System Manager for David Morgan Education, supporting children and their parents on the journey to confident reading and writing.

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