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Early signs of a reading difficulty

Parents are often the first to suspect their child has a reading problem. An expert alerts parents to some of the earliest indicators of a reading difficulty.

By Susan Hall, Ed.D.

Parents often ask: What are some early warning signs of a reading difficulty? What should I look for? In this article, Susan Hall, Ed.D., answers these questions.

A parent may be the first person in a child's life to recognize a reading problem. A parent's observation is critical because some of the earliest signs that foreshadow a reading difficulty can be seen during preschool and kindergarten years.

Difficulty manipulating sounds in words is one of the hallmark characteristics of reading difficulties and can be seen at a young age. Your child might struggle with rhyming, word games, or recognizing words that start with the same sound.

Often children who had repeated ear infections or speech delays during their early years eventually have trouble learning to read. Children who have articulation problems or are late to talk, as compared to peers, should not only receive a speech and hearing screening during the preschool years but should be monitored for possible reading difficulty.

Let's turn to some stories from parents of children who later had trouble reading. What were some warning signs they saw as early as the preschool years?

  • One parent first noticed her daughter couldn't learn letter and number symbols when she was a preschooler. Despite the mother's extensive efforts to teach her daughter the alphabet, her child entered kindergarten knowing only 2 of the 26 letters.
  • Another mother noticed just before her son's third birthday that he wasn't speaking at the level of his peers. He had experienced repeated ear infections and later had tubes inserted; his speech improved somewhat, but he eventually had reading problems.
  • Another parent first began to suspect a problem when her preschool son disliked nursery rhymes. She would leave off the last word to see if he could fill in the blank of the rhyme. Despite having heard the same rhyme many times, he couldn't do it. He just didn't seem to recognize the pattern of similar sounding words that is characteristic of rhyming.

Sometimes parents notice difficulties during first grade because a child who's just beginning to learn to read may have trouble making associations between sounds and letters. Problems include detecting differences in speech sounds and performing tasks that require this skill, such as:

  • Pronouncing new words and remembering them
  • Breaking words apart into sounds
  • Blending sounds together to make words
  • Remembering the names and sounds of the letters

A child with weak phonological skills often prefers to guess at unknown words while reading because he is not very good at figuring out the sounds or blending them together. Being able to sound out unknown words is an important skill your child needs in order to read text. Beyond third grade, the text contains more difficult words that often cannot be predicted from context clues or limited pictures.

If you ask your first grader to read aloud to you and he resists doing so, this may be a warning that there's a problem. Children who struggle often find reading is such a belabored process they avoid it.

By the middle of first grade your child should be able to read at least 100 common words, such as the, and, and is, and know the letter-sound associations well enough to read words in simple books. Watch for these warning signs as you listen to your child read aloud:

  • Doesn't know the sounds associated with all of the letters
  • Skips words in a sentence and doesn't stop to self-correct
  • Can't remember words; sounds out the same word every time it occurs on the page
  • Frequently guesses at unknown words rather than sounding them out

You can also look at your child's writing for clues about reading difficulty. By the end of kindergarten a child should be writing words that contain most of the consonant sounds in a word, even though the vowels will often be missing or inaccurate until later.

These warning signs can be helpful to parents who suspect learning to read isn't progressing smoothly. However, just because your child is struggling doesn't necessarily mean there is a serious problem. Learning to read is a complex process that doesn't occur overnight for most children; it takes time and plenty of direct, systematic instruction.

It's important not to panic if you see some of these warning signs in your child. Lists of early warning signs can help you be on the lookout; however, there is no precise list of surefire signs of a reading difficulty. Each child is unique and may exhibit only some of the signs. Knowing what to look for can help you decide whether you need to investigate further. Calm and reasoned reactions are the most effective for your child.

Comments from readers

"A couple of suggestions. Size of print, space between words, finding words that begin the same as child's name, multisensory approach when possible, see, say, feel, draw, etc., and monitor tracking of the eyes making sure they are looking left to right, often asking, tell me what you see, or spell the word for me. "
"I would like to purchase a educational disk to help my grandson read he is having difficulty at school "
"The schools can only do so much. We as parents are ultimately responsible for helping our LD children. For my daughter with reading, spelling, and handrwiting problems I research, research, research. Then, I apply my newfound knowledge at home. We use phonics flash cards (especially ones that develop vowl sound awareness), word building flash cards. I've made my own -- ie. STR: STR-ip, STR-ipe, STR-ap. We practice spelling in modeling clay or a plate of sugar. We count sounds in words to help establish sound/letter relationship before spelling the word. She reads every night out loud to me. We purchased tracing books to build handwriting skills. We encourage "grip and flip" to help pencil grip. We let some work be sloppy then require other work to be as neat as possible. The school says...she's on grade level, so there's nothing we can do to help. That doesn't mean she doesn't need help. She's on grade level BECAUSE of the help she gets at home. Be confident! that you are the best learning resource your child can have! "
"my 6yrs old daughter is just about having diffuculty she struggles i want to know if theres a number i could call i dont feel her school is helping me enough to check into if she needs any further help.. "
"sometimes the environment within which the child finds himself or herself makes the the child acquire language ealier."
"I have tree son's who have difficulties with focussing,being motorvated,doing things backwards,and just not doing what is exspected of them academically..the oldest is 26yrs old he has dyslexia,the 13yr old has ADHD,he stay in detention,which brothers me alot simply because if the teacher become more educated on these types of difficulties our children would recieve better service. The 7yr old has a combernation of both,ADHD,and ,Dyslexia. the oldest was born with a club foot he had 4 surguryies on this foot they also took a bone out of his hip to bring the heel of this foot down,i learned to soak the cast then take him to get recast the following day.When the began going to school I notice that he would draw all the time rather than do homework,one day he came home iI was tired and ask him to read something to me the first word was only a two letter word(IT) h could'nt read that word.I took him myself to get him evaluated immediately.The 13yr old, from the time he went to s! chool he drove the teachers crazy to a point they would be waiting outside for me to come.He was so good at reading lips,he had four(4) surgeries also, he also had his agnouise removed,tubes in his ears until his body started rejecting the tubes he also have bad asthma,he's been on medication sence he was in the second grade. Still today the teachers can't tolorate him nor his peers he doesnt understand gestures at all he's just a square trying to fit in a circl,he is'nt mature at all.I tried helping him with his social skill,that is such a task. The 7yr old is such flustration when it come to anything. He does everything except what he is to be doing,he leaves his book,homework sheet school so he do'nt I need some support."
"i am in need of help for my child currently in special education programs at his school but not a lot of progress please help me !"
"I have 3 sons. Two of them, ages 13 and 10 are currently in special education programs. My concern is that both of them still struggle a lot with reading and writing. My 13 year old is in 8th grade and can barely write one sentence on his own without help. He has improved in his reading but still skips or replaces words when we ask him to read aloud. He is very shy, and gives up easily in any work that challenges him. My 10 year old is in 5th grade, and has had severe problems reading, writing, and spelling. He also had multiple ear infections and was hospitalized at 2 months old when he stopped breathing with respiratory problems. Sounding out words, and reading most anything is very difficult. My biggest fear is that because the two of them are in special education programs, that less is being expected of them and that they will just be pushed through the school system, not recieving the skills needed to succeed in high school and beyond. Our efforts at home to help them s! eem to little too late, and most homework sessions end in frustration. Im very concerned not knowing how to help my children. please send me any suggestions."
"I am homeschooling my 6 year old. She knows all but 2 of the phonetics and we just started yesterday. Today, she threw a tantrum during math. She has done it before in public school. Her teacher last year said she was ADD and they placed her on drugs that turned her into a zombie. I don't believe she is ADD, but she is very shy and gets embarrased easily. Can you help understand why she does this and how I can help her get passed it. We play word games while in stores, the car and sitting watching TV. But, when it comes to doing work she hates it! Help me to understand why and what I can do to help her get passed this."
"Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges:"
"Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges:"
"My son has been at special edd since he was at 1st grade, and now he is at 9 grade and he is taking english and algebra1 special edd because he fail those classe of the 1st semester of regular classes, but I am not happy because he is not learning and the teachers passes him without knowing the subjet, so I really want him to be at regular classes because the knowledges and also the university doesn't reconize the special edd education. I think because they know they don't learn at the special edd. I really want some advice because I already spoke with evrybody at the school. When my son was at regular classes he was putting more attention and effor to learn, but now he is bored and getting lazy. Thank you."
"I understand that reading problems are serious but in my school district they put you in special education for having dyslexia, add, or adhd which is stupid because its the same special education as the students with down syndrome or autism. The students would need different attentions then each other. While an autistic child may need a long time on one subject a child with add or adhd would get restless doing the same same thing over and over."
"What do you do when you saw the early signs, he has been in Special ed classes from 1st grade on he is now in the 10 th grade and still struggles to read and learn some things."
"I need help!! My son has been having problems reading for some time now. I kept him back in kindergarden, but he still continues to have great problems and he is now in the forth grade. I dont know what else to do. I dont have insurance for him so I cant take him to the doctor without having to pay for it. I am trying to find out if there is anyway that I can get some help for him that is free. If you have any suggestions please let me know. Thank You"