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9 reasons kids struggle with reading – and what you can do about it

Why children struggle with reading
Not all children take to books easily. If your child finds reading tricky, read our guide to the problems they might be having.

Learning to read is one of the most important skills children need to master in the first few years of school – but it doesn’t always come easily.

Some kids struggle to grasp the very building blocks of reading, while others get the basics but find it hard to build fluency or comprehension.

Whatever the reason for your child’s difficulties, it can be a real worry.

‘It’s important to understand that having trouble with reading isn’t a sign of lower intelligence,’ says Sinéad Naidoo, Young Readers Programme Manager at the National Literacy Trust.

‘Sometimes it’s a result of special educational needs, and sometimes it’s simply a lack of confidence, but there are ways to cope.’

So why might your child be finding reading tricky, and how can you help them over the hurdles?

Your child has a problem with hearing or eyesight

For some children, there’s a physiological reason that they’re struggling with reading.

A child who has problems with their eyesight may have difficulty seeing the words on the page, while one with a hearing impairment – even a relatively minor one, like glue ear – could have trouble distinguishing the sounds that make up words.

‘It’s always a good idea to rule out physical causes for your child’s difficulties as a first step,’ says Sinéad.

What you can do: ‘Watch your child closely when they’re reading to see if you can spot patterns in their behaviour,’ Sinéad advises.

‘Talk to their teacher and see if they’ve noticed similar problems, such as not being able to see the whiteboard in class or appearing to be distracted.’

You can then seek help from a health professional such as your GP or an optician, who can perform or arrange the necessary checks.

They haven’t got to grips with phonics

Phonics is the system by which children learn to read, and involves breaking words down into their constituent sounds (for example, ‘c-a-t’) and then blending them together to sound out the whole word.

Some children take to phonics easily, but others find it doesn’t come naturally.

Children in England take a mandatory phonics screening check at the end of Year 1, which aims to highlight those who are struggling so they can be given extra help, but you may notice your child is having difficulties before or after this test.

What you can do: It’s important to make sure any reading you do at home follows the same rules that your child is learning at school – and that means understanding phonics yourself.

For instance, many of us adults would sound the letter M as ‘muh,’ but children learn it as ‘mmm.’

If you’re unsure how your child is being taught, speak to their teacher, who should be happy to brief you on the phonics system.

When your child is reading at home and stumbles over a word, encourage them to sound it out rather than telling them what it says or getting them to use visual clues, such as the pictures on the page, to guess it.

There are also lots of great phonics learning tools and apps that you can use at home to support their learning.

They have dyslexia

There are several reasons why children with dyslexia might struggle with reading.

‘Usually, the cause is an underlying difficulty with phonological awareness: they can’t break words down into their sounds,’ says Karen Mace, Head of Assessment and Professional Level Training at the British Dyslexia Association.

‘They may also have problems with working memory as they can’t hold the phonemes (sounds) in their memory for long enough to blend them together, and with processing speed.

‘This means they’re over-reliant on other strategies, like learning words as a whole, which is much more difficult.’

What you can do: This is another instance where speaking to your child’s teacher is vital, as they may have evidence to support your concerns.

‘Schools can do initial screening for dyslexia that will show whether your child needs a full diagnostic assessment,’ Karen explains.

This can be done through the BDA, or with a referral from your GP, the school special educational needs coordinator (SENCO), or an educational psychologist.

If a diagnosis is made, strategies can then be put in place to support their learning, and they will be given special dispensation such as extra time in exams.

They’re not practising enough at home

When life is busy, it’s very easy to let home reading fall by the wayside.

But increased class sizes and the pressure to get through the curriculum means that children often do less reading than you’d expect at school: it’s quite usual for them to read to their teacher or a volunteer as little as once a week.

What you can do: This is an easy fix: it just means being committed to reading at home every day, for just 10 minutes a day if that’s all you can fit in.

It doesn’t always have to be at the same time: you could switch up bedtime reading with reading over breakfast, or while waiting to pick a sibling up from an after-school club. You could even get your child to read to their pet!

It’s a small commitment but one that will have a huge impact on their fluency, comprehension and confidence.

Their school books are pitched at the wrong level

We all want our kids to forge ahead with their reading, but pushing them to read books that are too advanced can make reading an uphill task and knock their confidence.

Likewise, if they’re reading books that are too easy, they might become bored and lose their enthusiasm for reading, which can look like they’re not trying or finding it too difficult.

What you can do: Speak to your child’s teacher if you’re concerned that the books they’re bringing home are at the wrong level.

‘Some teachers might think they’re either trying to build confidence by giving them easier books, or to challenge them by giving them harder ones, but your feedback is important to make sure they’re reading at the right level,’ says Sinéad.

If your child is keen to read books that are too advanced (Harry Potter for five-year-olds, anyone?) make these a shared experience, where you can either read aloud with them or sit by them and help when they get stuck.

There are also lots of great books and apps for early readers that can help challenge without overwhelming your child.

They can read the words, but not understand the meaning

Reading isn’t just about being able to decipher the words; it’s also about comprehension.

‘Children may struggle with reading if their vocabulary is limited, and this often manifests as difficulty with attention span and fluidity, as well as things like expression and using tone of voice,’ Sinéad explains.

What you can do: It’s a very simple message: chat, play and read. ‘Talking to your child throughout the day and as you play with them is so important in building vocabulary and comprehension,’ Sinéad says.

‘Don’t “dumb down” what you’re saying for your child’s sake: talk in full sentences, use a variety of vocabulary and explain words they don’t understand.’

It’s also important to read to your child as much as possible, but also to talk about what you’re reading.

‘Discuss what’s been happening, and what might happen next,’ suggests Sinéad. ‘Ask questions about the plot, and ask them if they understand what tricky words mean.’

They have visual processing difficulties

Some children, such as those with dyslexia (but not exclusively), find reading hard because the words seem to move or distort on the page.

They might also get headaches and sore eyes when reading, rub their eyes or blink excessively, lose their place and have trouble concentrating. Often, their difficulties are worse in artificial light than in daylight.

What you can do: Children often benefit from using a transparent coloured overlay, which can be placed over the page to improve the clarity of the text.

To find out if your child could be helped by using overlays, take them to an optometrist who has an interest in reading difficulties (ask local practices if they can recommend someone), or ask your GP for a referral to an NHS orthoptist.

English is not their first language

Learning to read can be hard enough for children who are native English speakers, so it’s no surprise that kids who don’t speak English at home can have additional difficulties.

It can be especially hard to support your child with reading if you yourself are not a fluent reader or speaker of English.

What you can do: ‘Don’t be afraid of having English as a second language,’ advises Sinéad.

‘Start by getting some picture books in your own language, or that don’t have words at all, and looking at them together. Read to your child out loud in your first language, as this will help to build their confidence.

Look out for books that have your native language and English side by side, such as those by Alien Languages and Language Lizard. These will help your child relate the words they encounter in English to those in their own language.

The British Council also has great resources for learning English, for children, teenagers and adults.

They have an attention deficit disorder like ADHD

Not all children with ADHD will struggle with reading, but some do.

‘The biggest issue is that their internal monitoring of what they are reading can be poor, so although they can read the words, they lose track of what they’ve read and their comprehension suffers,’ explains Colin Foley, National Training Director with the ADHD Foundation.

Kids with ADHD may also be easily distracted, particularly in a classroom where there’s lots going on around them.

What you can do: ‘It’s really important to get your child interested in what they’re reading, so it holds their attention,’ Colin says. This includes choosing subject matter that appeals to them, talking about what’s already happened in the book, and helping them interpret what they’re reading.

The right environment matters, too: it’ll be harder for your child to concentrate if they’re reading in front of the TV, or in a room where their siblings are playing, than in a quiet space away from distractions, like their bedroom.

‘There are also practical things you can do, like providing them with headphones or ear defenders to block out external noise, or using a WhisperPhone: a headset that allows them to whisper along with what they’re reading, as talking while they read often helps them concentrate and process the sounds better,’ adds Colin.

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