struggling readers

Why does my child struggle with reading? The real reasons why children struggle with reading.

It is both alarming and sad to see how many parents think they have done something wrong, and are tired to see their children getting frustrated when trying to read.

These parents are just discouraged by how their kids are just trying to guess the words in front of them instead of reading them. And, despite lots of effort, they even miss high frequency words!

In this article, we are going to uncover, one by one, the top reasons why so many children struggle with reading.

 Why is it that so many kids struggle with learning to read?

When you look at the data about reading ability in children, it is kind of outrageous…

There is a great percentage of kids that finish their school years with very poor reading skills. To be more specific, around a quarter of children do not reach the basic level of reading ability when they leave school and around two thirds never become expert readers.

And the most worrisome part is that… The reading ability of children is on the decline…

In the year 1992 the US National Assessment of Educational Progress started to gather data about the reading abilities of children at grades 4 and 8, and at grade 12. On the Class of 2019 reading scores were lower than in the year 1992, regardless of the level of education of parents.*

This is really happening across the board. And to very smart kids as well!

So… It is really time to ask questions!

What is going on? How can this be?

Let’s analyze the different reasons that have led to this worrisome situation:

Top Reasons why so many children (and maybe your child) struggle with reading

Reason #1: Dyslexia:

The percentage of dyslexic children remains unclear. Some experts believe that around 5% of the population are dyslexic, while others consider that the percentage can be as high as 20%.

Dyslexia is in fact quite a controversial topic in itself as well because there is a great deal of disagreement on the diagnosis and treatment of the condition.

Clinicians can use different tests for evaluation and they also interpret the results differently.

Dyslexia is a learning disability that is neurobiological in origin, and those who suffer from dyslexia have problems with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and with spelling.

However, different experts or clinicians could put this label to just anyone who struggles with reading fluently, because, as mentioned before, the opinions on the topic are extremely divided.

Other students with broader learning problems (and not only reading) could also be put the label of dyslexic, depending on the clinician giving the diagnosis.

So, the real extent of dyslexia playing a part in all of this is difficult to know for sure.

Reason #2: The English Spelling…

In fairness, children learning to read English have a more complicated job than children learning to read other languages such us Spanish, German, Finish or Italian.

Why? The English spelling system is especially complicated, full of irregularities.

These irregularities are the result of a language that has taken and combined words and spellings from many different languages.

The core of English comes from old English, but it has been heavily influenced and changed by an influx of vocabulary from many other languages, including French, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Dutch and Spanish…

When adopting words from these languages, the spelling was many times adopted as well. For instance, the word psychology comes from the combination of 2 Greek words: psyche + logos. The “p” was never dropped in the spelling of this word, even though we do not pronounce its sound.

And even though English is an alphabet-based language, the alphabet used (Roman Alphabet) doesn’t have enough number of letters to represent all the sounds of spoken English.

English resorts to letter combinations to express those extra sounds. For instance, the “Ch”, that we find in words such us, “church” or “chat” or the “sh” sound combination, that we find in “ship” or “shoe”.

But sometimes we don’t find much consistency on the letter combinations used to represent those extra sounds among different words.

Why is that? Well, that would be a topic for another article, but one of the main reasons is that there has never been an official institution or formal regulator of the use the English language.

This is actually pretty uncommon, as most languages tend to have an official institution in charge of the language “decisions”. These official institutions

Reason number #3: Teaching Methods

Unfortunately, English is not always taught using the best methods.

This is one of the most unfortunate reasons because it is well under our control, unlike the other 2 previous reasons. But the fact is that there is a lot of misinformation and confusion about this topic.

The whole language approach together with the cueing system continue to be used as the preferred methods for teaching children to read, despite large amounts of evidence indicating that methods based around phonics and phonemic awareness are superior.

On the whole language approach and the cueing system, children are encouraged to guess and to memorize words rather than being taught a strong foundation for decoding those words. Had they been taught a proper methodology; we probably wouldn’t have so many strugglers.

When children learn to read using whole word programs are confronted with new words, they are left with only one strategy for learning to read: memory!

This is truly a very weak foundation for learning to read. It is actually an strategy that makes sense for ideographic languages, such us Chinese or. Not alphabet based based languages, like English!

An ideogram is a graphic symbol that represents an idea, an object or a concept. Simply put, ideograms are like logos.

In ideographic languages, each single word is represented by an ideogram. In these languages children need to memorize each ideogram in order to learn how to read.

It is not logic to think that same methodology applies to English, an alphabet-based language.

Methods based around phonics and phonemic awareness make much more sense. They offer a much better foundation for children, as they teach children a proper decoding system.

Besides, they make the job so much easier for children! Rather than memorizing children just need to resort to their decoding system.

Obviously, since English has many irregularities (see Reason #2 on this article) there will always be some words that children need to memorize. But, in fairness, there not so many as we are led to think.

And, then, even within the irregularities we can find rules and patterns that can really help out.

But, it is true. There are some sight words that children will need to memorize in English. The term “sight words” is used here as “words that can’t be decoded phonetically” vs. sight words = high frequency words. We make the distinction because these two terms are used indistinctively most times, and it is incorrect.

In fact, the systematic phonics approach is mandatory in England since the year 2007 based on the influential study by Rose, J. (2006) Independent review of the teaching of early reading*, that gathered overwhelming evidence to recommended that “high quality systematic phonics should be taught as the prime approach in learning to decode (to read) and encode (to write/spell) print”.

However, this is not the preferred teaching method in other English speaking countries. And, even if the curriculum includes phonics instruction, the reality is that they are not taught is a systematic way and/or being taught by educators properly trained on systematic synthetic phonics.

Besides, large class sizes and/ or lack of resources can aggravate the problem.

Our recommendation here is giving children the opportunity to learn and develop a strong foundation for learning to decode the language, so they can have this skill for the rest of their lives.

A foundation that is based on phonics and phonemic awareness. That way, when texts become more complicated, they have the necessary tools for decoding these new words, without being overwhelmed and frustrated.

Unfortunately, even some educators may not have this strong foundation based on phonics and phonemic awareness, so it is difficult for them to teach it.

And it is a real pity to say the least, because phonemic awareness is the number 1 predictor of how well a child will learn to read.

So, in our opinion, the best strategy is to encourage phonemic awareness at home from an early age. More on that on our next reason…

But before we move on to the next reason we wanted to briefly talk about phonemic awareness, in case you are wondering what it is.

In short, phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and identify the individual sounds which make up words. These individual sounds are called phonemes. For instance, the word cat is formed by the individual sounds /c/ /a/ /t/. And the word chant is formed by the phonemes /ch/ /a/ /n/ /t/

A child who is phonemically aware can recognize those individual sounds, but also knows how to blend and manipulate the individual sounds in words. A child with phonemic awareness knows that new words can be formed when we add or replace sounds. For instance, by adding a new sound /s/ to the word “cat” we get a new word: cats.

And by replacing the /c/ sound in the word “cat” with the /p/ sound we also get a new word: pat.

Reason number #4: The family environment

It is extremely important that parents get involved in the process of learning to read. This starts from a very early age, as the learning to read process starts well before children start formal preparation at school.

Parents need to provide a supportive learning environment for their children.

Parents need to read to their children from birth and help them once they start formal training. But apart from reading to their children, there are many simple strategies that parents can use to develop the necessary pre-reading skills in young children.

Children in underprivileged homes will hear 30 million less words by age 3*.

Besides, it is estimated that at least 85% of the voculabulary a child has is learnt from their parents.

Unfortunately underprivileged children have fallen behind even before they enter pre eschool.


* Sources:

“NAEP 2019 Reading Results”

“Independent review of the teaching of early reading.”
“The Early Catastrophe / 30 million word gap”





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