How to Help a Child with Reading Difficulties

What's Covered

Childhood is full of milestones for kids to achieve. Learning to read fluently is one such goal that poses quite a challenge for most children. Reading is one of the basic foundations needed for a child’s education. Once kids start going to school, reading becomes an absolute necessity for a child to meet certain set standards of learning.

What if a child falls short of the reading requirements set by schools and society? How can you as parents, teachers, or adults responsible for a child’s future help in overcoming the reading difficulties of your children?

What is reading?

Simple question, but with a complex answer that needs a bit of explanation. We must first understand the process of reading to better recognize the difficulties associated with it and the impact the lack of reading skills has on a child.

Reading involves an intricate process of recognizing the letters and symbols by sight or touch and making sense of them. It is an interactive relation between the reader and the print and how the readers use their knowledge to interpret the text.

Why is reading important?

Reading is one of the significant ways in which a child interacts with the world around while growing up. Even the memories as an adult comes to us in the form of texts, letters, and words. Reading is how a child learns to change and improve; it is the act of knowing.[1] There are a multitude of benefits a child experiences when reading and here are a few:

  • Improves communication skills
  • Broadens their knowledge
  • Teaches them to empathize
  • Develops confidence
  • Encourages them to be independent
  • Enables achievement in other areas
  • Aids academic performance
  • Expands their vocabulary
  • Greater levels of concentration
  • Increases their creativity and imagination
  • Improves their social skills
  • Better interactions with others
  • Improves their memory
  • Assists cognitive development

What age should a child read fluently?

Learning to read is a key developmental milestone in a child’s life. Like any other milestones, it has a few important stages. However, the age when a child learns to read independently varies; some children pick up words quicker than most and can read fluently on their own by age 5 or 6 but some take longer.

Five stages of reading development

Every milestone has several stages a child has to move through before reaching it. Reading has five stages of development that every child moves through when they are well and ready to do so after becoming proficient in the previous stages. Each child’s progress varies and there is no set formula for how long a child may be at a particular stage. These are the characteristics of each stage

The Pre-Reading Emergent Readers

This is the stage wherein children show interest in reading and pick up a book on their own. It is when kids familiarize themselves with the print, the sounds, and the letters. They listen more and read less but love to pretend to read and are more into nursery rhymes.

Reading by Early Readers

Children are more involved with reading and can be called a reader. They love to memorize the stories and try to make connection between print and sounds. This is when they start to read for meaning.

Responding Progressive Readers

Children becoming more fluent in reading at this stage and are often seen self-correcting and reading to make sense of the print. They understand how to tell a story and love to predict how the story progresses. When children are this involved, parents can take this opportunity to ask questions and encourage correct pronunciations.

Exploration of the Transitional Readers

At this stage, children read more fluently and accurately than before though they may still need help with difficult and new words. They use their knowledge of phonemes to read aloud unknown words.

Application of the Independent Readers

This stage sees how confident children become in reading. At this point, they know the influence the words they read have on them and are ready to explore new meanings and points of view. They show interest in expanding their vocabulary and are ready to read more complex texts.

These five stages of reading development give parents a fair idea of the measure to gauge their child’s progress in reading. If the child for any reason seems stuck in a particular stage, that is when parents need to find out the cause and help the child to overcome the reading difficulties.

Chall’s six stages of Reading Development

The entire process of learning to read varies from child to child. As outlined by Chall’s Stages of Reading Development, the typical reading process of a child ranges 0-5 stages covering 6 months old baby to an 18-year-old adult. 

Stage 0 – Pre-Reading Stage

In this pseudo reading stage,preschool children pretend to read and enjoy animatedly retelling a story while casually flipping through the pages of the book that has been previously read out to them.

Stage 1 – Initial Reading/Decoding

In this stage, grade 1 children learn the relation between letters and sounds and printed and spoken words. They can read simple text and use phonics to sound out the new words. Most children at this point can understand thousands of words and begin to read independently.

Stage 2 – Confirmation & Fluency

Children at this stage of reading development can read simple stories with increasing fluency and speed. Being read to at advance levels helps them develop language, concepts, and vocabulary easily.

Stage 3 – Learning the New

At this stage, reading is used to learn something new. Besides study of textbooks, they are also drawn to materials that contain new ideas and values.

Stage 4 – Multiple Viewpoints

This stage, the kids come into their own by reading a broad range of material with a variety of viewpoints as against the earlier phase when they were inclined to learn new things from a single viewpoint.

Stage 5 – Construction & Reconstruction

This is when reading is used to further one’s own needs and purposes and is usually applied to connect to the knowledge of others.

Psychology of Reading
An important book on how readers extract and comprehend information from the printed text and also elaborates on reading disabilities

Understanding reading difficulties in children

Reading difficulties are neurodevelopmental problems that do not disappear completely but the children with timely intervention can make significant progress in school and their life. Most of the kids who struggle with reading can be taught to read fluently and succeed in academics. Of all the areas the reading problems may arise, most of the children have trouble decoding.


It is the process of breaking down a word into individual sounds or phonemes and the kids with decoding difficulties are unable to differentiate between these phonemes. Signs of problems related to decoding usually involve show reading rate, trouble recognizing or sounding out words, reading without expression, and missing out on punctuation while reading the printed words.


A child experiencing trouble while decoding will find it equally difficult to understand and remember any of the words that have been read. Such kids are usually confused about the meaning of the words and lack concentration while reading.


For good retention, a child must first be able to decode and comprehend what is written. Retention requires good cognitive skills and memory, and the child should be able to group the ideas and retrieve it later when necessary. Retention is a key skill for learning and by third grade it becomes essential for completing schoolwork. Children who have poor retention skills have trouble remembering and summarizing what they read and are unable to connect what is being read to prior knowledge.

Difference between reading difficulties and reading disabilities

Although both are often used interchangeably, it is important to note the key differences among them. Reading difficulties are usually not associated with any diagnosed disability. It is more of a comprehensive term referring to problems associated with reading and has more to do with children lagging behind their peers, needing more individualized attention and probably have a history of poor reading instructions.

From a normative perspective, reading difficulties refer to how a child performs in reading when compared to peers, and can have number of causes including but not limited to a reading disability. Reading disabilities are more particular in nature and is a generic term used to signify a specific learning disability associated with reading.

What is reading disability?

Reading disability is a condition in which a child has difficulty in one or many areas associated with the activity including the ability to process phonological sounds, to read quickly and fluently, and to comprehend what is being read.

Regardless of the method you use to teach your children how to read, most of them will do so easily. But there will be a few who need extra help in learning to read. All of us who can read take the skill for granted. For those who struggle with reading, it is painfully obvious whenever they try to read anything out loud. They usually must stop and restart often, mispronouncing and skipping words are also common for those who find it difficult to read.

Types of reading disabilities

Children with reading disabilities are known to have trouble with one or all the processes required for one to read properly. Based on the areas, the reading disabilities are classified as follows

Phonological Deficit

The child finds it difficult to process the sounds associated with the letters and hence has trouble forming words based on phonics. This is common among kids with hearing problems.

Processing Speed Deficit

While the child’s phonological awareness may or may not be adequate but has trouble with printed word recognition which in turn delays the speed and accuracy with which the words are read.

Comprehension Deficit

The difficulty arises when the child fails to understand the meaning associated with the words. This is mostly associated with children suffering from socio-linguistic disabilities with poor vocabularies and language learning disorders.

Childrenhaving issues in either the phonological or naming-speed processing is usually said to have a single deficit in word recognition and are said to have a double deficit if they have difficulty in both areas.

What is phonological awareness and why is it important for reading?

Phonological awareness is composed of three component skills – Intelligence Quotient (IQ), verbal short-term memory, and speech perception.[2]Phonemes are individual pieces of sound attached to the words we speak. For normal conversations to happen, these sound pieces are strung together so thoroughly that it is impossible to separate them. In spoken English, the 26 letters of the alphabet stand for 44 phonemes that needs to be converted to print for us to read.

For the children to start reading, they must be first taught to recognize the sounds that accompany the letters and combine them to form meaningful words. This knowledge is known as phonological awareness. This letter-sound system is an extremely important part of teaching a child to read especially in the initial two years of beginning school.

Related problems in children with reading disabilities:

There are some common issues that coexist in children who suffer from reading disabilities.

How to tell if your child has a reading disability?

  • All parents eagerly wait for their children to start reading and patiently invest time and energy teaching them how to read. This important milestone maybe delayed in some children and can be troubling for a parent. It is understandable Having trouble focusing on a task
  • Anxiety issues
  • Avoiding tasks
  • Easily distracted
  • Problems with letter formation
  • Faulty pencil grip
  • Lack of impulse control

What are the most common reading disabilities?

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that impairs a person’s ability to read and significantly affects their fluency as well.  Despite having normal intelligence, those suffering from this disorder read at substantially lower levels than their peers.

Dyslexia is one of the most common reading disabilities that hamper a child’s ability to read, spell, write, and process information as expected of children at a specific age. Students with dyslexia often fall behind in their studies and in their classes and often find it a huge challenge to catch up. This can lead to several social and psychological issues in a child.

Developmental Dyslexia

It is a hereditary deficit that impacts one’s ability to visually process words but leaves the oral and nonverbal abilities intact.

Acquired Dyslexia

It is a result of brain damage caused by a head injury or illness wherein the person loses some aspect of the reading ability.


It is a condition in which the child reads at levels much higher than the peers but has trouble understanding most of what they have read because of the rapidity at which they read.

Irlen Syndrome or Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS)

Even though it cannot be classified as a disability or a medical condition, Irlen syndrome was initially clubbed together with dyslexia, but later has been recognized as a spectrum disorder just like autism. However, SSS is often found in dyslexic children and those with ADHD.

Diagnosed as a perceptual processing difficulty, the brain fails to adequately process visual information and is not a problem with the eyes. Even children with perfect vision may complain of moving words and blurry pages. Kids with Irene syndrome often see things differently from how they appear and puts a heavy strain on the eyes causing frequent headaches.

It is associated with high levels ofsensitivity to light and visual processing problems, significantly impacting a child’s ability to read. SSS is known to affect people at any age and can be especially demotivating for those reading for school or work. Symptoms include stress and fatigue, depth perception issues, print distortions, inability to concentrate and light sensitivity in addition to reading problems.

Irlen Method

Irlen method is a scientifically proven, non-invasive method to improve the ability of the brain to process visual information by using colored overlays and filters. It helps correct the reading problems that are primarily a result of the visual processing problems.

Since the Irlen syndrome is triggered mostly by the environment such as bright or fluorescent lighting, high contrast colors as backgrounds or wallpapers, striped patterns and glares, the best way to help your children overcome SSS is by taking the following steps do away with things that might affect their reading.

Using dim or natural lighting for reading is a good start. Position the reading material directly in front of the child and use colored paper for written assignments. Increase the font to a larger size to lessen the strain on their eyes.

Reading by the Colors
A book by an educator that includes crucial breakthroughs to use with the Irlen method to help in overcoming dyslexia and in the treatment of other reading disabilities in children

Factors contributing to reading difficulties

There are lot of reasons besides the developmental disorders like dyslexia and ADHD that cause reading difficulties in children. Studies found several factors like family background, the capabilities of teachers and parents in teaching the children how to read and the school’s role in guiding and addressing the reading needs of the students – all played a significant role in hindering a child’s reading development.[3]

  • Family history of poor reading skills
  • Inadequate instructions from teachers
  • Low confidence levels of the children
  • Poor motivation to stimulate the child
  • Inadequate knowledge of phonemic awareness
  • The child’s poor eyesight
  • Lack of support and guidance
  • Emotional problems unrelated to reading
  • Unpleasant past reading experiences
  • Behavioral issues unrelated to reading
  • Poor eyesight and visual defects
  • Hearing impairments

to feel overwhelmed and nervous when you realize your child is not at par with reading compared to other kids their age.

Earliest indications of a reading disability in a child

Usually, a reading disability starts early in a child and can be seen during preschool and kindergarten days and a parent is the likeliest one to notice the signs first. Speech delays is one of the surest signs that the child needs to get screened for a reading disability.

Warning signs indirectly related to reading disability

So, how can you tell if it is just a normal delay since children reach their milestones at their own pace or is something that needs to be addressed at the earliest.Look out for these warning signs in your children that may indicate a reading disability:

  • Poor overall academic performance but does better when sitting one-to-one
  • Low self-esteem
  • Doing poorly on tests compared to homework
  • Attention deficit or short attention span, in some children it is in addition to hyperactivity
  • Repeatedly loses homework, or lies about assignments and submissions, and hides their schoolwork
  • Struggles withletter sounds and naming
  • Fails to recognize alphabets even at the beginning of kindergarten

Although the above signs might not seem like they are related to reading, in most children these problems arise due to the difficulty they face while reading. More substantial and long term the problem, deeper its connection to issues with reading and learning disabilities.

Warning signs related to reading disability

Below mentioned signs are related to reading disability and it is best to pay heed to them at the earliest to employ necessary interventions to help your child overcome them. Watch out for these red flags:

  • Highly distracted during reading
  • Anxious about reading
  • Unclear about the connection between the letters and their sounds
  • Slow reading rate or reading aloud word-by-word
  • Lack of fluency while reading
  • Confused about the meaning of the words and sentences
  • Glossing over words/texts
  • Avoids reading altogether
  • Takes a long time to complete any task that involves reading or writing
  • No concept of punctuation while reading
  • Expressionless reading
  • Unable to recognize words and sounding them out
  • Trouble remembering what is read
  • Difficulty summarizing the text that is read

What to do if you suspect your child had a reading disability?

No parent wants to believe their child has a deeper problem reading, which is considered a basic and a necessary skill to have to survive in this world. If you set aside the notion that it is rare and embrace the fact that it is more common than you can imagine, you will be doing yourself and your child a major favor.

Once you notice something amiss, which is usually after a prolonged time of seeing your child struggle to read, you need to act proactively to address the problem. These are a few things you can do to get help at the earliest:

  • Read up on the signs and symptoms of reading disorders
  • Note down your child’s behaviors you think are associated with reading and their frequency of occurrence in a journal kept exclusively for this purpose
  • Reach out to your child’s teacher and discuss your concerns. This way the teacher is also aware and can watch out for the signs when the child is at school under the teacher’s supervision.
  • If the symptoms are alarming and only aggravate over time, contact the pediatrician
  • Get your child evaluated for learning and reading disabilities.
  • Explore ways to help your child overcome the reading difficulties and learn to read.

How to help your child overcome a reading disability?

Even if your child has a reading disability, the best way to address the issue is to help your child overcome the reading difficulties with a specialized one-on-one intervention. Some signs of the reading disabilities might stay with children as they grow into adults, but they can learn to adapt with the right kind of help.

Kids with dyslexia

If your kids are diagnosed with dyslexia, they in all probability have a problem with decoding, which means they struggle to connect letters and symbols to the sounds they make. This will in turn affect their reading fluency and accuracy. Including colorful games and activities as part of their daily practice is a perfect way to help kids with dyslexia to learn to read.

Learn to Read for Kids with Dyslexia
This book is a clever collection of fun exercises to help the kids with dyslexia to read
  • Help your child notice the details in the new word by first showing it and then reading it aloud.
  • Creating a memory card called mnemonics can help your kid come up with their unique way to associate with the word.
  • Drawing a picture to represent the word makes it easier for them to remember the sight word.
  • Kids with dyslexia learn best when you engage their senses in learning a word. Ask them to trace the sight words with their fingers while reading them aloud.
  • Make sure to introduce new words with enough gap to allow them time to practice and learn.
  • Best way to connect the letters to the sounds is to engage your kids in fun activities like rhyming games. Make it a daily affair.
  • Audiobooks that encourage children to read along helps the kids to follow the words as it is read to them.

Kids with ADHD

Kids diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder find it extremely hard to focus. It is known to affect the working memory of the child, which is key to holding on to information and using it later. The absence of a good working memory makes it tough for the kids to remember what they just read. Sometimes, it is so bad that the kids forget the previous words while working hard to decode the next.

Research shows that children with both ADHD and specific reading disabilities performed significantly worse in tasks involving sequential memory and attention and had difficulty in rapid word naming and vocabulary as compared to pure ADHD patients.[4]

Another study researching the impact of a training program on working memory function of ADHD children led to significant gains across all components of their working memory.[5] This shows you can help a child to overcome reading problems by training them to focus and improving their capacity to remember the words they read.

  • Start the task right away and break them into chunks so the child doesn’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of it and yet finds it exciting enough to try and focus on the job at hand. Any delay getting started makes them lose interest.
  • Children find it difficult to follow lot of instructions given at once. So, keep a gap and give them one or two directions at a time.
  • Be flexible yet firm when you set a time limit but also be accepting of the work that has been done to encourage your child to focus better.

All these little steps in helping your child focus will result in improved reading abilities. Take it slow and continue to give individualized attention and training to help your child overcome the reading difficulties.

How to help your child overcome three common reading problems?

Children vastly vary in terms of their learning experiences, interests, and skills. Although, when they read, there are specific problems that recur and most of the children fall into one of the three common patterns or reading problems that emerge over time.  These difficulties are either experiential in nature or associated with specific disabilities.

Specific Word Reading Difficulties

Children with SWRD are those who have trouble decoding or reading words and have below average skills in spelling, fluency, and reading comprehension but are mostly comfortable with listening comprehension and vocabulary.

Specific Reading Comprehension Difficulties

Children with SRCD on the other hand have below average reading comprehension skills even though they have decent ability to read words. They are good at spelling and have good foundation for reading.

Mixed Reading Difficulties

Children with MRD are the worst affected since they have poor word-reading skills in addition to having trouble with core comprehension of the printed text.

According to studies conducted, graphic systematic phonics interventions benefit children with difficulties in word-reading whereas those facing problems in comprehension benefit from strategies that expand their vocabulary and develop their oral language.[6]

How to help your child learn to read?

Research indicates that the daily reading routines help the child’s early literacy development.[7] As parents you are in a unique position to ease your child into reading early. One of the best ways to do so would be read aloud together and make it fun while you are at it. When your kids see you get excited about a book, they enjoy it too. Go with your child’s pace. Remember you are slowing introducing the world of text, sound, letters, and symbols to your child.

Running your fingers along the words familiarizes your child with the printed word. Using funny animal noises adds to the excitement and point to the pictures and repeat the names. Tell your child how the pictures tell a story. And whenever doubts arise, stop to answer them. Also, listen to your child reading aloud and interrupt only when ask the child to read the mispronounced word once again.

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons
This is a perfect book with easy lessons to teach your child how to develop some reading skills

Continue reading to your child even after he starts to read on his own. Singing nursery rhymes can be a fun way to teach your child to read. They develop their phonological skills when they listen to the nursery rhymes. There are studies that suggest it impacts a child’s reading ability. In fact, it is proven that early knowledge of nursery rhymes assures a child’s success in reading and spelling.[8]

By extension, music also has a strong relationship with reading skills. Research in this area suggests that children who receive musical instructions are known to score significantly higher in reading ability and were better at recognizing words and distinguishing between similar looking letters.[9]

Final Thoughts

Reading is a key skill a child needs to develop to lead a holistic life. When a child struggles to read, it could be for any number of reasons but recognizing the reasons behind the reading problem is as important as helping your child overcome the reading difficulties. You can start with this book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons to ease your child into reading early and Learn to Read for Kids with Dyslexia is of great help for dyslexic children. A little bit of individualized attention and care can do wonders for your child’s future.

[1]Freire, Paulo. “The importance of the act of reading.” Journal of education 165.1 (1983): 5-11.

[2]McBride-Chang, Catherine. “What is phonological awareness?.” Journal of Educational Psychology 87.2 (1995): 179.

[3]Mohammed, I., and Ofori Amponsah. “Predominant Factors Contributing to Low Reading Abilities of Pupils at Elsie Lund Basic School in the Tamale Metropolis, Ghana.” African Educational Research Journal 6.4 (2018): 273-278.

[4]August, Gerald J., and Barry D. Garfinkel. “Comorbidity of ADHD and reading disability among clinic-referred children.” Journal of abnormal child psychology 18.1 (1990): 29-45.

[5]Holmes, Joni, et al. “Working memory deficits can be overcome: Impacts of training and medication on working memory in children with ADHD.” Applied cognitive psychology 24.6 (2010): 827-836.

[6]Spear‐Swerling, Louise. “Common types of reading problems and how to help children who have them.” The Reading Teacher 69.5 (2016): 513-522.

[7]Kuo, Alice A., et al. “Parent report of reading to young children.” Pediatrics 113.Supplement 5 (2004): 1944-1951.

[8]Bryant, Peter E., et al. “Nursery rhymes, phonological skills and reading.” Journal of Child language 16.2 (1989): 407-428.

[9]Cutietta, Robert A. “Does music instruction help a child learn to read?.” General Music Today 9.1 (1995): 26-31

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Vivian Perry

Vivian Perry

Mother of 3 kids. Enjoy reading parenting books and studied child care degree. Vivian loves to learn and write about parenting tips and help her kids to grow positively with grit mindset.