Who Are the Children Who Have Reading Difficulties?

Knowing which children are more likely to be at risk for reading problems allows for early intervention to prevent the majority of these problems from developing. Learn what group and individual factors make certain children at risk.

Children who attend a chronically low-achieving school

In a school that produces large numbers of children who cannot read at grade level, year after year, it is not necessary to assess children individually. We already know that children who attend this school are being placed at risk for reading difficulties.

In these cases, teachers and principals should probably consider addressing the problem with system-wide restructuring and change, rather than invest in a costly child-by-child remediation process. Good teaching and a good classroom reading program can bring most students up to or near grade level during the primary grades. But sustaining this accomplishment is difficult when a large percentage of a school's students are failing.

Central to this restructuring is the need for effective reading instruction. A large number of students, who should be capable of reading ably given adequate instruction, are not doing so, suggesting that the instruction available is not appropriate.

If the instruction provided by the school is ineffective or insufficient, many children will have difficulty learning to read (unless additional instruction is provided in the home or elsewhere). Children whose reading difficulties arise when the design of regular classroom curriculum, or its delivery, is flawed are sometimes termed curriculum casualties.

Children with low English proficiency

Hispanic students in the United States are at especially high risk. Despite progress over the past 15 to 20 years, they are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to read well below average for their age. Many of these children also have parents who are poorly educated, come from low-income families, live in low-income communities, and attend low-achieving schools.

With multiple risk factors in place, we can predict that, without excellent instruction, large numbers of these children will be at risk for reading difficulties.

Despite various controversies, considerable evidence suggests that limited or non-English-speaking language learners are generally more likely to become betters readers of English when they receive initial instruction in their native language.

Spoken language must come before written language; it is extremely hard to read a language that still is incomprehensible to the ear. Some language-minority children arrive at school with no proficiency in English, but speaking a different language for which there are instructional guides, learning materials, and locally available proficient teachers.

These children should be taught the basics of reading in their native language while acquiring oral proficiency in English, and they should be subsequently taught to extend their first language literary skills to reading in English.

Other language-minority children will arrive at school with no proficiency in English and speak a language for which the above conditions cannot be met – and for which there are insufficient numbers of children to justify the development of the local capacity to meet such conditions.

In this case, the initial instructional priority should be developing the children's oral proficiency in English. Print materials may be used to support the development of English language skills. But formal reading instructions in English should be postponed until an adequate level of oral proficiency in English has been achieved. Ensuring this proficiency will require extremely rich and well-adapted oral language environments.

In general, non-English speakers in the United States are highly motivated to learn English, but they still require an adequate amount of time and exposure to well-structured input from native speakers to do so.

Children unfamiliar with standard English dialect

Differences between the dialect children speak at home and the dialect taught at school may contribute to difficulties in learning to read. In the United States, some teachers, administrators, and policy makers view dialect differences not as regional variations, but as incorrect English. Some teachers develop low expectations for these students. Under these conditions, children are being placed at risk because of their unfamiliarity with standard English dialect.

Developing children's awareness of the sounds of words – their phonemic awareness – is a critical step toward helping them learn to read. However, what they need more specifically is an appreciation of the phonemes or sounds of words that are presumed in how the words are spelled.

This is especially hard for dialect-speaking children. A teacher pointing out the "d" sound in the words sold or find can befuddle the African American child who pronounces these words sol and fine. A child who pronounces the words deaf and death in the same way is likely to be confused if the teacher uses these words in a lesson on contrasting final consonants.

However, these kinds of confusions in phonemic awareness and reading instruction can largely be avoided by making teachers more aware of dialect differences. A teacher who is sufficiently knowledgeable and sensitive about dialect will prepare materials and lessons that are consistent with the phonology, syntax, and vocabulary of the children's dialect.

Children living in communities in poverty

Poverty undeniably poses numerous threats to children's educational prospects. Children in low-income families tend to have uneducated parents, lack adequate nutrition, live in poor communities, and attend substandard schools. All of these factors can be detrimental to reading.

However, all else being equal, coming from a low-income family, in and of itself, does not greatly increase a child's risk for learning to read, provided they are given the instruction and support they need. Therefore, poverty in individual families should not be used exclusively as an identifier for children at risk. It is more effective to identify children who come from families with low income status and attend a school with large numbers of poor students.

Schools with kindergartners who are poorly prepared in language and literacy skills must have programs that are better than or at least equivalent to the programs found in schools with well-prepared kindergartners.

In order to provide such reading programs, schools with underprepared students need extra funding. To be effective, the extra funding should be used for methods with previously established success, and should be coupled with smaller student-teacher ratios, capable, experienced teachers and specialists, and a sufficient quantity of high-quality books and other materials.

Children with cognitive, hearing, and language impairment

Because they are one of the few professionals in contact with very young children, pediatricians, nurses, and other health care practitioners are in the best position to detect problems at routine checkups from infancy through preschool years. Day care and preschool settings also offer an important opportunity for early identification of the following kinds of risk:

Severe cognitive deficits

Within the normal range, IQ is moderately associated with future reading ability. But severe cognitive deficits are usually associated with very low, if any, reading achievement.

Hearing impairment

It has been well documented that children with hearing impairments are at risk of future reading difficulties. Although hard-of-hearing children tend to do better than deaf children, they are still at risk, even if they have good speaking abilities.

Early language impairment

Children acquire language at tremendously variable rates during the first four years of life. Yet some children are clearly behind by age two or three. This is an important signal. Delayed language development can be the first warning of a pervasive developmental disability, hearing impairment, or neurological problem. Any of these conditions puts a child at risk of future reading difficulties.

Often an evaluation by a speech-language professional reveals that these children have early language impairment. About 40 to 75 percent of preschoolers with such an impairment develop reading difficulties later – often along with other academic problems.

Expressive and receptive language delays

Children's development of language during preschool years is strongly related to how well they will later learn to read. An infant's achievement of "expressive" language milestones appears to have a particularly strong link to later reading achievement. Assessment of these milestones is part of regular well-baby visits and can be used to identify children at risk.

Children whose parents have a history of reading difficulty

A child whose parents had trouble learning to read is not destined to failure. But such children face a substantially greater risk of reading problems. Once a child is having reading difficulties in school, pediatricians or educators often discover that someone else in the family has reading difficulties.

It is wise for pediatricians to ask the parents of young children whether they had difficulty learning to read and, if so, to encourage them to lend extra enthusiasm to books and reading from the start – and to pay extra attention to signs of difficulty.

Adapted from: Burns, M. S., Griffin, P. & Snow, C. E. (Eds.). (1999). Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children's Reading Success. Copyright by the National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of the National Academy Press. Reprinted with permission.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.


This article was very informative regarding children that are struggling readers. While every child should be carefully evaluated and observed for signs of reading disabilities, it is helpful to be aware of the children that are typically at risk. What I find most interesting is the students attending chronically low achieving schools. The article states that teachers and principals should probably consider addressing the problem with system-wide restructuring and change, rather than invest in a costly child-by-child remediation process. I agree with this approach. However, with so many state policies and education agendas regarding state testing and standard grade level abilities, how can counselors work with teachers and staff to ensure a school wide reading intervention is met? Many teachers within city schools where school wide reading issues exist are pressured to stay on task with the curriculum given. Here's where truly being an advocate and pushing for educational equality can really play a critical role and ensuring these schools are equipped with the proper resources for such an intervention.

Getting initial instruction in your native language yielding better readers of English, makes a lot of sense. While being exposed to English as much as possible can be helpful, for the student who is struggling to adapt, it can also feel overwhelming which can in turn cause the student to give up too quickly. However, it is not as simple as allowing English Language Learners to be given direct instruction in their native language. Realistically, who will provide this direct instruction? While it would be ideal for individuals such as Reading Specialists to be around with time on their hands to take on this task, with crowded schools and low budgets, this is probably unrealistic. The people who will be likely to provide this instructions will be the paraprofessionals, who, if given the right instruction, can be a great resource to these students! Making time for the Reading Specialist, Bilingual Coordinator, and paraprofessionals to meet prior to the school year starting can really make a difference to the kind of plan prepared for the students. All of these educators are working towards achieving the same goals of producing literate students, it is just a matter of having them work together in order to achieve success. It is our job as school counselors to act as advocates of our students, and to ensure that every student is being served in a way that allows for equity. According to Vernon, “all counselors have a professional and ethical responsibility to be leaders and in promoting full potential of all individuals” (Vernon, 2009, p. 203). If this means reaching out to varying professionals in the building and asking them to make more concrete plans of action for a specific group in need of help, then we must find friendly, accessible ways to get this done and still maintain good ties with our colleagues. At the end of the day, everyone’s priority is the well-being of the students, and we all have to do our part in order to achieve it!
Vernon, A. (2009). Counseling Children & Adolescents. Denver, Colorado: Love Publishing

Catering to the needs of all students is an imperative part of being a part of the education field. Understanding what a daunting task helping students master reading while maintaining their self-esteem is absolutely necessary for school counselors if we hope to act as well informed advocates of our students. Students with specific learning disabilities are at high risk for having low self-esteem and poor self-concepts. “Even more than individuals with mild mental retardation, these students desire the acceptance of peers without disabilities, so much that they place themselves at risk for gang involvement, law-breaking, and substance abuse” (Vernon, 2009, p. 212).

Helping other educators to understand the significance of maintaining a good self-concept, can really make a difference to our students. Just as “Put Downs & Comebacks” tells readers, our students are communicating how they feel through the varying phrases they say and body-language they utilize. Being aware of how daily life is going for all students is an important part of a school counselor’s job, and knowing when to intervene is an even more important part of it as well. School Counselors can change the world!


I really enjoyed reading the information you shared, especially regarding children with low english reading proficiency. I have volunteered in the Chicago Public School systems with 3-5 graders and found that not only was there a large hispanic population but many of the girls I worked with struggled at their reading level. When their parents came to pick them up I noticed they would speak Spanish with their parents and I couldn't help but wonder how this plays a role in their struggles to read at their age level.

I found a wonderful resource online that has resources for teachers and educators to help assist with students who might be learning english as a second language:
The site has quizzes, worksheets and other learning tools that can be utilized.

As a future counselor, I would love to become proficient enough in Spanish to feel comfortable using the language in sessions with clients. With the growing number of spanish speaking American citizens and individuals in this country, I think it is an important part of our duty to be mutliculturally competent as counselors to be able to communicate as best as possible with Hispanic clients who might struggle with English as a second language.

This is a very unfortunate epidemic that has been plaguing our schools for some time now. Seeing first hand the damaging effects that can happen in communities of poverty is troubling because for so many students it goes unnoticed and students end up slipping through the cracks of the system. It is important to note that some parents who would love to be more involved in their child's learning objectives have a great disadvantage because of their need to work more hours to support a family that is already labelled as low income. With so many negatives at play against this community it can easily be seen why this demographics is at a higher risk.

There are interesting points brought up in this article around issues of poverty. This article states that "poverty undeniably poses numerous threats to children's educational prospects. Children in low-income families tend to have uneducated parents, lack adequate nutrition, live in poor communities, and attend substandard schools. All of these factors can be detrimental to reading." It makes sense that families that are struggling to meet basic needs may have difficulties stressing the importance of reading to children. As a future school counselor, a part of my role includes closing the gap between students who have access to quality education and resources and those who do not. ASCA provides a template for writing reports that reveal this disparity in access and educational outcomes and what can be done to improve this gap (ASCA, 2014). I believe this article suggests that professionals, parents and those with access to the child should have awareness of the students development and any factors that could impeded his/her reading skills. As a future school counselor, I understand the importance of being aware of the needs of students just as other professionals and parents usually are.

ASCA (2014)ASCA National Model Templates. Retrieved from

This article is important because it identifies several risk factors for student’s who may struggle with reading. As a school counselor, we are in a position where we may have the opportunity to identify some of the risk factors and ensure the student gets support. The emphasis on children with low English proficiency and unfamiliarity with the standard English dialect is particularly relevant for school counselors. Some of these students may be identified as special needs or having a learning disability but it is actually a language barrier, which results in the student struggling to learn to read a language before they can properly understand or speak the language. We can be an advocate for these students and make sure they are being tested for understanding of the language and they receive the proper interventions that fit with where they are struggling and how they are struggling.

This was very informative to read. It is important to recognize which children are greatly at risk. There are a few aspects in which I have hesitations though. Yes individualized case by case and child by child plans come a great price but this is what is so often needed. How do we create a system wide restructuring plan when each child and their case is individualized and require a tailored approach. It is also difficult to predict and gage how many resources/staff are needed if this is ever growing and changing.

As a future school counselor with a background in Elementary Education, I have experienced several different school settings and environments. I have seen first hand the effects of circumstances such as attending a low-performing school or a school in a community of poverty can have on students and their learning. While student teaching at a school in an urban district, I noticed several of the teachers and specialists, including the reading specialist, who did not appear to have a passion for the student population that they were working with. Without educators who are trained in recognizing students with reading disabilities or how to help those students, we cannot reasonably assume that we will see increases in the amount of students who are not having reading difficulties.

The section of this article titled, “Children who attend a chronically low-achieving school” points out that administrators should focus on systemic change, rather than pinpointing individual students with reading difficulties. I agree that this is important because it may be difficult for a teacher to identify all struggling readers in his or her classroom before it may be too late to help them succeed. All students are entitled to equal learning and it is my job as a future school counselor to close the achievement gaps that currently exist in low-income and low-performing school environments.

Although I agree with the idea that hearing impairment can cause poor reading, I think reading could improve the speech of these individuals. For children with hearing impairment they struggle with proper speech. I have a few family members that are hearing impaired and I notice their improper use of speech. It is hard for them to understand tenses or sayings that are not as common. I think extra attention should be paid to reading so that these individuals understand and know how to speak properly. Seeing the tenses and word structure is very beneficial to speech. People who have hearing impairments tend to be more visual and reading can enhance their speech.

It is important to be aware of these risk factors so they can be identified and preventive steps can be taken. In the schools, particularly in low achieving schools, students are identified as special education. While that may sometimes be the case, there are often other factors that contribute to students learning to read. We need to advocate for change and ensure that students are given the resources they need to succeed, whether that is additional assistance and accommodations or further education about the English language.

This was an insightful section. It is important to recognize which children are greatly at risk. There are a few aspects in which I have hesitations though. Yes individualized case by case and child by child plans come a great price but this is what is so often needed. How do we create a system wide restructuring plan when each child and their case is individualized and require a tailored approach. It is also difficult to predict and gage how many resources/staff are needed if this is ever growing and changing.

I found these descriptions of "struggling readers" to be very helpful and informative. For my last 2 years of college I volunteered in elementary schools as a classroom helper, and I found the experience to be very rewarding. In one school, my role as a "Rockin' Reader" was to have individual time with kindergarten students whose achievement level was lower than that of their peers. These students were identified as at risk of falling behind and not being promoted to the first grade. We read books from the classroom library, followed by discussing the stories to enhance comprehension and their use of descriptive language. The schools I volunteered with were in lower S.E.S areas, and this provided a clear example of the different opportunities that are available to students who have more or less resources available. I believe that the individual attention a student receives from a caring adult (or older student/role model) can truly make a difference. If a student has just one person who believes in them, this could make a difference in terms of their motivation and their self-confidence in their ability to achieve.

I appreciated the multicultural perspective of teaching specifically Hispanic children (and any other children speaking a primary language other than English at home) how to read. Prioritizing their understanding of reading in their most familiar language first truly employs the essence of learning, rather than the pressure to perform to a certain, culturally specific standard. With many minorities struggling to reach and maintain a college-level education later in life, implementing these methods of teaching could assure a brighter future and a more equal footing for minority students from English-as-a-second-language households. Of course, as the article mentions, this certainly doesn’t determine if a student will have a hard time learning to read, but, as educators, it is helpful to be aware of the best possible way to assist all students in the classroom. Understanding a child’s background and what elements of their background may influence their respective learning and reading styles.

This article is very informative in detailing the types of children at risk for low-level reading proficiency. What I most want to comment on is how much I agree that our schools need to deviate from the normal "one way" system of educating students, and instead evaluate them on an individual basis. We are not doing our children any favors in assuming they are all at the same skill level, as this creates issues in self-confidence and finds us with children whom are discouraged at a level behind others. In knowing all the state and school regulation that dictates curriculum, there needs to be a state-wide plane to restructure our educational system. One that educates our teachers more efficiently-- with more skills, such as those counselors need to take, diversity classes, and certificate programs which allow teachers to evaluate children individually. I think then, we will see change in things such as reading proficiency.

It's interesting to see the various groups of children who have difficulty with reading. When I first read this section, I assumed that the children would all have some sort of cognitive deficiency. I didn't even think about the children whose native language is not English. It's helpful to have someone working at the school who can provide that assistance and translation.

After reading the article, it seems that one of the only commonalities of most struggling readers is coming from a marginalized population. Whether it is a child living in poverty, a non- native speaker, or and a student with a specific disability the one thing they all have in common is that their individual communities are marginalized and often oppressed by the mainstream dominant culture. When reading about hispanic students being twice as likely to be struggling with literacy and the lack of native language instruction taking place in schools I find myself thinking about the systemic oppression that seems to be occurring. Mainstream culture still places value on the dominant culture and language is a major part of that so it is not surprising that there is not a stronger push for more native language instruction in the public school system. In addition to language biases, the article points out that struggling readers living in communities defined by their poverty need extra funding, smaller teacher to student ratios, quality educators, and high quality materials none of which is possible as long as schools in Illinois are funded by property tax. The current Illinois school finance system creates a system of educational oppression that does not give schools with the highest need the funds to close the achievement gap.
In terms of how this article impacts my future practice as a social worker, there are some clear ways to help improve the reading ability of students. One is being willing and able to collaborate with other professionals and being knowledgable about outside service providers. Not all schools will being able to support the many native languages that students bring to the classroom, being able to recommend outside agencies that can help with tutoring services in a native language can be a valuable resource for closing the achievement gap. It is also necessary to be knowledgeable about agencies that are free or affordable to help students living in poverty. Working and collaborating with other professionals is also crucial. Being able to reach out to and collaborate with speech and language pathologists, counselors, social workers, teachers, etc. will build a resource network that can better meet the unique needs of students with special needs, differing dialects, native languages, etc. In order to tackle the achievement gap and help students become successful a team approach is necessary.

Below is a quote under this section that stuck out to me. Recently I had a class that involved a guest speaker who highlighted the barriers Hispanic students face when it comes to high school and post-secondary education graduation rates. Early intervention in reading achievement could impact this population and their graduation rates significantly.

"Hispanic students in the United States are at especially high risk. Despite progress over the past 15 to 20 years, they are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to read well below average for their age. Many of these children also have parents who are poorly educated, come from low-income families, live in low-income communities, and attend low-achieving schools."

We have become aware that early intervention is not always implemented and for many of us who are hoping to work in high schools or with teenagers in a clinical setting, we may face situations that encompass a majority of individuals who struggle with reading comprehension and beyond. I worked in a school last summer where a lot of my students struggled with reading. I found them to put down their capabilities quite often. The students I worked with were around the age of 15 and based on their age they were required to move on to high school, most had a 5th grade reading level. Although it is not impossible, it can be difficult to nurture those skills when so many years of potential interventions/work have been lost. Despite the reading level and age factors, I found many different techniques and approaches that helped to develop reading comprehension.

I appreciated this article because it highlights the importance of implementing interventions not only in schools but in homes as well. It is important to ensure everyone is on the same page to achieve the most favorable results.

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