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Areas of Difficulty

Children who have difficulty learning to read often run into one or more of three stumbling blocks: difficulty with the alphabetic principle, with comprehension, and with fluency. Find out about these stumbling blocks in this overview.

Most children who rely on schooling to learn to read and who receive good reading instruction do, in fact, become successful, lifelong readers. However, there are some children for whom good instruction is necessary – but not enough.

There are three stumbling blocks that are most likely to throw children off course on the journey to skilled reading:

  1. Failure to understand or use the alphabetic principle, that is, the idea that written spellings systematically represent the sounds of spoken words in reading and writing
  2. Failure to acquire and use comprehension skills and strategies to get meaning from text
  3. Lack of fluency

These three can combine to decrease children's motivation for learning how to read.

All over the United States, countless interventions strive to help children who are doing poorly in reading. In tutoring sessions, special education classes, free book programs, family literacy projects, and remedial instruction, there are educators, paraprofessionals, and volunteers who are trying to help struggling children to catch up.

Provided that they are designed to help children learn what they need to learn, programs with vastly different approaches show positive results.

Reading is an accomplishment that depends not just on discrete skills, but on a wide range of developmental supports and cognitive achievements. Mending an early language link is not by itself likely to have any effect on word reading if other connections in the net are frayed. Because reading is such a complex activity, children need an environment offering rich support and varied learning opportunities for every successive stage of their literacy development.

Some children are far more likely than others to have difficulties in learning to read. This may seem a simple and obvious fact. Yet it is a fact that is overlooked far too often.

If our goal is to ensure that all children in America can read, then we must target prevention efforts to the children who we know will need them the most. We must do this as early as possible – before children fail in school, before they are labeled, and before costly remediation is necessary.


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Excerpted 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.

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"Reading is not optional." —

Walter Dean Myers