Why Some Children Have Difficulties Learning to Read

Children may struggle with reading for a variety of reasons, including limited experience with books, speech and hearing problems, and poor phonemic awareness.

Good readers are phonemically aware, understand the alphabetic principle, apply these skills in a rapid and fluent manner, possess strong vocabularies and syntactical and grammatical skills, and relate reading to their own experiences.

Difficulties in any of these areas can impede reading development. Further, learning to read begins far before children enter formal schooling. Children who have stimulating literacy experiences from birth onward have an edge in vocabulary development, understanding the goals of reading, and developing an awareness of print and literacy concepts.

Conversely, the children who are most at risk for reading failure enter kindergarten and the elementary grades without these early experiences. Frequently, many poor readers have not consistently engaged in the language play that develops an awareness of sound structure and language patterns. They have limited exposure to bedtime and laptime reading.

In short, children raised in poverty, those with limited proficiency in English, those from homes where the parents' reading levels and practices are low, and those with speech, language, and hearing handicaps are at increased risk of reading failure.

However, many children with robust oral language experience, average to above average intelligence, and frequent early interactions with literacy activities also have difficulties learning to read. Why?

Programmatic longitudinal research, including research supported by NICHD, clearly indicates that deficits in the development of phoneme awareness skills not only predict difficulties learning to read, but they also have a negative effect on reading acquisition. Whereas phoneme awareness is necessary for adequate reading development, it is not sufficient. Children must also develop phonics concepts and apply these skills fluently in text.

Although substantial research supports the importance of phoneme awareness, phonics, and the development of speed and automaticity in reading, we know less about how children develop reading comprehension strategies and semantic and syntactic knowledge. Given that some children with well developed decoding and word- recognition abilities have difficulties understanding what they read, more research in reading comprehension is crucial.

From research to practice

Scientific research can inform beginning reading instruction. We know from research that reading is a language-based activity. Reading does not develop naturally, and for many children, specific decoding, word recognition, and reading comprehension skills must be taught directly and systematically. We have also learned that preschool children benefit significantly from being read to.

The evidence suggests strongly that educators can foster reading development by providing kindergarten children with instruction that develops print concepts, familiarity with the purposes of reading and writing, age-appropriate vocabulary and language comprehension skills, and familiarity with the language structure.

Substantial evidence shows that many children in the 1st and 2nd grades and beyond will require explicit instruction to develop the necessary phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, and reading comprehension skills. But for these children, this will not be sufficient.

For youngsters having difficulties learning to read, each of these foundational skills should be taught and integrated into textual reading formats to ensure sufficient levels of fluency, automaticity, and understanding.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Adams, M J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Edelsky, C., B. Altwerger, and B. Flores. (1991). Whole Language: What's The Difference? Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Fletcher, J.M. and G.R. Lyon. (in press). Reading. A Research-Based Approach. Palo Alto. CA: Hoover Institute.

Foorman, B.R., DJ. Francis, J.M. Fletcher, C. Schatschneider, and P. Mehta. (1998). The Role of Instruction in Learning to Read: Preventing Reading Failure in At-risk Children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90,115.

Goodman, K.S. (1996). Ken Goodman in Reading. A Common Sense Look at the Nature of Language and the Science of Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gough, P.B., JA Afford, and P. Holly Wilcox. (1981). Words and contexts. In Perception of Print Reading Research in Experimental Psychology edited by 0 J. Tzeng and H. Singer. Hillsdale, NJ.: Erlbaum.

Gough, P.B., C, Juel, and P. Griffith. (1992). Reading, spelling, and the orthographic cipher. In Reading Acquisition, edited by P.B. Gough, L.C. Ehri, and R. Trieman. Hillsdale, NJ.:Erlbaum.

Just, C., and PA. Carpenter. (1980). A theory of reading: From eye fixations to comprehension. Psychological Review 87, 329-354.

Kennedy, M. M. (1997). The connection between research and practice. "Educational Researcher 26, 412.

Liberman, A.M. (1992). "The Relation of Speech to Reading and Writing." In Orthography, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning edited by R. Frost and L. Katz. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers B.V.

Lyon, G.R., and L.C. Moats. (1997). Critical conceptual and methodological considerations in reading intervention research. Journal of Learning Disabilities 30, 578-588.

Stanovich, K.E. (1994). Romance and Reality. The Reading Teacher 47, 280-291.

Stanovich, K.E.. R.F. West, and DJ. Freeman. (1981). A longitudinal study of sentence context effects in second grade children: Tests of an interactive compensatory model. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 32, 402-433.

Excerpted from: Lyon, G. R. (January/February 2000). Why reading is not a natural process. LDA Newsbriefs. Learning Disabilities Association of America.


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


I definitely believe that instilling the love of reading begins at home. I also had the good fortune to have had caring teachers who were able to give me one on one help. But at home my parents also continued. English was our second language and so my parents would supervise our learning by having us read aloud our homework and record us. We than replayed it and were able to learn from our mistakes. This was a daily ritual that I believed helped me get pass the language barrier and learn to read.

I am a reading recovery teacher. for a child that is bilingual shouldnt be a problem with reading. The idea is get the child to read very day, a book that she has seen and read many times. A book that she does not struggle with. Reading levellled books from class resource can be a very good start. Build up a set of books at the level that she is confident with. |Once she is familiar with the words than move on tot he next level.

My daughter is 7 years old. She can speak English and Hindi very well. But, reading is very poor. What should I do to improve this skill.

Reading difficulties are closey related to spelling and speech. If a child sounds a word out differently or think it is spelt differently then it will have trouble reading it. A prime example of this is words that have silent letters (sight). If a child is used to reading words phonetically then it will have deep trouble with words with silent letters. You have addressed many good points in this article thank you.


Although evidence may support that experience may play a role in reading ability, I am not convinced that children that are read to at an early age has everthing to do with reading ability nor reading comprehension. I have two children one in 3rd grade and one child in kindergarden. My 3rd grader is well above the reading standards for his age. My kindergarten struggles below grade level. I have read to both of them since they were young.

I have a 7year old son in grade 2. I always heard him read. We have moved to a new school bout 2months ago and since we here his reading has been poor. When I read a book with him he is able to read,the moment he has to read in class he just blanks out. He doesn't no his sounds and yet he can read a book. please help confused mom in distressed his teacher said he might have to repeat the grade and we cannot afford that to happen.

If your child can not or will not read to a teacher, the teacher is unable to assess your child. One thing you can do is have the teacher, you and your child sit anywhere in the school other than a classroom. then have the teacher give you a book and have your child read it to you in front of the teacher. But, don't read any of the book or give your child help. make your child read all of the book to you without you reading any of it out loud. This will prove to the teacher and you weather your child can really read or not.
If this is not an option take your child to someone to have your child assessed by a professional. IE a medical doctor.

I read to my daughter when she was really little, even going so far as to start her a small library, building into 10 books a month for several years. Now in 3rd grade she is severely behind. She was in a reading program in her daycare from the age of three and has been going to sylvan 8 times a month for the past 15 months. I personally am putting every little bit extra into trying to get her caught up. Many people have told me she has ADHD and can't slow herself down enough yet to be able to read successfully.We are a low income family, but I have excellent reading skills. This article makes it sound like bad parenting is exclusively the reason a child would have issues. How very sad that in looking for some tips to help her at home, I found this, which makes me feel like I am already a terrible parent and should just give yp

I am a teacher and have found that socioeconomic status has nothing to do with anything. Reading has to do with each individual child's experiences. I would suggest getting flash cards (4 sets mixed together). Then play go fish with the flash cards. You could even make flash cards with nonsense words to help with decoding. your child will learn games and have fun with you. When the child is having fun they learn more. I have also found frequent breaks help during learning. I have my students do a quick 5 jumping jacks when they guess, rush, or make mistakes on purpose. This helps move blood, oxygen, and helps relieve stress.
I hope this helps.

My foster daughter is going into the 6th grade, and her reading is at a 3rd grade level. She was severly neglected and her parents never enrolled her in school. She started shcool in the 3rd grade. She is on a special education plan for this, but I am very concerned and not sure what I can do to help. Any advice?

Why Should Kids Read Every Day? Let's Do the Math!Student A reads 20 minutes five nights every weekStudent B reads only 5 minutes a night (or not at all)20 minutes/night x 5 times each week = 100 minutes5 minutes/night x 5 times a week = 25 minutes100 minutes/week x 52 weeks/year (yes, during the summer, too!) = 5,200 minutes a year25 minutes/week x 52 weeks/year = 1,300 minutes a yearStudent A practices reading the equivalent of 14 whole school days a yearStudent B gets the equivalent of only 3.6 school days of reading practiceFrom 1st to 6th grade, if these students maintain the same reading habits:Student A will have read the equivalent of 84 school daysStudent B will have read the equivalent of only 21.6 school daysThe gap of information retained between students A and B will have widened considerably and so, undoubtedly, will school performance.How do you think Student B will feel about him/herself as a student?Which student will likely read better?Which will probably have greater knowledge?Who will develop stronger study habits?Whom would you expect to be a better writer?Which student will have a better vocabulary?Whom do you think will be more successful in school?Who will most likely be a lifelong reader?

I taught my 7-year old child to make notes in tables I made for him of the things he had trouble with while reading. After 3 months, he could read anything. By taking notes he got to practice writing letters and words while he learned to read. I created several tables: 1) a table with single letters listed in the first column, and words that used those letters in the second column, 2) table with vowel letter pairs (or triplets) like ae in the first column and words that used those letters in the second, and 3) a similar table with consonant letter pairs. For example, for the letter "b" the first column had all the ways "b" could be printed, and in the second column were listed "bake", "lamb", "debt". If my child could not remember what a letter or letter pair in a word sounded like, he could ask me. I helped him identify letter pairs that make unexpected sounds. Many times my child remembered all by himself when he reviewed what he had written, and was quite pleased to see evidence that he knew lots of possible sounds for the same letter or letter pair. We turned his note-taking into a treasure hunt, and found out we could fit everything he had needed to know on 2 pieces of paper.I also just wanted to mention a program called Sight Phonics that I just fell in love with. I haven't tried it, but from my experience teaching my child, he probably would have had a lot less anguish if he had this program available to him. I'm still angry with myself that I ignorantly went along with sight words and flashcards and "natural reading" initially.

USE AUDIO BOOKS TO ENCOURAGE RELUCTANT READERSYes, audio books can be something else we can pull out of our bag of “tricks” to help our reluctant readers. But they're not tricks, really – just ways we want to help them discover the joy of reading that will hopefully last a lifetime. Here are a couple of ways to use audiobooks to get your sons and daughters interested in reading:Pair Books with Unabridged Audio Books: Look for both formats at your library or bookstore, then experiment and choose the best strategy that works for your child: Follow the book as the audio book plays. This helps with word recognition and awareness of phrasing; orListen to a chapter, and then read it. This helps students understand main ideas before they are read, which can improve fluency; or Read a chapter and then listen to it to self-check for understanding. Create Their Own Books on Tape: Make your children the stars of their own audio books! Have them read into a tape recorder. During playback, help them follow along in the book and help identify errors. You can stop the tape and demonstrate correct words and phrases. Some research has indicated that as your children listen to themselves and hear their own reading growing better, their skills will likely improve. Reward children for the errors they find and correct as well as for their successes.

My grandson is a 4th grader reading at Within word stage at school. His reading assignmeents do not seem to be differeniated based on his reading level. How can we help him at home become a better reader and have more confidence in his abilities.

It is vital for kids to be read to at a very young age.I think the children should have as much exposure to print before they start school as they can possibly get. Reading fosters vocabulary too. When a parent reads to their child, they are teaching them so many factors in the skill of reading while entertaining them at the same time.

I have a 7 year old son and a 4 year old, My 7 year old is a little bit behind in his reading and his comprehension, I found your website very interesting that's why Im writing this comment but I really need help with his reading he is very slow but he reads good, I would like to work with his sounding and speed HHHEEELLLPPP

Sara, have you tried going to the Library and allowing him to pick a book? Even get involved in a reading program through the library. Then when you are home, make reading time a family affair. Even if it's only for 20 min. a day, this excitment will rub off on your son. Hope this helps.

For Sara, does your son, like to listen to CD' s or even iPod? You might try providing him with books and great stories downloaded from your local library for Mp3's. You will open up a new world to him. There are so many wonderful books available by listening mode. He might have this during a rest time over the weekends, and as his reading before bed time. Good luck!

My son is 6 I have run into so many problems I am not sure where to even go. His kindergarten teacher left bruises on him and made him hate and be terrified of reading. On top of that he has a speech delay which is not helping anything at school. I have had him in a speech program since he was 3. I feel like every time I force my child to sit down and read I am doing him and in Justice. Any suggestions would be great

I believe if babies are not read to when they are very young and their mines are open for new things, their mines have not develop the ability to understand the complexities of language.

Children with language delays, I believe will improve with more one on one approach. Try finding what instrument he is interested in. Find not just a so, so teacher but a brilliant teacher that really knows how to teach music and understands not only how to play, but understand the musical scales well and theory. Music lessons will stimulate their brains and help them improve their reading skills. Learning how to read notes from left to right is just like reading. Except when they see the note, they will hear beautiful music. Piano lessons will get the brain working by using both right and left hand. Other instruments like flute, violin, trombone only teaches one clef bass or treble. Try private tennis lessons or swimming lessons. This I believe is better than speech therapy because they have to perform the action by working one on one in a fun environment. Boys especially love moving their bodies. Just having this one on one with the instructor will help so much with their reading, verbal, and comprehension skills. Next, introduce audio books. Find his level and see what interests him. He may not like fantasy books, but is more interested in people relationships and how they cope and deal with different situations. Read only at night, when the day is coming to an end. Climb in bed with him, and tell him we are going to listen to an audio book together. Next have him hold the book and follow along with the audio. Maybe start with picture books and gradually find books that interest him. Good Luck! Relax and have fun. Everything in life takes time. It is a process and success doesn't happen over night.

Thank you for your expensive tips. What if there is not the income to support music lessons to broaden the mind or hire a tutor to have one on one reading lessons? It is all square and dandy, when the funding is available to offer such skills to young children, but it is not feasible for all parents.

My son is in 3rd grade, and an accelerated reader and above proficient in all test areas except reading acquisition. Please provide me some feedback on how to improve this area.

how does perceptual reasoning and working memoryaffect verbal comprehension????and what is a nonverbal learning disability??

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"You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend." — Paul Sweeney