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illustration of young girl struggling with reading and writing

Struggling Readers

Difficulties With Alphabetics

Invariably, it is difficulty linking letters with sounds that is the source of reading problems, and children who have difficulties learning to read can be readily observed.

The signs of such difficulty are a labored approach to decoding or “sounding” unknown or unfamiliar words and repeated misidentification of known words. Reading is hesitant and characterized by frequent starts and stops and multiple mispronunciations.

If asked about the meaning of what has been read, the child frequently has little to say. Not because he or she is not smart enough; in fact, many youngsters who have difficulty learning to read are bright and motivated to learn to read – at least initially. Their poor comprehension occurs because they take far too long to read the words, taxing their memory and leaving little energy for remembering and understanding what they have read.

Unfortunately, there is no way to bypass this decoding and word recognition stage of reading.

A deficiency in these skills cannot be appreciably offset by using context to figure out the pronunciation of unknown words. In essence, while one learns to read for the fundamental purpose of deriving meaning from print, the key to comprehension starts with the immediate and accurate reading of words.

In fact, difficulties in decoding and word recognition are at the core of most reading difficulties. To be sure, there are some children who can read words accurately and quickly yet do have difficulties comprehending, but they constitute a very small portion of those with reading problems.

If the ability to gain meaning from print is dependent upon fast, accurate, and automatic decoding and word recognition, what factors hinder the acquisition of these basic reading skills?

As mentioned above, young children who have a limited exposure to both oral language and print before they enter school are at-risk for reading failure.

However, many children with robust oral language experience, average to above intelligence, and frequent interactions with books since infancy show surprising difficulties learning to read. Why?

In contrast to good readers who understand that segmented units of speech can be linked to letters and letter patterns, poor readers have substantial difficulty in developing this “alphabetic principle.”

The culprit appears to be a deficit in phoneme awareness – the understanding that words are made up of sound segments called phonemes. Difficulties in developing phoneme awareness can have genetic and neurobiological origins or can be attributable to a lack of exposure to language patterns and usage during infancy and the preschool years. The end result is the same, however.

Children who lack phoneme awareness have difficulties linking speech sounds to letters – their decoding skills are labored and weak, resulting in extremely slow reading. As mentioned, this labored access to print renders comprehension nearly impossible. Thus, the purpose for reading is nullified because the children are often too dysfluent to make sense out of what they read.


Adapted from: Lyon, G. R. (July 10, 1997). Report on Learning Disabilities Research. Testimony before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives.