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Learning — Basic Reading Skills

Reading Problems in Childhood

Young girl looking at a book with her dad.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 05 Sep 2023

Published 08 Feb 2022

What are Basic Reading Skills in Childhood?

Basic reading skills in childhood are a child’s ability to see and read words accurately.  

Reading skills include sounding out words, decoding words correctly, identifying letter sounds, and using proper pronunciation. A child must understand letter sounds and letter combinations. These skills are often referred to as phonemic awareness and phonological awareness. Understanding basic phonemes (also called the building blocks of reading) and interpreting sounds are important pre-reading skills. 

As a beginning reader builds and develops these skills, including visual and phonological processing, they will begin to read words accurately and fluently.

Another skill here is ‘reading fluency,’ which refers to the ability to read smoothly and at an appropriate pace. When children first learn to read, their pace is stilted. They must sound out many unfamiliar words. They should become more fluent readers and take in larger amounts of text as they hone their reading skills. Often, reading fluency is assessed by having children read aloud, called oral reading fluency, but children can also have different paces of silent reading.

When children struggle with how they visually process letters and letter combinations, reverse letters, or have trouble seeing the information on the page, they may have dyslexia. 

Reading very slowly (reading speed) can be another problem, as can having difficulty hearing the sounds and the sound blends in reading. Learning disabilities in reading are reading challenges related to how a child processes any of this information. 

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Symptoms of Reading Concerns in Children

Symptoms of reading concerns in childhood usually emerge before third grade. Third grade is the turning point when children stop learning to read and begin reading to learn. 

  • Trouble understanding what they are reading: because of difficulty sounding out words correctly
  • Unable to recognize letters, reads aloud slowly, inaccurately, and with great effort: your child is struggling to learn how to read
  • Struggles with spelling: because of the difficulty sounding out words correctly
  • Struggles with recognizing rhyming words: such as house/mouse 
  • Not able to pronounce multisyllabic words: says ‘aminal’ for ‘animal’ 
  • Not able to decipher words that sound alike or look similar: an example of two such words is “where” and “were”
  • Extensive vocabulary but not reading fluently: your child is bright but unable to read, which could be a sign of a reading disability or dyslexia
  • Struggles with poor reading performance: your child lacks confidence in their academic abilities and becomes stressed or embarrassed when asked to read aloud
  • Trouble across subjects in school that require reading: you may notice your child has missing assignments or low grades. Given that reading is such a major part of the school day, you may see your child is struggling across all content areas 

Causes of Reading Challenges in Childhood 

Dyslexia: This medical term appears in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th revision (ICD-10). 

Dyslexia is the term that refers to challenges with word recognition, decoding, and spelling that are associated with processing deficits. Phonological processing, or how we process sounds and rhymes in words, is impacted in dyslexia.

When a clinician diagnoses dyslexia, this diagnosis is based on reading challenges and accompanying processing deficits. Often, a psychologist will test phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, phonological memory, and the rapid naming of phonological information. This information helps the psychologist understand if your child is struggling.

This diagnosis does not require reading to be below a certain cut point or grade level. Struggles with reading must be due to an actual deficit in processing, not a lack of education or experience.

Specific Learning Disorder, With impairment in reading: This term appears in the DSM-5 diagnostic manual that psychologists use to diagnose. Dyslexia is a medical term for the same condition.

To meet the criteria, an individual must be performing below the expectations of either cognitive or age and grade level markers and have processing deficits. As you can see, these terms often may be used interchangeably.

Specific Learning Disability (SLD) in Basic Reading, Reading Fluency, or Comprehension): This phrase is the educational term for reading disabilities. The simple difference here is that the reading difficulty has to meet a specific cut point based on age and grade-level expectations.

When considering school services, it is not enough to struggle with reading and have phonological processing deficits.

A child must also consistently perform significantly below grade level and show a lack of response to interventions provided within the school. SLD in schools has a higher bar, and thus a struggling student, particularly one in kindergarten-2nd grade, may not meet the criteria.

What to Do about Reading Challenges in Childhood 

A learning disability in reading is generally lifelong, but your child can do well with intervention and support. Many people with learning disabilities find a way to live with these challenges and thrive.

Additionally, technology can make academics more accessible, even for the struggling reader. 

Consider these do’s and don’ts for your child.

DO use screen reading programs: these helpful programs read text aloud while your child reads the highlighted portion 

DO use dictation programs: these programs translate verbal dictation into writing. They can help the struggling reader find a modality to complete academic work successfully.

DON’T rely solely on the school for testing: if you can, learn about psychoeducational testing that may be available privately.

DO explore tutoring: Support at school may not be enough to combat your child’s challenges. Orton-Gillingham is a multisensory approach to reading that is delivered one-on-one or in a small group setting by a certified professional. 

Multisensory means using visual, auditory, and tactile information to teach reading. Using memory strategies, a tutor can help children memorize rules about spelling or decoding, recognize word families and see similar vowel patterns or word endings. 

Wilson Reading and LindaMood Bell are other research-based methods for teaching reading.

DO try computer programs: Consider programs that read the text to a child while highlighting the words. Your child can listen to a story while reading along. Some reputable computer programs include:

DO read with your child: You can try paired or choral reading, which means reading together with your child or alternating page to page. 

DON’T let your child pause when reading together: Do not let your child sit with a single word for more than three seconds before providing the word and continuing to read together. This pace will help your child enjoy reading by having a chance to comprehend the material instead of spending minutes decoding a simple sentence.

DO provide lots of practice: Supply your child with content they enjoy. Use video games or cartoon-themed books; find a version of your favorite Disney movie or go to the library.

DO check out books in multi-format text: find books that include read-aloud compatibility, and follow along with your child. Make reading a family activity, and make it fun.

DO provide emotional support: Unfortunately, sometimes children who struggle with learning tend to experience emotional symptoms. If your child is struggling with learning, and you suddenly see a drop in their general happiness, motivation, or enjoyment of life, it is important to consider whether or not your child has depression or significant emotional distress.

When to Seek Help for Reading Skills Issues

If you suspect your child has a learning disability, it is important to have the school do an assessment to see what supports are needed. It would also be helpful to seek a tutor outside of school who uses Orton Gillingham or a Wilson Reading approach. It is rare that reading can be remediated with support that occurs only in the school setting. Children with learning disabilities need extra support to catch up academically. 

If your child is not effectively learning to read, it is important to talk to your child’s school. It may be that resources are available for intervention through the school’s Response to Intervention program. The school may even provide after-school services or have referrals to programs you can qualify for or pay for out of pocket to work on reading.

Significant reading trouble almost always requires remediation and intervention.

The school process for evaluating reading concerns can be slow and laborious, so be patient and persistent. Your child may require a 504 Plan or IEP for services or accommodations like small group reading instruction, tutoring, extra research-based work in phonics and decoding, and the use of multisensory strategies for reading.

If you see your child refusing or avoiding schoolwork, having tantrums, or giving up easily, these behaviors are red flags for emotional symptoms. In this case, you would be wise to consider an evaluation by a psychologist to get a comprehensive look at your child’s profile.

Professionals to Help Your Child with Reading Challenges 

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a context that may be related to visual-spatial problems, attention, or learning. Children diagnosed by a psychologist with a significant reading disability may be more likely to get help at school, particularly if they have standard score performance that is below the 12th percentile in reading tests
  • Optometrist or ophthalmologist: to check a child’s vision and recommend vision therapy for any visual tracking issues. A child who is a good reader may have trouble tracking words on a page, which could be addressed using visual supports or therapy.
  • Orton-Gillingham tutor: to provide an intervention with a credentialed tutor who has expertise in using multisensory methods to teach reading
  • Lindamood Bell learning processes: to provide intervention in reading, writing, and math
  • School special education team: schools do universal screening for reading concerns with tools like AIMSweb and DIEBELs. They provide intervention and progress monitoring via the school team and make a consideration for special education if a child is not making substantial progress with support. 
  • International Dyslexia Association: to provide a resource for families with information on tutoring, teaching, and training to support your child

Similar Conditions to Reading Challenges in Childhood

  • Writing problems: trouble reading can be related to difficulties with spelling, grammar, or organization
  • Math problems: trouble with reading can be related to difficulties with math facts, calculation, or word problems
  • Initiate: trouble with reading can be related to difficulties with getting started on tasks, particularly on non-preferred academic tasks
  • Self-monitor: trouble with reading can be related to problems keeping track of one’s own progress toward a goal
  • Metacognition: trouble with reading can be related to problems with ‘thinking about one’s thinking’
  • Attention: trouble with reading or with learning, in general, can be related to problems shifting or sustaining attention
  • Emotional symptoms: trouble with reading or with learning, in general, can be related to depression or other emotional symptoms: a decrease in general happiness or enjoyment in life; crying, tantrums, refusal of tasks

Book Resources on Reading Skills in Childhood

Anderman, Eric M. & Anderman, Lynley Hicks (2009). Classroom motivation.

Shaywitz, Sally (2005). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level.

Bell, Nanci (2013). Seeing stars: Symbol imagery for phonological and orthographic processing in reading and spelling.

Bell, Nanci (2007). Visualizing and verbalizing: For language comprehension and thinking.

Lindamood, Patricia (2011). LiPS: The Lindamood phoneme sequencing program for reading, spelling, and speech — 4th edition, complete kit (LIPS, 4th).

Orlassino, Cheryl (2012). Blast off to reading!: 50 Orton-Gillingham based lessons for struggling readers and those with dyslexia.Orlassino, Cheryl (2014). A workbook for dyslexics, 3rd edition.