When should I start to worry that my child can’t read?

Children learn to read at different speeds. I am a twin, and I can still remember my sister being much faster at being able to read than me, and I simply did not get it. Then one night and nearly fifty years on I can still remember I read a whole book. It just clicked and from then I was never without a book in my hand. I wasn’t particularly late at reading but I remember my mother being very concerned if one child could read in her mind so should the other. What point should you actually start to worry? Here are the red flags to watch out for.

Most people view reading as a mysterious skill that becomes knowable when, as in a cartoon, a light in the brain suddenly turns on. In reality, reading happens as a series of steps that begins with letters and sounds, and grows to include words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters that contain ideas, plots, stories.

Some children like my sister, just get it—they seem to be reading naturals, or they’ll learn it in school no matter what method a teacher uses. For other children, it takes more time to decode language by making the connection between letters and sounds, and different teaching styles will be needed before it finally clicks. Children really have their own pathways to reading, and sometimes it just takes it a little longer or a different way for it to click. And then when it does it their method just needs to make sense to them. 

So at what age do we raise a red flag if reading is still difficult? Generally, experts agree that by grade two, kids should be well on their way to fluency with books. “Year two is definitely a watershed year, Children in the UK curriculum will sit their first key assessment through SATS and they will receive less support in the classroom, this means that they need to be independent readers to access their curriculum effectively” says Heather Harries, the Dubai-based founder and CEO of Kidsfull, an organization that runs remedial programs for students who are struggling with learning. If children are still having a hard time, she says, “Parents need to have a serious look at it.” It is important to remember that not all seven or eight-year-olds who are struggling to read have bigger issues going on, some simply didn’t get it and now need additional intervention or an innovative approach to learning to make it easier for the student to conceptualize what letters actually mean. In other words they simply have missed a process in the decoding part of reading. 

Here are some red flags that your child might experience more challenges than the average student:

1. Struggling to read combined with a family history of reading challenges

The most common indicator that a child will struggle with reading is whether they have a family history of reading or learning issues. Dyslexia often wasn’t diagnosed in the previous generation, a parent will just have found education tough, but research does show that dyslexia does run through families, this also means that in every family with dyslexia it will have a higher chance of being prevalent across all siblings. 

2. Struggling to read combined with a  previous speech delay

Even if a language delay is addressed and dealt with, a reading difficulty related to the delay can still surface later on. When kids learn to read, they need to hear differences in sound—what experts call ‘phonological awareness’—and they need to grasp how language works, being able to articulate a word doesn’t mean the child can segment or blend the phonemes of that word. That is a processing level that is deeper than the articulatory level.” This is why a delay in language acquisition can precede a reading delay.

3. Mixing up letters and losing skills

Repeatedly mixing up similar letters (for example, b and d) can be a red flag if it goes on long enough. It’s still fairly common in grade one, and even into grade two, but look at it more closely if you get past age seven or eight, children who struggle with reading have more reversals for greater lengths of time, sometimes even into adulthood. Forgetting word spelling in previously mastered words in early elementary (grades 1-3) is another common sign there may be a real reading issue. I often describe this a dyslexic tendency, it does not mean dyslexia it simply means that I can try some more visual learning approaches with the child that will include 3D modeling to ensure they can really get the shape and significance of the letter.  

4. Avoiding reading at all costs

In preschool and kindergarten, the majority of children love being read to and can’t get enough of books, letters and numbers. Most want to grab a crayon and start trying to print their name. It’s the opposite in kids who go on to struggle with reading, they don’t have a curiosity about being introduced to letters as they’re getting towards school age. If you don’t do well at something, you don’t want to do it. So those kids who enjoy being read to get more out of it; those who don’t get left behind.”

But the likelihood of your child falling through the cracks to emerge illiterate at the end of grade school is pretty low. Schools typically screen children for learning problems as early as kindergarten, notify parents, and begin an intervention program so those kids can catch up.

Experts warn there’s also a fine line between awareness of a delay and going overboard in an effort to close the reading gap. Parents sometimes panic and begin pushing their reading avoiders in an effort to motivate them, which can backfire. Parents tend to really focus on the decontextualization of teaching reading. They get the flashcards, they drill them on the alphabet, have them write the letters. Yes, those are skills the child needs, but that can also take the joy out of reading altogether, so you get into a situation where the kids will just turn their backs on trying to learn at all.

What can parents do if they suspect a serious reading delay?

Ultimately, if you see signs your child is struggling, your first step is to speak to the school. Be an advocate for your child, if you believe that something is not quite right. There are resources available and you may have to be persistent to get the support you need. Remember noone know your child as well as you do.  Most of the time a parent’s gut feeling is correct, whether you label the child with a learning disability or not, they need an intervention to help them learn. 

If you remain unsure, we offer a free assessment in our centre to put your mind at rest. If we think your child could do with intervention we always sign post you to your school first with support on how to approach the school, after that we are here to offer a helping hand and support to ensure your child goes on to develop and be amazing whatever the short term or long term challenge they face. 

If you would like free impartial support or to bring your child in for an initual assessment and consultation, please contact us: Heather@kidsfull.aeor call 04 566 5723.