Often I talk with parents who are frustrated to find that their child is one, two, or even four or more grade levels below what would match up with their year in school. They usually express some version of the same frustration, “I wish I had known what to look for earlier” or “Why didn’t the teacher tell me more clearly and sooner that my child was struggling with reading?”.

It is difficult for parents to know how their child compares to peers and how their child’s performance stacks up against what is expected at that grade level. This is especially true when a student is an only child or the first child to enter school. In addition, reading difficulties tend to run in families, so it can be difficult to determine where a child should be by a certain grade level if their siblings have also struggled to meet those targets.

Additionally, kids develop reading readiness at different ages. It can be hard to know whether a child is truly struggling or if developmentally, they are just not quite ready yet. So how do you know if your child needs reading help outside of school? First, it is a good idea to communicate frequently with their teacher and know exactly where they are with their reading skills and reading level. Teachers are usually required to keep very detailed data but that data does not always make its way home. Second, regardless of their age, read frequently with your child. Here are five things to observe while your child reads that may indicate a reading issue:

Does Not Know Letter Names and Basic Sounds

If your student is in first grade or beyond and they can not name and write all of the letters and tell an accurate sound for each letter, this should be a red flag. It may mean that they have not had enough exposure to direct phonics instruction. It could also be an early sign of a learning issue.

Difficulty Sounding Out Words and/or Poor Spelling

Students who do not understand the relationship between letters or letter combinations and sounds have difficulty sounding out unfamiliar words. If a student is in 2nd or 3rd grade and has difficulty sounding out basic words, even those that follow the rules like “ship”, this could be a sign of a reading issue. If your student is in upper elementary or middle school, they should be aware of the many different rules to figure out a variety of multisyllabic words like “reptile” or “indicate”. If you notice that instead of reading the word accurately, they struggle with each new word and eventually guess, read the sounds out of order, or just read some sounds and not others, this may be a sign that there is a reading issue.

Along with this, some students demonstrate poor spelling, even of words that follow predictable patterns. You may notice that they have difficulty identifying all of the needed word parts, leaving out vowels or syllables. You may also notice that they spell phonetically, writing letters to match with exactly how the word sounds. If a student is only able to read or spell by using a strategy — for example, they can only read and spell memorized words or they can only read new words by using context clues or pictures, then this can also be a sign that there is a larger issue. I have noticed that students with decoding issues often have many more whole words memorized than other students, but when they get to a word that is not memorized, they have no idea what to do.
Strategies help students to become better readers, but they should not limit a reader or become a crutch.

Has a Hard Time Learning and Retaining Sight Words

In early elementary, students memorize words that do not follow the rules but occur frequently like “people” and “what”. These are called “sight words” or sometimes “high-frequency words”. Dolch and Fry are two common sight word lists. You can look up the words that a student is supposed to learn at each grade or ask your child’s teacher which words they have learned so far. If your child is skipping, substituting other words, or trying to sound out many of the sight words already taught in their grade or previous grades, there could be an issue.

Reads Fluently but Has No Clue What They Read

Sometimes students are able to decode words and their reading sounds fine. However, when they reach the end of a story or passage, they have no idea what the text was about. Reading is not a very useful skill without the ability to make meaning out of what you have read. Just because you can recognize a word and pronounce it does not mean that you understand the word. If a student is having trouble with comprehension, one-on-one instruction is recommended to teach thinking and metacognitive strategies, boost vocabulary, and improve overall understanding of language structure (grammar) and the ability to comprehend oral and written language.

Your Child Complains that They Don’t Like to Read

Most of the time, when a child doesn’t like to read or they tell you that “reading is boring”, it is because they are actually having difficulty with reading. No one likes to do something for an extended period of time that is so hard that they feel there is no way to succeed. If reading is extremely laborious, students get discouraged and do not show a willingness to read. It may be difficult because they are having to sound out every word but then forget the word again by the next time they see it, or it may be they don’t know many common sight words. They also could be having difficulty making meaning out of the text.

The bottom line is, if a student is frustrated with reading to the point that it is causing them to dislike reading, display anxiety, have behavior issues, or avoid school or reading in general, then it is wise to seek out assistance. Specialized reading instruction can be helpful to students who are having trouble with basic reading skills, those who need structured reading instruction and practice, and students who are having difficulty understanding what they read. Since reading is one of the most fundamental skills for success academically and in life, it is important to address any suspected reading deficits as soon as they are discovered and before they become a larger issue. With careful instruction, most students can make quick progress towards becoming a better reader. Many students, even those without a diagnosed learning issue, benefit from explicit reading instruction provided in a smaller group setting or one-on-one.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC

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