If your child has trouble reading, it can impact a lot more than schoolwork. It can also affect his self-esteem and social life. A common cause of reading issues is dyslexia. But other conditions can have similar symptoms. Learn more about what causes these difficulties, and how you can help.
What You Might Be Seeing
Reading issues can look different from child to child, and at various ages. The signs may also be different depending on what’s causing them. If your child has dyslexia or another condition that affects reading, here’s what you might be seeing:
Reading Trouble in Preschool or Kindergarten
- Struggles to recognize letters, match letters to sounds and blend sounds into speech
- Has difficulty pronouncing words, for example, saying mawn lower instead of lawn mower
- May have a smaller vocabulary than kids the same age and take longer to master the alphabet, basic math and days of the week
- Has trouble making rhymes
Reading Trouble in Grade School or Middle School
- Spells poorly
- Has difficulty recalling facts and numbers
- Has trouble learning new skills (compensates by relying on memorization)
- Frequently reverses letters (for example, mixing up d and b) or puts them in the wrong order (such as confusing left with felt)
- Has trouble following directions
- Struggles with word problems in math
Reading Trouble in High School
- Reads below grade level
- Doesn’t “get” jokes, proverbs or common expressions, like “chip on your shoulder”
- Struggles with reading aloud
- Has trouble keeping track of time
- Is unable to summarize a story
- Is unable to learn a foreign language
If you’ve seen some of these signs for at least six months, it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s teacher or doctor. They can help you look more closely at what’s going on and figure out the best ways to help your child improve his reading skills.
What Can Cause Trouble With Reading
Dyslexia is the condition that’s best known for affecting reading skills. But other conditions can impact a child’s ability to read for different reasons. It’s also not unusual for kids to have more than one condition. Here are the main causes of reading issues.
Dyslexia: This brain-based condition is a common learning issue. Kids with dyslexia have trouble recognizing letters and knowing which sounds the letters make. They may struggle with rhyming and sounding out new words. They may forget words they’ve seen before.
It can take a long time for kids with dyslexia to become familiar enough with a word to know it at a glance. And they may be able to read it fairly easily one day, but not the next. They may also skip words and lose their place.
It’s not just the ability to recognize words that suffers. Dyslexia may also affect reading comprehension. It’s hard to understand what’s happening in a story when it takes so long to get through each individual word.
Dyslexia can also affect spelling, writing and even speaking skills. But despite all the challenges it creates, dyslexia isn’t a sign of low intelligence. There’s a long list of very successful people who have dyslexia.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): ADHD, the most common brain-based condition in childhood, can make it hard to stay focused during reading and other activities. Many kids with ADHD also have hyperactivity as a symptom.
Sometimes people mistake dyslexia for ADHD. Kids who have reading issues may fidget from frustration. Or they may act up in class to cover up not knowing how to complete certain tasks. But it’s not uncommon for kids to have both conditions. About a third of students with attention issues are believed to also have dyslexia.
Auditory processing disorder (APD): APD affects kids’ ability to process the information they hear. It makes it hard to understand what people are saying or to follow a story that is read aloud.
APD can also affect reading skills. Reading requires being able to connect sounds with letters. But kids with APD often have trouble hearing the difference between letters like b and d and sounding out new words.
Visual processing issues: Kids who struggle with visual processing have a hard time seeing the difference between letters or shapes. They may also not be able to see them in the correct order. Having blurred vision or seeing double are common complaints. Kids often try to compensate by squinting or closing one eye.
How You Can Get Answers
You don’t need to have your child diagnosed in order to help him with reading at home. And you don’t need a diagnosis to find tutors to work with him. But knowing what’s behind his difficulties will let you come up with the best strategies for his challenges. It can also help you get the support and services he needs at school.
Here are steps you can take to find out what’s causing your child’s trouble with reading.
Talk with your child’s teacher. Knowing what’s happening in school is a good first step to understanding your child’s issues. The teacher can tell you how your child’s trouble with reading is affecting his learning. That information will be helpful if you talk with your child’s doctor or other professionals.
The teacher may also try out some informal supports in class to see if they help with his reading, writing and self-esteem.
Look into an educational evaluation. If your child is evaluated by the school, you may be able to get extra support and services to help with his reading issues. Either you or your child’s teacher can request an evaluation. If the school agrees to do one, it won’t cost you anything.
If your child is eligible for support, the school will commit to providing it in writing, through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. If your child is under age 3, you also can contact your state’s early intervention system and request an evaluation free of charge. No referral is needed.
Talk with your child’s doctor. Tell the doctor what you’ve observed at home or what the teacher has noticed. That includes trouble with any other skills besides reading. The doctor may be able to rule out some medical causes, including ADHD. Or she may refer you to a specialist.
Consult with specialists. There are a number of professionals who can help figure out why your child is struggling with reading. A specially trained psychologist can check for learning and attention issues or ADHD. A neurologist can also diagnose ADHD.
Talk to a learning specialist. This professional can evaluate your child for learning and attention issues using the same tests the school would use. But you'll likely need to pay because it’s a private evaluation.
What You Can Do Now
Even if you aren’t sure what’s causing your child’s reading issues, there are still ways to help him—and get support for yourself, too. Here are a few options to consider:
- Learn as much as you can. Understanding your child’s trouble with reading is the first step to getting him the help he needs. The more you know, the better able you’ll be to find ways to build his reading skills and make reading more fun.
- Observe and take notes. By closely watching your child’s behavior, you may be able to spot patterns and triggers. Maybe he gets more frustrated when he reads after dinner than before dinner. That allows you to try different strategies such as having him do his reading after school, and save math work for later.
- Read out loud. Whether it’s Dr. Seuss or a chapter of Harry Potter, reading together with your child will help reinforce his skills. It may also help him enjoy and learn from books without having to struggle to read them.
- Tap into your child’s interests. The more interested your child is in a topic, the more time he’s likely to spend reading. And it doesn’t have to be just books. Comics, magazines and websites may be more fun and appealing. And they can be equally helpful in building skills.
- Focus on effort, not outcome. Praise your child for trying hard. Emphasize that everyone makes mistakes, you included! Help him understand how important it is to keep practicing. Acknowledge even the smallest bit of progress. Your encouragement will help him stay motivated.
- Use audiobooks. Check to see if your library has audio recordings of books. You can also access them online. Listening to a book while looking at the words can help your child learn to connect the sounds he’s hearing to the words he’s seeing.
- Look for apps and other high-tech help. Word processors and spell-checkers can help kids who have trouble with reading and spelling. Voice recognition software can help older students tackle writing assignments by letting them dictate their ideas to the computer. There are also lots of apps and online games that can help your child build reading skills.
- Make your home reader-friendly. Try to stock every room (including the bathroom!) with at least a few books or magazines your child might be interested in reading. Take a book on long car rides and read it to your family so you can all discuss it.
- See it through your child’s eyes. It’s hard to know what your child is experiencing with his reading difficulties. Get a sense of what it might feel like to have those issues. Having that insight can make it easier to be supportive.
- Connect with other parents. Knowing you’re not alone can make you feel supported. Our online community can help you find other parents who also have kids with reading issues. They can be a great source of tips, ideas and encouragement.
Having trouble with reading can be very frustrating for kids. But there are many effective teaching strategies that can help. You can do things at home to help your child build reading skills, develop strengths and gain confidence.