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 kids just get it—they seem to be reading naturals and are practically self-taught by kindergarten, 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 may be needed before it finally clicks. “Kids 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 can take off incredibly. It just needs to make sense to them,” says Marianne McTavish, associate dean of teacher education at the University of British Columbia, and a senior instructor with emergent learning and literacy in the department of language and literacy at UBC.
However, experts agree that by grade two, kids should be well on their way to fluency with books. “That’s a watershed year,” says Steve Truch, the Calgary-based founder and director of The Reading Foundation, an organization that runs remedial programs in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto for students who are struggling with learning. If children are still having a hard time, he says, “Parents need to have a serious look at it.”
Not all seven- or eight-year-olds who are struggling to read have bigger issues going on, though. Here are some red flags that your kid might experience more challenges than the average student:
The most common indicator that a child will struggle with reading is whether they have a family history of reading or learning issues, or dyslexia, says Truch. “We do know from research in the last 20 years that there’s a heavy genetic component to reading difficulties,” he says. “So for example, one child in the family with a reading issue means there’s a 50 percent chance for the next sibling to have it as well.”
Even if a language delay is addressed and dealt with, Truch says 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. “For those who receive speech therapy and now speak and articulate well, the issue with reading will be related to lingering weaknesses in phonological (phonemic) processing,” says Truch. “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.
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 eight, says Truch: “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.
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, say experts. “They don’t have a curiosity about being introduced to letters as they’re getting towards school age,” says McTavish, noting that it’s iterative. “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,” says McTavish. “So you get into a situation where the kids will just balk.”
Ultimately, if you see signs your child is struggling, your first step is to speak to the school. “Advocate for your child if you believe that something is not quite right," says McTavish. "There are resources available—be persistent." Truch agrees. “Most of the time a parent’s gut feeling is correct,” he says. “Whether you label the child with a learning disability or not, they need an intervention.”