Advice for parents > Reading at home > Helping struggling readers

What to do if you think your child is a struggling reader

Jean Gross CBE, a former teacher, educational psychologist and government adviser, shares her advice on what to do if you think your child is struggling to learn to read.

You can watch Jean talk through her advice in this video, or read her answers to frequently asked questions below.


When should I worry about my child's reading?

Children learn to read in different ways and at different speeds. Many very clever children come late to reading or may struggle with it for a long time.

It is not cause for concern if your four- or five-year-old is not yet reading, but you can give them a boost at home where necessary, through activities that focus on fun. Talk to your child’s teacher about what your child is doing at school and how you can support this at home.

If your child is not reading by the time they are six, you might want to ask advice from their teacher. But it is important to know that there is every chance that your child will soon catch up.

Is my child a struggling or a reluctant reader?

There are two main types of worry that parents have about their child’s reading. You may have noticed that your child doesn’t seem interested and won’t pick up a book. If they do, they seem to be able to read the words quite well – it’s just that they don’t want to. We call this group of children reluctant readers – and often they are boys. The trick is to switch them on to reading by using their interests: magazines about computer games, books about dinosaurs, instructions on how to build a model, comics and adventure stories – whatever works.

The second type of worry parents have is when their child just can’t seem to remember the sounds of letters or remember common words – like the word ‘the’ or ‘come’ – from one day to the next. Reading is a slow and painful struggle, distressing for your child and distressing for you to watch. These children we can call struggling readers.

Why might my child be struggling?

Children struggle with reading for all sorts of reasons. They may find it hard to sit still and concentrate, may have got so anxious about reading that it stops them learning, may have speech and language difficulties or a history of hearing loss, maybe because of frequent colds or ‘glue ear’. They may be in the early stages of learning English, because they speak a different language at home. There may be a history of reading or spelling difficulties in the family; research does show that literacy difficulties can be hereditary, when linked to dyslexia. If you are worried about dyslexia, do talk to your child’s teacher. There are good websites you can look at, such as the British Dyslexia Association’s website.

A shared feature of many struggling readers is that they find it hard to process the sounds in spoken words. They don’t for example pick up that a spoken word like ‘coat’ is made up of three separate sounds (c-oa-t), or that it rhymes with ‘boat’. This makes it hard for them to learn the links between sounds and letters.

Bear in mind your child’s birth date. If they have an August birthday, they will be almost a year younger than the oldest children in their class – so you’d expect them to be a little behind the average. They may need a bit more time to mature before they start to fly with reading and writing.

What should I do if I am worried?

The best thing to do if you are worried about your child is to talk to your child’s class teacher. They can set your mind at rest if they think your child is making good progress, or if your child does need more support they can talk you through their plans to help. Do tell the teacher if there is any history of reading or spelling problems in the family, as this will help them make a decision about whether or not your child may need extra help.

There are lots of different ways schools track children’s progress. For more information on this, school assessments and levelling click here.

If you’re still not sure, the best thing to do is agree a timeframe with the teacher – a period after which you’ll meet up again to see how your child is getting on.

What extra help might my child receive?

Schools have a range of ways to help struggling readers catch up. There might be a period of extra phonics teaching or extra reading practice 1:1 or in a small group with a teacher or teaching assistant. Lots of research has shown that children can catch up and keep up when they get the right help.

Parents sometimes worry about their child feeling singled out if they go out of class for extra help. Please don’t be concerned. It’s very common for children to have extra help at some time or another, and not just for reading. So children just tend to see it as a normal part of the school day, and they really love the extra attention.

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