Sorting Out Reading Difficulties

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By Anna Buck
When reading or learning to read is difficult, how can a parent know what to do? Is it an inefficient curriculum for the specific child? Could it be a lack of motivation, laziness, a learning difficulty, or developmental delay (which means the child isn’t developmentally ready to read)? Or, as many mothers feel—is it that Mom is doing a poor job of trying to teach her child to read? A discussion of the various possibilities can help parents sort out their children’s difficulties with reading.
Struggles may result from an inappropriate curriculum. While one child may perform well with a particular curriculum, another child may find it to be too difficult or too complex. When meeting with a child who experiences reading difficulties, I have frequently pointed to, for example, the letter “a” and asked the child to make its sound. He then makes every possible sound for the letter “a;” yet, when I ask the child to read an unfamiliar one-syllable word that contains the letter “a,” the child doesn’t know how to read the word, or which of many sounds to apply to the vowel. In this situation, the child is overwhelmed with too many sounds. When I then tell the child we’re going to focus on only one sound for each vowel (e.g., only the short-vowel sounds,) and we start to read unfamiliar words, the child typically reads accurately and confidently. This is a case of an inappropriate curriculum for the child. Many children learn to read more easily when they maximize use of one vowel sound at a time. For example, saturate reading with only short-vowel sounds. This can be through word lists (containing one and two-syllable and compound words.)
A good follow up to reading simple word lists is to do sentence dictation. Dictate sentences using words from a given word list, and then have the child read his written sentences aloud. Once the short vowel sounds are mastered, introduce long vowel sounds. And, once long and short vowel sounds are mastered and can be read accurately, introduce other vowel sounds one at a time with appropriate word lists.
I often meet children who read well prior to middle-school age, but then reading of multi-syllable words has become guessing. This usually indicates a lack of knowing how to apply vowel sounds within syllables. I back up a bit, and have the child review the short and long vowel sounds and their applications to syllables, and suggest 15–20 minutes per day reading aloud to their parent(s). The parent’s job is to insist that words are sounded out and read accurately, that pauses occur at commas and periods, and that appropriate speed and inflection are applied.
If a child is unmotivated or lazy toward wanting to read, he or she may be feeling overwhelmed, or it may be due to a lack of reading readiness. I begin to push reading when I see that a child is able to imitate sounds of the alphabet and then retain those sounds with good recall. It may be a slow process, but if the child is able to retain a few sounds at a time, start there. Once the child shows good recall and clear enunciation of the majority of the sounds of the alphabet, reading can begin with simple two and three-letter words.
Sometimes a legitimate problem prohibits a child from becoming even a beginner reader. A few helpful tools can enable a parent to begin to sort out the source of her child’s difficulty.
Is your child able to do the following?

  1. Retain what she learned from one day to the next (e.g., specific letter sounds?) If this is a concern beyond what would seem age-appropriate, it may be a symptom of developmental delay.
  2. Imitate short vowel sounds as she hears you pronounce them? If your child does not imitate your sounds well, and enunciation difficulties are noticeable, you may be seeing symptoms of developmental delay and/or auditory processing difficulties.
  3. Sound out simple two or three-letter words, sound-by-sound? If this is your child’s primary difficulty, she may need a slower pace and opportunities to read words on a white board or index cards so that book reading is avoided until reading simple words becomes more fluid. If this is one of several difficulties, there may be underlying problems such as developmental delay. Separate blends and hear each sound within a blend (such as /b/and /r/ in “br” or /s/ /t/ /r/ in “str”; or separate ending blends such as /n/ /t/?) If your child cannot separate sounds in blends, it may be he has a need to move at a slower pace, such as reading words sound-by-sound that have been printed on a white board or index cards. If a slower pace does not show improvement, the problem may be a symptom of auditory processing difficulties and/or developmental delay (additional symptoms would also be observable).

If any of the above is difficult for your child, try working with it first. Purchase a curved PVC pipe at your local hardware store. (It looks like an elbow macaroni and is used like a telephone.) Have the child hold the PVC pipe to his right ear so that his ear is covered by the end of the pipe. The other end should be near his mouth so that he hears his voice as if talking into a microphone. As the child makes the sounds of the alphabet, or imitates sounds that you make, or attempts to separate sounds in blends, the use of the PVC pipe allows for clear discrimination and enunciation. This may improve reading if used regularly for as long as necessary. If the problems continue without progress, you may want to have your child checked for possible auditory processing difficulties or developmental delay.
Sometimes a child’s reading difficulties are related to dyslexic-type tendencies such as reversals, changing or dropping suffixes, or an inability to follow line-to-line while reading. In each of these situations, I would suggest parents start by having the child read aloud while holding a PVC pipe to her right ear. Sit with your child and use your own finger or a guide of some sort for line-to-line tracking. Insist that your child read accurately, even if you have to cover syllables or suffixes and help the child sound out words sound-by-sound or syllable-by-syllable. If the child skips letters or words, try enlarging the print. Reading and writing with reversals is typical until at the latest, age eight. If these difficulties do not work themselves out in a short period of time, your child may be showing symptoms of vestibular dysfunction, and you may want to have your child checked for possible developmental delay.
When comprehension is a problem, have your child read aloud daily (5-30 minutes depending on the age), and interrupt often to ask questions about the passage. You may have to interrupt after a phrase, a sentence, every few sentences, every paragraph, or every page, but comprehension should improve as you continue this daily exercise. Ask more than just factual questions. Ask questions like, “What do you think will happen next? How do you think this is going to end? Why did he say that? What type of person is so-and-so? Describe the character of so-and-so.” Determine whether or not your child is grasping implied information. I have witnessed tremendous growth in reading comprehension from this exercise in reading aloud. It should be a daily activity.
I work with many homeschool families, and, in general, I have been impressed beyond words with the teaching that parents provide their children. Most mothers are terrific teachers but occasionally need encouragement and affirmation, and now and then a few suggestions. Sometimes the answer to a problem is simple and can be resolved with a bit of creativity. And some children need a little more help before they are ready for reading. Keep after it, and if you suspect your child needs more than your ingenuity for better reading, seek appropriate help.
Former homeschooling mother, Anna Buck has been in the educational field for more than thirty years. She is certified as a Neuro-Developmental Delay therapist, a Listening Fitness instructor, and a bilateral integration trainer. Anna is also certified by ANCB as a Certified Traditional Naturopath. She established Anna’s House, LLC, in 2005. She authored Miracle Children and Anna’s SOUND Bits curriculum. For more information, visit
Copyright, 2014. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, July/August 2014. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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