How to Detect Reading Problems in Your Child

How to detect, approach, and help your child’s reading problem — and determine if it’s something more serious, like dyslexia.

Parent reading a book to her child after a parent-teacher conference
Parent reading book to child

Like your child’s first steps, her first halting attempt to read is an occasion for celebration. But what if she continues to stumble? How can you tell if she’s just slow to catch on to a complex skill, or if she has a learning disability like dyslexia? Or are ADHD problems — like lack of focus — keeping her from getting through the page?

Because it’s often hard to know — and because it’s best to tackle reading difficulties early — you should speak with your child’s teacher as soon as you suspect a problem. Most children who receive help by first grade catch up quickly. Children who don’t get help until they’re nine or older can also improve, but it takes longer.

Early Signs of Trouble

The earliest indications of a reading problem can show up even before your child begins to read. Because reading is language-based, children who were late to talk or had unusual trouble with pronunciation should be closely monitored as they learn to read.

Reading instruction typically begins in kindergarten, although some children learn the names and sounds of letters in preschool. Kindergartners also develop “phonemic awareness,” the ability to manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) that make up a word. The word cat, for instance, consists of the sounds cuh-aa-tt. Letter knowledge and phonemic awareness are the most important predictors of how easily a child will learn to read.By the middle of first grade, most children can blend sounds to form words.

Suspect a problem if your child:

  • Resists reading aloud.
  • Guesses rather than sounds out unknown words.
  • Doesn’t recognize when words rhyme.

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have Dyslexia?]

ADHD itself can also cause difficulty. When ADHD symptoms aren’t properly treated, children may find it harder to focus on learning letter sounds, or may impulsively substitute a word with the same first letter as the one on the page. Children who are slow to read because of ADHD can also benefit from reading intervention.

Screening at School

Most schools begin to look for students at risk for reading problems in first grade. Don’t be alarmed if your child is singled out for intervention — it doesn’t necessarily signal a serious problem. If he doesn’t improve over time, however, additional testing may be needed.

If you decide to have your child tested privately to see if she’s reading at grade level, look for a tutor with a graduate degree in reading education. If your child is falling behind despite special instruction, you may wish to have her evaluated for learning disabilities. In that case, choose a psychologist with experience in educational testing.

Staying Involved

Sometimes a child who’s slow to read simply needs a different type of instruction. Ask the teacher about trying another approach, preferably one that focuses on changing letters into sounds and blending the sounds to make words. Or your child may need to use all of his senses. Handling letters made of sandpaper, for instance, can be helpful for children with dyslexia.

At home, read tongue-twisters and sing silly songs to draw attention to the sounds in words. Play word games that replace the first sound of a word to make new ones: fill, hill, bill. Encourage your child to sound out the words on packaging, and have him read to you for 15 minutes a day from a “just right” book (making more than five errors per page means the book is too hard). And don’t stop reading to him. Choose more difficult books to read aloud, to increase vocabulary and build comprehension.

[11 Every-Night Ways to Build Stronger Reading Skills]