How to identify reading problems in five to eight year olds

Learning to read depends on a number of readiness factors, some of which are developmental, which is why it can be difficult to identify reading problems in young children. If a child is between the ages of five and eight and is not keeping up with his classmates in reading, how does one determine if he has reading problems, or if he is simply a late bloomer?

Children generally learn to read simple patterned books as they enter grade one and they learn to use specific strategies. They use the pictures to ensure that what they have read makes sense. They listen to themselves read and reread the sentences and ask themselves if what they have read sounds right, or if they would say the words they have just read that way. They read the ‘sight words’ they have already learned, and make the first sound (and maybe more) of unknown words as they glance back at the picture, return to the beginning of the sentence and reread it to put all of the information together. They need to make sure what they are reading makes sense, sounds right and looks right.

The children who read and reread little storybooks and put those three things together at increasing levels of difficulty also need to understand what they have read and make their reading sound like talking. The children who accomplish this and who can understand what they have read at an instructional level are the children who do not having reading problems.

Children who do having reading problems can have them in any of the areas mentioned above. For example:

• A child who does not look at the pictures will not have meaning to help her guess words that make sense

• A child who struggles with language structure or hearing may not recognize if a sentence sounds right

• A child who struggles visually or who may not recognize letters or sight words will have a hard time knowing if a word looks right on the page

• A child who does not understand how letters work together to make chunks, will not be able to solve a long, otherwise unknown word (phonemic awareness)

• A child who ‘hates reading’ will not find it worth her effort and frustration to keep trying to put all of these pieces of information together

It is important to determine what is behind these issues by ensuring that all those involved in reading practice and instruction with children understand the importance of encouraging them to look at the pictures to help give them meaning. Speech and language concerns need to be ruled out. It is wise to ensure that good sentence structure is being modeled to the child as he is being read to regularly to hear the ‘language’ of books. A vision test prior to grade one, games and activities to reinforce sight words and phonemic awareness is good insurance, as is the practice of keeping it fun, and the sessions short to build and maintain enthusiasm. 

In summary, the following are indications of a reading problem in a child between five and eight years old:

• A negative or frustrated attitude towards reading

• Possible history of speech and / or language difficulties

• Confusion with or difficulty remembering sight words and letters (phonemic awareness)

• Lack of book or print knowledge; for example, the meaning of punctuation, or the difference between letters and words.

• Poor phrasing, expression and reading fluency

Most importantly, a child knows when he or she is falling behind. Keeping spirits up with the focus off book levels and comparisons and on enjoyable games and stories will help make reading time a fun and relaxing part of the day.