How to Help Your Struggling Reader
"I Can't Read!"

Five-year-old Nicolas was the life of the playground at his Montessori school, climbing up the jungle gym with ease and leading his friends on searches for “gold.” But inside the classroom, he squirmed in his seat when his teacher tried to get him to open a book; he refused to sound out letters – a fundamental part of learning to read.

“Mom, I’m stupid,” Nick finally blurted out to his mother, Angela Clarke. “I can’t read!” Nicolas’ teachers told Clarke not to worry, that Nicolas might not have matured enough to start learning how to read. He will, eventually, they said.

When a child struggles with learning the basics of reading, parents nearly always hear the words “wait a while.” But some learning experts disagree with that advice; one of the best things a parent can do, they say, is to get help early.

“Early intervention is key,” says Rick Lavoie, a learning disabilities consultant for several organizations, including the Public Broadcasting Service and the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “Once you realize your child is struggling, it’s time to look for help,” he says.

In Nicolas’ case, Clarke knew she had to act when she discovered her son’s school journal, with its numerous stick-figure drawings of himself alone on an island, screaming for help. Nicolas is now 15, and doing much better with reading. Spelling, his mom says, is still a struggle for him.

Early Warning Signs

Across the country, more than 10 million children, or 17.6 percent, have difficulty learning to read, according to Susan Hall, co-author of Parenting a Struggling Reader and a member of the board of directors for the International Dyslexia Association. How can you tell if your child has a problem that needs intervention?

“A parent’s observation is critical because some of the earliest signs that foreshadow a reading difficulty can be seen during preschool and kindergarten years,” says Hall. Consider your 3-year-old, she says: Did he start talking later than other children? Is he hard to understand? Does he have trouble counting, or following simple commands?

Jane Browning, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the largest nonprofit organization advocating for people with learning disabilities, says parents should watch for the following warning signs of a possible reading difficulty in children between ages 4 and 7:

• short attention span

• poor memory

fficulty following directions

• inability to distinguish between letters, numbers or sounds

fficulty sounding out words

• inability to re-tell a story

• avoidance of reading aloud

• problem with spelling

• reversal of letters and numbers (typical in a young child, but not typical by age 6)

• poor hand/eye coordination

• disorganization

• problem adjusting to any kind of change

Of course, any child may exhibit some of these from time to time. The key, says Browning, is to see how your child compares to her peers on a regular basis.

Further Resources

An Action Plan

Help Early On for Your Struggling Reader