7 Early Signs Your Child May Have a Reading Issue

by Melissa Taylor

Photo credit: PeopleImages, DigitalVision/Getty Images

While frequently called a “disability,” a reading issue — I like that word better — is simply a neurological condition that interferes with a person’s ability to store, process, or produce information. As a parent and educator who has dealt with learning struggles, I encourage other parents to know the signs of a reading issue — and, if a child exhibits these signs, to consider talking with a teacher or education professional about testing as soon as possible. If there is a problem, any intervention to address it will be much more effective the earlier it is undertaken.

Early diagnosis can give children important tools and support for reading — before frustration and plummeting self-esteem turn them off to reading completely. Early diagnosis means children are more emotionally invested in their learning and, generally speaking, more motivated to work hard. The sooner kids get help, the likelier their long-term success with reading becomes.

With that in mind, here are seven common red-flag behaviors that, if observed, may recommend further investigation.

7 Early Signs Your Child May Have a Reading Issue

1. Doesn’t remember letter sounds (/a/ as in apple). If the phonemes (i.e., sounds) of letters aren’t sticking in a child’s long-term memory, it may indicate a processing issue, an auditory problem, or another learning challenge.

2. Confuses look-alike letters (b / d / p) or sound-alike letters (f / v; d / t). While it’s perfectly normal for beginners to reverse and rotate letters, as children develop an understanding of language, these errors should go away.

Understood.org — one of the best websites for information on dyslexia — explains that, after age 7, if a child is still confusing letters, it’s a red flag for a bigger learning issue. For example, a person with dyslexia can’t connect the visual representation of language (the letter b or p) to the sounds the language makes (/b/ as in bear versus /p/ as in pear). Hence the frequent confusion when writing bs and ps.

3. Has difficulty rhyming words (bat / cat / mat). The ability to rhyme shows that a child can hear language. Practice with your child and help her work on this skill. If you notice your child continuing to struggle after intervention and practice, the cause may be an inability to process the sounds of language (dyslexia) or apraxia of speech, which is a motor speech disorder.

4. Doesn’t remember sight words.  Just like flash cards are meant to trigger your knowledge in a “flash,” sight words are words kids should recognize instantly. Sight words are those most commonly used in the English language, such as “the,” “a,” “her,” “to,” “it,” “was,” and “for.” Children learn these sight words so that they can easily read sentences without having to stop and sound out common words each time they encounter them. In fact, “sight” words is a bit of a misnomer: so important is it for children to speedily grasp these words that teachers use a variety of multi-sensory recall techniques, including tactile, visual, and kinesthetic approaches to mastery.

Retrieval of sight words does takes practice. If, after ample repetition, your child still can’t remember basic sight words, it could indicate dyslexia, an auditory processing problem, or a visual perception disorder.

5. Omits word endings such as -s, -ing, or -ed. If you notice a significant difference between your child’s speech and that of her peers — such as not reading the endings of words — it could indicate a phonological or articulation disorder, apraxia, or dyslexia. Ask your child’s teacher if he or she notices this, too.

6. Poor memory. Can’t remember what he reads or what was read to him earlier in a story. Children whose brains process slowly, or who have attention issues, can easily lose the thread of a story. If it takes too long to decode the words on the page, the meaning of those words gets lost — and then the child can’t remember what happened. Sometimes the child’s attention simply wanders to something else.

Differences in the neurological processes of working memory, long-term memory, and output of information can all contribute to forgetting what one has read. (This can also be a sign of dyslexia.)

7. Spells the same word differently within the same document. Usually children misspell a word consistently. When my kids used to spell because “beacuz,” I didn’t worry much, because it was consistent: The error was always the same. But when children use different variations of a misspelled word — “bekus,” “beacuz,” and so forth — it can indicate either a writing disorder called dysgraphia or a language-based issue like dyslexia.

Let’s be very clear: A reading issue does not mean we are in any way deficient as parents.  Nor does it mean that our children have low intelligence. My own daughter tested in the ninety-eighth percentile for intelligence but in the thirty-first for processing. She’s smart. But when children struggle with processing, sometimes they can’t get the information into their long-term memories fast enough. Then it’s gone, and they can’t remember what they read — regardless of how intelligent they are. Consider too that vision resides in the brain as well — and that many of the processing components of seeing can’t be tested with a vision chart. For example, one of my children’s eyes stopped tracking across the page about in the middle. We worked with a skilled vision therapist, and it helped.

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All that having a reading issue means is that a child’s brain learns differently. And when we discover this difference — be it slow processing, vision problems, dyslexia, or something else — it means we can help our children become better, happier readers.

For more signs that your child may have a reading issue, and for information on what to do next, visit The National Center for Learning Disabilities, LD Online,  and Wrightslaw. Free evaluations are available through public schools , if the school agrees that your child needs evaluating. You can also ask a private psychologist or learning specialist to do an independent assessment, though unfortunately this can cost somewhere in the range of $2,000-5,000.

Once you test, you can determine whether your child needs reading intervention or simply more time to develop. Either way, you’ll be glad to know — and glad you’re equipped to give your child the learning support that’s right for her.