Why Do so Many Children Struggle With Reading?

Too many children leave school with poor reading skills – especially in English speaking countries.  For example, a report in the U.S. found that one-quarter to one-third of children don’t even reach the most basic levels of literacy when they leave school and around two thirds never become really proficient readers.1

In England, the Department for Education found that one in six 11-year-olds still struggled to read after seven years of primary education.2

The reasons why so many children struggle to read are complex and varied, but we hope to shed a light on some of them in this article… 

Click here for a summary of this article, or browse the contents of the main article below…

Contents:

Summary

The reasons why so many children struggle to read are complex and varied.  They include:

  • Dyslexia.  Most researchers believe that dyslexic children struggle with reading because of underlying biological factors.
  • The English spelling system is more complicated than that of many other languages.  The inconsistencies mean it takes more time and effort to become competent in written English.
  • Problems in Schools.  There is evidence that teachers in some schools do not consistently use the most effective teaching methods and resources for literacy.  Lack of funding for quality interventions, large class sizes and behavioural and attendance problems also make it more difficult for schools to support struggling readers.
  • Parental issues.  Numerous studies indicate that parents have a greater impact on children’s academic achievement than teachers or schools.  Parental involvement is especially important for the literacy of English speaking children because of the complexities of the written language.  Parents need to read to their children frequently and talk to them often to develop their language skills before they start school.  Many parents don’t do this.  Children also need considerable support at home after they start school because they need lots of practice to master the skills they are taught in the classroom.  Some parents don’t provide this support because they think schools should do it all.

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Dyslexia

The most obvious reason why some children struggle with reading is that they are dyslexic.

Few people involved in education would deny that some children find it harder to read than others, even if they are given the same quality of teaching and similar levels of support at home.

Professor Julian Elliott of Durham University in England is one of the most prominent critics of the term dyslexia.  Yet in his book, The Dyslexia Debate, he states:

“…the primary issue is not whether biologically based reading difficulties exist (the answer is an unequivocal “yes”)…” 3

So Elliott agrees with the vast majority of academics that some children struggle with reading because of neurobiological problems.  His real issues about dyslexia are more to do with the ways it is diagnosed and treated and whether or not people with dyslexia are actually different from other poor readers.

Even after many decades of research, dyslexia remains a controversial topic and any discussion of it can raise a variety of questions and differing opinions.  Consequently, we’ve written a separate article to address some of the issues surrounding dyslexia.

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The English Spelling System

It‘s generally accepted that learning to read in English is harder than learning to read in many other languages.  We discussed the reasons for this in some detail in another article, but it’s mainly because the English spelling system is more complicated than that of many other languages. 

In some languages, a given letter reliably corresponds to a given sound, but this isn’t true in English.

Our alphabet doesn’t have sufficient letters to represent all the spoken sounds in English and letters and combinations of letters are used to represent sounds in a variety of ways that aren’t consistent from one word to the next.

Multilingual author and independent literacy researcher, Masha Bell, has created a whole blog about the problems of the English spelling system.  Having learned more than 6 languages, she has been able to compare the relative difficulty of English to the others:

“Because I first started to learn English at 14, after Lithuanian and Russian, and went on to learn German, French, Spanish and some Italian as well, I could not help but notice that English spelling made learning to read and write exceptionally difficult.” 

However, despite the complexity of the English spelling system, it does have some structure; in fact, more than many people realise. 

The inconsistencies mean it takes more time to become competent with written English, but the vast majority of children can be taught to read and spell English words proficiently if the instruction is done in an effective and systematic way.  See the sections on reading and spelling on this site for more information on this.

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Schools and Teaching Methods

In another of our articles, we mentioned that a number of extensive reviews of the research into reading have concluded that phonics should be a central part of reading instruction. 

Fortunately, the governments in most English speaking countries have taken note of these conclusions and most children do now receive some kind of phonics instruction in school.

However, despite government initiatives to promote phonics teaching in the UK, there is evidence that more than 80% of schools are still teaching ineffective multi-cueing strategies’ to beginning readers alongside phonics.4 

In his blog post, ‘The Enemy Within’, government phonics advisor and former headteacher Gordon Askew explains that it’s counterproductive to teach alternative decoding strategies alongside phonics.  He states:

“… the benefits of the phonics teaching are seriously diluted and even countered.” 5

And in his article, The three-cueing system in reading: Will it ever go away?, Kerry Hempenstall provides many examples of the same ineffective strategies being endorsed by school districts, education departments, teacher training institutions, and schools in the USA and Australia.6

One booklet from a school even said it is inappropriate for a child to be directed to “sound out” words, using phonics.  Others suggested that it’s preferable to skip over a puzzling word than to use phonics to figure out what it says!

In the US, some studies have indicated that many in-service teachers are not knowledgeable about the basic concepts of the English language and don’t know how to address the basic building blocks of language and reading.7 

According to the U.S. Teacher Prep Report from the National Council on Education Quality (2013), colleges of education are woefully deficient in the preparation of prospective teachers on how to teach children to read.

In a report published in 2018, The National Council on Teacher programs found that only 37 percent of teacher preparation programs in the U.S. were teaching effective reading instruction identified by research.

See the following articles by Emily Hanford for a more detailed discussion of the issues around reading instruction in American schools:

New York Times (Oct. 2018): “Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?”

Hard Words Why aren’t kids being taught to read?

A report from UK school inspectors, Ofsted, found that some schools in one region weren’t even teaching phonics. ‘The Literacy Blog’ reported that…

“… astonishingly, three head teachers were described as being unaware that this is a requirement of the new national curriculum.” 8

Another issue is that some reading programmes used in schools rely too heavily on making children learn so-called ‘high-frequency words’ as whole words, rather than decoding them from their letters using phonics.  These are sometimes referred to as sight words

Although this strategy gives the illusion of fast progress, there is a negative trade-off because time spent learning whole words by sight means less time spent learning the basic principles of phonics.  We discuss this in more detail in some of our other articles (here and here).

Some children have to rote-learn words by seeing them again and again in predictable and repetitive books.  This is a very inefficient way to learn as Alison Clarke explains in this post on her excellent ‘Spelfabet’ website.

In the UK, government guidelines say that children should only be asked to read easily decodable texts consisting of simple words when they are first learning to read.  However, many children are still being given inappropriate books to read… 

The first book provided by the school for a child we know had the following sentence on the opening page: “Mum was frightened.” 

This sentence would be fine for a child who has had a reasonable amount of reading instruction, but not for an absolute beginner.  Two of the letters in ‘was’ have irregular sounds and the word frightened contains the trigraph (letter combination) ‘igh’, as well as having 2 syllables. 

Children can be taught how to deal with words like these, but they need to learn the basics first by focussing on words where the letters represent their most common sounds.

A popular online reading resource that claims to be  “a leading provider of reading material for pre-school, kindergarten and grade 1 students” provides what it calls “carefully levelled guided readers.”

Yet, the first sentence in the first book in level 1 is: “My dad can wash.”  This sentence contains 2 tricky words for beginners: ‘My’ and ‘wash’.  The word wash would be especially difficult for a beginner because not only does the letter ‘a’ sound like an ‘o’ but it also contains the ‘sh’ digraph (letter combination). 

The next pages contain the words ‘cook’, ‘chop’ and ‘clean’, all of which require a child to have knowledge of the sounds of the highlighted letter combinations to be able to read them.  Beginning readers don’t have this knowledge.

(Note that it’s fine to read just about any book to your child as long as you don’t ask them to read words to you that are outside of their current level of phonics ability.)

We don’t want to appear overly unfair to schools or teachers.  Many do an outstanding job with the resources they have.  And most schools have a variety of issues to deal with that can make the job of teaching children to read much more difficult. 

For example, many schools in the UK have limited funding, especially since the financial crash and government austerity measures following the financial crisis of 2007-2008.  Consequently, most primary schools have to run large classes of approximately 30 students.  Large classes make teaching more difficult and studies have shown they have a negative effect on academic achievement, especially the achievement of younger children 9 (although politicians often try to deny this). 

Teaching large groups is especially difficult when children have very different abilities and needs.  In a typical class, some of the children might have behavioural or social issues and others might have learning disabilities or other special needs.  On top of this, on any particular day, a child or two might be absent, some might be feeling ill or tired or they might be getting distracted by other children. 

An overly noisy environment (common in many infant classes) can also have a negative impact on learning, particularly during phonics instruction when it’s important for children to hear the individual sounds very clearly.10 

The problems of noisy and disruptive children in a class can be made worse if the school doesn’t have an effective discipline policy.  Unfortunately, some primary schools don’t, and teachers might get very little support from senior management.  With very few sanctions available to them, teachers can struggle to deal with frequent interruptions effectively. 

From our own observations and from those of friends and acquaintances who work or volunteer in schools, it seems that constant background chatter during teacher explanations is the norm in too many classrooms. 

To make matters worse, some infant classrooms have an open-plan design.  With 2 or 3 large classes contributing to the din, it’s not surprising that many children struggle to hear their teacher’s instructions.

Additionally, a number of reception children aren’t even fully toilet trained.  All of this makes it very difficult for a teacher to keep every child focussed on the key learning points at all times.  Consequently, some children miss key ideas and fall behind. 

When children realise they are struggling compared to others this creates feelings of anxiety and some children respond to these feelings by displaying avoidance behaviours or by behaving inappropriately, which makes it more difficult for everyone to learn. 

Lack of funding also makes it more difficult for struggling children to get high-quality interventions.  Ideally, struggling readers should have frequent one to one instruction with a fully qualified and specialist teacher (as they do in Finland11), but it’s cheaper to provide small group instruction with teaching assistants (TAs). 

The quality of this instruction can vary enormously for a variety of reasons.  For example, some children might struggle with reading because of behavioural issues (although reading difficulties can also be a cause of behavioural problems).  Having a group of difficult children together in close proximity can sometimes make their behaviour even more challenging, and this can be difficult to manage.  As a result, more time can be spent containing the behaviour than doing productive work.

Some TAs do have very good literacy and teaching skills, but others have limited qualifications and training.  We were alarmed by the comment written on a piece of writing that our daughter had done when her class was being covered by a TA:

“Good work, but you could of written more.”

Some schools also have a harder job because they have a large number of children who don’t speak English at home.  In 2014 over a million children in English schools spoke English as their second language.12  In some parts of London, children with English as a second language now make up as much as three-quarters of the school roll.

Schools in disadvantaged areas also face more problems.  Poorer children generally don’t have access to as many books or other educational resources in the home and are less likely to have a quiet place to study.  They are also less likely to have role models who can show them the value of a good education and are more likely to have patchy attendance records or to be malnourished. 

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Parents

Although teachers have a significant impact on a child’s educational development, many teachers will freely acknowledge that strong parental support is also vital. 

In fact, it seems that the main influence on the academic success of children is their parents and not their teachers or the schools they attend.  There has been plenty of research to confirm this… 

For example, in their 2013 report, Parent Power, the influential Sutton Trust in the U.K. reported that parental characteristics were the strongest predictors of attainment in British schools.13

Professor Charles Desforges from the University of Exeter conducted a literature review and he found that differences in schools account for just 5% of the variance in achievement between children at age 7, whereas differences in parenting account for 30% of the variance. 14

Another academic, Professor John Hattie from New Zealand, has conducted hundreds of meta-analyses on studies related to student achievement, and he also found that parental involvement and home environment had a greater effect on a child’s achievement than the particular school they attend or the quality of the teaching they receive in the school.15

A National Longitudinal Educational Study in the U.S. analysed data on more than 10,000 teenagers and reached similar conclusions.  One of the authors of the study stated:

“…while both school and family involvement are important, the role of family involvement is stronger when it comes to academic success.”  16

And a separate study in the U.K. found that parents who push their children to work hard at school have a bigger impact on their child’s academic success than their teachers.17

Parental support is particularly important for children who are learning to read in English.  

We mentioned earlier in this article that the English spelling system is more complicated than that of many other languages.  Consequently, English speaking children need more help from their parents than children learning to read in other languages.

A University of Alberta study found that Greek or Finnish parents don’t need to read very frequently to their children because most of them will eventually learn to read regardless of how much support they get at home.  However, the lead author of the study said:

“… in English, you need a rich home literacy environment. It’s absolutely necessary”.  18

Children who grow up to be good readers of English have been read to, on average, for 30 minutes every day since they were very young.19 

Unfortunately, in the US, only 60% of parents of children under 5 say they read to them every day.  And for the most poorly educated parents, only 30% read to their children every day. 19

Paediatrician, Dr. Robert Needlman, says:

“Learning to read is much more than a set of skills you get in school.  There is a whole foundation that gets built over the first years of life.”

Reading with children helps their early language development, and this is intimately connected to their later reading skills.  However, it’s not just reading that’s important.  Vocabulary growth is strongly influenced by how much parents talk to their children.

Researchers found that when mothers frequently spoke to their infants, their children learned almost 300 more words by age 2 than did their peers whose mothers rarely spoke to them.20

The socioeconomic background of parents seems to influence how much they speak to their children.  Children from professional families (who were found to talk to their children more) gain vocabulary at a quicker rate than their peers in working class and welfare families.

“By kindergarten, a child from a welfare family could have heard 32 million words fewer than a classmate from a professional family.” 21

Of course, these figures are based on averages, so it isn’t true that all professional parents talk to their children more than those from other groups.  Nevertheless, whatever their socioeconomic background, parents who don’t talk or read to their children enough when they are young put them at a massive disadvantage when they start school.

This early disadvantage is often compounded when children start learning to read.  Even when classroom teachers do a good job of delivering reading instruction, it takes a lot of practice for a child to become a fluent reader.  In fact, research suggests this takes an average of three years for English-speaking children to reach a basic level of fluency. 22

Most of this practice has to be done at home with the support of a parent who is willing or able to listen to their child read and help them decode the many tricky words that are found in children’s books.

Unfortunately, there are significant numbers of parents who never listen to their children read.  Typically, these will be parents who never read books themselves, so the child never sees a positive role model in the home. 

Research by the National Literacy Trust found that 3 in 10 UK children own no books.23  Unsurprisingly, these children are far more likely to be reading below the expected level for their age.

Some parents are of the opinion that it’s the teacher’s job to listen to their child read.  However, even for the most dedicated teacher, this is something that can only be done occasionally… 

It’s not uncommon for classes in UK infant schools to have 30 children.  If the teacher spent just 10 minutes reading with each child this would take 5 hours, which is almost an entire school day if you consider the time for registration, lunch, other breaks and getting the children in and out of the classroom.

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Conclusion

Although some children struggle with reading because they have an innate learning difficulty, a variety of other factors can stop children developing good literacy skills. 

Rightly or wrongly, if you want your children to become good readers and writers, you will need to provide them with them plenty of support outside of school. 

It’s also important that you give them the right type of support, and to do this you need to be well-informed.  We hope that exploring some of the other articles on this site will provide you with the information you need.

Click here if you want to review the summary of this article or see below for other useful links.

Further Information…

If you would like more information about developing your child’s early literacy skills, click on this link.

Click on this link If you would like more information about the alternative approaches to teaching reading.

If you would like to know more about teaching your child phonics, see our article, “How to Teach Your Child Phonics”.  

If you would like to improve your child’s writing or spelling see our articles about developing these skills .

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References

  1. 2011 report from the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
  2. DfE Evidence paper: The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading
  3. Elliott, J. and Grigorenko, E. (2014), The Dyslexia Debate, Cambridge University Press.
  4. DfE Phonics Screening Check Evaluation Research Report May 2014 (page 23)
  5. Askew, G. (2014)The Enemy Within, ssphonix blogspot: http://ssphonix.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-enemy-within.html
  6. Hempenstall, K. (2017) The three-cueing system in reading: Will it ever go away? National Institute for Direct Instruction: https://www.nifdi.org/news-latest-2/blog-hempenstall/402-the-three-cueing-system-in-reading-will-it-ever-go-away
  7. Joshi, R. et al. Why Elementary Teachers Might Be Inadequately Prepared to Teach Reading, Journal of Learning Disabilities, v42 n5 p392-402 2009
  8. The tip of the iceberg, The Literacy Blog (2014): http://literacyblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-tip-of-iceberg.html
  9. Wilson, V. (2006) Does Small Really Make A Difference? An update A review of the literature on the effects of class size on teaching practice and pupils’ behaviour and attainment. University of Glasgow: http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/117736/1/117736.pdf
  10. Erikson, L. Background Noise and Classroom Design, The Learning Scientists: http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2017/9/13-1
  11. Crehan, L. (2016), Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers, Unbound.
  12. The Telegraph, At least 1.1m pupils speak English as a second language: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10895056/At-least-1.1m-pupils-speak-English-as-a-second-language.html
  13. Francis, B., Hutchins, M. (2013)Parent Power? The Sutton Trust: https://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/parent-power/
  14. Charles Desforges on Parental Involvement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7HLz6eXlTY
  15. Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London & New York: Rutledge.
  16. Parents not schools boost exam success, study suggests. BBC News (2012) Family and Education: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19923891?print=true
  17. ‘Pushy parents’ help children make the grade at school, BBC News (2010) Family and Education: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11646978?print=true
  18. University of Alberta. “Reading to kids a crucial tool in English language development.” ScienceDaily, 22 February 2010. sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100216142334.htm
  19. Early Literacy Development, Reading Rockets: http://www.readingrockets.org/reading-topics/early-literacy-development
  20. Huttenlocher et al., 1991; also, Hart & Risley, 1995.
  21. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (1995) Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Baltimore, MD, USA:Brookes Publishing (revised January 2003))
  22. Costs of English spelling irregularities, English Spelling Problems Blogspot: http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-costs-englishspelling-literacy-is.html
  23. Three in 10 UK children ‘own no books’, The Guardian (June 2011): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/01/three-in-10-uk-children-own-no-books