Why some children struggle to learn to read


Children reading in classWith reading, we expect all children to learn and develop at the same rate. It's an unreasonable expectation, because learning to read depends on many factors.

Children's eyesight and hearing

These are critical to learning to read. For eyesight, it's important to check for even the slightest of squints: if a child can't clearly see which letter the teacher is pointing to, they have little chance of learning letter names.

It's worth getting your child's eyesight checked at least once a year while they're at primary school.

Likewise, if a child can't clearly hear the sounds as they are being taught, they will be at a disadvantage. If you or your child's class teacher has any concerns at all that your child isn't hearing properly, speak to your doctor immediately and ask for a referral to the local children's audiology service for an assessment. Conditions such as glue ear can be common in children between the ages of two and six.

Hearing difficulties can range from mild impairment to profound loss, with many subtle gradations between, and a child's hearing loss may not always be easily apparent. Teachers can often be quicker than parents to spot issues with hearing in the children they teach.

Patterns and sequences

Reading is based on an understanding of patterns and sequences. Think about patterns of word order in spoken language, patterns of letters in spellings, relationships between words, as well as sequences of words in sentences.


The early stages of learning to read, in particular, are dependent on a child developing a range of problem-solving strategies to decode text.


Memory is crucial in learning to read, both to remember which symbols represent which sounds, and to remember what has previously been read to see if what is currently being read makes any sense.


Reading is an activity that depends on multi-tasking. A reader has to simultaneously work out what each word might be and consider whether it makes sense in the context of that sentence, while all the time thinking about whether the text as a whole is making sense.

These are just some of the factors that impact on a child's early experiences of reading.

Additional factors

Others factors that influence children's reading include:

  • Exposure to books and stories
  • Motivation
  • Confidence
  • 'Resilience' (ie the capacity to keep trying even when it's not going well)

Some of these factors are to do with environment, some are related to preferred learning styles, some to the child's development and some are personality traits.

As a parent, you can increase the likelihood of your child learning to read by offering them a rich pre-school diet of experiences – even then, some children take longer to 'catch on' to reading than others.

The vast majority of children in mainstream schools will learn to read, particularly if they come from supportive and literate homes. Most teachers will contact parents if they have any particular worries about a child's development.

ReadingDifferent learning styles

Teachers know children very differently from how parents know them. You may see your child as confident and articulate, but away from your side, they may be shy and unwilling to try new things.

The teacher looks at each child as a learner and is aware of how the child copes with school socially and emotionally; how they manage when things aren't going their way; how they tackle an independent task; what their preferred learning style is.

Because they know children as learners, teachers are often less concerned about children who make a slow start.

Until a child has the confidence to take risks with learning and to persevere if things go wrong, they may not be emotionally ready to start formal learning.

Teachers recognise that putting pressure on a child before they are ready is likely to delay things in the long run. The fact that a child is slightly delayed in starting to learn to read should not impact on their progress in the future. 

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Last updated: 2 months ago