Understanding Reading Problems in Children


Most children look forward to learning to read, a process whereby they learn to transform abstract squiggles on a page into meaningful letters, then sounds, then words, and then entire sentences and paragraphs. Reading represents a code: specifically, an alphabetic code. Most children can break the code after a year of instruction. For at least one in five children, however, the experience is very different.

For them, reading, which comes effortlessly for others, is beyond their grasp. These children, who understand the spoken word and love to listen to stories, struggle to decipher the same words when they are written on a page. They read slowly and haltingly, and words they read correctly in one sentence may be misread in a subsequent sentence. Reading aloud may be particularly painful. Eventually, they grow frustrated and disappointed.

In the classroom, reading is king; it is essential for academic success. Teachers, witnessing the gap between good and poor readers widening, may wonder what they or these children might be doing wrong. Parents, knowing that reading problems have consequences across development, including adult life, question themselves, feeling alternately guilty and angry.

How does one identify a reading problem?

The symptoms or signs below indicate that a child has a reading problem and therefore needs help:

• Reverses letters like b and d, or p and q, or reads words like no for on, rat for tar, won for now, saw for was.
• Puts letters in the wrong order, reading felt as left, act as cat, reserve as reverse, expect as except.
• Misreads little words, such as a for and, the for a, from for for, then for there, were for with.
• Loses orientation on a line or page while reading, missing lines or reading previously-read lines again.
• Reads aloud hesitantly, word by word, monotonously.
• Tries to sound the letters of the word but is then unable to say the correct word. For example, sounds the letters ‘c-a-t’ but then says cold.
• Mispronounces words or puts stress on the wrong syllables.
• Foreshortens words, for example, ‘portion’ for proportion.
• Omits prefixes, omits suffixes or adds suffixes.
• Reads with poor comprehension.
• Remembers little of what was read.
• Cannot match the appropriate letter when given the sound.
• Often ignores punctuation, omitting full stops or commas.

If you’re unsure, do a one-minute reading assessment. Watch out for the symptoms above, but also count the total words read minus the errors made = words correct per minute.


  • Select a 200-word passage from a grade-level text.
  • Have your child read the passage aloud for precisely one minute.
  • Count the total number of words they have read.
  • Count the number of errors they have made.
  • Subtract the number of errors read per minute from the total number of words read per minute. The result is the average number of words correct per minute (WCPM).


The following are the number of words learners should be able to read correctly at the end of each year:

  • Grade 1: 60
  • Grade 2: 90
  • Grade 3: 115
  • Grade 4: 140
  • Grade 5: 170
  • Grade 6: 195

How many children have reading problems?

Reading failure is a global problem. Dr Reid Lyon states that approximately 20% to 30% of American children have difficulties learning to read. The Institute for Global Education and Service Learning asserts that the figure is even higher, that 40% of American children have difficulty reading or learning to read. As many as three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school.

South African children are especially affected. The PIRLS 2006 study compared the reading abilities of children in 40 countries. South Africa came last, after Morocco. On a scale of 0 to 1000, approximately 80% of learners in Grades 4 and 5 failed to reach the Low International Benchmark of 400, meaning they had not mastered basic reading skills. This was in contrast to only 6% of children internationally who did not reach the Low International Benchmark. Only 2% of South African learners in Grade 5 reached the Advanced International Benchmark of 625, compared to 7% internationally.

pirls 2006
The PIRLS 2006 study compared the reading abilities of children in 40 countries. South Africa came last, after Morocco.

Because South Africa performed so poorly in PIRLS 2006, we were given the option of writing a less difficult pre-PIRLS test in 2011. Therefore, in 2011 South Africa participated in both PIRLS and pre-PIRLS. Grade 4 wrote the pre-PIRLS assessment, and Grade 5 wrote PIRLS.

In South Africa, pre-PIRLS was written in all 11 official languages. We scored lower than the other two countries in this group (see table below).

South Africa
International Centre point

PIRLS 2011 was offered to Grade 5 learners in English and Afrikaans. There was no difference in performance in 2011 PIRLS compared to 2006 PIRLS: According to the PIRLS report, 43% of Grade 5 learners in South African schools have not developed the basic skills required for reading at an equivalent international Grade 4 level.

Grade 5 English home language learners, who wrote the assessment in English, scored an average of 523. Grade 5 Afrikaans home language learners, who wrote the test in their home language, scored an average of 431. This means few Afrikaans Grade 5 learners were able to read on an equivalent international Grade 4 level.

What causes reading problems?

Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes the problem. A disease such as scurvy claimed the lives of thousands of seamen during long sea voyages. The disease was cured fairly quickly once the cause was discovered, viz., a vitamin C deficiency. A viable point of departure would therefore be to ask the question, What is the cause of reading problems?

While many factors may contribute to reading problems, one should not overlook the age-old — but ageless — principle that learning is a stratified process. This is a self-evident fact, yet its significance in teaching reading has apparently never been fully comprehended.

In all educational systems, it is commonly accepted that a child must start at the lower levels of education and then gradually progress to the higher levels. This would have been unnecessary if human learning had not been a stratified process — if it had taken place on a single level. It would then not have been important to start a child in first grade. It would have been possible for the child to enter school at any level and to complete the school years in any order.

Another simple and practical example is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child who had not yet learned to count to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible, and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child to add and subtract. This shows that counting is a skill that must be mastered before it becomes possible to learn to do calculations.

This principle is also of great importance on the sports field. If we go to a soccer field to watch the coach at work, we shall soon find that he spends a lot of time drilling his players in basic skills, like heading, passing, dribbling, kicking, etc. The players most proficient at these basic skills usually turn out to be the best in the actual game situation.

In the same way, there are also certain skills and knowledge that a child must acquire first, before it becomes possible for them to become a good reader.

You say poor cognitive skills are responsible for reading problems. What cognitive skills are you referring to?

While language skills comprise the first rung of the reading ladder, cognitive skills comprise the second. There is a whole conglomeration of cognitive skills that are foundational to reading.


Attention — or concentration — plays a critical role in learning. Focused attention is the behavioural and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things, while sustained attention refers to the state in which attention must be maintained over time. Both are important foundational skills of reading.

Visual processing

Visual processing refers to the ability to make sense of information taken in through the eyes. This is different from problems involving sight or sharpness of vision. Difficulties with visual processing affect how visual information is interpreted or processed. A child with visual processing problems may have 20/20 vision but may have difficulties discriminating foreground from background, forms, size, and position in space. They may also be unable to synthesise and analyse.

Foreground-background differentiation. The particular letter, word, or sentence the reader is focused on is elevated to the foreground. In contrast, everything else within the field of vision of the reader (the rest of the page and the book, the desk on which the book is resting, the section of the floor and wall that is visible, etc.) is relegated to the background.

Form discrimination. The most obvious classroom activity requiring the child to discriminate forms is that of reading. Learning the letters of the alphabet, syllables, and words will undoubtedly be impeded if there is difficulty in perceiving the form of the letters, syllables, and words.

Size discrimination. Capital letters, used at the start of a sentence, sometimes look exactly the same as their lower case counterparts and must therefore be discriminated mainly with regard to size. 

Spatial relations refer to the position of objects in space. It also refers to the ability to accurately perceive objects in space with reference to other objects. A person with a spatial problem may find it difficult to distinguish letters like b, d, p, and q.

Synthesis and analysis. The reader must be able to perceive individual parts as a whole. In other words, he must be able to synthesise. Although the ability to analyse, i.e., to perceive the whole in its individual parts, does play a role in reading, this ability is of the utmost importance in spelling.

Auditory processing

Auditory processing refers to the ability to make sense of information taken in through the ears. It is not the ability to hear but to interpret, organise, or analyse what’s heard.

Problems with auditory perception generally correspond to those in the visual area and are presented under the following components:

Auditory foreground-background differentiation refers to selecting and attending to relevant auditory stimuli and ignoring the irrelevant.

Auditory discrimination refers to the ability to hear similarities and differences between sounds.

Auditory blending (also called auditory synthesis) refers to the ability to perceive individual sounds as a whole. The child with a deficit in auditory blending will be unable to blend the individual sounds in a word. They may know the individual phonemes but simply cannot put them together. They may, for example, sound the letters “c-a-t” but then say “cold.”

Processing speed

Processing speed can be defined as how long it takes to get stuff done.


Memory is the retention of information over time. Although the word memory may conjure up an image of a singular, “all-or-none” process, it is clear that there are actually many kinds of memory, each of which may, to some extent, be independent of the other.

Visual memory. A good visual memory is essential to build a “visual dictionary” in the brain.

• Auditory memory involves taking in information presented orally, processing it, storing it in one’s mind, and then recalling what one has heard.

Sequential memory requires items to be recalled in a specific order. Many learners with reading difficulties have poor sequential memory.

Iconic memory. If a line of print was flashed at you very rapidly, say, for one-tenth of a second, all the letters you can visualise briefly after that presentation constitute your iconic memory. Your iconic memory and ability to discriminate between foreground and background determines your eye span. Eye span is the number of letters of words you take in at a glance.

When a person reads, their eyes do not move continuously along a line of text but engage in a series of rapid movements (saccades) with intermittent short stops (fixations). The more often the eyes have to pause for fixations, the slower the reading speed will be.

Regressions occur when the eyes move towards the left to look again at words that have already been covered. A poor reader will be inclined to pause more often for fixations, and the duration of each fixation will also be longer than that of the typical reader. The poor reader is also inclined to more regressions than the typical reader.

Improving a person’s iconic memory will widen their eye span.

Short-term memory refers to a person’s capacity to hold a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period; research has shown that children with reading problems suffer from poor short-term and poor long-term memory.

• The term working memory refers to the ability to temporarily hold several facts or thoughts in memory while solving a problem or performing a task.

Logical thinking

Logical thinking is the process in which one uses reasoning consistently to come to a conclusion. Problems or situations that involve logical thinking call for structure, relationships between facts, and chains of reasoning that “make sense.”

My child reads well yet lacks comprehension. Why?

Reading comprehension is the heart and goal of reading since the purpose of all reading is to gather meaning from the printed page. It is assumed that the comprehension of children who are good readers is on track. But three to ten percent of those children don’t understand what they’re reading.

There may be other causes, but these are the most common causes of a reading comprehension problem:

Poor vocabulary

Vocabulary is essential for success in reading. Students cannot understand what they read without understanding what most of the words mean.Decades of research have confirmed vocabulary’s important role in reading comprehension and in students’ overall academic success.

Poor memory skills

Researchers have pinpointed brain activity and understand its role in reading disabilities. Still, no functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI studies until recently have examined the neurobiological profile of those who exhibit poor reading comprehension despite intact word-level abilities.

Neuro-imaging of children showed that, while reading, the brain function of those with reading comprehension problems is quite different and distinct from those with reading disabilities. Those with reading disabilities exhibited abnormalities in a specific region in the occipital-temporal cortex, a part of the brain associated with successfully recognising words on a page. On the other hand, those with reading comprehension problems did not show abnormalities in this region, instead showing specific abnormalities in areas typically associated with memory.

That there will be defects in the brain areas concerned with memory makes sense. Several studies have confirmed that reading comprehension relies heavily upon working memory and long-term memory.

Short-term memory holds information in the mind for only a few seconds while it is being processed. Long-term memory is where such processed information is permanently stored. Working memory is an intermediary and active memory system in the information-processing area of the brain. It is a crucial memory system that most of us use daily.

Sentence comprehension depends heavily upon adequate working memory. For example, working memory is required to comprehend sentences that are complex in structure, such as, “The clown that is hugging the boy is kissing the girl.” It helps us interpret lengthy sentences: “Do every other problem on page fifteen and all of the problems on page sixteen before checking your answers in the back of the book.” We use working memory when preservation of word order (syntax) is important to correctly understand a sentence like, “It was the boy’s ball and not the girl’s that was dirty.”

Poor logical thinking skills

The relationship between logical thinking and reading comprehension is well-established in the literature. It has been said that “there is no reading without reasoning,” and even that reading is reasoning.

What can parents do to help their children?

If your child has trouble learning to read, the best approach is to take immediate action. Ninety-five percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive effective help early. The longer you wait to get help for a child with reading difficulties, the harder it will be for that child to catch up.

Reading consultant Susan Hall urges parents to trust their intuition. “I have listened to parent after parent tell me about feeling there was a problem earlier on, yet being persuaded to discount their intuition and wait to seek help for their child. Later, when they learnt time is of the essence in developing reading skills, the parents regretted the lost months or years.”

How can Edublox help?

Edublox clinics specialise in cognitive training that makes learners smarter and help them learn and read faster, easier, and better. The classes address:

  • Concentration: Focused and sustained attention.
  • Perceptual skills: Visual and auditory foreground-background differentiation; visual and auditory discrimination, synthesis and analysis; form discrimination; spatial relations.
  • Memory: Visual, auditory, sequential, iconic, short-term, long-term, and working memory.
  • Logical thinking: Deductive and inductive reasoning.
  • Reading, spelling, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Contact an Edublox clinic today!

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