HELP! My child can’t read

I can still remember the day in my first month of teaching high school English when I realised that I had boys in my Year 8 and 9 classes who couldn’t read. I was shocked that they had been coming to school for over seven years and still hadn’t been able to master reading and subsequently writing.

I was at a loss as to how I could help them as literacy had not been mentioned in my university education to become a teacher. Throughout my teaching career I met many such students – mainly boys and, sadly, it seems it is now happening more often.

Adult literacy levels are also concerning. In Australia:

  • about 44% of adults read at literacy level below 1, 1 or 2 (a low level)
  • 38% of adults read at level 3
  • about 15% read at level 4 to 5 (the highest level).

People at a reading level 1 read at a primary school equivalent level, so basically they can understand short sentences.

It’s not just Australia that has worrying levels of literacy. Around one in four UK students had low literacy before the pandemic. Following the impact of the pandemic it seems things have got worse. In the US many more children are struggling, especially in the earlier grades.

We all want our children to learn how to read and write because it is fundamental to education and important to enabling them to navigate life competently and capably.

I want to emphasise here that I am not a literacy expert by any means, but there is much that can be done in the first years of life to help prepare a child to master the complexity of reading.

For a start, our fast-paced, digital world may be making it more difficult for many children to be as ready when they begin big school.

Before they start school…

In Australia, formalised learning used to begin the year children turned six. Now it is the year children turn five and some of these kids are only 4½ years old.

The expectation that just because it suits the education system to start formal teaching earlier in order to improve results, has been shown to be incorrect in studies around the world. It has set up an unrealistic and unhealthy competitive perception that the earlier children start formal learning (especially around reading), the better for all children.

In short, there is little or no evidence that pressuring children to read at five rather than seven improves their later reading; in fact there is much concern that it is damaging. The pressure for “too much too soon” needs to be challenged and I have been banging on about that for at least a decade!

Finland consistently has one of the highest levels of literacy in the world and they do not start formalised learning until children turn seven. This does not mean they’re not learning in the years leading up to when they turned seven – it is just that they are doing the preparatory work while allowing children to mature cognitively, emotionally and physically. The rest of the Western world seems to be in such a hurry to make children smart, but they are possibly doing the opposite!

Let’s start with some concerns that need to be addressed. Our children are turning up as 5-year-olds, less capable and less resilient than previous generations and yet we have expectations that may be beyond them especially in preparation of learning to read.

According to the Australian Early Development Census the national average of children with developmental vulnerabilities is 21.7%, however it is much higher in communities of lower socio-economic status and much lower in wealthier communities.

Long-term early childhood educators have been telling me for a while that today’s 5-year-olds are noticeably arriving in our school systems with these four challenges:

  1. less oral vocabulary
  2. poorer fine and gross motor skills
  3. poorer self-regulation
  4. an inability to initiate and sustain play with other children.

There is no question that today’s children are not hearing as many words as previous generations. One study suggests that there may be a ‘million word gap’ between kids who have lots of books read to them and kids who don’t.

Screen use for children and parents has definitely stolen many precious hours of verbal communication and conversation. John Medina in his book. Brain Rules for Baby, explained that little ones are biologically wired to absorb language from moving human faces, but not screens until around three years of age. No matter where you go you will see toddlers in prams with screens, in cafés and restaurants with screens, in supermarkets and shopping centres with screens. It has become quite normalised.

Prior to the arrival of hand-held screens, these were opportunities where parents interacted with their children, and in which children interacted with the real world around them.

Passivity or the lack of movement in the early years of life can definitely impact a child’s cognitive development as well as physical development.

Movement is so necessary in many aspects of the shaping of the human brain. In years gone by there was much more movement in classrooms with things like folk dancing, singing in class, clapping games, longer recess and lunch, and more neighbourhood play once kids got home.

Screens are not to blame for low levels of literacy per se. However screens have displaced the ability for children to spend more time in the outside world exploring, playing and challenging themselves. The increase in myopia cannot be blamed on screens however the main cause is the lack of time playing in the outside world that enables the eyes to develop strengths that prevent near-sightedness.

The best recommendations to help your child be ready to learn to read when they get to school, are quite simple:

  • Marinate them in language, in song, in music, in conversation in stories, as often as you can.
  • Keep your children as physically active in the real world, especially playing with children of different ages, and with as much autonomy and freedom as possible.
  • Have healthy boundaries around screens and keep in mind there needs to be a balance between green and screen.
  • Reading to our children at any age matters. Choose books they love and make sure you be very expressive as it brings language alive. Audiobooks in the car are fabulous ways of continuing to instil in your children a love of a good story. As a grandmother I am loving reading to my grandkids as often as possible and one of their favourite picture books is Piranhas don’t like Bananas!

Here’s a list of books suggested by my community, which may help to ‘hook’ struggling readers.

Once kids are at school…

Learning to read is a complex decoding process and for some children this can happen quite easily.

Technically, learning to read has three major phases and stage one, the pictorial stage, is a brief window where children photograph a few words in their minds. The second stage is the phonological stage where they learn to decode graphemes into phonemes – which is words into sounds. Then the orthographic stage, follows where word recognition becomes fast and automatic.

I once had a university lecturer explain that you need lobe 39 in the brain to be switched on to be able to decode and learn to read. That is the area of the brain that mixes sight and sound! How fascinating.

I have had teachers tell me that focusing too much on word recognition in the early stages of learning to read, can have children reading fluently however with very little comprehension about what they are reading.

Seriously, learning to read is a complex and very sophisticated process and this is why so many people have only a basic level of literacy. I’m incredibly grateful that I grew up surrounded by books and no screens – not even a TV. I am also lucky that my family genes did not have any vulnerabilities or neuro-divergences that could impact my ability to become literate.

Now it might be obvious why for some children learning to read can be more difficult, and statistically boys can struggle more than girls. Steve Biddulph and I have been strong advocates for giving boys another year before they begin big school as they can be less mature, have less words and poorer self-regulation without enough movement. Also, they can struggle with the stress of the school environment more.

In Australia, an increasing number of 4-6-year-old boys are being suspended or expelled for inappropriate behaviour. Boys are three times more likely to struggle with their learning and in New South Wales, boys make up 97% of the students at schools catering for children whose behaviour is untenable in a mainstream school setting. Many primary teachers have also reported that boys who have transitioned well into primary school, are disengaging much more rapidly from Years 3 to 5.

The same recommendation is coming from the US. Richard V. Reeves in his recent book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It in which he also recommends boys start a year later than girls due to their challenges in the school environment.

For more information about the early development of boys, particularly the fragility factor, please check out my ‘raising boys’ section on my website and my book, Mothering Our Boys.

The first three years of primary school is the window of opportunity of learning to read. After that, the assumption is that your child will be able to read and there will be no extra effort put into helping them learn to read. I have met parents who have told me that they didn’t realise the child was a struggling reader until Year 6 because they were able to mask the lack of ability and they were cooperative and non-disruptive as students.

If your child is struggling, be mindful not to be influenced by other well-meaning people who suggest not to worry “as it will happen in time”. Sally Rippin in her book Wild Things: How we learn to read and what can happen if we don’t expresses her regrets around not paying attention to the challenges of her son Sam in those early years.

“All kids learn at different rates’ I was told. He will catch up eventually they all do. One day it will just click,” Rippin writes.

Teachers will tell you that sometimes these things are true. However in the first three years of school, be as enthusiastic as possible at supporting teachers in their endeavours and if your child is struggling, take notice. Please check in with your child’s teacher and any other experienced educators. Get your child assessed if you can as soon as possible if you have any concerns. Trust your instincts. Do not feel that you have failed or that your child is a failure because they are struggling.

Some of our children are wired differently and decoding language can become incredibly difficult without support. If you have a child who is struggling I recommend you read Sally’s book. Her son was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD.

We need to be able to identify the children with additional challenges as early as possible, so that they are able to get the support they need before they go too much further into the schooling journey.

Children for whom English is a second language can also struggle decoding the English language as it is often regarded as the most difficult language to learn due to its unpredictability and inconsistency of rules. This is another reason why English-speaking countries can rank lower on literacy scales internationally.

Just because a child struggles to learn to read does not mean they are not clever or capable.

There are organisations that can support you if your child is diagnosed with a learning challenge or disability. Finding support online with other parents who have experienced what you are going through, can be life changing. We have a top tips page for those whose children are diagnosed with ADHD or autism and we will put a call out to our community soon to create such a page for resources around dyslexia.

In my book From Boys to Men, I dedicated it to a student called Matthew who I taught when he was 14 – he was barely literate. Matthew was one of the most gentle, wisest people I have ever met despite his challenges. Sadly, his literacy challenges were never ‘diagnosed’ and he was never given the support he needed as a young boy. Life was very difficult after he left school. He struggled with mental illness, drug addiction and Matthew ended his life when he was 23.

Struggling with literacy and learning challenges can impact lives deeply. Research has shown a high number of men in prisons have been identified as having barely functional literacy.

Schools need so much more support in helping children who struggle with learning and engagement. They need help to diagnose children, especially those from vulnerable families who may not be able to afford seeing health professionals and the follow-up support.

Sally Rippin finishes her excellent book with these wise words for those who have a child who struggles at school.

“Lastly be patient and forgiving with your child. (And be patient and forgiving of yourself too.) Your child is doing their best, despite what it might look like. Help your child find their strengths and help them see the big picture. One day, school will just be a small part of their lives they will look back on. Help them see that this is only one part of who they are and not necessarily the most important part.

Help them be the creators of their own story.”

– Sally Rippin, Wild Things: how we learn to read and what can happen if we don’t (2022).


Image credit:  ©️ by dechevm  / Deposit Photos

Maggie wrote this blog after running her professional learning webinar for ECEs, teachers and others interested in Helping Boys Shine At School (K-12).