Help! My Child Can't Read

You are not alone. Two-thirds of U.S. students read below grade level and between 25% and 30% are functionally illiterate.

If you have a student who is struggling with reading here are a few ideas of where to begin.

1. If you segment a word such as cat by saying the sounds /k-a-t/, with a short a pause between each sound, can your child blend it back together?

Many students who struggle with reading do not understand that words are comprised of individual sounds blended together. These children often guess wildly when reading. To develop phonemic awareness, segment words aloud and have your child glue or blend them back together. This teaches the foundational skill of blending without adding the visual component. After the child can blend words with two or three sounds, move up to words with more sounds and more syllables. You can also watch Laying the Foundations for Reading: Phonemic Awareness and Phonograms for more examples.

When the student can easily blend words with four or five sounds then move on to the next step. Remember this activity is completely auditory. Do not show the student written words.

2. Can your child hear a word such as "fish" and break it into its individual sounds, f-i-sh, with a short pause between each sound?

If not, look at a picture with the child. Begin by segmenting a word in the picture then having the student blend it and point to the object in the picture. The next turn have the student try to segment a word from the picture and you find it. If he does not segment the word correctly, gently repeat each sound with a short space in between and then repeat the word.

3. Does your student know all the sounds for A-Z? By this I mean does your student know that S says two sounds? /s/ as in sand and /z/ as in is? Or that A says three sounds? /?/ as in ant, /?/ as in ape, and /ä/ as in water.

Most schools and reading programs only teach some of the sounds for A-Z and this generates a lot of confusion for many students. It is not difficult to give your child this this critical building block for strong literacy skills. For children ages 7 and under you can begin by reading Doodling Dragons: An ABC Book of Sounds. I also recommend purchasing a set of Basic Phonogram Flash Cards. The sounds are shown on the back along with sample words, so they are a great tool for practicing together with your child. Many students also enjoy playing games from the Phonogram and Spelling Game Book to aid them in developing mastery.

4. Does your child reverse b's and d's; p's and q's; and other letters when reading or writing? Does your student leave too much space between letters within a word or too little space between words when writing? Does your child have difficulty writing legibly?

The answer to all of these problems is systematic, explicit handwriting instruction that demonstrates exactly how to write each letter and emphasizes the rhythm of handwriting so that students develop clear muscle memory. Research has shown that writing is a way to develop a kinesthetic memory of the shape of each letter. This is vitally important for students who struggle with visual memory. By learning to write the letters, they will develop a feel for each shape.

In addition, we highly recommend switching all students who struggle with reversals and legibility to cursive. Cursive handwriting uses less fine motor skill, emphasizes the direction of reading and writing, and prevents reversals. To learn more, watch our video on Handwriting Instruction.

It is best to teach children how to write A-Z at the same time as learning the sounds. The Rhythm of Handwriting Series includes specific direction, helping to develop muscle memory and preventing and correcting reversals. Once children know the sounds for A-Z and how to write them they can begin to spell and read short vowel words such as hat, pin, and dog.

5. Does your child struggle with blending consonants sounds such as the /fr/ in frog? or the /pl/ in plan?

Play this free Blending Game.

6. Does your child know all the sounds to the multi-letter phonograms, such as EA's three sounds: /?/ as in seam, /?/ as in head, and /?/ as in great? Does your child know that CI say /sh/ as in special?

Once a child knows the sounds for A-Z you can begin to teach the remaining 48 basic phonograms. We recommend teaching students to spell and read words that use the new phonograms at the same time. This helps them to understand the need for the phonograms and to practice them in context.

Does your child know at least five reasons for a silent final E? Does he know that a single vowel will say its long sound at the end of a syllable and its short sound in the middle of a syllable?

These concepts are vital to being able to read high frequency words in English. Systematically introduce the student to the 30 spelling rules. Some of the most important for struggling readers are:

  • A E O U usually say their long sounds at the end of the syllable;
  • C softens to /s/ only before an E, I, or Y;
  • G may soften to /j/ before an E, I, or Y;
  • And the nine reasons for a silent final E.


Many parents find the Spelling Rule Flash Cards and Uncovering the Logic of English to be helpful for introducing these concepts.

If you desire further help with teaching your child or wish that someone would tell you exactly what to teach step by step, we have scripted curriculum available for you. The Logic of English Essentials Curriculum is ideal for students ages 7 and up. It lays out each step so that you can learn alongside your child in only 40 lessons so that students can master the material quickly. Essentials is specifically designed to not feel babyish.

The Foundations Curriculum is ideal for students ages 4-7. Taught through games and fun activities, children often beg to learn more while developing phonemic awareness, discovering the rules and phonograms, and mastering high frequency words.

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