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Insights into Reading Difficulties

Published: 06/15/2009 by Carmelle Watson

» Health and Wellness

Reading is an essential skill in today’s society, yet many children experience difficulties with it.  Reading problems can also trigger frustration, limited productivity, dependence, low achievement, and low self-esteem.Reading is a process that involves many crucial skills, each consisting of numerous sub-skills.


Decoding is the complex skill of using phonological information to sound out unfamiliar words. Within the decoding skill set, there are three primary sub-skills that are essential to reading.
The first sub-skill is an efficient knowledge and instant recall of the sound/symbol association of letters or phonemes.  For instance, a child has to be able to quickly identify the correct sounds of consonants,  and vowels. A low recall of the sound/symbol association obviously creates an obstacle as a child is trying to sound out words.

Another sub-skill is the ability to track sounds within words.  Tracking is the process of following the sounds within the word in the correct order and then blend them together to form the word. Children exhibiting problems tracking may substitute sounds (which can imply a low sound/symbol association), switch the order, add, or delete sounds from a word. As well, a child may be proficient at tracking sounds within simple-syllable words (e.g. “cat”), but they encounter problems doing so with complex-syllables (“stamp”) or multi-syllable words.

The third sub-skill is the knowledge and application of phonetic expectancies.  These are the “rules” of how certain letters work together.  For example, the silent ‘e’ at the end of the word making a vowel say its name, “igh” making the /ie/ sound, or determining whether the letter ‘c’ uses its hard or soft sound.  A proficient reader needs to not only know these expectancies but also recognize them within a word and apply the rules while sounding out the word. 

When children have difficulty decoding unfamiliar words, their attempts to sound out often result in a word substitution or a nonsense word.  Or they may tend to over-rely on the context of the material to assist in “guessing” unfamiliar words.  This can compensate for lower decoding skills up to a certain level, but as the literature becomes more sophisticated (around grade three) the child’s guessing becomes less correct. 


Comprehension is the process of understanding what is being read.  Within the comprehension skill set, there are four sub-skills that can impact reading success.

One sub-skill is visualizing, which requires one to simultaneously create a visual image that correlates with the words they’re reading. Difficulty visualizing can affect a child’s ability to recall information, monitor their reading for correctness, and become mentally engaged with their reading.

Another sub-skill is an adequate understanding of the vocabulary used.  Often the meaning of an unknown word can be derived from the context of the reading material. However, if a child does not understand the correct meaning of significant vocabulary, or can not determine the meaning from context, their perception of the main ideas will be affected, and consequently a breakdown in comprehension occurs.

A third sub-skill is recalling what was read.  In order for adequate recall to occur, a child needs to store the information they’ve read into their working memory (short-term memory) and later retrieve it when needed.  Numerous deficiencies can affect a child’s recall, including difficulty with attention, decoding, fluency, and visualizing.

The final sub-skill involves thinking abstractly.  Although important, recalling information that was directly written is a concrete level of understanding.  A skillful reader also needs to reflect upon the information and make inferences, create connections, as well as synthesize and support evaluations. Children who have difficulty with higher-level comprehension skills often experience problems in the later grades when thoughtful responses are required. 

When teaching a child who is struggling with reading, evaluating the specific areas of concern is important in order to remediate and achieve reading success.  <>