Students Who Face Difficulties Learning to Read

Information on Reading Problems and Dyslexia


Difficulties Reading:  Many children and Adults Have Problems Reading


Unfortunately, many children struggle with reading. Difficulties reading are commonplace. The 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Report Card shows that 69% of the 4th graders in this country do not read proficiently and 36% could not even read at a basic level. Even many of the much more optimistic individual state testing results commonly show 40% failure rates. The adult literacy data shows 50% of the adults in this country are in the lowest literacy levels 1 and 2 that lack necessary literacy skills to find and keep decent jobs.  The bottom line is reading difficulties are commonplace. Reading IS difficult for many individuals. Your student is NOT alone with his or her reading difficulties!


If you suspect your student is not reading proficiently, you are correct to be concerned. Don’t let an explanation of “he’s coming along” or “she’s average”  dissuade you from your observations if you think your son or daughter is having difficulty reading and needs help learning to read proficiently. Remember ‘average’ is NOT equal to proficient. Your child can very well be facing difficulties and considered ‘average’.


What is dyslexia?


Dyslexia is defined as a problem learning to read or difficulty reading age level material despite normal physical abilities (vision, hearing) and intelligence. In other words, dyslexia is when an individual who has no specific physical or mental limitations has difficulty reading age appropriate material. These reading problems have nothing to do with intelligence or ability but rather with how the person processes the print. 


Whether or not you get an official diagnosis of ‘dyslexia’ or simply realize reading is not easy for your child, it is important to recognize when a student faces difficulties reading. If your child is unable to read grade level material or can only do so with great effort or frequent errors the student is likely facing difficulties translating the black print to language. Students struggle with reading because they lack necessary skills.


What are we learning about reading difficulties (dyslexia)? Why do individuals face difficulty reading?


We are learning much about the distinct neural processes involved with both proficient reading and difficulty reading.  Scientific advances allow neuroscientists to view images of the brain as it reads and actually map out these neural functioning pathways. Scientists have mapped out neural functioning pathways involved in both proficient reading and in dyslexic reading. Researchers found proficient readers convert print to sound using phonologic processing pathways. In contrast, struggling readers have difficulty turning print to sound and aren’t using phonologic processing pathways. We have biologic proof the key to proficient reading is phonologic processing.  See the article How Reading Works for additional information.


Thanks to these amazing scientific advances, we have neurobiologic evidence of why individuals have difficulty reading. The researchers discovered dyslexic readers use different neural pathways than proficient readers and these improper neural pathways form because the individual does not recognize the sound structure of words and process print phonetically. Dyslexics have problems turning print into sound and consequently do not develop proficient phonologic processing pathways. This brain imaging shows literally struggling readers are reading the ‘wrong way’.


Research reveals neural processing pathways first form in beginning readers. Therefore, individuals who fail to develop correct phonologic ‘proficient’ reading pathways continue to face serious and persistent difficulties. This helps explain the evidence most students who fall behind in reading skills never catch up. We now know difficulty reading persists because they are not processing the print correctly using proficient phonologic processors. Instead they use less efficient and effective neural processing areas. These ‘dyslexic’ individuals have not developed the skills necessary for proficient reading.


Reading Problems Start Early and Do Not Go Away!


Children who struggle with reading difficulties early on often continue to struggle with reading. If appropriate direct intervention does not occur, most these students do not ‘catch up’ with their peers. The frequent misconceptions the child or student “will pick it up later”, “will grow into reading” and “just needs a little more time” are not supported by fact.  The facts are students who are behind at the end of first grade usually remain behind. The statistics prove the vast majority of the children who were poor readers in first grade were poor readers later on. Look at the information under ‘The Scope of Reading Difficulties in America’ in the University of Oregon’s Big Ideas in Beginning Reading website and their chart.


In addition to the reading performance research data, we now have neurobiologic proof reading difficulties do not ‘go away’. The brain imaging research shows the ‘incorrect’ dyslexic neural pathways first develop in beginning readers. Reading problems persist because struggling readers are literally reading the wrong way. To correct reading problems it is critical to directly intervene and teach your child with an effective direct systematic phonics program that intentionally develops necessary phonologic processing pathways. Effective intervention is critical and the earlier the better. Do not wait!


Sometimes students ‘get by’ with incorrect processing in the lowest grades (K, 1st). The easy reading material, illustrations, context clues, oral directions and limited depth of content can disguise their difficulty decoding print. For example, if the child looks at the picture or memorizes repetitive text it appears he can ‘read’.  However, students who have not developed necessary phonologic processing rapidly run into problems as vocabulary expands. The incorrect strategies of ‘whole word’ visual memorization, word guessing, context clues and predictable text fail as reading level advances. This is often why ‘reading problems’ often become evident in 2nd or 3rd grade. In reality, the ‘difficulty’ processing print already existed.  To read proficiently, the student must process print phonetically. Students who don’t develop phonologic processing pathways face persistent difficulty reading.


Are Reading Problems Inherited?


Dyslexic tendencies (difficulties reading) do appear to run in families. However, the ability to read itself is not inherited. You can not inherit the ability to perform an artificial learned skill. Rather, from the research it appears these observed ‘family dyslexic tendencies’ result from an inherited phonologic weakness. Some people inherently have a harder time recognizing the sound structure of language.  It is more difficult for individuals with poor phonemic awareness to develop the phonologic processing pathways necessary for proficient reading. Also remember poor phonemic awareness is not related to intelligence. Very bright individuals can have phonologic weaknesses.  In summary it is not ‘dyslexia’ that is inherited, but rather phonologic weakness that leads to a higher risk of developing reading problems. For additional information, see Phonemic Awareness Explained.


While inherent phonological weakness appears to predispose some children to develop reading problems, family genetic traits are NOT the only influence in reading success.  The effectiveness of reading instruction has significant impact on reading success. You can’t control the genetic influence BUT you CAN directly develop phonemic awareness. Research shows direct phonemic awareness training as significant positive impacts on reading and spelling success! Not only can you help a child develop phonemic awareness, you can also help your child develop ‘proficient reader’ phonologic processing pathways. A direct systematic phonics program teaches the reader to convert print to sound and intentionally develops phonologic pathways which are essential to proficient reading.


Student with inherent phonologic weakness are at higher risk for reading difficulties because they are less likely to develop necessary proficient reader phonologic processing pathways on their own. To insure these students learn to read it is particularly important to use directly develop phonemic awareness and intentionally establish proficient phonologic processing of print.  You don’t need to worry if your child inherited poor phonemic awareness; you just need to be sure and use effective instruction to directly develop phonemic awareness and establish essential phonologic processing of print.


Remember, Reading is NOT a Natural Biologic Process!


Reading is not a natural biological process. Reading is a complex learned skill.  Consequently children do not naturally develop reading skills. See the articles Overview of Teaching Children to Read and Important Background Facts about the Written English Language.  Everyone has to learn how to read. To effectively and efficiently perform this artificial task of turning man-made black squiggles into language, the student needs to tap into the existing brain functioning areas naturally designed to efficiently process spoken language. While some students pick up necessary skills many do not. By directly teaching the student to convert print to sound you intentionally develop the necessary proficient processing pathways. 


How can we help struggling readers develop proficient reading skills?


The terrific news is we now know how to help struggling students develop proficient reader skills. We have definite neurobiologic proof (neural mapping) that instruction with direct phonologic based reading programs can actually ‘re-wire’ the brain and develop necessary phonologic processing pathways in both children and adults. Effective programs that specifically taught letter-sound correspondence not only noticeably improved reading skills in struggling readers, but actually changed neural activity from incorrect neural pathways to the “correct” pathway that good readers use.  The proven ability of direct systematic phonics based reading instruction to actually develop correct proficient reader phonologic pathways in dyslexic individuals is the most exciting element of the neurobiologic reading research.

Brain imaging research on dyslexia validates and supports the existing results based evidence. For years, valid results based research has shown direct systematic phonics programs are the most effective approach for teaching children to read. The recent neural functioning research shows us why the direct systematic phonics programs work. Strong direct systematic phonics programs ‘work’ because they intentionally help the student develop correct phonologic processing pathways and build proficient reader skills.


Learn More


If your child has been labeled ‘dyslexic’ or you suspect your child is facing difficulties reading, I highly recommend reading Sally Shaywitz’s book “Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level” is an excellent resource. Dr. Shaywitz is a neuroscientist and one of the leading experts on reading and dyslexia. Her book provides solid scientific information on dyslexia (not theory, opinions, or marketing propaganda but solid science).  Many books on Dyslexia simply give ways to ‘manage’ the symptoms of poor reading. In contrast, Overcoming Dyslexia provides the scientific neural-biologic basis for dyslexia and provides information on how to actually develop proficient reading skills to overcome the dyslexia. I also highly recommend reading some of the research articles that specifically address the effectiveness of direct systematic phonics intervention in improving reading and in developing correct neural pathways. Some of these informative articles can be accessed directly from the links page.


You CAN Help Your Child or Student!


You can help your child overcome their struggles and develop proficient reading by direct intervention with an effective direct systematic phonics program. The neural imaging research clearly shows effective phonemic based instruction not only improves reading skills but actually develops correct proficient reader neural pathways. The earlier you intervene, the better.  Be sure the program you select meets the criteria of effective direct, systematic phonics based program.  For more information read the articles: How to Help a Struggling Reader Overcome Reading Difficulties and Develop Necessary Proficient Reader Skills and Elements of an Effective Reading Remediation Program.  The bottom line is students struggle with reading because they lack specific skills. Directly teach them all necessary skills and their reading skills will advance.



This article was written by Miscese Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at ~ Copyright 2005, 2006 2007 Miscese R. Gagen