Why do some children struggle with reading?

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Janet and bloody John!

When I was about 7, my primary school teacher told my parents that I would probably never learn to read. Apparently, the suspicion was that I might be mentally subnormal. My mother wasn’t having any of that. Although she had no experience of teaching reading, she took me out of school, borrowed a set of the Janet and John reading scheme and set about teaching me to read. We spent several hours a day ploughing through the mind numbingly tedious ‘adventures’ of the flaxen-haired tykes. God I hated them

Some weeks later she took me back into school and told my startled teacher that I could now read.

Although I could read, I didn’t. Reading was just too much effort. But I loved being read to. My mum started reading Enid Blyton books as bedtime stories. She was a terrible reader. She’d get a few pages into a chapter and then just trail off. She’d just go silent for ages while I squirmed, desperate to find out what happened next. This would happen every night. Eventually, I got so frustrated I grabbed the book off her and read the damn thing myself! It was only as an adult, reading to my own children, that I realised her cunning trick. It worked though; I quickly became a fluent reader and tore through the Five FInd-Outers and the Famous Five before graduating to Narnia, The Hobbit and, influenced by my father, classic 1950s science fiction.

I have no idea why I struggled to learn to read and wasn’t really aware of any of this until many years later. Whatever the reason, clearly there was no cognitive or neurological reason for my difficulties. Or if there was, the combination of Janet and John and my mother’s steely determination somehow seemed to clear it up.


Now clearly it would be a mistake to universalise from my own experience. I’m happy to accept that some children might have cognitive or neurological conditions which prevent them from learning to read fluently, but my experience makes me sceptical that this is always – or even usually – the case. A few years ago I became aware that, according to the NHS, an estimated 8 out of every 10 children suffer with undiagnosed glue ear before the ages of 4 and 10. If they’re unfortunate enough to have this condition during early reading instruction they are likely to have difficulty distinguishing between different phonemes. Additionally, there’s reason to believe as many as 20% of children may have undiagnosed visual problems which might mean they struggle to tell the various graphemes apart. Both of these conditions are fairly easy to treat but are, all too often, overlooked. When you also consider that English is a particularly opaque orthography and that children find it much harder to learn all the possible phoneme-grapheme correspondences than do children learning French or Spanish. Instead, children are far more likely to be told that their reading difficulty is caused by dyslexia.

I’ve written before about my concerns with dyslexia diagnosis. Essentially, reading difficulty and dyslexia seem to be more or less synonymous. How can we distinguish between a child with regular reading difficulty and one with dyslexia? Well, the dyslexic child has a nuero-developmental disorder. But, how do we know dyslexic children have a nuero-developmental disorder? Typically, diagnoses come not from the result of a fMRI scan but on the say-so of a dyslexia professional; someone who makes their living diagnosing and treating children with dyslexia. Some people might imagine such people might have a vested interest in making such a diagnosis. I couldn’t possibly comment.

While it may be a minority view, there’s cause to doubt that most cases of reading difficulty are caused by a brain disorder. The fact that most people in developed societies become fluent readers is cause for both celebration and wonder. The human brain is not designed for reading. We evolved to survive in the Upper Pleistocene and our brains haven’t changed much since. The earliest examples of writing are about 5000 years old and it’s only in the past 150 years that we’ve expected a majority of children to learn to read. That we are able to ‘rewire’ our brains to turn written symbols into the sounds of language at an average speed of about 300 words per minute is nothing short of miraculous. If some children find this harder than others there’s no reason to think this implies there must be something wrong with their brains.

It’s my view – and I may be wrong about this – that a great many children who are told they have a learning difficulty actually failed to automatise decoding because of early audio/visual problems that have now cleared up or been resolved. What these children need is to be given the opportunity to acquire the knowledge they were unable to learn when it was most convenient for them to have done so. But what of children who are resistant to intervention? Could it be that they’re just on the low-end of a normal distribution curve? Maybe there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with them but just as some children are better at sport or music, some are better – or worse – at reading? This is certainly something of a consensus view amongst reading researchers:

  • Margaret Snowling:“Dyslexia is just another name for poor reading… Where you put the cut off between dyslexia and normal reading has to be agreed within your education system, your school, it could be a national policy, a policy within a local authority, there isn’t any gold standard.”
  • Ahmed et al (2012): “dyslexia represents the low end of normal variation in reading ability where word-level reading is the key weakness.”
  • Rayner et al (2012):  “there is little research to support the common perception that the reading problems of dyslexic children are categorically different from those of other children who struggle with learning to read” and “the continuous nature of dyslexia can make it seem like a fuzzy concept, as there is no absolute list of symptoms beyond a marked difficulty with decoding and encoding written language.”
  • Elliot and Grigorenko (2014): “[the position] commonly held by reading researchers whereby dyslexia is defined by one’s position at the tail end of the distribution curve of scores on a reading test.”
  • Peterson and Pennington (2015): “Dyslexia is mainly defined as the low end of a normal distribution of word reading ability.”
  • Mark Seidenberg (2018): “Dyslexics are children (and, later, adults) whose reading is at the low end of a normal distribution.”

To conclude that some children have reading difficulties because of a neurological disorder we would need to see some evidence of a difference in the brains of dyslexics and those with vanilla reading difficulties. For a comprehensive overview, this 2018 paper from Protopapas and Parrila is worth reading. They conclude by stating, “there is at the moment no evidence to suggest that difficulty in learning to read words accurately and fluently is associated with anything having gone wrong in brain development” and that “the field has been too hasty in embracing a position that is not supported by evidence.”

So where does this leave us? Essentially, ‘dyslexia’ is not an explanation for reading difficulties, merely a label for it. If that label results in more children with reading difficulties learning to read fluently, then great. But if it’s used as an excuse or a reason for why some children cannot be taught to read then it does a great deal of harm. Our assumption should be that all children can learn to decode fluently but that some will inevitably find it harder than others. All this means is that we should work hardest with those who struggle most.

2018-09-20T23:29:50+00:00September 20th, 2018|literacy, reading|


  1. monkrob September 21, 2018 at 2:46 am - Reply

    So dyslexia is at the low end of a normal distribution of word reading ability.

    Let me throw some other hypothesis your way.

    ADHD children are at the low end of a normal distribution of sitting still and listening ability

    ODD children are at the low end of a normal distribution of the agreeableness and following instructions ability

    I don’t think the labels help. We are all a bit different: but some of us a more different than others.

  2. David Didau September 21, 2018 at 8:54 am - Reply

    Sounds eminently reasonable. Clearly some labels really are rooted in neurological conditions e.g. Downs Syndrome. But these conditions show up on brain scans. We should be wary of claims that neurology explains behaviour if we strugle to produce such evidence.

    • elissamilne December 19, 2018 at 10:37 pm - Reply

      Brain scans have been reported to show distinct differences between dyslexics and non-dyslexics.

      Downs Syndrome is not a spectrum disorder, it is a chromosomal difference.

      We should be wary of any claims that are without evidence.

      Struggling to produce evidence is not evidence of anything other than struggle to produce evidence.

      • David Didau December 20, 2018 at 9:13 pm - Reply

        1. Well, as discussed in the post, whether brain scans “show distinct differences between dyslexics and non-dyslexics” is very much up for debate.

        I’m not sure why you shared the other three points as they seem either irrelevant or rather obvious.

        • elissamilne December 21, 2018 at 9:27 pm - Reply

          It’s actually not up for debate, except in the sense that anyone can decide to debate anything, if they so choose. There are umpteen sources to explore as regards research in this field, but rather than me linking to a slew of them, my single best recommendation is to take a look at the summaries of the cognitive research in this field as described by Stanislas Dehaene, in “Reading in the Mind: The New Science of How We Read”.


          There’s plenty that’s not fully understood, as is the case in all spectrum disorders, and the role of co-morbidities also needs to be taken into account, but there’s clear evidence that the processing in specific dyslexic brains is different to the processing in the general population of non-dyslexic brains.

  3. David Thomas September 21, 2018 at 8:58 am - Reply

    Labels are important to the extent that they people/children assist in accessing resources or, in the sphere of employment law, require employers to take positive steps to create a level playing field. If a slow reader diagnosed (by a specialist paid by parents to give the right report) as dyslexic gets an extra 15 minutes to sit a wordy exam, is that a good or bad thing?

    • David Didau September 21, 2018 at 10:04 am - Reply

      I refer you to my final paragraph: “If that label results in more children with reading difficulties learning to read fluently, then great. But if it’s used as an excuse or a reason for why some children cannot be taught to read then it does a great deal of harm.” How labels are used is an open question.

      The trouble with some slow readers paying for a diagnosis which allows them extra exam accommodations is that those who cannot afford the diagnosis are often further penalised. The legal duty may further exacerbates this: does the law require employers to penalise those without a diagnosis? My problem is that the label is often used to further advantage those from an already advantaged background. Maybe instead if all children were routinely assessed for reading speed and those who fell beneath an agreed cut-off were all given extra time that would be fairer.

  4. rosemary September 22, 2018 at 8:35 am - Reply

    As a teacher, the labels work for me in a an environment that is already disfunctional. Call a child a poor reader and they might get extra time with a helper who listens to them read if that helper isn’t needed somewhere else. Give them a test and then call them dyslexic and they get a qualified teacher who has been trained to teach reading to children who find it difficult. The labels act a key that unlocks the help they need.

    The flawed historical thinking that I remember is that dyslexic children were those who were considered to be ‘bright’, but couldn’t read as opposed to the duffers who were just a bit slow. The idea that difficulties in reading are the same for all children regardless of how articulate or clever the seem has always made a lot of sense to me but as I said the labels currently do a good job for teachers.

    • David Didau September 24, 2018 at 4:39 pm - Reply

      The fact that labels work in this way is precisely what is wrong with the system: it is inherently iniquitous. We should be ashamed if any child – no matter their ability to afford a label – is unable to read well enough to access an academic curriculum.

  5. […] his excellent blog, David Didau points out that medical conditions like glue ear can affect children’s early learning […]

  6. Melissa November 7, 2018 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    As a reading specialist from America, living in Finland, I can only say, “AMEN!” Loved this blog. I could not agree more.

    In Finland, apparently there are very few dyslexic students, although they are beginning to use the term here more frequently (and I dare say loosely). I have started to see the term crop up in the news, especially after PISA results are posted, for example. I, too, was taught that dyslexia was a neurological condition, not just scoring at the lower end of the distribution scale. I believe that students at the lower end of the scale absoultely need more support, as would an actual dyslexic. That said, I also think that the labels are not helping anyone, because students at the lower end of the scale often internalize the label and believe they will never learn to read, that they are stupid, or they develop a behavior of learned helplessness….

    I wonder if dyslexia is rare because the students are given informal assessments frequently and the moment they are reading a few words below their words per minute target, they are given extra support at school and extra practice at home. My son had a cold in 2nd grade during one of their monthly assessments. He missed the target speed By 2 wpm. He had a support teacher give him some regular, individualized support, starting that week. The next month when he was again within the target zone, the extra lessons stopped…

    Instead of giving labels, how about a leg up instead?

    • David Didau November 9, 2018 at 8:23 am - Reply

      I would suggest that ‘dyslexia’ is rare in Finland because Finnish orthography is so transparent. When compared with English orthography there’s just so much less to learn and, thus, so much less that can go wrong.

      Best, David

  7. Melissa November 10, 2018 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    Yes David. Thanks for your reply. I agree that is true. Orthography is the easy bit because the correspondence is one to one, with few exceptions, like Spanish. Decoding is simple. Even as a non-speaker of Finnish, I can read the daily paper, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you more than some general points about it. For me, it is also about a lack of vocabulary and grammatical structures. My first few years here gave me a real understanding of what it feels like to be an illiterate adult in society.

    According to a story released this September by YLE, the Finnish version of the BBC, “the problem does not lie in basic reading and writing skills, which essentially all adults in Finland possess, but in reading comprehension and the ability to function in increasingly technology-rich environments.” A survey by the OECD found that as many as half a million Finns struggle with functional illiteracy. The Finnish government is currently trying to review and improve the wording in the paperwork required by governmental organizations, which is jargon laden, with readability levels that are off the charts. When the world is becoming more text based, it is unfortunate.

    • David Didau November 13, 2018 at 8:38 am - Reply

      Of course fluent reading is also about vocabulary (and general knowledge) – decoding is the simple bit.

  8. Lijn Schutte December 16, 2018 at 10:42 am - Reply

    Thank you David Didau for your enlightening article on the common perception of the lack of domination of a (not so natural) skill, that thanks to a label has been transformed into a neurological defect.
    The harm that is being done to people by this procedure of definitions becoming causes, is described by Trudy Dehue, et al, (2011, 2013, 2014) as reification.
    This many times overlooked danger in scientific research, that meening to describe reality, but in doing so rather forms it instead, occours throughout the DSM, and can unfortunately enough not even be avoided by the use of MRI, because the results of MRI-scans, only become their meening through interpretation by human beings, with their own presumptions and view of the world.
    Your article reminds me (I am a Dutch teacher as a second language and an eternal student I hope) of the Pygmalion effect that molds our students into the presumptions we have of them, in stead of into the potential they need us to help them actualize. Thank you for publishing your wakening words.

  9. […] A discussion on the reasons why some children may find reading more difficult than others – https://learningspy.co.uk/literacy/why-do-some-children-struggle-with-reading/ […]

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