Common Reading Problems

How to Identify Common Reading Problems and

Target Instruction to Help Struggling Readers Develop Necessary Skills


Students have problems reading because they lack specific skills necessary for proficient reading.  For background information on why students struggle with reading see Students Who Face Difficulties Learning to Read: Information on Reading Problems and Dyslexia.  


When a student has reading problems, you need to identify where specific deficiencies exist. An informal reading evaluation can provide valuable information to help you determine possible gaps in necessary reading skills. After you identify missing skills you can then target instruction to directly help your student build necessary skills. For information on reading evaluations and how to evaluate your student, see the articles The Importance of Evaluations in Reading Remediation and Actual Reading Errors Made by Struggling Readers.


After completing the individual evaluation of reading skills including phonemic awareness, knowledge of the complete phonemic code and performance in reading and spelling you need to interpret the overall combined results.  The combined results usually indicate specific weakness in certain fundamental skills. You then can target instruction to help your student build these necessary skills. Remember the focus is on checking if the student has established necessary skills for proficient reading. To read proficiently the student must first process print phonetically. Consider the foundational skills (knowledge of the code, tracking, blending, phonemic awareness, attention to detail). Check if the student has mastered, integrated and applied these skills to the essential process of phonologic processing (converting print to sound). After examining the fundamental skills, consider the student’s abilities with the higher level skills (handling multisyllable words, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary).  For additional information, on these skills, see the article Skills Necessary for Proficient Reading.


Individuals who struggle with reading vary greatly in the specific skills they are lacking. The evaluation helps you identify these skills and target your instruction to intentionally develop necessary skills.  While each individual is unique, certain problems commonly occur. This article provides a general overview of common reading problems. For descriptive purposes these problems are listed separately. However, reading skills are interrelated, so deficiencies in one skill typically affect other areas.


Common Reading Problems:  Overview of Typical Areas of Reading Difficulty


Incorrect Approach to Reading / Not Processing Print Phonetically: If the student does not ‘sound out’ words and instead relies on visual ‘what the word looks like’ or ‘whole word’ recognition approaches they are reading the ‘wrong way’. To read proficiently the student must read by converting print to sound.  **If you have any indications the student is not processing print phonologically you must intervene and help the student establish this essential foundation of proficient reading**. Indicators a student is not processing print phonetically include whole word type errors, word guessing, memorizing text, inability to ‘read’ simple phonetic words, poor spelling skills (inability to spell words that have not been memorized), lacking knowledge of the phonemic code (print=sound relationships),  not ‘sounding out’ words, and reading with much effort.  These students who are not converting print to sound are literally on the ‘wrong track’ and must be redirected. To intentionally develop proficient phonologic processing of print in struggling readers, you must intervene with an effective direct systematic phonics program. The validated results based research clearly shows direct systematic phonics programs are the most effective way to teach children to read. In addition, neural research proves instruction with direct phonologic based reading programs both improved reading and actually ‘re-wired’ neural activity from incorrect pathways to the ‘correct/good reader’ phonologic based pathways.  


Gaps in Foundational Skills & Knowledge Necessary for Proficient Phonologic Processing: Remember, correct phonologic processing of print requires the mastery, integration and application of several critical subskills. See the article Foundational Skills Necessary for Proficient Phonologic Processing of Print. If the student is deficient in one or more of the essential subskills they can struggle with proficient reading even if they have mastered other skills. If there are any indicators the child lacks or is weak in any of the foundational skills you need to target instruction to directly help the child acquire these essential skills.


Difficulty with complex code: Many students have a foundation of correct phonologic processing of the basic sounds; however, they lack direct knowledge of the complexities. Frequently the most difficult parts of our phonemic code are never directly taught to students. While some students pick up the complexities from imbedded instruction many do not and begin to struggle. The vast majority of vocabulary contains advanced code.  Indicators of lack of knowledge of the complexities are when the student accurately reads simple words and appears to have acquired fundamental skills in phonemic awareness, tracking, and blending but struggles with words containing vowel combinations, r-controlled vowel combinations, and other complexities. If the student has foundational skills and is only lacking knowledge of the complete code, you can focus on directly teaching the advanced code. However, be sure the student has learned the multiple sounds for the vowels and letters like s, and have mastered the basic tracking and blending skills before systematically advancing to all the vowel combination and r-controlled vowel combinations.


Gaps in Advanced Skills: Remember, proficient reading is more than phonologic processing. See Advanced Skills Necessary for Proficient Reading for additional information. If the student has any weakness or has not yet developed these higher level skills, use direct instruction to intentionally help them build necessary advanced skills.


Evaluations require interpretation. If you are in doubt about what skills the student has mastered and what skills they need work on, it is best to start at the beginning to ensure the student establishes a strong foundation of phonologic processing and then systematically add advanced skills. If you repeat a skill the student already knows, they simply gain a little extra practice.  Remember, even the professional elite players practice fundamental drills. Problems arise when the student fails to acquire a necessary foundational skill. Older students, especially those with some of the skills in place, advance very rapidly. Don’t cut out necessary instruction just to save time. A few extra days is cheap insurance for making sure fundamental skills are established and practiced. The strong foundation of phonologic processing is essential to proficient reading.  See the article Elements of an Effective Reading Remediation Program for further detail on how to help your student acquire necessary skills and develop proficient reading.


A very important point to remember!

If your student faces problems reading, you need to intervene with an effective remediation program. In almost all cases, students do not ‘outgrow’ reading problems on their own. The facts clearly prove most struggling readers continue to face reading problems. The brain imaging research also shows incorrect processing forms in beginning readers and persists UNLESS direct effective intervention occurs.  The neural research proves intensive intervention with effective direct systematic phonics programs can improve reading skills and form correct phonologic processing pathways. We can achieve reading success!  For more information see the article How You Can Help a Student Who Struggles With Reading Overcome Difficulties and Achieve Success.



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 2007 Miscese R. Gagen