10 Early Signs of Reading Trouble (and How to Help)

Find out important ways to detect a potential learning challenge.




During the preschool years, your child should begin to engage in conversation and storytelling, sharing his feelings and ideas, as well as imitating adult writing. While individual differences vary, there are certain milestones to observe and note. "But don't panic," says Dr. Sheldon Horowitz, president of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. "Almost every child displays these problems from time to time."

Raise the alarm with your child's pediatrician, preschool, and school district (which is required to provide an evaluation) if you discern what seems to be a systemic pattern of problems.

Ask Yourself:

  • Did he learn to speak much later than his peers? The first clue to a language and reading problem may be delayed speech. Most children can say several words by their first birthday; at 2, they should be able to put two or three words together into a sentence.
  • Is she using baby talk after her 3rd birthday? By this age, a child should be able to pronounce words she knows correctly.
  • Does he confuse sounds that are similar such as "hat" and "cat"? Does he struggle to find the right word?
  • Can she remember rhymes? If you say a rhyming phrase with a word missing, can she supply the correct response?
  • Does he recognize the letters in his own name? A preschooler should be aware of print around him — understanding that those squiggles on road signs and cereal boxes are letters that make up words, just like the letters in his name.
  • Does she know her ABCs? By 4, she should be able to name the letters of the alphabet and recognize their shapes.
  • Does he understand how a book works? A child needs to understand that people read words, not pictures, and that the marks on the page are connected to the words he hears and says.
  • Does she realize that she can make her own letters? Preschoolers begin to pick up crayons or markers and "write."
  • Can he follow a simple storyline? A child should ask questions and make comments that show he understands what has been read.
  • Does she have trouble following directions and routines? If sitting still during circle time is tough or if he's easily distracted or dreamy, he may be missing or misunderstanding essential cues.

What to Do Now:

  • Read aloud every day. Use simple one-word or rhyming books to help your child connect letters to speech sounds. For help, browse our list of best family read-alouds.  
  • Invite him to join in when words in a storybook are repeated in a chorus.
  • Sing nursery rhymes and the alphabet song so she begins to connect letters to speech. Adding nursery rhymes or alphabet books to your reading routine can be a fun way to reinforce this.
  • Talk to your child as you go about your day pointing out letters on traffic signs, labels, and even the milk carton as you pour him a glass.
  • When she hands you her most recent drawing, ask her to tell you about it, write down what she says, and post it prominently in your home.
  • At the playground or beach, draw the letters of his name in the sand with him.
  • Glue buttons or pieces of pasta in the shape of letters on a page so she sees how letters take up space on a page.
  • Together, fashion letters from modeling clay.
  • Give him magnetic letters to reinforce learning.
  • Play word games while traveling in the car or waiting in line: "How many words can you name that begin with the letter D?"

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