Language and literacy skills

Early reading difficulties

Continuing the theme of recent blogs on literacy acquisition, here we focus on symbol-sound (grapheme-phoneme) correspondence and early reading.

Often, children’s first realisation that symbols have meaning will be when they begin to recognise familiar shop signs. They may not be able to read, but they make associations with frequently seen logos. You know the type:


My first reaction to the Toys R Us sign was irritation with the reversed capital R. This was not out of some outrage regarding proper spelling, but because the reversed R looks like the Russian letter ‘Я’, which makes the sound ‘ya’, and means ‘I’. Of course, that reaction is only possible because I know the Cyrillic Russian alphabet. My children, on the other hand, had little alphabet knowledge when they first visited the store. Soon after, on driving past a billboard, they recognised the logo and shouted “Giraffe shop!”. Geoffrey the Giraffe was not on the ad, but they had made an association.

Some years later, I observed a young pupil (I’ll call him Adam) being shown letter cards from a phonics scheme commonly used across Britain and asked to say the letter sound. The letter on the card was ‘v’. He had been a little unsure of himself with previous cards, but, on seeing this one, Adam smiled broadly and said “bird”. He had remembered the picture of a vulture that was on the other side of the card (and was visible on the classroom wall). It is not unusual for young children to make the picture-letter association before consolidating their letter-sound knowledge. This can be seen in today’s phonics programmes but it is nothing new, children’s alphabet primers have used the same hook for well over a century.

alphabet primer

Adam’s confusion could be put down to his level of readiness for exposure to print. This could be due to age, developmental stage or a sign of learning difficulties. We’ll come back to this idea later.

A bit of background info

The relationships between speaking, listening, reading and writing have become better understood in recent decades (Shanahan, 2006), but the chances are that most parents and teachers taught formal literacy in England before 2000 were taught to read before learning to write (Wyse and Jones, 2013). Historically, the teaching of reading in English began with a (logographic) ‘look-and-say’ approach, where children were expected to memorise whole words.

Although the efficacy of multi-sensory teaching of reading English, incorporating a phonic approach, had been recognised since the 1930s, this has only been widely adopted in the UK in very recent decades (Johnson and Watson, 2005). It is now also better understood that reading can be supported and improved by the skills and knowledge underpinning writing (Graham and Herbert, 2010).

Children learning to read in languages with more regular spelling patterns, or a so-called shallow orthography (more on that here), appear to be able to do so with relative ease. This can mean that dyslexia is not diagnosed until later, when difficulties are caused by text complexity and vocabulary demands (Szenkovits and Ramus, 2005; Goswami, 2015)

The deeper orthography of English means that children need to employ both a logographic approach (combining ‘look-and-say’ with morphology) and an alphabetic (phonetic) approach in order to become efficient readers (Seymour, Aro and Erskine, 2003). All of these skills contribute to accurate reading and efficient comprehension skills (Dougherty Stahl, 2011).

The pre-reading stage

Many children enjoy being read to and will gradually begin to choose books to be read, or ask for favourite stories again and again. They begin to realise that print conveys meaning and may begin to recognise and point out individual letters or words, e.g. letters in their name. Children may act out reading a book, retelling a familiar tale or using the illustrations to frame their own version of a story. Some children may prefer toys or other creative activities at home, or at school – this is all part of normal development and does not mean there is any cause for concern.

Early signs of reading difficulties

Some children may not engage with books as soon as some of their peers. This may be for a variety of reasons, including their home environment, or a preference for more active, tactile and sensory experiences due to their current developmental stage. Two important points for teachers to consider:

  • reading readiness, or lack of it, is not necessarily due to any difficulty, be patient…
  • the youngest children in a Nursery/Reception class are 20-25% younger than their oldest peers in the same class. This seems obvious, but its effect is often under-recognised.

Some early signs of possible learning differences that mean pupils may benefit form additional small-group multi-sensory support include:

  • difficulty or inconsistency developing knowledge of letters and sounds
  • difficulty or inconsistency remembering high frequency words
    • inability to remember high frequency words such as ‘the’
    • c-v-c words still sounded out after 1-2 years of learning

It’s really important to avoid performance pressure in the early years, as this can seriously impair children’s enjoyment of reading activities, leading to avoidance of hearing books read or participation in creative story sharing activities. Long term effects of this could further impact on literacy skills acquisition, including the development of spoken vocabulary and oral comprehension.

So what can we do to help?

Pre-reading stage

A broad, multi-sensory whole class approach including opportunities for listening to stories and sharing books, looking at books independently, retelling familiar tales, making books, hunting for letters and words in the school and wider environment, participation in rhythm (syllable) and sound (rhyme and alliteration) in nursery rhyme books, and synthetic phonics can benefit all children.

  • Simple pictorial and single word labelling of classroom objects, visual timetables, etc.
  • Opportunities for a wide range of non-threatening decoding, including time and resources for copying and book-making (at an age-appropriate level)
  • Clear routines and explicit instruction for carpet time, story-time and any semi-formal learning experiences, or expected classroom behaviours such as lining-up and moving around school, etc.
    • Children with SpLDs may not have developed attentional and listening skills, these need to be taught and reinforced e.g. through games
Early reading stage
  • Don’t stop the creative ‘early years’ activities – multi-sensory input can be vital
  • Small group and 1:1 intensive support can make all the difference – instruction will need to be explicit
  • Opportunities to share books with an adult or more confident partner (select with sensitivity to both participants!)
  • Plan opportunities for alternatives to reading aloud, but in case your learner would like to read in front of others, plan for this, too (careful selection of text, etc.)

Ideas and resources to support phonological knowledge and synthesis for reading

ponic reading resources


Dockrell, J. Marshall, C. and Wyse, D. (2016) ‘Teachers’ reported practices for teaching writing in England’, Reading and Writing 29 (3) pp.409-434 [Online]. Available at: 4 July 2016)

Goswami, U. (2015) ‘Sensory theories of developmental dyslexia: three challenges for research’ Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 16 (1) pp. 43-54 [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 13 April 2016)

Graham, S. and Herbert, M. (2010) Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report Washington DC: Alliance for Excellent Education [Online]. Available at:  (Accessed 29 June 2016)

Johnston, R. and Watson, J., (2005) The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment: a seven year longitudinal study. Edinburgh: SEED [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 29 June 2016)

Seymour, P., Aro, M. and Erskine, J. (2003) ‘Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies’, British Journal of Psychology, 94 (2) pp.143-174 [Online]. Available at: 7 July 2016)

Shanahan, T. (2006) ‘Relations among Oral Language, Reading and Writing Development’ pp.171-183 in MacArthur C. and Graham, S. (ed.) Handbook of Writing Research. New York: The Guildford Press

Szenkovits, G. and Ramus, F. (2005) ‘Exploring Dyslexics’ Phonological Deficit I: Lexical vs. Sub-lexical and Input vs. Output Processes’ Dyslexia, 11 (4) pp. 253-268 [Online]. Available at: 7 April 2016)

Wyse, D. and Jones, R. (2013) Teaching English, Language and Literacy. London: RoutledgeFalmer

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