Part 2 – Main cause of reading problems

The two main attributes that are needed for learning to read and write are explained. The problems linked to whole-word memorising have also been covered.


Part 2: Main causes of reading problems

With all learning, there are certain attributes that are needed for each task, whether we are learning to drive, play football, do mathematical calculations or learning to read.  Human beings cannot be good at everything. We all have our strengths and weaknesses for these different tasks. Unfortunately, for the children who struggle to read, they tend to have weaknesses in the two essential attributes that are needed for reading. By reading, I mean being able say what the words are on the page. I am not talking about comprehension.

The first attribute for learning to read, which is also the same for writing, is a good visual memory. The children who have a good memory are able to remember many things easily, whether it is whole words, letter sounds, numerals, nursery rhymes, a script for a school play, songs, hymns and so on. These children only need to practise a few times and they have learnt them.

The second attribute is having good auditory skills. For reading, this means the children need to be able to hear the word after the sounds have been spoken. For example, when a child says /d-o-g/, he or she needs to be able to put the sounds together and hear the word dog. For writing, the auditory skill is different; it is the other way round: the children need to be taught to hear and identify the sounds in words – in the correct order from the beginning to the end of the words. So when a child wants to write the word dog, he or she needs to hear the sounds /d-o-g/.

Some children find these auditory skills extremely easy and others find them much more difficult but they can all be taught; it just needs more practice for some children. So if the children with good visual memories also have a naturally good auditory ability to hear the sounds in words, they are often able to crack the alphabetic code by themselves. For example, a child might have seen the words mum or mom and then noticed that each letter ‹m› has a /m/ sound. Then he or she might see other words like man and make, which start with the same letter ‹m› that also has the /m/ sound. Then the child might see that the word dad has a /d/ sound at the beginning and a /d/ at the end and that dog and dig also have a /d/ sound at the beginning [demonstration].

Gradually, the children make the connection between all the single alphabet letters and their associated sounds and work out simple words, like tap, hen, pot, slip, and comic for themselves. Later, this extends to noticing that a word like church has a /ch/ sound at each end and that the two letters ‹c› and ‹h› are used for that sound; then seeing words like chips and rich confirms their understanding that sometimes these two letters are used for the /ch/ sound.

Bit by bit, using whole-word memory and code-cracking skills, these children are able to teach themselves to read. They are the children who do well, even with a whole-word method of teaching. They do even better and go much faster with synthetic phonics because they are not taking the time that would be needed to deduce the code for themselves.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are children who have a poor memory. For them it is terribly difficult to memorise such things as words, poems and songs. Even with synthetic-phonics teaching, these children struggle to remember the letter sounds, which is a much easier task than memorising whole words. Adults who can read English easily rarely understand how hard this task is until they are asked to memorise words in a script that is new to them, such as Korean, Russian, Arabic or any other script that is based on the sounds of the language (although, as far as I understand, Arabic is slightly different in that the symbols tend to represent the consonant sounds only).

To see for yourself, try looking at a page of Korean words and learning them. (They can be downloaded from the Resources section or by scrolling to the bottom of the screen in Causes of Reading and Writing Problems, Part Two.) Most people find it extremely difficult [demonstration]. Just imagine how it feels to a child when they are asked to remember these words and they cannot do it. Often the teacher holds up the words on flash cards for them to learn. This is when that group of strugglers switch off and leave the calling-out to the children with a good memory.

Memorising squiggles is not easy, especially if you have a poor memory. We need to remind ourselves that our English alphabet letters are just squiggles to young children. Yet – when the sounds linked to the squiggles are known – it is relatively easy to work out words, as long as they are in a language that is based on a code linked to the sounds of that language. Very often the children with a poor memory are also the same children who have a poor auditory ability. If these children cannot hear the sounds in words naturally, and nobody teaches them to hear the sounds, then it is impossible for them to crack the alphabetic code by themselves. Therefore it is essential that these children are taught to hear the sounds in words and are shown how the letters are linked to the sounds; this is the only way forward for them. Their poor memory adds to their problems. You can imagine that it is much harder for a child if he or she is struggling to identify some of the letter sounds [demonstration]. You can often see these children struggling. That is why it is so important for them to learn the letter sounds so well that their responses are fluent and automatic.


  • Korean words

    If unfamiliar with the Korean language, try memorising these words. Whole-word learning is not easy!

  • Korean words

    If unfamiliar with the Korean language, try memorising these words. Whole-word learning is not easy!