when your child can’t read

“When I learn to read, I’m going to read every book in the library!”

My daughter was nine or ten when she said this. Or maybe she was twelve. I don’t remember. Either way, she was far beyond the normal age at which children are expected to read.

We had experimented with phonetics and word memorization, a variety of curriculums, special flash cards, and spelling programs. She learned keyboarding, and even spent nine months immersed in a second language. When we worked closely with her and slowed everything way down, she could figure it out, but hand her a cereal box or a Berenstain Bears book and she hadn’t a clue. Letters held no meaning. It was like she was blind.

Sometimes I pushed her and for short periods it’d feel like we were making progress. Eventually, though, she’d hit a wall and the lessons would erupt with yelling, torn pages, and stormy tears. Each time this happened, I was forced to re-evaluate. Was all the frustration and pain really necessary? Was there a better way?

There is more to reading than just ‘knowing how,’ I’d chant to myself. Be patient. Wait.

And to my daughter, I said (over and over and over again), “You’re smart. People learn at different speeds and at different times. The reading part of your brain needs to do some more growing. You’ll get it.”

In my gut, I believed this. Eventually, she would learn to read because that’s what people do and because it’s what she wanted.

But, but … what if I was wrong? What if she was struggling because I wasn’t teaching her right? What if she had issues that could only be resolved with the help of an expert?

“She’s got to learn,” my husband would say. “How much longer are you going to let this go on?”

He wasn’t the only one worrying. My friends were worried; I could sense the doubt and concern lurking behind their hearty encouragements. My mom was worried. Heck, I was worried. I was worried sick.

By trying to let my daughter learn at her own speed, I was stepping so far out of the realm of normal that it smacked of stupidity, irresponsibility, and negligence, especially since it was clear she had some sort of disability. If my closest friends and family thought I was probably making a mistake, how could I open up to a wider circle? When stressed and insecure, it’s more important than ever to be surrounded with supportive people, so I kept my mouth shut. The isolation was piercing.

In spite of my intense self-doubt and constant wavering, I couldn’t bring myself to change course. See, I had a bunch of questions—questions so basic they seemed naive—that had no answers. For example:

*With a reading specialist’s assistance, how much earlier does the child actually learn to read?
*Does the child learn to read because of the extra help or because the brain is developmentally ready?
*Do the extra weeks, months, or years that are gained through the tutoring really matter all that much?
*Might the time spent struggling to read be better spent doing something the child is cognitively ready to do?
*When we “help” in the name of earlier and faster, what is sacrificed? What happens to the child’s joy, curiosity, confidence, interest, and self-esteem?

I read blogs and combed the library and the internet in search of my answers, yet all I discovered were all the usual professionals pounding out the same old freak-out-and-do-something-now-before-it’s-too-late routine. I did glean a handful of stories of people who learned to read late and are now doing well, and, while nice to read and rather encouraging, they weren’t the scientific studies I was looking for. Without answers, I couldn’t see the value of pushing my daughter to read before she was ready. Nor could I completely cave to my rising panic.

Off and on, my husband and I debated whether or not to get her tested. I discussed my anxieties with another mother of a late-reading daughter who had undergone extensive testing and tutoring.

“Would you say her reading has finally clicked?” I asked the mother. “I mean, does she read chapter books for fun?”

“She can read, but she only does it when she has to. It’s not something she really enjoys.”


If the girl didn’t enjoy reading, where was the victory?

Then all on her own my daughter started reading young adult fiction: some Emily Windsnap books, The Coming of the Dragons, Peter and the Starcatchers, etc. I watched her mounting enthusiasm from the corners of my eyes, hardly daring to breathe. We had waiting so long. Was this for real?

Best I could tell, she only understood 60-70 percent of what she read. I’d offer to read the first chapter of a new book out loud so she could get a grasp on setting and characters, but she only let me do that a couple times. Once in a while she’d ask for help with a particularly troublesome word or name, but again, she preferred to puzzle it out on her own. Or skip it. She could still wring out enough of the plot to enjoy the story.

It was weird. We’d just received test results (we’d finally taken her for an extensive evaluation) which indicated that she had extremely low reading ability. But here she was holing up in her room reading for hours on end. How was this possible?

Over the last number of months, she has plowed through dozens of books. In fact, she has become such a voracious reader that we have resorted to confiscating her books when she has jobs; otherwise, she disappears so soundlessly it’s like she’s been raptured. Some mornings she sets her alarm as early as 5:30 so she can read before going to work. And after the family evening read-aloud, she rockets off the couch and takes the steps two at a time to her room so she can squeeze in as much reading as possible before lights out. For her, books are magnets; their pull is a force to be reckoned with.

My daughter has a long way to go before she will be fully literate. We have a lot of work to do. Her learning approach will continue to deviate from the traditional path that’s always made sense to me. But I am not worried. My qualms have evaporated. I am giddy with relief, thrilled to the tippy-tips of my toes.

She reads.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (11.4.13), awkward, chatty time, posing for candy, cheesy broccoli potato soup, piano lessons, why I’m spacey. sweet and sour lentils, Greek yogurt, oatmeal bread, and blessing hearts.    


  • George Stancliffe

    I just saw this article that you wrote 10 years ago (in 2014) about your daughter who struggled to read. It is common for Right-brained children to have difficulty in learning to read. (only about 10-15% of the population is Right-brain dominant). However, it is also common for Right-brained children to be gifted at learning to Speed Read.

    Many, many kids who struggle with “normal reading” are at the top of the class with Speed Reading. Especially if they are Left-handed, Dyslexic and/or ADHD. They don’t have to be in these 3 categories to be gifted at Speed Reading, but those who are in these 3 categories are almost always Right-brain dominant, and are therefore gifted at learning to Speed Read.

    That probably sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Slow-reading and Speed Reading are processed in opposite sides of the brain. Even as adults, most Right-brained people catch on to Speed Reading more easily than most. If your [now adult] daughter is willing to give it a try, she may be surprised to find out that she does well at Speed Reading.

    –George Stancliffe

  • Aili

    I'm so happy to hear she's had a breakthrough!

    I'm surprised to hear this, because you haven't said anything about it in a while–and in one of the photos you posted from Guatemala, she was reading a HUGE book. I didn't comment on it but I noticed it.

    As a way to maybe assist with comprehension, I wonder if she'd be interested in graphic novels? There are some gorgeous graphic novel versions of _The Last Unicorn_, _The Hobbit_, _Wrinkle in Time_, etc. It might offer her the same kind of help little kids get from picture books, without the … well, you know, reading picture books.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Re that huge book: she was probably just toying with it, picking out bits and pieces. She kept trying and trying, but back then it still hadn't clicked.

      And about the graphic novels: so far she hasn't shown any interest in them. And she doesn't read picture books either. At this point, it's all (words) or nothing. (My younger daughter, on the other hand, LOVES comics.)

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing your experience with your daughter. I, too, have a late reader and I see-saw about what, if anything, I should do about it. He is ten, and while he can sound out most words, and he actually seems to do well with comprehension, he struggles even with words he just read in the previous sentence. I am always looking for books he might find interesting, hoping to spark a love of reading, but he just doesn't like to read. To supplement my reading aloud, I have been getting him audio books from the library. He is working his way through Harry Potter and he loves it- starts it when he wakes, and falls asleep to it, and all the time in between. What he does enjoy is drawing, so while he is read to he is creating. For now I am content with this, but I do worry about his year-end evaluations (a requirement for homeschoolers in our state).

    • Jennifer Jo

      My daughter, too, struggled with words she had just spent five minutes figuring out in the previous sentence. Simple ones, like "was" or "house." It made me want to pull out my hair. She also was a huge fan of books on tape. We don't have to do year-end evals, thankfully. That would've stressed me beyond measure.

  • Peggi

    My son had difficulty learning to read. When he was in second grade we took him to vision therapy because his eyes had trouble working together. By the time his therapy was done he was reading. It was like a light turned on and he could read. He still didn't like to read for fun but at least he could read. Recently (just graduated high school) he found that he loves to read classical books. The old ladies at the library love him. Don't think the classics get much use now days.

    My daughter didn't learn to read until she was in fifth grade. She didn't need vision therapy. We just kept slowing trying new things and once again it seemed like all of a sudden one day she could read.

    She is in high school and just now decided that reading is wonderful and fun.

  • odiie

    Thank you. This is encouraging. I have a 10 year old who loves books, but hates reading. It's so much work and it hasn't clicked, yet. Very frustrating for her. I needed to know that others have let it happen without special tutors or sending the child off to public school.

    • Jennifer Jo

      It's for parents like you that I wrote this. I felt so alone in the struggle. I don't want others to have to feel that isolation.

  • Rebecca

    Oh good heavens, does this ring bells! Except we managed to combine phonics AND yelling. (Phonics enraged my son because of all the words that didn't follow the rules. How did I plan to explain that? Huh? Huh?) My boy wasn't reading independently until age 10. I went with my gut that said nothing was seriously wrong, but I told absolutely nobody about the situation. He is a fluent reader at 14 but would still far rather listen to a recorded book or have someone read to him. As for reading comprehension – meh. What is that even, besides a category on the standardized test? I increasingly believe that kids raised in literate homes, protected from too much screen time WILL learn to read but it might not be in a tidy, linear fashion at age 6.5 or whatever the latest "norm" is.

  • Greta Bucher

    Way to go, Murches! Sounds like you are working out your literacy with fear and trembling, as the saying goes. Thanks for narrating the saga – though stories weren't as helpful as studies, as you wrote, a story can go a long way toward finding wisdom.

    The reading comprehension will come. I myself didn't feel like I could peel back many layers on the books I was reading, though I've been a voracious reader, until late college or beyond. People read for many different reasons, and in many different ways even across their own lives.

    Does she like reading out loud? I find that to be a very stretching skill for me, and one that sometimes makes me more attentive to words and meanings than I would otherwise be. It also plays into my acting predilections, which isn't true for all, but I often find it opens a story up when my kids can choose to read aloud if they want to.

    • Jennifer Jo

      "People read for many different reasons, and in many different ways even across their own lives." Such a good point!

      As for reading out loud, I love reading out loud, and some of my kids enjoy it, too. But I think it depends on the person. When reading out loud, my daughter constantly stumbles over words. My husband, an avid reader, HATES reading out loud, for pretty much the same reason. (They are very similar in many, many ways.) So right now, I'm just giving her lots of space to soak up the reading fun however she wants.

  • Anonymous

    Now that she can read and is inspired to do so, why not work with her on reading comprehension? Why leave it all to her? It seems to me that whereas a love of reading is a wonderful thing and can come naturally, reading critically is a learned skill and a valuable one.

    • Suburban Correspondent

      Because it is too soon. Let her wallow in words, as it were; let her revel in her books, with the words flowing unfiltered through her brain, before foisting on her the labor of reading critically. Don't we let our children play and splash in the water for a while before we attempt to teach them formal strokes? We want them to get comfortable in their new medium, find their balance in it, before making them formalize what they are learning.

  • Rozy Lass

    What a blessing! She reads! We have a son who didn't read until he was past 11. He still doesn't enjoy reading but graduated from high school, took some college classes and is successfully employed. What has given me great joy is that recently he purchased art supplies so he can get back to what he is gifted at: drawing. I believe that not everyone will love reading and find joy in relaxing with a good book, but that's okay. I don't find running at all relaxing, but my husband does, so there you go. We're all different. It is a blessing to have a child learn to read and satisfy her hunger for knowledge and adventure through books. Keep up the good work.

    • Jennifer Jo

      You are so right—diversity is to be embraced, not feared. And definitely not neutralized. I think about this a lot. It's rather ironic, perhaps, that my daughter is one of my greatest instructors in this particular life lesson. Then again, maybe it's not ironic at all…

  • Suburban Correspondent

    You should be thrilled! A love of reading is everything, and it is worth waiting for. Really, most of the things I know I have learned through reading.

    I think it is hard to find enough subjects for a good study on late readers. First of all, the schools push early intervention, so the pool of control subjects would be small. Second, that pool is made even smaller when you divide it up into kids with a lot of computer exposure v kids with almost none. I'm thinking that the latter group's brains would eventually develop the reading skills, while the former group's brains might just be trained/wired by the computer exposure to derive even less pleasure from print (I'm wondering about your friend's child here).

    It's impossible to tell, because there are so few kids that will fit into the "pure" group at this point.

    Isn't it interesting, though, how personal – private, even – learning to read is to the reader? My newly reading 9-year-old does not want help, either. Neither did my oldest, who was also a late reader. It would have felt almost like a violation to have forced that help on them.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Reading IS private. You are so right.

      I had some email conversation with Peter Gray (author of Free to Learn) about the lack of studies in the area of later readers. There are some, but my deeper question—is there such a thing as a learning/reading disability that can only be resolved with interventions—was not something he could answer. I'm still deeply curious about this, but I don't know where to look.

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