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Children’s Literacy Difficulties

Literacy is a cultural achievement

We have noted elsewhere (Communication) that all human societies that have existed have had a fully developed spoken language. However, not all societies have had a written form of their spoken language. Evolutionarily, we know that speech/spoken language developed first and that written language is a so-called cultural achievement. Indeed, developmentally, we see a similar pattern: speech/spoken language emerges quite naturally but reading and writing must be explicitly taught.

Literacy is a complex skill

Reading is a complex skill that, minimally, requires an ability to:

  • decode print
  • comprehend written text

Alphabetic scripts

Now, as proficient users of English (you are reading this article, so I am assuming a degree of competence), we readily orient to the use of an alphabetic script. Simply, this means that the majority of the words used in the language are “spelt according to an alphabetic code or principle, whereby words are broken into smaller segments of sound which are then represented by letters and letter patterns” (Layton and Deeny, 2003:5).

Logographic scripts

Of course, not all languages use an alphabetic script. Notably, for example, Chinese uses a so-called logographic script. Here, each symbol or picture (known as a logogram) typically represents a particular concept. Logograms can be combined to create nuances of meaning, represent different or novel concepts, and so on.

The demands of different scripts

Both systems present difficulties for beginning readers. Memory loading is, perhaps, the biggest drawback for logographic systems. Such systems make great demands on visual memory, with the reader having to learn what each logogram stands for. Also, learning the meaning of one logogram does not necessarily assist in learning the meaning of another.

For alphabetic scripts the demands on visual memory are much reduced. However, the beginning reader must be able to:

  • understand that words can be broken down into smaller sound segments, i.e. demonstrate phonological awareness
  • formulate links between the smaller sound segments they hear and the letters/letter patterns that they see, i.e. demonstrate letter-sound knowledge

In addition to the above, readers of any script must be able to adequately process texts. This involves such things as (Snowling and Hulme, 2012:28):

  • making appropriate inferences in order to link sentences and, thereby, make a text coherent
  • monitoring the sense (or gist) of what is being read
  • using so-called metacognitive strategies such as looking back over/re-reading a text to work out any ambiguities

Literacy difficulties

Given the complexity of the task, it is perhaps not surprising that reading disorders are relatively common. STATS

The two most common reading disorders are:

  • dyslexia
  • reading comprehension impairment


In sum, dyslexia is a decoding deficit. However, there are associated difficulties such as sequencing and phonological difficulties. At root, though, the nature of the difficulty can be described as a word-level decoding deficit.

Reading comprehension impairment

In sum, reading comprehension impairment is a specific difficulty with comprehending written texts. In contrast to children with dyslexia, so-called poor comprehenders are well able to decode and they are – superficially at least – fluent readers. However, when quizzed about what they have read, their difficulties in understanding become apparent.

A word of caution

Analogous to the way in which a child may experience both speech difficulty and language difficulty (and not necessarily just one pure form of either), the distinction between dyslexia and reading comprehension impairment may be a false dichotomy. In practice, the boundaries between the two are not clear cut (Snowling, 2009). In the school-age population, children who exhibit general reading difficulties will exceed those who display pure dyslexia or pure reading comprehension impairment (Snowling and Hulme, 2012:33).

Interventions for literacy difficulties

As we have seen above, the reading profiles in dyslexia and in reading comprehension impairment are different. As such, different interventions are required.

Interventions for dyslexia

It has been known for some time (Bryant and Bradley, 1985; Liberman and Shankweiler, 1985) that children with poorly developed phonological skills are at greater risk of developing a reading disorder. Children with poor phonological awareness have difficulty segmenting spoken language into:

  • syllables
  • onsets and rimes (the onset is the part of a syllable that precedes the vowel; the rime is the part of a syllable comprising the vowel and all the consonants that follow it)
  • phonemes

Consequently, any intervention for decoding deficits will typically include work on improving phonological awareness. In addition, current research (e.g. Bowyer-Crane et al., 2008) recommends work on teaching and reinforcing letter-sound knowledge, together with reading practice for reinforcement of learnt skills, i.e.

  1. phonological awareness
  2. letter-sound knowledge
  3. reading practice

Interventions for reading comprehension impairment

In contrast to children with dyslexia, poor comprehenders typically exhibit phonological skills that are within normal limits for their age. However, they do exhibit a wide range of language processing difficulties, including poor ability to make inferences, poor vocabulary, and difficulties with both grammar and sentence structure. Consequently, interventions for reading comprehension impairment focus not on improving phonological skills but on enriching language skills, i.e. improving:

  1. oral language skills
  2. text comprehension strategies
  3. vocabulary


I am indebted to Snowling and Hulme (2012) whose work I have drawn on heavily in constructing this article.

Bowyer-Crane, C., Snowling, M.J., Duff, F.J., Fieldsend, E., Carroll, J.M., Miles, J., Götz, K., and Hulme, C. (2008) ‘Improving early language and literacy skills: differential effects of an oral language versus a phonology with reading intervention’ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 49, 422-432.

Bryant, P.E. and Bradley, L. (1985) Children’s Reading Problems Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Layton, L. and Deeny, K. (2003) Phonology and Literacy Distance Education: Speech and Language Difficulties, School of Education, The University of Birmingham, UK.

Liberman, I.Y. and Shankweiler, D. (1985) ‘Phonology and the problems of learning to read and write’ Remedial and Special Education 6, 8-17.

Snowling, M.J. (2009) ‘Changing concepts of dyslexia: nature, treatment and co-morbidity’ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry Virtual Issue on-line November [WWW] Accessed 11 Mar 2012.

Snowling, M.J. and Hulme, C. (2012) ‘Interventions for children’s language and literacy difficulties’ International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 47, 1, 27-34.