Difficulty Sounding out Words

My seven-year-old is having difficulties with sounding out anything but the most basic words, even though he tries very hard. The teacher wants him to repeat first grade if there continues to be no improvement. I worry about sending him the message that trying your best isn't good enough. Is there anything I can do to help him?


Reading is a difficult skill to learn, no doubt about it. It is not a natural phenomenon, although it does seem to come more naturally to some individuals than to others. Still, becoming an independent reader can be a challenging task for most children. Because it is so difficult, research into how children learn to read is ongoing.

Current research on how children learn to read most successfully offers these conclusions:

  • Children benefit from listening to others read aloud on a regular basis;
  • Phonemic awareness is crucial in preparing a child to learn to read;
  • Systematic phonics instruction is also necessary;
  • Children need to read for at least 30 minutes every day at their instructional level in order to improve their reading skills;
  • Sight word memorization is important in reaching reading fluency

Your son's difficulty may lie in a lack of understanding of intermediate phonics rules. He seems to need more explicit instruction in the next level, such as the consonant-vowel-consonant-e word pattern, vowel combinations, blends, diphthongs, and digraphs. Until he learns those rules and patterns, he won't be able to apply them. Even though he may have been trying very hard, he simply may not have the tools that he needs to be an independent reader.

There are a few options that might work for you. The teacher has suggested that he repeat the grade, which is one alternative. Retention may not be the best choice unless his birthday falls close to the cutoff date and you can have some assurance that he will get the instruction that he needs to be an independent reader. Retention is also not recommended for children with a learning disability, so if you suspect that he may have a learning disability, have him assessed at the school site.

Another option is to hire a tutor to teach him phonics. You may be able to find a college student to work with him, or ask his teacher for a referral. Also, the school may have a list of teachers who tutor afternoons, evenings or weekends. You may also want to consider tutoring him yourself. You can obtain quality materials from an educational supply store or even from your son's teacher. I recommend that you acquire leveled reading books, the types of basal readers that build on children's reading skills incrementally. You may be able to get these "phonics" readers at your local library. If not, ask your son's teacher if you can borrow some from her collection.

Continue reading nightly with your son. He will benefit from listening to you read aloud as much as he will from reading at his instructional level on his own. Talk with his teacher about his specific strengths and weaknesses as a reader and set up some realistic goals for your son. With both of you working to help him, not only will he reach those goals, but may also surpass them.

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