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The Learning to Read Challenge

Why Learning to Read is So Difficult

35% of 4th graders perform below a “basic” reading level (NAEP, 2021)

Learning is read is miraculous. Breaking words down into separate sounds for sounding out requires processing at up to 40 sounds a second.  It’s an amazing skill for the brain to master, but it’s not natural, it takes stimulation and practice, some more than others.  Most children don’t fully develop this level of processing skill until 7 years of age, which is why so many get off to a slow start in learning to read.

At its core, reading is a language skill. You learn the language by listening (word memory), you learn your letters, and then you connect your word memory to text to read. If your language processing is even slightly imperfect – for instance, if you hear |tent| as |ten| – reading delays can surface. This why so many struggle learning to read.

Reading is a relatively new human skill, which means there is no reading region in the brain. In good readers, reading occurs in the language region – but that’s for each individual brain to figure out – based on the cognitive skill set available to them when learning to read.

Beyond decoding, there’s comprehension.  This requires working memory, attention, logic and critical thinking – in addition to automatic decoding and mastery of language vocabulary and syntax. Children are not confirmed as “readers” until they are reading at an 8th grade level, with comprehension and metacognition.  Once they are reading at that level, it is reasonably safe to assume they are capable of being lifelong readers with the requisite skills.

Is It Time For Extra Help?

Separating a (quite normal) slow start to reading from a delay that needs attention is that not easy. Children want to please and can disguise a phonemic awareness or decoding difficulty early on.  However, reading delays become obvious in 4th or 5th grade when comprehension gaps are harder to cover up.

Finding reading delays early is important, and by early, we mean in elementary school.  That is the “learning to read” period where there is time to invest in an intervention without your child falling behind.

Look For Clues Outside Reading

Temporary delays will resolve themselves, deep-seated delays will need remediation. And so it makes sense to look for symptoms outside reading associated with the cognitive skill gaps – language processing in particular – related to these skill gaps. For instance:

  • Were there speech delays in early life?
  • Did your child have ear infections that might have affected early language development?
  • Was your child born listening to English?
  • Is there a history of dyslexia or reading difficulty in your family?
  • Is your child’s reading out of line with other learning development, math for instance?

If there are no apparent language issues, we recommend giving your child a chance to mature into reading. However, if your child has any of the above markers and learning to read is not going well, there is almost certainly a need to act.

Gemm Learning is a reading intervention that focuses first on the building blocks of reading to build fluency and then reading comprehension. Most Gemm Learning students are able to make 1-2 years of reading gain in 4-6 months, 30 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week. Our gains are measured using the RPI, a Woodcock-Johnson aligned online reading test. For more info watch this video.

Three Ways to Help Reading

  1. Reply on maturation
  2. Instruction – extra help at school or with tutors
  3. Intervention

Leaving It To Nature

The underlying processing delays that hold children back do eventually develop and many children eventually acquire the phonological awareness and vocabulary needed for reading through daily language interactions, listening.

If word memory maps properly, i.e., spoken words and the corresponding text are accurately connected in the brain, then reading is relatively easily.  Leaving it to nature is a reasonable strategy up to the age of 7 as long as there are no clues of a language processing issue.  The only question is that while you wait for maturation how much learning is being missed and will the current frustrations end up turning your child off reading or learning.


Schools work with students “as is.” If there is a cognitive delay holding back reading, they work around it. Their focus is teaching the fundamentals of reading, not addressing the underlying cause of reading difficulty, the cognitive delays. Tutors mimic what goes on at school.

Reading Interventions

A reading intervention addresses the cognitive skill gaps needed for reading. The fastest way to solve a problem is to find the cause and then act.  Reading is no different. If you can improve language processing skills and therefore improve phonemic awareness, reading skills can accelerate quickly. by tutors.

Your Next Step

There are early signs of reading difficulty to look for. In addition, as a precaution, be aware of the symptoms of dyslexia. But most of all, parents should know the appropriate reading milestones and where their child stands. The school can help you out with this if you have any concerns at all.  At home, understanding what the common reading problems look like is also helpful.

Helping guide your child through this all important learning to read phase can be scary. The long-term stakes are high.

learn to read at home

Online reading test

After receiving the news that her daughter had improved 4.7 years in reading within one year, mom shared, “On the final report card for last year, she was up in every class and all her teachers noted enormous improvements in her academic abilities! There’s still room for growth, but it seems natural age and behavior type growth like focusing on the quality of our work not the speed.”

Alicia L.

Parent of 4th grader, struggling reader