My First Grader Can't Read! At What Point Should I be Worried?

1st grader can't read

If you’re anything like me, you grabbed every opportunity you could to read with your children when they were young. As soon as they were old enough, I started shifting from exclusively reading to them to reading with them. For my daughter, reading came pretty easily, but for my son, there were some early indicators that he would struggle later on. As a mom with zero experience with dyslexia at the time, I had no idea that the struggles he was experiencing were red flags that he had a reading disability.

Even though my son was diagnosed by second grade, getting him the right interventions by kindergarten or first grade could have prevented some of the academic, social and emotional challenges he encountered. Now that I am a dyslexia advocate, I want to share some of those early warning signs with you, so you can start asking yourself the important questions before self-confidence, academic and social issues set in for your child.

  1. Your child struggles significantly to name the letters of the alphabet – When I was two years old, my mom said that I knew all of my letters. By four, I was reading like a champ, so I fully expected that my own children would have a similar experience. While my daughter picked up her letters quite easily, for my son, it was a constant struggle. The letters he knew one day, he seemed to forget the next — and when he attempted to name the letters, it was labored, slow and definitely not automatic.
  2. Your child skips/replaces words – When I used to read even the simplest of books with my son, I would find that he would skip entire words or phrases. I would have to redirect him to back to the words he skipped because without them, the sentence held a different meaning. 
  3. Your child doesn’t recognize words that he read correctly in the prior sentence – The practice that confounded me the most was my son’s inability to recognize words that he had read correctly in the prior sentence or on the prior page. It was as if he had never seen them before. Words like “for”, “the” and “in” were completely daunting for him. I could tell that he was equally as frustrated by the experience.
  4. When reading, your child uses context clues rather than decoding strategies to figure out the words - In other words, your child depends on the pictures to determine what the word is. Typically, my son would be able to get the first letter or groups of letters correct but would guess at the rest. When I knew for certain that he was using this strategy, he tried to read the word “rug”, but after looking at the illustration at the top of the page, he said the word “carpet”. I knew in that moment that he was depending entirely on the pictures rather than decoding strategies to determine the words he was trying to read. While pictures can be helpful tools when children are first learning to read, once they are decoding in kindergarten and first grade, dependence on pictures will likely prevent or delay a child from learning how to break down and decode words.
  5. Your child memorizes entire books or pages of books to feign reading – When I realized that my son was doing this, it was a huge aha moment for me. I remember the day distinctly! He brought home several books from school called “Buddy Books”. He was super excited to show me how well he could read each and every one of them. I sat in amazement as he blew through each book with ease! On one hand, I wanted to celebrate this milestone met... and we did. However, on the other, I knew something wasn’t right, so I took my little guy down to the library and we chose some books of the same level as his Buddy Books from the shelf. With trepidation, I opened the first book and asked my son if he could read it to me. I then watched with sadness as my suspicions were confirmed — my son had memorized each and every Buddy Book. He wasn’t reading at all! That moment was both heartbreaking and eye-opening. Memorizing is a common coping strategy for dyslexic children. Dyslexics are typically very smart — average to above-average intelligence — and they are very adept at discovering ways to get around their areas of weakness. My son would use his exceptional memory to help him feign reading. Even his teachers were convinced that he was actually decoding the books in front of him... but he wasn't.

Once we had our son evaluated, we realized that although he had a gifted IQ, he had weak phonological awareness and poor rapid naming skills. His many strengths helped him compensate fairly well, but his weaknesses prevented him from making adequate progress as time went on. Dyslexia is often missed by parents and teachers until middle school because kids can be so good at masking their weaknesses. That is, until their coping strategies fall apart as the content increases in complexity. That is why... time is of the essence! If a child is not identified until middle school or later, it becomes almost impossible for them to close the gap.

I wrote this piece was so you will have the information and the tools you will need to take the appropriate steps to get your child evaluated. Each and every year that goes by without a proper diagnosis can lead to academic stress, progress gaps and self-esteem issues. Had I not had a friend who was an advocate at the time my son was struggling in school, things may have turned out very differently. It was MY advocate who told me not to waste any more time and to have my son evaluated... and I'm so very glad she did. My son's future is forever changed because we took action early.

I am happy to report that because my son received the help he needed by third grade, he is doing amazingly well now. As a rising sixth grader, he is reading above-grade level and loves school. However, if we had taken action even earlier, we could have prevented our son from enduring unnecessary pain and struggle. Although we did what we could with what we knew at the time, acting even earlier could have spared my son feelings of stupidity and failure. As well, he may not have had to make up for lost time. That said, I am grateful that we took the steps we did early enough to make a difference and his future is ever changed because of it.

As a dyslexia advocate, I don’t want to watch one more family go down the road of wait and see. Far too often, my clients tell me that their child’s teacher told them to allow their child time to catch up. Research tells us that dyslexic kids will never “catch up” on their own without the right interventions and explicit instruction, so it is vital that you have your child tested as soon as you suspect that he or she is struggling.

Don't accept the explanation that your child just needs time to mature. You are your child's best advocate! If you feel like something is not right, speak up. Request that your child be referred for an evaluation by the school. This must be done in writing. Once they receive your request, they must provide you with a consent to evaluate within 5 days. 

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