About early literacy difficulties

Some children with early literacy difficulties will catch up to their peers. But some children who make slow early progress often need extra help. If they struggle in the preschool and early school years, they can experience delays in literacy development over the long term.

So it’s a good idea to seek professional advice if your child is 3-4 years old and you’re worried about:

  • the way your child speaks and listens
  • your child’s ability to recognise alphabet letters
  • the way your child puts sounds together to make words.

If you have a family history of literacy difficulties, it’s also good to seek advice.

If you need help or advice, you could start by talking to your child’s preschool or school teacher, your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician, or a speech pathologist. These professionals should also be able to direct you to other services and support.

Signs of early literacy difficulties: 3-4 years

Babies and children develop language at different rates. For example, many children who are late to start talking have caught up by the time they’re 3-4 years old. This means that we can’t say that very early issues with words and language are signs of early literacy difficulties.

But by the time children are 3-4 years old, some problems with words and language might be signs of literacy difficulties.

If your child is 3-4 years old, he might be having early literacy difficulties if he:

  • is late to start talking and has difficulty learning and remembering new words
  • leaves out the words he needs to make a complete sentence – for example, ‘I going zoo’ rather than ‘I’m going to the zoo’
  • doesn’t recognise any alphabet letters
  • has difficulty scribbling to make shapes that look like letters
  • doesn’t string similar-sounding words together – for example, ‘cat, bat, hat’
  • can’t repeat at least parts of nursery rhymes.

With reading, seek help or advice if your child:

  • can’t tell you what action is going on in a picture book – for example, running, barking, eating
  • can’t seem to tell the difference between the front and back of the book, or doesn’t know that she can hold it the right way up
  • can’t name simple objects represented in books
  • forgets which books she has read before, even when you show her their covers
  • doesn’t like listening to an adult read to her on a regular basis.

Literacy difficulties: 5 years and over

In spoken language, your child might be having literacy difficulties if he has trouble:

  • understanding simple instructions – for example, ‘Please put your coat on’
  • incorporating new words when he speaks
  • using noticeably longer sentences – for example, sentences of more than five words
  • recognising and coming up with words that start the same way like ‘car, cat, can’, and sounds that rhyme like ‘rat, mat, sat’
  • breaking simple words into their parts (syllables or single sounds) like ‘ba-na-na’, or putting sounds together to make words
  • using mature grammar – for example, he says ‘She broked the glasses’ instead of ‘She broke the glasses’
  • using comparison words like ‘heavier’, ‘stronger’ or ‘shorter’. For example, if you said, ‘A car is big, but a bus is ... ?’, your child should reply, ‘Bigger’
  • telling or retelling stories in the right order.

In reading, your child might be having literacy difficulties if she:

  • doesn’t show interest in books and reading
  • mixes up the sequence of events in stories
  • can’t relate what happens in books to things in her own life
  • gets distracted when books are read aloud and doesn’t get meaning and pleasure from this activity.

In understanding print concepts, your child might be having literacy difficulties if he:

  • doesn’t know that words in print are different from pictures, and are there to be read
  • doesn’t know that each letter in the alphabet has a name and a sound
  • can’t name at least eight letters
  • doesn’t scribble his name, messages and so on – it doesn’t matter whether you can read what he scribbles.

Helping children with literacy difficulties

If your child is having literacy difficulties, it’s important to keep giving her lots of opportunities to experience language and print in all its forms. This will help prepare your child for reading and writing tasks at school.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Give your child lots of encouragement for reading, writing and drawing, even if he keeps making mistakes. For example, encourage your child to read by giving him lots of books, magazines, brochures and other print materials. He’s more likely to read something if it interests him.
  • Once your child starts reading, make times to read with her. Sometimes she can read to you, and sometimes you can read to her. If she’s struggling, this will help her avoid too much frustration.
  • Use everyday opportunities for reading and writing. For example, read street and shop signs, menus, prices and labels at the supermarket. You could also write an email, letter or a text message to a friend. This shows your child how useful reading and writing are.
  • Make writing fun. For example, when your child starts writing, you can encourage him to make birthday cards or write shopping lists. You could write notes to your child and leave them in a special spot, like his lunch box. Why not ask him to write back to you too?
  • Visit your local library – it’s free to join and borrow.
  • If your child is at school, make sure your child is ready to learn by being organised in the morning. It will help her to have routines and quiet times to do her reading.

Once your child starts school, you can also check in with the teacher about your child’s progress. You might need to work with the teacher on a support plan for your child. The earlier you and the teacher step in to help your child, the better his progress will be in the long term.

For more ideas, check out our articles on reading with your child and literacy activities that you can do together.