About literacy difficulties
Childhood literacy difficulties include problems with:
- knowing alphabet letters and sounds
- sounding out letters and words.
Some children with literacy difficulties catch up to their peers. But some children who make slow early progress need extra help. If they struggle in the preschool and early school years, they can experience delays in literacy development over the long term.
Literacy is being able to read, write, listen, speak and create texts in ways that allow us to communicate well with others. Literacy development is vital to overall development for children.
Signs of literacy difficulties at 4 years
Speech, language and literacy development happens in the same order in most children, but skills might develop at different ages or times. For example, many children who are late to start talking might catch up by the time they’re 4 years old.
This means that we can’t say that very early issues with words and language are signs of literacy difficulties.
But your 4-year-old child might be having literacy difficulties if they:
- struggle to make letter sounds
- don’t recognise alphabet letters
- have difficulty scribbling to make shapes that look like letters
- don’t make rhymes or play with rhyming words – for example, ‘cat, bat, hat’
- can’t repeat at least parts of nursery rhymes.
With books and early reading experiences, seek help or advice if your 4-year-old child:
- can’t tell you what action is going on in a picture book – for example, running, barking, eating
- can’t tell the difference between the front and back of the book or can’t tell which is the right way up
- can’t name simple objects in books – for example, chairs, apples or balls
- forgets which books they’ve read before, even when you show your child the book covers
- doesn’t like listening to adults read to them regularly.
Signs of literacy difficulties: 5 years and over
In spoken language, your child might be having literacy difficulties if they have trouble:
- understanding complex instructions – for example, ‘Please put the soccer ball away, wash your hands, and sit down for dinner’
- 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
- telling or retelling stories in the right order.
In reading, your child might be having literacy difficulties if they:
- don’t show interest in books and reading
- mix up the sequence of events in stories
- can’t relate what happens in books to things in their own life
- can’t remember words even if the words are repeated throughout the book
- get distracted when books are read aloud.
In understanding print concepts, your child might be having literacy difficulties if they:
- don’t know that words in print are different from pictures and are there to be read
- can’t say alphabet letters and the sounds they make
- can’t break words into sounds
- can’t put sounds together to make words
- don’t scribble their name, messages and so on.
What to do if you’re concerned about literacy difficulties
If your child shows signs of literacy difficulties or you have a family history of literacy difficulties, it’s good to seek professional 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.
Everyday ways to help children with literacy difficulties
If your child is having literacy difficulties, it’s important to keep giving your child opportunities to experience and interact with language and print in all its forms. This will help your child prepare and practice for the reading and writing tasks that they’ll do at school.
Reading and writing activities
- Encourage your child to read by giving them books, magazines, brochures and other print materials. Children are more likely to read something if it interests them.
- Use everyday opportunities for reading and writing. For example, read street and shop signs, menus, prices and labels at the supermarket. Or write shopping lists together. This shows your child how useful reading and writing are.
- Read regularly with your child, even after they start learning to read. You can take turns reading to each other. If your child is struggling, this will help your child avoid too much frustration.
- Visit your local library – it’s free to join and borrow books.
- Make drawing, scribbling and writing fun. For example, encourage your child to make birthday cards. Or write notes to your child and leave them in a special spot, like your child’s lunch box. Why not ask your child to write back to you too?
- Play alphabet games with your child. For example, you could play an alphabet scavenger hunt, where your child searches for items in your house that start with different alphabet letters. Or you could do an alphabet search on a road trip.
- Help your child link written letters with the sounds they make. For example, show your child the letter ‘A’ and say ‘This letter is A. It makes the “a” sound for “apple”’’.
Encouragement and support
- Praise your child for their reading, writing and drawing efforts, even if your child keeps making mistakes.
- Once your child starts school, check in with the teacher on 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 your child’s progress will be in the long term.