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by Brigid Hekster, Chartered Psychologist

For most parents one of the hallmarks of their child’s early success in the primary school years is a progression from reading books aimed at teaching reading to becoming a free reader.  Sometimes difficulties with literacy may emerge very early on in a child’s school career alerting parents and educational professionals to a developmental problem or learning difficulty. However, for other children there may be early success with reading and a gradual tailing off in progress with a more puzzling or insidious onset of reading difficulties. Understanding clearly the symptoms and origins of reading difficulties in children continues to be a challenge for researchers and education professionals. Although much is known about a range of potential warning signs that can prove indicative of later problems with reading (from spelling and speech difficulties to organisational and co-ordination problems), these are by no means comprehensive.

Every child facing these difficulties will display a different range of early symptoms, and the severity, timing and frequency of these can vary hugely between individuals.  This often means that recognising and diagnosing a child with a reading impairment can be difficult.  All children will face some challenges when learning and developing their reading skills, and confusion can often arise between those facing frustrating but routine challenges with reading, and those who are struggling with more enduring difficulties.

These on-going challenges in early detection and diagnosis have led some to focus more on what can be done to support children in the range of areas that often suffer as a result of facing reading difficulties (Nash, Stengelhofen, Brown & Toombs 2002). Aside from the educational impact that a reading impairment can have on developing literacy skills and accessing the school curriculum, increasing evidence suggests that the effects can be more extensive. In particular attention has been given to the impact that difficulties around reading can have on self-esteem and confidence.

Emotional Effects of Reading Difficulties

Nash et al (2002) have proposed a model that suggests that the experience of having a reading difficulty can make a child feel victimised, which can lead to feelings of exclusion or of being ostracised. In turn, this can lead to a child feeling stigmatised or discredited in comparison to those around them. This is known as the VOS (victimisation, ostracised, stigmatised) cycle. This cycle can impact on a child’s confidence, their subsequent behaviours and their social relationships leading to feelings of failure and underachievement. It can also increase levels of frustration and anger which can manifest themselves through disruptive and aggressive behaviours.

Being a parent or carer for a child who is struggling to progress with reading can be a worrying and anxiety provoking experience. Our natural instinct is often to become protective and to highlight the differences that we notice in our children with the aim of identifying the problem and accessing appropriate help. Of course, it is crucially important to seek appropriate professional advice if you notice that you child is struggling in any area of their educational or social development. Recent research has also shown that children facing learning difficulties can be very sensitive to parental anxiety and to feelings that they are somehow ‘different’ from other children. Parental anxiety and sometimes frustration also inevitably creeps into the way we might listen to, or try to support our children with their home reading practice. Reading can then become a progressively unrewarding and anxiety provoking experience for the child. It is therefore crucial that parents get support as well, not only to manage their own anxiety but because maintaining a calm and positive approach can have a positive impact on the child.

Every Child Can Learn

A wave of research in recent years, starting with Lipson and Wixson (1986) and developed by Chapman (2000), has pointed to the more wide reaching impact of reading difficulties to suggest ways in which we can support and help children facing these difficulties. The suggestion in this research is that there are no set or predetermined causes for reading difficulties that are irreversible or permanently entrenched. Instead, these problems arise out of a combination of biological, social and psychological factors that will vary from child to child. These factors can emerge and change over time, sometimes exacerbating the problem and sometimes working to reduce negative impact.

Giving the Right Kind of Support to Your Child

Chapman (2000) suggests that by working to change factors that make a child feel excluded and isolated (usually related to the child’s social environment and general wellbeing) significant improvements can be made in a child’s attainment in reading. This might include help and support for parents to reduce parental stress and improve confidence. Another example might be to focus on aspects on learning that those with reading difficulties often excel in, such as visual memory. Using images in conjunction with reading materials can help identification and engagement, as well as giving the child a sense of achievement and enjoyment. This in turn can improve confidence and reduce feelings of alienation from reading tasks both inside and outside of the classroom.

Nash et al (2002) showed that regardless of the length of time a reading difficulty has been persisting, providing structured support aimed at reducing feelings of being ostracised, victimised and stigmatised, can have a real impact in improving reading attainment. Through supporting a child to improve their feelings of self-worth and achievement, reading difficulties can be reduced as engagement improves and confidence to explore alternative ways of learning increases.


Brigid Hekster,

Bsc. (Hons); MSc. Clin Psych; CPsychol;  AFBPsS

Chartered Psychologist

HPC Registered Clinical Psychologist