Difficulties with reading can stem from different underlying causes. Phonological skills, which involve hearing and manipulating sounds in spoken language (e.g. phonemes, syllables) are necessary for developing strong word reading skills. Phonological skills help children understand how letters and letter patterns work to represent language in print. Problems in developing phonological awareness can contribute to difficulties with fluent word reading, and, in turn, often cause problems with comprehension.
Difficulty with phonological skills might become evident in classroom observations or assessments, even before the start of formal schooling. Children might display difficulty with:
Universal screening starting in Kindergarten should assess phonological skills, in order to identify children who are experiencing problems with phonological awareness and require instructional support to prevent future difficulties. For more information about universal screening and a list of Massachusetts-approved screening assessments, see Early Literacy Screening Assessments.
Possible root cause(s) of phonological difficulty include:
Phonological difficulties can be linked specifically to dyslexia. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (International Dyslexia Association).
For more information about early identification and continued access to evidence-based instruction as it relates to dyslexia, see the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines .
Many children who experience problems with phonological skills did not receive adequate instruction and opportunities to practice. These problems with phonological skills can be prevented with strong core instruction. Students with dyslexia, however, have a neurological difference which makes it harder for them to develop phonological awareness. Some of these students need much more deliberate instruction in phonological awareness and related phonics knowledge and additional support delivered through Tier 2 and/or 3.
"When I meet [struggling readers], there is not a lot of joy and many of them have already internalized failure by third grade. But when they're given this evidence-based instruction, there's just this look of pride and joy and happiness and a rebuilding of confidence in their lives. And it's not just in reading, it's a confidence that you can see that spreads out throughout their whole academic experience."
Reading Specialist and Doctoral Research Fellow
Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab at MGH Institute
Intervention is necessary when children do not make adequate progress with phonological skills even after receiving strong core instruction with opportunities to practice. Children with phonological difficulties benefit from intensive practice with phonological awareness; practice associating phonemes (sounds) to spelling patterns; and practice decoding words (Snowling, 2013).
Signs of dyslexia can be observed as early as the preschool years. Interventions can be effective in supporting students to read, and earlier intervention is more effective than waiting until 2nd or 3rd grade. Evidence showing that children with dyslexic difficulties can be helped by specific interventions underlines the need for timely action (Snowling, 2013).
"What usually happens is that children have to fail to learn to read over a significant period of time before someone pays attention and says, 'this child seems to have a reading difficulty.'… This 'wait to fail' approach really is detrimental to the child's academic outcome, but also for the child's mental health."
Associate Professor of Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education
For older students who are experiencing difficulties reading, having to work on "babyish" phonological awareness tasks can be especially discouraging. In particular, Black and Latino students may perceive remedial intervention as a confirmation of race-based stereotypes that they are less capable than their peers, a phenomenon known as stereotype threat (Steele, 2010). However, evidence-based interventions targeted at students’ demonstrated needs are crucial for their success. Teachers can reduce stereotype threat and support students who need to practice foundational skills by positioning themselves as the student's ally or learning partner (Hammond, 2013). Hammond suggests that teachers can form a trusting allyship with a student in this situation with strategies such as:
Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S. R., Willows, D., M., Schuster, B. V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., & Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel's meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 250–287.
Hammond, Z. (2013). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties (Essentials of psychological assessment). Boston: John Wiley and Sons
Moats. L.C.& Tolman, C. A. (2019). LETRS (3rd edition). Voyager Sopris Learning.
Steele, C. M. (2010). Issues of our time. Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. W W Norton & Co.
Disclosure Statement: Reference in this website to any specific commercial products, processes, or services, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public, and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Our office is not responsible for and does not in any way guarantee the accuracy of information in other sites accessible through links herein. DESE may supplement this list with other services and products that meet the specified criteria. For more information contact: RMB252@mass.gov.
Last Updated: June 22, 2021
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
135 Santilli Highway, Everett, MA 02149
Voice: (781) 338-3000
TTY: (800) 439-2370
Disclaimer: A reference in this website to any specific commercial products, processes, or services, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.