Decoding,  Learning Disabilities,  Phonics,  Three Cueing System

10 Signs of a Decoding Problem

Written English is a code in which letters and groups of letters are used to stand for sounds, and to be able to read, children must learn to break it—literally, to de-code it. Although skilled reading involves many factors, decoding ability is the foundation on which it rests; after all, it is impossible to pay attention to meaning unless one knows what the words say!

The following list is intended to indicate some key warnings signs that may indicate a decoding problem. It is not, however, intended to be used a source for any particular diagnosis. Keep in mind that children learn to read at varying rates, and that some difficulties early on are normal and by no means indicative of a serious problem.

That said, if your child or a child you know displays many of these behaviors while reading, especially beyond second grade, we urge you to seek out quality, phonics-based intervention. Reading problems that are relatively straightforward to correct when a child is in elementary school can seriously hinder them from fulfilling their academic potential later on. The longer they remain unaddressed, the more challenging they become to remedy.

To check for the following, click here for a selection of grade-appropriate passages, and have your child read the relevant one aloud. (Note that the passage for grades 7-8 is challenging and can be used for older students as well.)

1) Skipping Words

Whether this is a serious cause for concern is really a matter of degree. If a child skips an occasional word because they are distracted or reading too quickly, that is unlikely to be a sign of a problem. On the other hand, frequent skipping should be checked further.

2) Misreading Words

Again, this is a case of degree. Children who occasionally misread “little” words, e.g., saying a instead of the, but who are otherwise accurate are probably not in any danger. Likewise, if a child can automatically self-correct, or can easily self-correct when prompted, the issue may well be speed or focus rather than actual decoding.

Note that it is not uncommon for children to confuse letters, particularly similar looking ones like b, d, and p through second grade; contrary to popular belief, a child who reads big instead of dig is not necessarily dyslexic.

That said, frequently confusing similar words—particularly ones with similar beginnings and endings—is typically a sign that children have not learned to use all the letters/sounds in a word to determine its identity. Focusing on letters at the “extremes” of words has been identified as a common stage in the reading development of young children and is probably not a major cause for concern in a beginning reader.

In older students, however, this type of reading may be a result of three-cueing/MSV methods, which teach children to focus primarily on first/last letters and use context clues (often pictures) to figure out the rest. Even when children are well past the age of picture books, the habit of focusing only on beginning/ending letters may remain.

In addition, pay particular attention to the way a child approaches names: if they identify words primarily through memorization and guessing, then they are likely to have difficulty reading names, which generally cannot be memorized or figured out from context. A child who struggles with this skill may even have trouble figuring out when an unfamiliar word is a name.

3) Guessing at Unfamiliar Words

Guessing at unknown words is one of the biggest signs of a decoding problem because it indicates that children are not even attempting to sound out words—either because doing so requires an uncomfortable amount of effort or because they have not learned letter-sound-syllable relationships well enough to identify words this way. It is also a habit that, once established, can be extraordinarily difficult to break.

Note that it does not matter whether children guess correctly; some children are outstanding guessers! While guessing (often accompanied by memorizing) may work in the early grades, this strategy quickly becomes ineffective as books get more challenging. Many children who get by this way begin to experience trouble around fourth grade, when the switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” begins to occur, and find themselves unable to cope with a flood of new vocabulary.

4) Inability to Sound Out Words When Asked

Children who avoid sounding out words, even when specifically prompted, often do so because they are unable to decode phonetically rather than because they are unwilling to make the effort. In such cases, just telling them to “try harder” is likely to result in frustration.

Even if children can identify the individual sounds made by letters, they may not be able to combine them into a word without support. Most children require explicit instruction in how to blend sounds, along with lots of supervised practice. If these are not provided at school, children will not necessarily figure this skill out on their own.

5) Difficulty Following Text with a Finger

If your child uses a finger to follow along with the text, do they move it smoothly so that it is consistently under the word being read, or do they move it inconsistently so that it lags a few words behind and then suddenly jerks ahead or trails off entirely?

Jerky and/or inconsistent movements are often a sign that a child is expending so much effort trying to process each new word that they cannot coordinate an additional action. In addition, these types of movements indicate difficulty reading at a consistent speed, with some words being absorbed much more quickly than others.

6) Skipping Lines

Skipping entire lines of text without noticing is often a sign that children are so focused on trying to identify each individual word that they cannot focus on other basic other aspects of the text, or pay enough attention to meaning to notice when what they are reading does not make sense.

In other cases, however, skipping lines may be more of a speed/attention issue. Having a child slow down and periodically summarize what they are reading may be sufficient to keep them focused on reading all the lines in sequence.

7) Reading Very Slowly

In the early grades, children should be reading at around 100-150 words per minute (adults typically read around double that rate, effectively processing words at the speed of sight). When reading is significantly slower than that, comprehension is affected because words read at the beginning of a sentence have already been forgotten by the end.

In terms of becoming a skilled reader, the ability to sound out words is only half the story. A child who must laboriously re-sound the same word each time they encounter it may be able to connect letters and sounds in the most literal way but cannot move to the next level of reading for meaning. In order for that to occur, letter-sound sequences must be learned to the point of being automatic. Some children who struggle to move past sounding-out may simply not have been given enough practice blending—stringing letters together smoothly to make words.

Otherwise, speed issues can be attributable to an extremely wide range of factors, including difficulty hearing the individual sounds in words; insufficient practice in blending syllables; vocabulary deficits; memory and attention issues; and a curriculum that does not address speed and fluency, or that encourages memorizing and guessing.

8) Robotic Reading

Children frequently read in a monotone when they must devote so much attention to decoding the text that they have no mental space left over to think about meaning.

Note, however, that some children may feel silly or overly exposed when reading with emotion, and so this is not necessarily a sign of trouble. If a child is otherwise reading at a normal speed, saying words correctly, and can demonstrate comprehension, then there is probably no cause for concern.

9) Ignoring Punctuation

This often goes hand-in-hand with #8 but is not exactly the same thing. Paying attention to punctuation is an important aspect of comprehension because it helps readers understand how a text would be spoken: where the pauses would occur, where thoughts begin and end, etc.

Some children who are solid decoders may not intuitively understand the connection between words written on a page and spoken language and pay little attention to punctuation as a result. In such cases, children typically benefit from listening to adults model expressive reading. Having a child take turns reading with an adult (alternating sentences or paragraphs), using a familiar text, can be very helpful; the child will usually begin to absorb the adult’s intonation naturally.

That said, children are just as likely to ignore punctuation because they have difficulty figuring out what the words literally say and do not have the mental room to process other features of the text.

10) Eyes Racing Around the Page

When children have serious difficulty decoding, their eyes may race around the page, ignoring the normal left-right sequence of the text, or dart erratically from section to section looking for clues to the words. While less common that the other signs discussed here, this issue may develop naturally in some struggling readers, but it also seems to be a particular side-effect of cueing-based instruction. When children are trained to repeatedly look away from words and at pictures and/or other textual cues, the habit can become automatic and continue to be so long after children have begun to read more challenging, picture-less books.

Particularly when combined with the use of screen-based texts, this type of reading can result in serious misreadings and difficulties understanding things like sequences of events and causes/effects.

Unlearning this behavior is very challenging and typically requires more time and effort than other types of reading issues not associated with a learning disability.


  • Lori Josephson

    You are ‘right on’ in your analysis!! Thanks for sharing and not to mention one more thing: the ability to talk about what one has read after one has read a passage, chapter, article, or book!!

  • Dianne Murphy

    This is an excellent post!. The points covered will be useful for so many people in alerting them to the warning signs of a possible reading problem and the need for further investigation. Thank you so much for writing it.