From being able to read labels on medication, identify road signs and order food at restaurants to browsing the internet and emailing and messaging friends, literacy plays a significant role in our everyday lives. The most basic definition of literacy is the ability to read and write, but it is so much more than that. Having strong literacy skills means we are able to communicate effectively and make better sense of the world around us.

—Cynthia Rowe, Clinical Supervisor & Speech-Language Pathologist at KidsAbility

Literacy is quite possibly the most important factor contributing to academic and social success. Children who struggle with reading and writing often find themselves struggling in other subjects as well. Even children who excel in subjects like Maths may not reach their full potential if they aren't proficient in reading and writing.

In addition to having a negative impact on a child's overall academic progress, poor reading skills can also affect a child's social wellbeing. For example, having to repeatedly ask for help and struggling when reading aloud in class can be embarrassing for a child this can cause a decrease in self-esteem, and may cause children to withdraw or shut down, resulting in an even greater learning gap.

As a parent, you might be wondering, How do I know if my child is falling behind in regards to their reading and spelling skills?. Although children generally follow the same path and stages in their literacy development, each child is unique and may well learn and progress at a different rate to another child of the same age. The stages below can be used as a tool to help parents become more aware of typical development of reading and spelling, so we can better help or guide children when and if that is necessary.

Stage 1: The Pre-Reader or Emergent Reader (typically 6 months 6 years)

Closer to the beginning of this stage, children will...

  • 'Pretend' to read
  • Sing their ABCs (but may not be able to single out particular letters)
  • Recognise the first letter of their name
  • Recognise environmental print, such as their street name
  • Have some favourite books memorised and can 'read' them
  • Be curious about words and may ask, “What’s that word?”

Closer to the end of this stage, children will

  • Be able to 'read' some words that are important to them, such as their name
  • Prefer writing uppercase letters over lowercase letters
  • Begin to write from left to right
  • Know most letter names and most consonant sounds
  • Be able to 'play games' with word sounds, such as rhyming words and counting syllables
  • Begin to match letters to sounds in words
  • Confuse letters that sound and/or look the same such as b, d, p, and q
  • Use spacing in between words more regularly, but can still be random at times.

Stage 2: The Initial Reader and Decoder

(typically 6 years 7 years)

Closer to the beginning of this stage, children will

  • Move from pretend reading to real reading
  • Attempt unknown/unfamiliar words, even if they don't make sense
  • Sound very laborious when reading (word-by-word)
  • Begin to recognise sight words for example 'the', 'and' and 'up'
  • Be very focused on reading the words correctly hindering comprehension
  • Finger point to words when reading
  • Consistently be able to rhyme and 'play' with sounds in words
  • Be able to match the written letters in words to letter sounds more consistently
  • Spell mostly with the beginning and ending sounds, as they are easiest to hear and feel in the mouth (e.g. ball spelled BL and seat spelled ST)
  • May reverse some letters.

Closer to the end of this stage, children will

  • Attempt unknown words, but begin to realise that their guesses need to make sense
  • Start to add vowels in the middle of words, whereas before they were left out (e.g. fall may be FOL and boat may be BOT)
  • Use context clues to help with unknown words when sounding out doesn’t work
  • Develop more of an awareness that text should make sense; begins to self-correct more when an error is made
  • Begin to spell most short-vowel patterns (CVC) correctly
  • Start to spell consonant blends (fr, gl, sn, etc.) and digraphs (th, sh, ch) correctly
  • Reverse letters less often, but it may still happen on occasion.

Helpful Tip

If your child is struggling to read it is worth scheduling an eye test to ensure there are no issues with their sight. Contact Optical Outlook to schedule a test.

Stage 3: The Confirmation and Fluent Reader (typically 7 years 9 years)

Closer to the beginning of this stage, children will

  • Be able to hear and count individual sounds in words (phonemes)
  • Self-correct more when what is read doesn’t make sense
  • Read more fluently
  • Focus more on comprehension as decoding becomes easier
  • Be able to recognise more high frequency words by sight
  • Spell most one-syllable short vowel patterns correctly
  • Spell most common sight words correctly, such as 'the', 'like', 'play', etc.

Closer to the end of this stage, children will

  • Begin to read many two or even three syllable words if there’s enough context to support them
  • Discuss what’s read in more depth as texts become longer and more complex
  • Recognise sight words more frequently
  • Read sounds more fluently, as readers think beyond word-by-word to more phrase-by-phrase
  • Spell common long vowel patterns correctly (CVCe and CVVC)
  • Begin to spell less common long vowel patterns correctly, like 'igh' or 'ew'
  • Still confuse the spellings of other ambiguous vowels like 'oi' or 'au'
  • Begin to spell words with more complex consonant patterns correctly such as –tch, str– or thr– (still may confuse them).

Stage 4: The Comprehending Reader (typically 9 years 15 years)

At this stage, children will:

  • Read to learn new ideas
  • Read to gain new knowledge
  • Read for pleasure
  • Read to learn new attitudes
  • Explore ideas from multiple perspectives
  • Read to study textbooks, reference works, trade books, newspapers, and magazines that contain new ideas and values, new vocabulary and syntax.

Stage 5: The Expert Reader (typically 16 years and older)

At this stage, children will:

  • Read from a broad range of complex materials
  • Read from a variety of viewpoints
  • Read for one’s own needs and purposes (professional and personal)
  • Read to integrate one’s knowledge with that of others
  • Read rapidly and efficiently.

What if Your Child Isn't Learning to Read?

Children learn to read at different speeds, but at what point should you actually start to worry? According to Today's Parent, some kids just get it they seem to be reading naturals and are practically self-taught by kindergarten, or theyll learn it in school rapidly no matter what method a teacher uses. For other children, it takes more time to decode language by making the connection between letters and sounds, and different teaching styles may be needed before it finally 'clicks'.

Children reading

According to Molly Ness, Ph.D. and Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, in her March 2020 article for Psychology Today, "We now know that the precursors of dyslexia are visible as early as age three, demonstrated in weakness in phonological skills, letter knowledge, rapid naming, and working memory (Gaab, 2017)."

Even without a family history of literacy difficulties, it may be important for a child to undergo an early literacy assessment in order to determine whether intervention is warranted. There is no reason to wait for a child to fail and then see if they require intervention. Instead, we can identify at-risk children early, provide high quality intervention before failure occurs and, in most cases, make significant progress in their reading skills.

According to Dr Kirstina Ordetx's article for The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE) titled 'Early Signs of Dyslexia' (July 2020), and in line with current research, "Evidence-based reading intervention provided in the early years can better prepare the child to confront reading at the word, sentence, and passage level. Screening can be administered as early as preschool and should check for developmental skills in the essential areas of reading including phonological awareness, letter-sound association, blending, word recognition fluency, word identification, vocabulary, oral reading fluency, and comprehension."

It is also important to note that children presenting with language and literacy deficits will not outgrow these deficits on their own. For this reason, it is crucial that language and literacy difficulties are identified in children at an early age in order to ensure their optimal educational and social outcomes.

So, what can parents do about it? The first thing is to speak to your child's school. Advocate for your child if you believe that something is not quite right. Schedule a consultation with a Speech-Language Pathologist and/or Psychologist to discuss your concerns and pursue clinical testing.

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Services for children with special education needs

The Early Warning Signs of Reading Difficulty in Preschool

1. A family history of Dyslexia

The most common indicator that a child will struggle with reading is whether they have a family history of reading or learning difficulties. Twenty years worth of research shows that there is a heavy genetic component to reading difficulties.


2. History of delayed speech and/or difficulty pronouncing words

When kids learn to read, they need to hear differences in sound this is called phonological awareness and they need to grasp how language works. Children identified as having speech and language delays will almost certainly have lingering weaknesses in phonological processing. This is why it is crucial to initiate speech and language therapy as early as possible if your child needs it.

3. History of chronic ear infections

A history of ear infections may hamper a childs ability to learn word sound structures, affecting their development of reading skills. It is therefore important to attend regular hearing tests.

4. Difficulty learning the alphabet

As well as trouble recalling numbers, days of the week, colours, shapes and how to write his or her name.

5. Difficulty with rhyming

An early red flag is difficulty in learning to rhyme. Many times these children do not want to play rhyming games as preschoolers or kindergarteners.

6. Difficulty with sequencing and following directions

Knowing the directions from A to B is about memorising a sequence of actions. If a child has difficulties following simple steps, such as setting the table in the right order, or routinely gets the days of the week muddled up, these might be symptoms of a problem with sequences of information. You may also notice things like mistaking dinner and lunch, or being unable to tie shoe laces correctly.

7. Avoiding reading at all costs

In preschool and kindergarten, the majority of children love being read to and cant get enough of books, letters and numbers. Most want to grab a crayon and start trying to print their name. Its the opposite in kids who go on to struggle with reading, experts say. They often dont have a curiosity about being introduced to letters as theyre getting towards school age. So those kids who enjoy being read to get more out of it; those who dont get left behind.

Identifying Reading Difficulty in Elementary & Middle School

1. Frequent spelling mistakes

Children with reading difficulties often confuse letters that sound alike. Vowels and vowel combinations can be tricky. They may mix up the order of letters (blet for belt). They may also misspell common sight words, even after a lot of practise.

2. Letter or number reversals after first grade

Repeatedly mixing up similar letters (for example, b and d) can be a red flag if it goes on long enough. By eight years of age, all reversals should have been corrected.

3. Slow, choppy reading

Slow or choppy oral reading with words omitted, substituted, or misspoken are important clues that a child is not on track to becoming a skilled reader.

Child with a clock

4. Poor memory for sight words

Sight words are common words that kids recognise instantly without sounding them out. Recognising words by sight helps kids become faster, more fluent readers. Many sight words are tricky to read and spell as they arent spelled the way they sound.

5. Difficulty focusing or paying attention

Teachers report that they are struggling in class. It may be that there are underlying difficulties with reading and that an assessment is required. People may also mistakenly assume that their child is lazy or bored because of their avoidance of school work.

6. Right and left confusion

Problems with direction and issues with words often go together.

7. Difficulty learning to tie shoe laces

Shoe-tying, like reading, requires a certain level of spatial awareness. If your child is struggling with both tasks, that is a red flag.

8. Difficulty with clock reading

Learning to read an analogue clock is an important part of child development, but for some children this can be a difficult and frustrating process. Children who are struggling to learn to read often find that it is hard to learn how to tell the time when using a clock that has hands and numbers.

Literacy Programmes in the Cayman Islands

Below is a list of well-known Literacy Programmes. Some of these are used at schools for students who struggle with reading and some are being incorporated into intervention programmes at many of the treatment clinics in the Cayman Islands. Please also note that the local non-profit organisation, Literacy is for Everyone (LIFE) who, in partnership with Nicola Williams, President of the Cayman Islands Early Childhood Association, sponsors Deloitte, and a host of community partners, launched Thrive By Five, its foundational literacy programme in September 2021 at participating preschools. This is an amazing programme and the people involved in it are passionate about raising literacy levels in Caymanian children. Through donations the LIFE group has created print-rich libraries in many of Cayman's preschools.

If you have concerns about your childs reading, speak to their school about the programmes they have available. It may also be recommended that you schedule a consultation with a Speech-Language Pathologist and/or Psychologist to discuss your concerns and the programmes they have available.

More About Cynthia Rowe

Cynthia Rowe is a highly qualified Clinical Supervisor and Speech-Language Pathologist at KidsAbility. Cynthia has over 18 years of experience providing speech and language intervention and is passionate about providing client and family-centred services to create meaningful changes in the lives of her patients.