A mother in Hong Kong is worried because her nine-year-old daughter is not reading confidently. The girl seems to struggle to sound out new words and often does not understand stories as she focuses too much on reading the words. What can the mother do to help?


It’s not surprising that your daughter is not enjoying reading as she is finding the mechanics hard work and therefore can’t focus on enjoying the story. It is never a good feeling to lack confidence or feel you are falling behind.

Remember, though, other children in her class may show an impressive level of decoding when reading aloud, but some simply “bark” at the text and have very little understanding. Comprehension is the key to being a competent and enthusiastic reader.

A recent British study of 60,000 children showed that one in 10 girls had severe reading difficulties by age 10. Meanwhile, 19% scored poorly in comprehension tests. It was noted that the focus schools often place on helping boys to improve their reading skills may mean that girls sometimes get overlooked. Girls are also better at hiding their problems than boys, who more often display behaviours that come to the teacher’s attention.

Once children are older, there is less emphasis on teachers hearing students reading aloud. However, some children may still need to develop skills and fluency. Discuss your concerns with the teacher and explore the possibility of your daughter receiving extra help. The teacher will be able to tell you how reading is assessed in the school and will also be able to advise you about how to effectively support her at home. Online reading activities and interactive games, for example, may help to motivate her.

Read with her as often as possible because frequent practice is crucial. This can be difficult if your daughter is resistant, so keep the sessions short and enjoyable. Pick a time during the day when she is not too tired. Repeated reading of the same text can be a good way of developing confidence and fluency. Sometimes, when she comes across a difficult word, tell her the word to avoid interrupting the flow of the story. You can also encourage her to think about the context in order to help her read it.

Another good strategy is to take turns reading a page each to take the pressure off her and provide a good role model for fluency and expression.

Search for suitable books

There is an amazing wealth of books available for children today. Find books that have short chapters and suitable content. There are some wonderful picture and poetry books for older children. Factual books can be interesting and colourful, too. Importantly, read more challenging novels to your daughter so she can enjoy books without the effort of decoding. Discuss the stories together and ask probing questions to extend her higher order skills. This will hopefully help her to change her mindset about books.

Some educational experts believe there has been an overreliance on teaching phonics in recent years. This means that students can often sound out words but don’t necessarily understand them. Others, however, believe that a focus on phonics is vital in developing reading fluency and skills. The Synthetics phonics programme is one example of this.

Advocators of this programme emphasise that children need to be explicitly taught the skills of decoding: Learning the letters of the alphabet, the sounds they represent and how to fit combinations of sounds together. For those children who are not “natural” readers this can be a complex task, as the English language has so many exceptions to the rules.

While a focus on phonics does work for some students, your daughter may need a mix of strategies, which also includes the use of sight words. – South China Morning Post/Julie McGuire

* Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher. This story has been edited for length and clarity. To read the full article, head to www.scmp.com/lifestyle.