Literacy Difficulties

How speech pathology treats literacy difficulties

How did we learn to read? We may have memories of reading at home or spelling tests in class, but how were we taught? If we are now the adult helping a child with their literacy development, how do we teach them to read and write?
What happens when you’ve practiced the same word one hundred times, but your child still looks at the word and tries to sound it out (again) as if they’ve never seen it before? And ‘who’ is still sounded out as “wer-her-o”.
Alternatively, if your child is older now, in upper primary or in high school. Their poor reading abilities are consequently impacting other subjects. Which may rely on them reading at a fast pace to digest and analyse the information. Additionally, their language skills are not as practiced. Because they have generally avoided reading where possible. So now organising ideas and producing different types of texts for assignments is hard. Naplan year is additionally stressful.
According to the NSW Education Standard Authority (NESA):
A child completing Kindergarten should demonstrate developing skills to read and comprehend short, predictable texts on familiar topics[1]. This includes understanding when to use future tense or past tense or using ‘s’ at the end of words for plurals. As well as learning letter-sound relationships in words and phonological awareness. Finally, it considers and the ability to understand and respond to the texts they are reading.
Speech pathology assessments can help pinpoint the source(s) of a literacy difficulty. We can develop a plan to target the specific areas to make all the processes for literacy come together.
At Talkshop Speech Pathology we have a Reading Clinic. This is a dedicated stream for children and adolescents with literacy difficulties. You can find out more about how we help adolescent literacy difficulties in particular.

What is a literacy difficulty?

It is important to realise a literacy difficulty may present differently for each child. Typically literacy difficulty may appear as an unusual level of difficulty remembering letter-sound relationships. Or by struggling to remember sight words. But, it may also appear as difficulty using word attack strategies. For example, chunking, segmenting (breaking down words into component sounds) and blending sounds together to read words. Difficulties often appear with children making very slow or no improvements regardless of practice at home and at school.
Literacy difficulties often result in ongoing reading and writing difficulties. Children struggling in these areas may also have difficulty with reading comprehension. As well as with writing sentences and stories. Furthermore, as they progress through their education they may have difficulty producing the expected amount of written content. Additionally, struggling to write in the different text types according to their year level curriculum.
“Literacy difficulties often appear with children making very slow or no improvements despite practice at home and at school”

What does a literacy difficulty look like?

There are typical behaviours at different stages in school.

Kindergarten and Year 1 literacy difficulties:
  • Difficulties learning sounds of letters
  • Difficulties identifying letters
  • Letter combinations are difficult recall: ‘ng’ ‘ch’ ‘oa’ ‘ai’
  • Slow to learn sight words  – especially those which you can’t sound out
  • Forgetting words which have just been prompted on a page
  • Difficulties blending sounds in words
  • Slow to progress through reading levels
Mid primary literacy difficulties:
  • Struggles with blending
  • Slow/ laboured /effortful reading
  • Reading with lots of hesitations/stops
  • Forgets words that have just been practiced
  • Does not understand what has been read as has been focused on decoding
  • Struggles with maths, as some questions are written
  • Spelling difficulties
  • Writing shorter amounts than others when writing short stories
  • May struggle with grammar due to focusing on language and:
  • Struggles with computer based tasks – where they need to read to navigate
  • In low reading group
  • May need additional school support
  • Dislikes reading/ has low esteem around reading 
Upper primary and high school literacy difficulties:
  • Reading is slow/effortful
  • Difficulties understanding and interpreting tasks
  • Unable to grasp nuance in texts or questions to analyse information
  • Difficulties adapting writing style for different written activities.
  • Unable to formulate and organise ideas for written assignments
  • Taking additional time for assignments/ or not handed in
“It is never too early to seek support”

How literacy difficulties impact different skill areas

Literacy requires the development of skills across a number of areas. Generally, children who have literacy difficulties may struggle across one or many of the following areas:
Difficulty with Phonological awareness:
Firstly, this will appear as difficulty identifying sounds in words. Followed by difficulty breaking words into smaller sounds. As well as difficulty blending sounds together to form a word. The ability to decode new or unfamiliar words relies on the ability to identify individual sounds in a word and blend them together as a real word. Markedly, these children typically have difficulty reading and manipulating the sounds within them. Particularly in longer words or words with clusters of letters together[2], such as ‘scream’. This is as a result of the still-developing awareness of the small sounds within words.
Difficulties with phonics:
In the first case, this will appear as difficulty learning letter-sound relationships. Or developing the knowledge of how letters of the alphabet relates to the sounds of language. This impacts both a child’s ability to decode words, and to manipulate letters for reading speed, fluency and accuracy. Importantly, an often-used strategy asking a child to ‘guess’ the word from context does not help a child to learn to read or address underlying literacy skills deficits. To this end, these children often have weak word attack strategies. They will also typically have very low reading fluency and accuracy.
Difficulties with sight words:
Sight words, rocket words, camera words, magic 100 words. These are all names for words that do not fit the typical rule-based patterns of spelling in English. Indeed these words can’t be sounded out. But must be practiced and memorised. Children with working memory or auditory processing difficulties can often have difficulties learning sight words. Likewise, difficulty recalling sight words will result in slow and inefficient reading skills.
Difficulties with vocabulary:
Reading ability also relies on a child’s strength and knowledge of vocabulary. Difficulty learning and remembering new vocabulary is an important foundation for reading. Further, the ability to quickly remember information is directly related to reading and spelling skills.
Children with reduced vocabulary may appear as talkative children who give too much information. Yet somehow their overall meaning is difficult to understand. Or as children whose spoken language seems a bit disorganised. Often using lots of non-specific words like “thingy” and “stuff”.
Finally, when reading these children will have difficulty reading and remembering words. Even with repeated practice and exposure.

When to seek help?

Learning to read and write is a huge task for children. Each child learns and develops at their own rate. For this reason, your child’s teacher will give you guidance on their literacy achievements and progress.
If your child is demonstrating awareness of their difficulties compared to other children. Or if there is a history of reading or writing difficulties in your family it is never too early to seek support.
Research shows greater improvements in children’s literacy skills with therapy in preschool or kindergarten years. In contrast to therapy in early primary years[3]. Certainly, it really means the sooner the better!
In addition, children with speech or language difficulties are slower to develop their literacy skills. For example, both phonological and phonemic awareness skills[4]. Studies have shown that almost half of the children with a pre-existing language disorder developed a reading disorder by Year 2[5]. This means the identification and support of literacy skills is vital. If your child has speech or language difficulties they may benefit from a literacy assessment in the year before school.

How Talkshop Speech Pathology can help

Due to the numbers of young children and adolescents with literacy concerns affecting academic success, we have a dedicated Reading Clinic which forms part of our speech pathology service.

Comprehensive Literacy Assessment

We complete literacy assessments using a mix of standardised and informal assessment tools. Firstly, we assess phonological processing, vocabulary. Followed by and reading and spelling skills. Finally, we complete further tasks based on the Dual Routes of Reading and Spelling model[6]. The level to which we assess skills will depend on your child’s age and skill level.
Reading assessment
During a reading assessment, we measure word, sentence, paragraph and story reading. Overall, this is to review reading accuracy, fluency and speed. In addition, we also address reading comprehension skills.
Writing and Spelling Assessment
On the other hand, during writing assessments. We target spelling, grammar, writing structure, organisation of ideas. Importantly we also consider a child’s ability to write in a way that is relevant to the task. In addition to these areas we also assess ‘oral language’, because if they can’t say it, they can’t write it! Similarly we also review punctuation and abilities to proofread and correct errors. Overall, assessment tasks provide clear information about your child’s overall processing skills.
A thorough assessment allows us to identify your child’s specific areas of strength. While also allowing us to pinpoint the area(s) of breakdown in their literacy skills. From this, we develop an individualised therapy management plan with goals short- and medium-term goals. We will happily collaborate with your child’s teacher. While providing strategies that can for use in the classroom to support success within school. Over time we complete reviews to track your child’s progress and improvements.
“A thorough assessment allows us to identify your child’s specific areas of strength and to pinpoint the area(s) of breakdown in their literacy skills”

Literacy Therapy

Literacy therapy will include targeting multiple skill areas simultaneously. This is as a result of our thorough assessment and therapy plans that identify key areas of breakdown. Talkshop uses a research-based, hybrid language approach [7][8]. As a result, we target vocabulary, phonological awareness skills during storytelling and reading. Additionally, we use drill-based games to impact language and literacy change
The following skills are most commonly targeted in therapy:
Phonological awareness
Phonological awareness skills are the foundation for successfully learning to read and write. By targeting these skills we focus on children learning to identify the smaller sounds in words. For example, the first sound in ‘cat’ is ‘k’.  Children also develop their ability to blend and segment the sounds within words.
Synthetic Phonics
By using SPALDING children receive systematic instruction of letter-sound correspondences and decoding strategies. We use practice in real and made-up words during reading and writing activities. Research supports synthetic phonics for children with literacy difficulties. As it is the most effective method for improving literacy skills [9].
Reading Fluency and Accuracy
The most obvious indicator of a child’s reading skill is their reading fluency and accuracy[10]. Our comprehensive assessment allows us to identify the root cause of a child’s reading difficulties. By targeting phonological awareness together with phonics. We aim to improve the ability to quickly decode real and made-up words. While simultaneously targeting improving knowledge of sight words. We support children’s development and improvement of their overall reading skills.
Reading Comprehension
To develop efficient comprehension children require accurate decoding skills. This is to reduce the cognitive effort of trying to work out what each sound is and how to blend sounds together. Once reading is more fluent, comprehension will start to follow.
However, there is more to comprehension than just decoding[11]. Deficits in spoken language may be an underlying cause in reading comprehension problems. Children with reduced language skills can have a range of difficulties. For example, difficulty can range from understanding the meaning of words to figurative language[12]. Additionally, children with weak vocabularies will have poorer word retrieval.
Overall, targeting improved reading comprehension often requires developing individual oral language skills. This may include support vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure skills[13].
In addition to supporting oral language development. We also teach reading comprehension strategies, many of which are used in NSW schools. Such as, The Super Six Strategies. These strategies support children’s ability to analyse, connect and evaluate ideas in reading.
We teach parents strategies to teach and practice sight words and spelling. These strategies work for spelling words at all levels. This means that a child can learn and soar. We see young learners experience great confidence. Particularly, as they learn to apply their new skills to learn to spell words. Memory strategies and vocabulary skills are also targeted to increase a child’s knowledge of written words.
We know explicit teaching of writing strategies improves children’s writing strategies[14]. Typically children with difficulty in this area will require support to develop the quality and quantity of their written work. They may have difficulty thinking of ideas. Or have difficulty translating their ideas into writing.  Developing language and vocabulary around text types (e.g. exposition, discussion, narrative, procedures, information reports and poetry) supports children’s ability to plan and review their writing. Using PEEL and PETAL[15] strategies we support the structure and content of a child’s quality and quantity of writing.
Children who are finding reading and writing difficult are likely to find NAPLAN testing challenging. Our dedicated reading clinic provides targeted support for NAPLAN preparation. It also allows children to prepare strategies and the skills required during their test.
“We use an research based hybrid language intervention approach”

Our FREE Discovery Session is ideal for anyone with any questions relating to speech, stuttering, language, literacy, social skills, swallowing, and voice.

This is an opportunity for us to give some information on how to monitor your concern and give you advice on how to start self-managing any issues immediately.

Discovery Sessions can help you understand if an assessment or therapy is needed, how Speech Therapy would work, and if appropriate, help you book in.


1 “NESA 2012.” 15 Oct. 2003, Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

2 “Phonological awareness and spelling in normal children and ….” Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

3 “Phonological awareness intervention: beyond the basics. – NCBI.” Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

4 “Effectiveness of Early Phonological Awareness Interventions for ….” Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

5 “A longitudinal investigation of reading outcomes in children with ….” Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

6 “DRC: a dual route cascaded model of visual word recognition … – NCBI.” Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

7 “Building vocabulary knowledge and phonological awareness skills in ….” Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

8 “Building vocabulary knowledge and phonological awareness skills in ….” Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

9 “Effectiveness of treatment approaches for children and adolescents ….” Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

10 “Frontiers | Educational attainment in poor comprehenders | Psychology.” Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

11 “Hidden language impairments in children: parallels between poor ….” Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

12 “Beyond phonological skills: broader language … – Wiley Online Library.” 10 Nov. 2004, Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

13 “Beyond phonological skills: broader language … – Wiley Online Library.” 10 Nov. 2004, Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

14 “Improving the writing performance, knowledge, and self-efficacy of ….” Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

15 “Improving the writing performance, knowledge, and self-efficacy of ….” Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.