What is a poor reader?

In simple terms a poor reader is anyone not reading as well as other children of the same age.

Interestingly many children can be ‘poor readers’ at an early age but develop into excellent readers later on. In fact the vast majority of readers will be reading just fine by the age of 14 regardless of their reading performance up to that age. The trouble is that if a student’s reading is poor for any length of time between the ages of 8 and 14 their education and self confidence can be affected, even if their reading fully recovers later on. In some cases the effects can be very negative indeed.

It is important, therefore, to get a poor reader back on track as fast as possible so that other aspects of their education are not affected. When a child gets to 11 this need becomes critical.

Aspects of Reading

Poor readers are detected in schools by regular testing. As well as a single overall score some tests give separate scores for different aspects of reading. Some of the aspects of reading which are tested are :-




‘Decoding’ means the ability to recognize what sounds different letter combinations make (e,g. ‘th’ and ‘ee’)

‘Fluency’ means how even a child's reading is and to some extent how fast their reading is.

‘Comprehension’ means understanding the ideas being expressed in the text..

It is generally thought that a lack of appropriate skill in any of these abilities gives rise in an overall reading deficit. If a child scores below the expected overall level for their age an attempt will usually be made to identify which out of decoding, fluency and comprehension is the problem. Further testing may have to be done to understand this.

Common Characteristics of Poor Readers

Lots of research has been done on poor readers and several common features of their reading and behaviour have been identified.

Loss of confidence

Poor readers have invariably lost confidence in their reading ability. The loss of confidence leads to a lack of engagement with reading leading to further problems and further loss of confidence.

Automatic word recognition

A good reader will recognize some words just by looking at them. They will not have to break them down into letter sounds first. A poor reader will have to consciously break down words into letters and then ‘sound them out’.

Read a word at a time

Poor readers tend to read words one at a time whereas a good reader will tend to asses words in phrases so that each word is being assessed in the context of the phrase it sits in. This gives the good reader extra information to work out what each word means individually.

See success and failure as something beyond their control

Poor readers will not understand why they are failing. They will tend to think it is luck or teacher bias or some kind of personal characteristic. As a result they will not believe that they can do anything to improve their reading.


When a child gets into difficulties with their reading it is important to change something about the way they are being taught. It can be all too easy to believe that all that is required is more of the same thing they are already doing but this is usually a mistake.

The usual response to a reading deficit is the use of an ‘intervention’ which is an extra short term programme to bring readers back on track. The Literacy Toolbox is an example of such an intervention. An intervention will typically use a different strategy to the principal instructional programme which the student is doing. The Literacy Toolbox, for instance, works on building up a student’s confidence in the belief that this will open the door to improvements in performance.