My daughter is 5 years old (will be 6 at the end of February) and lately has wanted to learn to read. However, I've become a bit concerned because it seems as though she has absolutely no memory for letters or words. We can point to one letter, tell her what it is and what it sounds like, and have her repeat it. After doing a second letter and going back to the first, she doesn't know it.

Last night a book we were trying to read had the word "inside". I covered part to make just "i-n" and we worked through the sounds to get to the word "in". Then I covered that part and we'd work through the sounds to get to the word "side". Then I'd go back to the first and she wouldn't remember it. I could switch back and forth repeatedly and she never remembered the word. The word "inside" appears repeatedly throughout the book and she never once seemed to remember it, always having to work through it anew.

In the same book, we worked out the word "going" -- the only word on the page. Turn the page and the first word is again "going" but she didn't recognize it and we had to sound it out from scratch.

This has me somewhat concerned. I know that 5-years is still pretty young but this seems wrong.

What it is not:

  • She is not "slow". She speaks 3 languages (French, English, German). She's observant and curious, asking a lot of great "why" questions about how the world works.
  • She's not physically incapable. She rides a bike and scooter, and skis like nobody's business. Yesterday she was helping me build a tool-box and had no problem repeatedly putting the wrench on the bolts and tightening them up.
  • She doesn't seem to have bad eye-sight. She had no trouble aligning the wrench with the bolts or reading the small, engraved "10mm" on the wrench to make sure she had the correct one.
  • She doesn't seem to have a bad memory in general. We play games like "Memory" or "Lucky Catch" (which we lovingly call "boot to the head" -- you'll understand if you've played it) and she does quite well.

We're planning to take her to an pediatric opthamologist to double-check her eyes and play a few more games while paying more attention to how she plays.

So... Any ideas on what this is? Or am I just reading too much into it?

One last piece of information that may or may not be related... She claims to be having some trouble at school (kindergarten) when she has to touch an icon and drag it from the top of a big screen to the bottom. All I know is what she has said -- I've never seen the activity myself.

Update 2014-09-24: My daughter is now 7.5 years and starting grade 2. When we read together she does quite well; it's rare that she doesn't recognize a world she had to work out just the page before.

Update 2019-05-23: Now 12, she's doing very well. She reads easily in both English (Ender's Game at the moment) and French and scores in the high 90's on reading comprehension tests. Her biggest struggle is that she has to understand everything so words that she doesn't know frustrate her and can inhibit her desire to read. She won't just ignore the word, leaving the rest of the words to communicate the the idea. This is not inconsistent with the rest of her personality. :-)

  • 2
    How long have you been going at it? Does she know the alphabet yet or are you jumping straight to words? Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 15:35
  • She's been "learning" the alphabet for a couple years, now. We've never pushed her on it but of course letters come up in day-to-day life and she has blocks in the shape of letters. She knows the letters but struggles to remember the sounds they make. Reading is newer, a few weeks. I don't expect her to just take off and start reading on her own but I'm concern that she can't remember a single word across the turning of a page. Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 15:31
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    "Inside" is a pretty big word. Maybe start with "cat". Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 16:54
  • @BrianWhite I explained why the edit was made in the edit comments. Please do not continue to roll back moderator edits; they were done for a reason. Please refer to this meta question for more details.
    – user420
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 16:39
  • 2
    @BrianWhite You can see the edit reasons by clicking the date/time of the last edit (e.g. "edited 55 mins ago"). This will show you the history of all revisions, along with any notes about the changes. The wikipedia article you linked actually has quite a bit of information as to why the term is considered derogatory, and is being phased out in favor of more generic terms. This isn't an issue of my personally being offended. I am just trying to keep the site content free of terms that could potentially be offensive to visitors. I certainly do not feel like you intended any offense.
    – user420
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 17:38

8 Answers 8


It is true that most children have letter identification down by 5 years of age, and some know basic sight words and the sounds letters make.

Sounding out words can be helpful, and I think it is probably what most parents remember about learning how to read, but it comes after some other important steps.

When we learn to read, we learn how to decode text.

First, children must understand that words are groups of letters separated by spaces on a page. We read from left to right and top to bottom. At this step, they should be able to follow the flow of text even though they can't read it.

Second, children need to learn that letters represent sounds and they need to practice hearing those sounds in words. You can help demonstrate this and teach some useful literacy skills by playing games with initial sounds, like "let's point to the things that start with B on the dinner table." Reinforce the connection between the initial sounds and the letter. Then do the same thing with text in books, and make sure she understands that she can use the pictures to help her decode the text. "See, this is a word that starts with B. Is there something in the picture that starts with B?"

By the time she acquires these skills, she will start picking up sight words. Nouns and little words like articles and prepositions usually come first, followed by verbs. Remember to pick text with simple sentence structures that are easy to understand and lots of repetition of structures (like Dr. Seuss).

It seems to me that it is possible that while she might recognize letters, she may be having trouble associating the "correct English" sounds with the letters, or she might have trouble retrieving specific English vocabulary (in other words, she is having difficulty hearing sounds in words), but it may also be that you are choosing words that are conceptually difficult. She can use visual cues to pick out "ball" for instance, but figuring out "inside" is much harder.

After she has letters, sounds, and some sight words, she will probably start picking up sounding out on her own. I have more detailed suggestions in this other answer that might also help you.

I wanted to add, since you are understandably quite concerned about her lack of memory for words across pages, that you read effortlessly—you immediately recognize the word "ball" from one page to the next. You don't spell out the letters, or sound it out in your head; it is a sight word for you.

On the other hand, your daughter as a beginning reader sees "ball" as a bunch of symbols that she has to decode. She probably hasn't yet reached the point where she immediately recognizes that she is looking at an identical set of symbols from one page to the next. She has to stop, figure out the symbols, remember the sounds, and then put them together and listen to them to finally get to what that word is. She may remember that she just read the word "ball" a minute ago, but the association will be between what she heard herself say then and what she is saying now, not what she sees, i.e., not the symbols on the page. That might account for the deficit that you are observing.

If that is the case, then you can help her by first figuring out the word with her, and then reading it in context and having her confirm that the word makes sense. This helps solidify reading comprehension skills: Words convey meaning, and sentences tell a story. In other words, text on a page is not random. It has a point.

  • 5
    Also, remember that kids develop in stages and she may be really good at certain skills while other skills can lag behind. This is called "asynchronis". It doesn't indicate that anything is wrong, but even while she can be extremely good at one thing, another might be really tough. It is fairly normal for kids to not understand something one day and then suddenly make a huge leap in understanding the next day. For most kids it all evens out in the wash. Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 1:00

I second KitFox. I think you need to back it down to more simple words. Not only is "inside" a compound word, it also incorporates a long "i" sound with a silent e. That is too much for a five-year-old who is just starting to learn to read. My son will be five in February, and he knows all his letters, knows the sounds the letters make, and a handful of sight-words, and he still confuses the sounds of the vowels--especially the "e" and the "i" and the "a" and the "o" short vowel sounds. We just keep practicing it.

Make sure she knows her letters; make sure she knows the sounds those letters make. If she's lacking in either of those, then you need to start there. Really, those are the basic building blocks of reading. I think KitFox's suggestions are excellent and I can't think of anything to add to them. My primary suggestion is to determine what she knows, determine what she needs to know, and figure out how you're going to help her get there.

Also, I wonder if it's not possible that her ability to speak three languages is confusing her a little. The English and French pronunciation of vowels, for example, is completely different. Maybe not, but it's a thought. My kids only speak English so I have zero experience with that kind of thing.

ETA: I found a couple of short reading-readiness assessments that might be a good jumping-off point for you:

  1. Checklist for Readers ages 3-5
  2. Reading Disability Checklist ages 4-6
  3. Checklist for Readers ages 5-7

I threw in the last one simply because she falls in the age range for it, but it definitely seems to be a list for kids who are closer to age 7 or very advanced 5-year-olds, so if she doesn't meet much of the criteria listed on that particular list, I certainly wouldn't freak out about it. Granted one assessment isn't 100% accurate, but it will give you a starting point and allow you to identify areas of weakness in your daughter's reading readiness. If there's only one or two things she isn't doing, it's probably because you and she simply need to focus on that specific skill, reinforcing and practicing it. If there's several things she's not doing, then you might need to have her assessed for a learning or neurological disability. Hope that helps!

  • "Inside" was an example but simpler words reveal the same results. Reading "Hop on Pop" by Dr. Seuss shows the same results of not recognizing a (simple, big-print) word she just saw on the previous page. It seems definitely possible that it's "nothing" but think it's worth investigating to make sure. Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 15:35
  • The first word my son recognized was the word "Stop" after probably 3 years of identifying it repeatedly on stop signs. I don't know if it's unusual that an almost-six-year-old struggles to identify the sound letters make or not as it seems there is a broad continuum on what is "normal" when it comes to letter/sound recognition. FWIW, my son struggles to remember words between page turns as well. We frequently have to re-sound out words that we JUST sounded out a page or two pages ago.
    – Meg Coates
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 17:35
  • I believe it's been found that bilingual (or trilingual in your daughter's case) children may appear slower to develop some language skills initially, but they derive overall benefits from knowing multiple languages in later years. A web search for 'bilingual language development' comes up with lots of information on this.
    – nekomatic
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 9:55

It's impossible to say one way or the other as it could be learning difficulties, or she could be perfectly normal. From the tone and language of your post if I had to make a guess I'd say that her interest in learning to read may instead be your interest in her learning to read projected onto her, and that her inability could very well be lack of genuine interest or her being pushed too hard. I know that when my kids show interest I can sometimes be too zealous in trying to shovel coal into the furnace of learning, and it can often be counter-productive.

So I think you're reading too much into it, I'd recommend you simply back off some and let things happen at their own pace.

  • She's the one that originally brought it up but there's obvious external influence on that. For example, her older brother reads on his own (and thus gets to stay up a bit later). Still, she asks for "learn to read" on many nights without any prompting on my part and goes to get one a few books we've been working on; the other nights she just gets read to. Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 15:35
  • @BrianWhite, sure, she may be the one who requested it, it also may be she's not ready yet.
    – GdD
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 15:43
  • I would be thrilled if that's all it is. If so then it's just a matter of making it fun and not worrying about it. If it is something, I'd just like to know as soon as possible so that we know how to help her deal with it. There's nothing wrong with being different (I think it's a good thing) but schools are geared to teach "normal". Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 15:47
  • I completely understand that you are concerned, I would be too. The point of my post is to point out that your expectations may be more the issue rather than her abilities.
    – GdD
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 15:56

First of all, it sounds like you are actively involved and paying attention to your child so that's great!

I am wondering if this is something you've just recently started. Think about what letters look like to a child; it probably looks like what Chinese (or any language in a different script) looks like to you: scribbles on the page! It is going to take a lot of practice to be able to recognize these.

Also, how much do you read to her? I would recommend reading to her every night, preferably something like Dr Suess that is fun, rhythmic and with lots of pictures to provide context clues. Soon she will memorize the story and this will help her to begin to see the connections between the shapes of the written words and the different words they represent. It won't teach her to read, but it will help her get ready to learn to read.

And, I would start with letters instead of words. Play games where she says the sound when you show her the letter (like Mmmmm for M). Make it fun and silly. Then you can start to connect them into simple words like cat, sat, rat, mat (work within rhyming groups).

I would recommend Stanley Greenspan's book: The Learning Tree. Although it is designed for parents of kids with learning disabilities (which I am not saying your daughter as), it is full of GREAT ideas and activities for practicing and developing very specific skills when it comes to reading, writing, and more.

For general tips, I also recommend the Positive Discipline series.

Best of luck!


One of the keys to memorization in general is repetition. It may be you're jumping between letters too quickly or trying to learn too many at a time and she hasn't really "mastered" one before you've moved on to trying to teach her a different one, and then it's all just a jumble and easy to mix them up, especially when you have a mix of three seperate languages that each have different sounds and sometimes different letters or different names for the letters.

One idea might be to do a "letter of the day" (like on sesame street, sort of) and really focus on just that one letter--what it looks like, what it sounds like, what items start with that letter. Just reinforce one letter so much that she really knows that letter

Like you could do an art project with the letter--make the letter out of popscicle sticks, masking tape/painting, pipe cleaners, beans, etc, where the artwork is primarily focused on the shape of the letter, to help reinforce the shape of the letter and what the letter looks like.

While doing this, you could recite together some tounge-twisters that revolve around your letter of the day. "billy blows big blue bubbles". See who can recite it faster without messing it up.

You could also discuss what different items start with that letter, or add props, and take your time. B...I have a bowl of bananas next to a ball and a basket of berries. Look at the "B" page in some alphabet books, etc.

Get an alphabet teaching set that uses mnemonics for each letter, a picture of an animal or item with that letter, and have her memorize the animal that goes with the letter (ie: picture of an item that matches the picture of the letter). "B is for...BEAR!" Get a memory set that has letters on one side and pictures of the items on the other for matching games.

You could also draw the letter in upper-case and lowercase on a chalk-board or dry erase board. Or trace the letter on paper. Draw it in highlighter and give her a pen, pencil, or crayon. Or do a "word-search" type puzzle where you look for the letter of the day and circle all the B's.

Or, of course, add some of your own ideas that are catered to her interests. The basic ideas would be to make learning about the letter fun, and to spend a lot of time learning one single letter, and use a lot of different modes of learning (visual, hearing, kinesthetic, etc) so by the end of the day she can confidently recognize the visual appearance and sound of one letter. Then slowly build on that.

Additionally, depending on the program at her school, you may want to align what you're reinforcing at home with what they are teaching in the classroom, so that you're practicing the same letters or mnemonics she's learning at school. Focusing on a small subset of letter (and not necessarily in alphabet order) and short three letter words may help with being able to remember them and begin reading with those letters.

Secondly, it may help to focus on learning reading and the alphabet in one language first, probably whichever language her school is taught in, and leave reading and the alphabet for the others until once she's mastered at least one alphabet. Learning that I makes and E sound in german, and E makes an I sound is a recipe for getting the letters mixed up, especially when you add that on top of the multiple different sounds that E can make in English. There are also lots of electronic toys and puzzles that will speak the letters when you press on them that could be used as an aid in learning to map the picture of the letter to it's name and sound.


Has your daughter learned to read? Mine did the exact same thing with not remembering or remembering inconsistently. Even from one page to the next. I couldn't get her to learn her letters and I am a teacher. The good news is that her kindergarten teacher was amazing and she learned all her letters and how to read and took off. She was reading 5th grade level by the end of first grade. I thought we were done but the same issue is rearing its head in music lessons. She is on her third year of piano with a really good teacher that also does a lot of theory and she cannot remember her lines and spaces. It will be fine for months and then all of a sudden she knows NOTHING. Her teacher called it a "knowledge dump". She is doing violin and that is worse with the note naming and rhythm. She has really looked forward to this and the reading issues is causing her to hate music.

Did you find out anything? We had her tested for dxyslexia at school and they said she didn't have anything and aced the test. I was told to not "push" her so hard. Like it was my fault. This is my middle child and the others do not have this issue and all 3 are very bright.

  • She's in grade 4 now and reads well in French and is improving in English. Her biggest problem is that she's a perfectionist -- it drives her to tears when she's not excellent at something, even if it's the first time she's tried it -- so words she doesn't know frustrate her. It's hard for her to just ignore them and move on, understanding from the context, and learning the words that way. Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 5:06

My daughter is an excellent reader, but at this beginning stage of the game, she too didn't always remember a word from one page to the next - especially while she was still "sounding out."

I have helped a lot of kids through this beginning reading stage so it may help you to know, it is fairly typical for kids not to recognize repeated words from one moment to the next. At this stage, It is a matter of not seeing the forest for the trees. She is focused on the individual letters and still seeing words as a series of individual letters rather than as a complete unit unto itself - perfectly normal and a good step forward even if it doesn't feel like it.

I suggest continuing to work on "sounding out" as Meg and Kit recommend, but also introduce "sight words." Work with her on words that are extremely common by seing them as words and not sounding them out. "In," "and," and "the" are all great choices for this. Have her trace the shapes of the words (ie - think about each letter as possible taking up the space of three blocks stacked on one another. a only takes up the middle block, t takes up the upper two blocks and g takes up the bottom two). "The", would then be a four square box with a one-box tail. This exercise will help her brain begin to see the word as a word and not just a series of letters.

This is a great resource for finding sight words: Dolch sight words.

This game site has some games to help with that if you wish to use them.

  • Thanks. It's good to know that it's a common thing. When you have two kids and they're different, you can't really tell which is "unusual" or if both are "normal" (or both are "unusual"). It's a year down the road and she's reading much better though still will have trouble sounding out a word she just sounded out on the line above. Teacher says she reads very well, though, and I guess she would know better than I. Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 14:45
  • teachers know what it "normal" in terms of comparing kids to the "Belle Curve." But you are still the best measure of whether your child is improving or not :-) Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 14:49

Children learn to read by writing. Stop trying to teach her to read and instead teach her to write.

Maria Montessori, "The Secret of Childhood" (1963):

“This was the greatest event to take place in the first Children’s Home. The child who first made the discovery was so astonished that he shouted out loud: ’I’ve written, I’ve written!’ ... It was only after some six months that they began to understand what it is to read, and they did this only by associating reading with writing. They watched my hand as I traced letters on a piece of white paper and came to realize that I was communicating my thoughts as if I were speaking. As soon as this was clear to them, they began to take the pieces of paper on which I had written something and carry them off to a corner and try to read them.”

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    This is so wrong. Reading is an essential step way before writing becomes possible. Reading books with your child at a very early age, with words like cat and ball alongside a picture of that object are very useful development cues. Actually being able to copy letter shapes and construct words is much further along. Sometimes years!
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 9:47
  • "reading books with your child" is not "reading." its "narrating." All of my children could write before they could read, and were all reading by K
    – rbp
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 12:02

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