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How Do I Know if my Child is Behind in Reading? Should I be Concerned?

Even without all the missed instruction because of COVID, making sure your child does not fall behind in reading has always been very important, more important than most people think, even educators. Many times kindergarten and first grade teachers will advise parents, "Don't worry. They will catch up." But the reality is that kids usually do NOT catch up. The data are very clear that the vast majority of children who fall behind in reading never catch up and the consequences plague them their entire lives. In fact, according to some studies nearly 90% of students who are behind at the end of first grade, never catch up (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Juel, 1988; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998). This sets off a cascade of academic and emotional challenges that continue on into adulthood (Torgesen, 2002). Let me be clear -- it is never too late to learn to read, but we have known for a long time that it is much easier to start out right with solid instruction than wait to address the problem later (Mathes, Denton, Fletcher, Anthony, Francis, & Schatschneider, 2005; Rashotte, Torgesen, & Wagner, 1997; Torgesen, 2002). With so much instructional time lost due to Covid, this issue is of particular concern.

So, how do you know if a child is behind in reading?

Well-researched screening assessments that are quick to administer are available to educators, but they require training (for examples, see Acadience Learning, CUBED, and EasyCBM). So how can a family know if their child is behind? Our free Friends on the Block (FOTB) materials can be used to help you know if a child is behind and can also provide practice to help a child catch up or get ahead. Here's how it works.

  • If a child is about to enter kindergarten, our books would be great practice to prepare them for kindergarten, but you would not expect them to be able to read them yet.

  • If a child is about to enter first grade, you would expect them to be able to read FOTB Levels 1 through 6A with very few errors, though reading may be somewhat slow.

  • If a child is about to enter second grade or higher, you would expect them to be able to read all FOTB books (Levels 1-14) without much difficulty. If reading seems slow and labored in these books, further practice is needed. If a child is about to enter third grade or higher, additional assessment would be needed to determine if they are behind, but our books are a great place to start.

Step 2: Select a book to have the child read with you. (Directions for downloading the eBooks are on the FREE members' page.)

  • For rising kindergarteners, it's probably best just to begin at Level 1.

  • For rising first graders or above you can either begin at Level 1 or look through the books and estimate where to start based on what you know about the child's reading ability. You want to start at a level that you think will be easy for the child to read without any assistance. (If you prefer, you can use the FOTB placement test to select a book.)

Step 3: Listen to the child read, provide help if they do not know a word, and make notes about the errors.

  • IMPORTANT NOTE: Our books have "helper text" that is in gray boxes. As the "helper" you read the text that is in the gray boxes. The child ONLY reads the text with a white background.

  • Provide help quickly if they are struggling with a word (just tell them the word if they struggle 2-4 seconds).

  • If you have to help them with a word, count it as an error.

  • It's best to be discrete about making notes, but if your child asks, you can say something encouraging like, "These are words we can practice together." or "This will help me remember what you read." You want to keep the experience very positive.

Step 4: Stop reading if the child becomes frustrated or if they miss more than about 2 words per sentence.

Step 5: Review your notes and practice using the FOTB books and games.

  • It's important to provide help quickly and keep the reading practice positive.

Please contact us if you have any questions at all!

What's next? Simple Tips for Making Reading with Your Child Fun and Effective


Francis, D. J., Shaywitz, S. E., Stuebing, K. K., Shaywitz, B. A., & Fletcher, J. M. (1996). Developmental lag versus deficit models of reading disability: A longitudinal, individual growth curves analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 317.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437–447.

Mathes, P. G., Denton, C.A., Fletcher, J. M., Anthony, J.L., Francis, D. J., & Schatschneider, C. (2005). The effects of theoretically different instruction and student characteristics on the skills of struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 40, 148-182.

Torgesen, J. K. (2002). The prevention of reading difficulties. Journal of School Psychology, 50, 7-26.

Torgesen, J. K., & Burgess, S. R. (1998). Consistency of reading-related phonological processes throughout early childhood: Evidence from longitudinal-correlational and instructional studies. In J. Metsala & L. Ehri (Eds.). Word Recognition in Beginning Reading. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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