Education Quandary: My third child is failing to read at school with phonics. What else can we try with her?

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Hilary's advice

Parents need to know that, although phonics is a very good tool for learning to read, it is not a magic formula that will work without fail for every child. Quite a few children learn phonics when they start school but then fail to be able either to recall what they have learned or to apply it. Others just don't seem to get the hang of it, no matter how hard they try. The reasons differ from child to child and can include all kinds of social, emotional and mental processing problems. The important thing, as you obviously understand, is not to let the situation slide. Insist that the school takes your worries seriously – don't let them suggest that your daughter is simply being slightly slower than her classmates to catch on. Check that her hearing is sound, and talk through with her teacher what her particular areas of difficulty seem to be. Have her tested for dyslexia, if this seems appropriate, and ask what catch-up strategies the school can offer. Reading Recovery is an excellent programme that many schools use. It offers children one-to-one help, and works in a systematic way on phonics, syntax, semantics and punctuation. At the same time, it makes sure reading stays a really enjoyable activity that children want to master. The one thing you need to avoid at all cost is putting so much pressure on your daughter that she develops a phobia about the whole business and refuses even to try.

Readers' advice

Your daughter may respond better to other reading strategies like guessing words from pictures or from their context in a story, and skipping words she does not understand.

If she uses these strategies with you, along with the phonics she is learning at school, she may do better than she does in the classroom. Read to her every at night and puzzle out words in her story books together.

Do whatever feels right to you and do not be hampered by the idea that there must be a right or wrong way to do it. I taught both my children to read like this and adapted what I did for each of them. One was much faster to read than the other. If she still makes no progress after that, you should seek professional help.

Alison Masters, Hertfordshire

It sounds like your child is probably dyslexic and more likely to respond to visual clues than to the sounding-out system of phonics.

The special needs coordinator at your school should be able to tell you about getting her tested. If she does prove to be dyslexic she will probably be eligible for extra help and resources.

Sue Shirley, Bedfordshire

I'm wondering if your third child has a different teacher from your other two (whom you say learnt to read easily with phonics). Like everything else, phonics can be taught well or badly. If her teacher is doing it in a robotic way without bothering to respond to individual children's needs, this could be why she is struggling.

Jane Lloyd-Jones, Kingston

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