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How to tell if your child is falling behind in English

Over the past year, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on students’ education. Many parents, understandably, are worried about...

3 years ago

Over the past year, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on students’ education. Many parents, understandably, are worried about the toll all this disruption has taken on their children’s learning. 

In March 2020, pupils in a class could have all been roughly at the same level in English and Maths, but they may have returned to school in March 2021 in vastly different places. Lockdown has looked very different for different families, and the demands of homeschooling and working from home inevitably means that some students will have been given more support than others. Some children may also have found the transition back to the routines and structures of school more challenging, and some may take more time to adjust to social and behavioural expectations after such an anxious time.

Telltale signs

There are certain red flags to look out for that suggest your child may be struggling generally, for example:

  • Avoidance tactics, such as hiding homework or feigning illness
  • Behavioural changes, like inexplicable moodiness, changes in their eating and sleeping routines, or generally ‘acting up’
  • A sudden reluctance to talk about school
  • A sudden lack of self-confidence, for example repeatedly saying “I can’t do it”
  • Disengagement from their learning, and not ‘seeing the point’

Development milestones

How to tell if a child is falling behind in a particular subject can require a little more investigation. The first thing parents should be aware of is developmental milestones, so they can work out what level their child is expected to be at. 

For example, in the English curriculum, by Year 2 students should have mastered writing capital and lowercase letters, by Year 4 they should be able to control paragraphs accurately, and by Year 6 they should be able to use colons, semi-colons and dashes. 

Parents can find a detailed outline for the curriculum for each year group here, and an overview of the National Curriculum here. There are also lots of useful websites online for age-appropriate spelling lists, such as this one for students aged 5-6.

There are five main areas that primary school students focus on in English, and these should help to give you an indication on where exactly your child may be falling behind.

Word Reading & Comprehension

This is often the most obvious skill to spot students falling behind in. There are ten key characteristics of struggling readers to watch out for:

  • Difficulty sounding out words
  • Difficulty recognising words they should know
  • Lack of fluency when reading
  • Trouble understanding, recalling, or summarising what they have just read
  • Anxiety about reading, especially when asked to do so aloud
  • Being easily distracted when reading, or avoiding reading altogether
  • Taking an unusually long time on reading and writing assignments 
  • Losing place on the page, skipping lines or rereading lines
  • Making up part of the story based on illustration, pictures or contextual clues rather than reading the actual words
  • Sounding out every word on the page, even if the child has already read them


Students who struggle with spelling may make common mistakes such as:

  • Spelling words as they sound, e.g. ‘wont’ instead of ‘want’
  • Mixing up the sequence of letters
  • Missing out letters
  • Including extra letters
  • Using ‘t’ instead of ‘ed’, e.g. ‘lookt’ instead of ‘looked’
  • Muddling the endings of words, for example ‘-ck’ or ‘-ke’

When a word is not spelt the way that it is pronounced, short-term memory is required to memorise and recognise the word’s written form (this is also the case for homophones such as there, their, and they’re).

Students’ short-term memory is likely to have been impacted by lockdown and regular practice may be needed to help them catch up, but it may also be worth talking to the school’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator to rule out other possibilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, dysgraphia, dyspraxia or hearing loss.


Many students will have done their remote schooling online, and so their handwriting may have suffered whilst they were doing so much regular typing. Signs that your child is struggling with their handwriting include:

  • A cramped or unusual pen grip, which might lead to a sore hand
  • Unusual wrist, body or paper position when writing
  • Inconsistency in word and letter spacing
  • Trouble forming letters or shapes
  • Forgetting how to join up letters
  • Difficulty writing and thinking at the same time
  • Difficulty writing in a straight line

It’s important to identify whether the problem is related to motor skills (i.e. the physical act of writing), or whether it’s because they struggle to express themselves, and therefore need more help formulating and organising their ideas in the first place.

Creative Writing

Children tend to be reluctant creative writers for three main reasons:

  • They struggle with their vocabulary (for example, thinking of synonyms for basic words such as ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘nice’ etc)
  • They find it difficult to engage their imagination and think of scenarios, settings, characters and details
  • They can think of ideas, but the accuracy of their writing suffers

There are lots of ways to re-engage students with creative writing, such as using drama, role play, creative writing stimulus (e.g. music, pictures, household objects, sensory play) or stories they have already read as prompts. The key to unlocking their potential is to make sure that they are reading regularly – at least 20 minutes a day outside school – and that they choose books that are appropriately challenging.

Grammar & Punctuation

Finally, students who fall behind with their grammar and punctuation may:

  • Have difficulty understanding word classes and their function
  • Forget how to use punctuation they have learnt before, for example full stops or commas
  • Stop using capital letters
  • Make basic grammar mistakes, like not including a verb or incorrect noun-verb agreement
  • Use awkward or informal phrasing

Again, it’s important to differentiate between what a child has not yet been taught, and what they have been taught but have forgotten. For instance, a parent should not be worried if a child in Year 1 forgets to use a comma after a fronted adverbial, because although they have been taught commas, they have not been taught commas for that particular context yet. However, a child is taught this in Year 3.

What to do next?

Once a parent has identified that their child is falling behind in a specific area, the first thing they should do is talk to their child’s teacher about their concerns, and come up with an action plan. This may involve extra reading, additional punctuation and grammar exercises or spelling tests, or even using online resources such as BBC Bitesize

Overcoming difficulties is an important part of any child’s educational journey, but the most important thing is to set up a clear line of communication between the family and the school, so that they can work together to address any potential problems as quickly and effectively as possible. 

About the author: Kristina Murkett is a teacher and a freelance writer specialising in education, film, literature and women’s rights.

If you enjoyed this article, may we suggest you read: Making it all add up: What to do when Maths becomes a burden.


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