Kids learn to read at different ages and in different ways. My eldest was pretty much a self taught reader, figuring it out on his own around three. My youngest, though, was struggling to make sence of the simplest word until just this week. Philosophies on when kids should start reading vary widely. Some think younger is better, while others think older kids catch on much more quickly so they choose to delay reading. For example, the Waldorf education model believes a child is ready to read around seven, or when they lose their first tooth.
We struggled with phonics all through kindergarten and first grade. Numbers came easily to him, and he often caught on mathematical concepts well beyond his age level. I ended up switching him to a gifted math curriculum, although it was tedious for me when there were simple word problems because I had to read them to him. Towards the end of 1st grade, he was finally able to recite his alphabet and he could give the letter and vowel sounds with no issues. He could, if given time, sound out simple CVC words, like cat. He was well behind his age peers.
Over the summer, something changed. He fully blossomed into his seventh year. His vocabulary doubled, then tripled. He hadn't cared about reading before, but was now becoming frustrated by his lack of ability. There were electronics manuals he wanted to read and he wanted to read them now, not when his dad or I had a chance to read them to him.
I pulled out some Dolch word lists, also known as sight words, and we began to drill on them. Somehow, memorizing 220 words to read upon sight gave him confidence. He may not be able to read a sentence, but he could at least pick out a handful of words on a page. We eased back into school a few weeks ago. I introduced him to phonemes, or blends, such as -est and bl-. In four short weeks he was able to read a simple book. He took a placement test and for the first time ever he was at the correct age/grade level with his reading skills.
I'm not sure what the magic bullet was. My guess is it was a bit of persistence, motivation, maturity, and a combination of the whole word and phonics approach that finally made my boy a reader.