It has been shown that some children with reading difficulties have underlying developmental delay and that this may be related to the persistence of primary reflexes. This study investigated the prevalence of persistent primary reflexes in the ordinary primary school population and how this related to other cognitive and social factors. Three groups of 41 children were drawn from a representative, cross-sectional sample of 409 children (aged 9–10 years) attending 11 ordinary primary schools in N. Ireland. The three groups represented the bottom, middle and top 10% respectively of readers from the total sample population. The relative persistence (on a scale of 0 to 4) of the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) and the prevalence of motor difficulties were assessed for these 3 groups. The rôle of 5 predictor variables (verbal IQ, social deprivation, sex, month of birth and religious affiliation) in determining the reading level of the total sample was also investigated. It was found that the lowest reading group had a significantly higher mean level of ATNR (1.56 [95% CI 1.22–1.90]) compared with the middle reading group (0.56 [0.22–0.90]) and the top reading group (0.59 [0.25–0.92]). 17% of children in the lowest reading group had extremely high levels of the ATNR while 24% showed no presence of ATNR. This contrasted with 0% and 66%, respectively for both middle and top reading groups. It was also found that there was a significant difference between the lowest reading group and the top reading group on a standardised test of motor ability. Furthermore, there was evidence that ATNR persistence but not motor ability was associated with the sex of the child with boys, in particular, at risk. There was no evidence that ATNR persistence or motor ability was significantly associated with social deprivation. It was also found that there were no significant differences between dyslexic and non-dyslexic children with reading difficulties in motor (including balance) performance. This study highlights the high levels of primary reflex persistence in children with reading difficulties and it provides further evidence of the association between reading difficulties and movement difficulties in young children. However, while the implications for intervention are discussed, it is stressed that the persistence of primary reflexes cannot be used as a causal model for reading difficulties, including dyslexia. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.