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Ask Susan: My Son Is Struggling with First Grade, Again

Child struggles in school

Hello Susan

My son is in first grade, the second time around, and he‘s not doing well. He can neither read nor write except for a few basic words. He suffered from recurrent ear infections as a baby and toddler and had grommets four times, which caused temporary hearing loss and, eventually, a language delay. My son goes to a speech therapist, but I would like to know if there is anything else we can do at home to assist him as he has now “shut down” entirely and we, his parents, feel we have failed him.


Dear Fairuz

Being held back in school can be stressful for a child and their parents. However, to continue to the next grade if the child cannot cope academically can be equally stressful, if not more so – and the rest of their education might be an uphill battle. However, you have no reason to feel that you have failed your son, as the origin of his problems is his ear infections, which caused the language delay and contributed to his reading difficulties.

Language plays a vital role in reading. Its role in reading can be compared to running in the game of soccer or ice skating in the game of ice hockey. One cannot play soccer if one cannot run, and one cannot play ice hockey if one cannot skate. So likewise, one cannot read a book in a language unless one knows that particular language.

If a child’s knowledge of English is poor, then their reading will also be poor

If a child’s grasp of the English language is inadequate, the only way their reading could be improved is by first improving their command of English. Without effectively improving their English, the child’s reading ability will not improve. Let us refer to this problem as a ‘language problem.’ Evidence linking reading difficulties and language problems has been extensively presented in the literature. 

Preschool children suffering temporary deafness over a period of time due to ear infections, like your son, or children, who have been diagnosed as hard of hearing at a late stage, will often have a language problem. However, the most common indication of a language problem is that the child started talking late.

Language milestones

In most cases, a baby should understand simple words and commands from the age of nine months. From around a year, they should start saying their first words. From about two years, they should be able to use simple phrases, and by three, they should be able to use full sentences. By four, they should be fully able to talk, although they may still make grammatical errors. By five, they should have acquired basic language.

If a child talks immaturely or makes unexpected grammatical errors in their speech when they are five, this should alert the parents to potential later reading problems. Therefore, the parents should immediately take steps to improve the child’s language. Even when a child is older but has a history of late talking, the parents should follow the advice below to improve the child’s language. The method that will be explained has proved to be highly effective, but it will also be explained how and why it works.

How a child learns language

Let us consider how a child learns language. Bear in mind that there is nothing that any human being can do that they have not learned to do. This is especially true of language. One often encounters the expression ‘language development’ when referring to the child’s language acquisition. By this expression it is often intended to imply that the child’s acquisition of language is an automatic process.

This is an entirely misguided idea. Language development should not imply that it is an innate and ‘natural process’ or that the child’s language knowledge grows by itself.

The baby only learns language in one way: hearing it as the parents talk and talk to them while playing with, feeding, bathing, and dressing the baby. The more a parent can talk to a child, often repeating the same words, phrases, and structures over and over, the sooner the child will learn a language.

An important thing to note here is that by the time a baby is about nine months old, as was mentioned above, they should be able to understand simple words and commands. They may also be able to say a few simple words already. Invariably, however, one finds that the baby understands much more than they can say. This remains so for any person throughout their life. One can always understand more of any language, even one’s mother tongue, than one can use in active speech; it is even more so in any second or third language a person can speak.

This shows that we have two more or less separate masses of language knowledge: our passive knowledge (also called receptive language) on the one hand and our active (expressive language) on the other. When we listen or read, we use our passive vocabulary, and when we speak or write, our active vocabulary. An important thing to note here is that the child’s passive vocabulary came into being through constant repetition of words, phrases, or structures. Once a word, phrase, or structure has been repeated often enough, it also becomes part of the baby’s active vocabulary. According to Dr. Beve Hornsby, a child just beginning to talk must hear a word about 500 times before it becomes part of their active vocabulary. Long before that, it will already form part of their passive vocabulary.

This shows that active vocabulary can only be improved via the passive. The stratified nature of learning applies here.

Overcoming a language problem

When a child has a language problem, that is, when it is suspected that their vocabulary and use of language are not up to expected standards, there is only one way in which this can be remedied: by providing the child with enough opportunities to hear language. There must be enough repetition of the same words, phrases, and grammatical structures.

A practical way of providing the child with enough opportunities to hear language is by following the steps below. (Note that, if you do this right, the biggest effort would be to find or record suitable stories. The daily implementation does not require the parent’s or child’s time.)

  1. Find a story suitable for a child one to two years older than your own. The story must be, at most, 10 minutes long. Make a recording of this story, taking pains to read it as clearly as possible. Alternatively, you can buy a suitable story. You will also need a CD player, iPod, or MP3 player with an auto-reverse function. You may or may not use earphones.
  2. This recording must now be played to the child for three hours per day, or as close to three hours as possible. (Two hours per day would probably be sufficient if the child’s language problem is not severe.) What is needed is complete immersion. Playing the story only two or three times a day will not achieve much. However, the child does not need to sit still and listen to the story. Rather, a background of language must be created for the child so that they can continue with their other daily activities against this background. The volume should be set so that the words will be audible but not so loud that it is disturbing.
    One can also play the recording for the first hour after the child has gone to bed..
  1. As was mentioned above, repetition must form the backbone of this background. The same story must be played over and over until the words, phrases, and grammatical structures in the story have become part of the child’s active vocabulary. This will take about three months and, in some cases, even longer.
  2. After at least three months, the same procedure must be followed with a new story. The child must repeatedly listen to it for at least three months.
  3. In this way, one continues playing the same story repeatedly for at least three months, using a new story every three months, until the child’s active vocabulary is up to standard.

The correct teaching method always delivers excellent results. Even a severe language problem can be overcome by using the correct method and creating a sufficiently stimulating environment.

Overcoming a reading problem

Fairuz, in addition to helping your son overcome his language, I want you to investigate Edublox Online Tutor’s products and services to improve your son’s cognitive skills and help him on the road to reading.

Best wishes,


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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree. Early in her professional career, Susan was instrumental in training over 3,000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development among children who struggle to read and write. With over 30 years of research, Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic, and now there are 40 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.