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How to Identify a Reading Difficulty and How to Help

Table of contents:

Reading determines learning

Reading and learning are the two things that determine the success of a child during his school career. First they learn to read. Then they read to learn. Because the child with reading reading difficulties battles to read, they are therefore also hampered in the learning situation.

Unfortunately poor reading skills, and therefore poor learning skills is a reality for an alarming number of children. Dr. Reid Lyon states that approximately 20 to 30 percent of school-age children have difficulties learning to read. In an American study, the National Assessment Governing Board tested students nationwide and rated their reading abilities at four levels: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Thirty-eight percent of fourth-grade students were rated Below Basic. In the same study, only 31% of students were at or above the acceptable level of Proficient.

Because reading is essential in life and making a living, reading difficulties at school can lead to great anxiety in parents and can have destructive emotional effects on children.

Signs of reading difficulties

The signs below indicate that a child has a reading difficulty and therefore needs help:

One of the most obvious tell-tale signs is reversals. Children with this kind of problem often confuse letters like b and d, either when reading or when writing, or they sometimes read (or write) words like “rat” for “tar,” or “won” for “now.”
• Another sure sign is elisions — that is when a child sometimes reads or writes “cat” when the word is actually “cart.”
• The child may read very slowly and hesitantly, read without fluency, word by word, or may constantly lose their place, thereby leaving out whole chunks or reading the same passage twice.
• The child may try to sound out the letters of the word, but then be unable to say the correct word. For example, they may sound the letters “c-a-t” but then say “cold.”
• They may read or write the letters of a word in the wrong order, like “left” for “felt,” or the syllables in the wrong order, like “emeny” for “enemy,” or words in the wrong order, like “are there” for “there are.”
• They may spell words as they sound, for example “rite” for “right.”
• They may read with poor comprehension, or it may be that he remembers little of what he reads.
• They may have a poor and/or slow handwriting.

What causes reading difficulties?

Successful intervention is dependent on finding the cause or causes of a problem. Most problems can only be solved if one knows their causes. A disease such as pellagra took the lives of thousands in the southern states of America during the early part of the twentieth century. Today, pellagra is virtually unknown because we know that it is caused by a vitamin B3 deficiency. A viable point of departure would thus be to ask the question, “What causes reading difficulties?”

To fully understand the cause(s) of reading difficulties is important to take note of the fact that there is nothing that any human being knows, or can do, that he has not learned. If you dump a little puppy into the water, it will swim. Do the same with a human child, and it will drown. The child must learn to swim.

There is yet another, equally important fact, which is also a sine qua non towards the understanding of reading difficulties, and which has also so far been overlooked, viz. that learning is a stratified process. This is a self-evident fact, yet its significance in the situation of the child with a reading difficulty has never been fully comprehended. Throughout the world, in all educational systems, it is commonly accepted that a child must start at the lower levels of education and then gradually progress to the higher levels. If human learning had not been a stratified process, if it had taken place on a single level, this would have been unnecessary. It would then not have been important to start a child in first grade. It would have been possible for the child to enter school at any level and to complete the school years in any order.

A simpler example to illustrate the stratified nature of learning is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not learned to count yet, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child these skills. In the same way, there are also certain skills and knowledge that a child must have acquired first, before it becomes possible for him to benefit from a course in reading.

The first rung

Di dunia kini kita, tiap orang harus dapat membaca… Unless one has first learned to speak Bahasa Indonesia, there is no way that one would be able to read the above Indonesian sentence. This shows that language is at the very bottom of the reading ladder. Its role in reading can be compared to the role of running in the game of soccer. One cannot play soccer if one cannot run. One cannot read a language unless one knows the particular language well.

If a child’s knowledge of English is poor, then his reading will also be poor. Without effectively working at improving his English, the reading ability of the child will not improve.

The second rung

The game of soccer consists of many fragmented elements or skills — passing, shooting, heading, etc. Before any child is expected to play in a full-game situation, they should first be trained to pass, shoot and head the ball. It is the same with reading. Cognitive skills, such as visual processing, auditory processing, and auditory memory form the foundation of reading and must be taught first.

Visual processing is one of the important cognitive skills and refers to the ability to make sense of information taken in through the eyes. Visual processing skills include the ability to discriminate between foreground and background, color, shapes, sizes, and position in space. Last-mentioned refers to the ability to accurately perceive objects in space with reference to other objects. A person with a spatial problem may find it difficult to distinguish letters like b and d, and sometimes n and u.

Auditory processing refers to the ability to make sense of information taken in through the ears. It is not the ability to hear but the ability to interpret, organize and analyze what’s heard. Phonological awareness, the ability to hear the individual sounds (phonemes) in words, is at the heart of reading and requires a range of auditory processing skills.

Auditory memory important for phonics

According to neurodevelopmentalist Cyndi Ringoen, a poor auditory short-term memory is often the cause of a child’s inability to learn to read using the phonics method. Phonics is an auditory learning system, and it is imperative to have sufficient auditory short-term memory to learn, utilize and understand reading using the phonics method.

According to Ringoen, in order to begin to utilize phonics beyond memorizing a few individual sounds, a child must have an auditory digit span of close to six. Digit span is a common measure of short-term memory, i.e. the number of digits a person can absorb and recall in correct serial order after hearing them or seeing them.

To test the auditory digit span of a child, say numbers slowly in one-second intervals, in a monotone voice. Say, for example, 6-1-5-8 and have the child repeat it. If they can, then say 9-2-4-7-5. The child must be able to say a 4 digit sequence back correctly 75% of the time on the first try to be considered at a short-term memory of 4, and it is the same for each higher digit.

Other memory skills involved in reading are phonological emic awareness, visual memory, sequential memory, iconic memory, long-term memory, and working memory.

Treatment for reading difficulties

What parents can do

The worst thing parents can do if they suspect that their child has a reading difficulty is nothing, says neuroscientist Dr. Sally Shaywitz. Thus, if you observe the signs mentioned above, start by speaking to your child’s teacher. Shaywitz offers some tips that will help parents make the most of their meeting with the teacher:

• Before setting up a meeting, it often helps to list your observations and your concerns. Parents are often so nervous when speaking to their child’s teacher that they forget why they were worried. The teacher will appreciate having such a list as well.

• Set up a specific time to speak to your child’s teacher; don’t catch her on the run.

• Find out how your child is progressing in reading; ask for specifics. Pin down exactly how their reading progress is measured.

• Ask what reading group your child is in and what level that reader group represents, and how they compare to others in their class and in their grade.

• Ask what the teacher predicts for your child’s progress by the end of the school year.

Take immediate action

If your child is having trouble learning to read, the best approach is to take immediate action. Ninety-five percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive effective help early. The longer you wait to get help for a child with reading difficulties, the harder it will be for that child to catch up.

Reading consultant Susan Hall urges parents to trust their intuition. “I have listened to parent after parent tell me about feeling there was a problem earlier on, yet being persuaded to discount their intuition and wait to seek help for their child. Later, when they learned time is of the essence in developing reading skills, the parents regretted the lost months or years.”

Select the best treatment

Susan du Plessis, Director of Educational Programs at Edublox, offers the following advice to parents when selecting an organization to help their child overcome reading difficulties:

• Have your child assessed, but budget wisely. The assessment is the first step; your budget should go toward helping your child.

• Go to your first appointment with a critical mind and ask questions such as, “What method will be used to help my child? What is the theory behind the method? Can you show proof of success?”

• Get your full money’s worth. While tutoring your child, the teacher or therapist should not answer calls or leave the room to check on dinner.

• Assess the help. You should see visible results and ultimately an improvement in schoolwork. If this isn’t evident, the method may not be working for your child.

• When your child is a good reader, use computer technology to broaden their horizons and teach them to speed read.

How Edublox can help

Edublox specializes in cognitive training that makes learners smarter and helps them read faster, easier, and better. We also offer live online tutoring aligned with best practices and the latest neuroscientific research findings. Live Tutor’s reading program is based on the well-known Orton Gillingham approach but simultaneously develops the brain’s “visual word form area.”

Watch our customer review playlist below and see how children with even severe reading difficulties are being helped. Our live online tutoring services are offered to students in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.