Free Consultation

Reading Difficulties: Signs, Causes, Treatment

Reading is essential in life and making a living. To a great extent, a child’s reading ability will determine their success in school and beyond. Unfortunately, reading difficulties are common. This article investigates the signs, causes, and possible steps and treatments.
Table of contents:

Reading determines learning

Reading difficulties

Reading and learning are the two things that determine a child’s success during their school career. First, they learn to read. Then, they read to learn. Children with reading difficulties are thus also hampered in learning.

Unfortunately, poor reading skills and, therefore, poor learning skills are 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 percent of students were at or above the acceptable Proficient level.

Because reading is essential in life and making a living, reading difficulties at school can lead to great anxiety in parents and 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, without fluency, word by word, or constantly lose their place, 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 remember little of what they read.
• They may have 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 a vitamin B3 deficiency causes it. 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, it is essential to note that there is nothing that any human being knows or can do that they have 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 toward understanding reading difficulties and has been overlooked so far: 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.

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. This would have been unimportant if human learning had not been a stratified process. Starting a child in first grade would not have been necessary. It would have been possible for the child to enter school at any level and to complete the school years in any order.

A more straightforward example to illustrate the stratified nature of learning is 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 specific skills and knowledge that a child must acquire 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… One must first learn to speak Bahasa Indonesia 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 running in soccer. One cannot play soccer if one cannot run. One can only read a language if one knows the particular language well.

If a child’s English knowledge is poor, their reading will also be poor. The child’s reading ability will not improve without effectively improving their English.

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 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 critical 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. The last-mentioned refers to the ability to interpret objects in space with reference to other objects. A person with a spatial problem may need help distinguishing between 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 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 vital for phonics

According to neurodevelopmentalist Cyndi Ringoen, 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.

Ringoen says a child must have an auditory digit span of close to six to begin to utilize phonics beyond memorizing a few individual sounds. Digit span is a standard measure of short-term memory, i.e., the number of digits a person can absorb and recall in correct serial order after hearing 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 four-digit sequence back correctly 75 percent of the time on the first try to be considered at a short-term memory of four, and it is the same for each higher digit.

Other memory skills involved in reading are visual memory, sequential memory, and long-term memory.

Treatment for reading difficulties

What parents can do

The worst thing parents can do if they suspect their child has a reading difficulty is nothing, says neuroscientist Dr. Sally Shaywitz. Thus, if you observe above signs, 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 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 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, what level that reader group represents, and how they compare to others in their class and grade.

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

Take immediate action

If your child has 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

• 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. We offer live online tutoring to students in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.