September 2011

Childhood Reading Difficulties: What Can Be Done?

Author: Jessi Dolnik, MA, CCC-SLP

Imagine waking up for work each morning knowing that when you get there, the entire day will be a struggle. You feel incompetent and unsuccessful. You have a very difficult time meeting basic goals, and the feedback you get from your supervisor confirms that you are sub-par compared to your peers. Most adults would be examining the classifieds daily. Children don’t have the option of changing their job; their job is to learn how to read.

Learning to read is hard work and harder for some than others. Learning to read is important work that affects nearly every aspect of the school environment, including interaction with peers. Difficulty with reading is much more common than most think. The National Institute of Health conducted long-term research in reading difficulties and found that 20-30 percent of the children they followed found learning to read “a very significant challenge, and a great many of those will require highly specialized instructional intervention.” Many later studies have found similar information, indicating that 20-40 percent of children in the U.S. have significant difficulty learning to read. Another large study found that 44 percent of parents who notice their child is having trouble with reading will wait more than a year before getting help (American Federation of Teachers, 2004). Off-topic, but certainly related, it was estimated via mail-in survey in 2003 that 15 percent of South Carolina adult residents cannot read.

There are many reasons why a child could be having difficulties learning to read. Some individual risk factors include family history of reading problems and/or a history of ADD/ADHD, history of chronic ear infections and/or hearing loss, “late-talkers,” limited proficiency and experience in spoken English, and difficulty with literacy related cognitive-linguistic tasks such as phonological awareness (rhyming, sound matching, sound blending and segmenting, etc.), confrontational naming (naming an object when asked), and sentence/story recall (being able to tell you about a familiar story or relate an event).

When these and other risk factors are identified early, many children’s reading difficulties can be prevented. Early intervention is most effective, but keep in mind that it is never too late to become a more efficient reader. So what can be done for a child who is having a hard time learning to read?

TARGET THE PROBLEM AND FIND THE HELP
Reading is very a complex task. It requires coordination of your eye muscles to scan a line of print accurately and visually orient to spatial interpretation of letters and words. While you are doing that—assuming your eyes are working as they should—you also need to be converting the symbols we call letters to sounds. But don’t forget the first sound of the word before you get to the last sound or you will never be able to “sound out” the whole word.

“Oh no! Here is a word that breaks all of the rules that I already learned. There are two vowels next to each other that create an entirely different sound. I shouldn’t have to sound out that word because that is a “sight word” and I should have already had that one memorized. Okay, now on to the next word. Pay attention to the spaces. Pause at the comma; stop at the period. One sentence down and nine more to go. What did that last sentence even say? I am concentrating so hard on getting these words right that I forgot what the sentence meant. How will I answer the questions at the end of this paragraph? Is my time almost up? Everyone else is done already!”

As I attempted to demonstrate here, reading involves many different processes happening at the same time. If one or more of these processes is not occurring or is occurring with a struggle, it will prevent or slow down the entire act of reading. Identifying the problem is half the battle. Targeting the exact cluster of problems is a daunting process but can be done through a research-based and process-oriented evaluation by a trained professional. This professional should also be available to your family for structuring a therapeutic plan of action, keeping track of progress and modifying the plan of action when needed.

ADVOCATE FOR THE CHILD
Some parents worry that they are overreacting if their child cannot read in the first or second grade. It is not possible to overreact! Yes, children do learn at different rates; however, if your child is struggling among his peers, the time to act is now. Here’s what you can do:

• Stay up-to-date on current research in reading problems.

• Educate yourself on techniques that encourage multi-sensory learning.

• Read books on what strategies you can have in place in your home to encourage strong literacy skills.

• Stay on task and focused about daily practice sessions.

• Remain in contact with the classroom teacher.

• Understand what is going on in the classroom.

BOOST SELF-ESTEEM
Empower a child with information and strategies that he or she can implement while reading. Children thrive when they 1) know exactly what they are being asked to do, 2) understand how many times they have to do it, and 3) can see progress. Parents and educators can build self-esteem back up after a tough day “at work” by showing empathy. Share some of the difficulties that you have faced, research well-known people who have worked through their difficulties to do extraordinary things (e.g., Thomas Edison, Tom Cruise, Whoopi Goldberg—all diagnosed with dyslexia, to name a few), and remind your child that new skills take practice. Discuss the many things he/she can do that needed a lot of practice at first, such as walk, talk, tie shoes, and ride a bike, pointing out the progress. Round up some old schoolwork and compare it to current work. Take out library books (or download on your Kindle) that were challenging before. Every few months, record your child reading so that he or she can hear the progress that is being made.

Jessi Dolnik, MA, CCC-SLP is a speech language pathologist specializing in reading and writing difficulties. If you have concerns about your child’s literacy skills, call Lowcountry Therapy Center at (843) 815-6999 or visit www.lowcountrytherapycenter.com.

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