The A2Z of Reading Difficulties

Children readingMost children look forward to learning to read, a process whereby they learn to transform what are essentially abstract squiggles on a page into meaningful letters, then sounds, then words, and then entire sentences and paragraphs. Reading represents a code: specifically, an alphabetic code. A great number of children are able to break the code after a year of instruction. For at least one in five children, however, the experience is very different.

For them, reading, which seems to come effortlessly for others, appears to be beyond their grasp. These children, who understand the spoken word and love to listen to stories, struggle to decipher the same words when they are written on a page. They read slowly and haltingly, and words that they read correctly in one sentence may be misread in a subsequent sentence. Reading aloud may be particularly painful. Eventually they grow frustrated and disappointed.

In the classroom, reading is king; it is essential for academic success. Teachers, witnessing the gap between good and poor readers widening, may wonder what they or these children might be doing wrong. Parents, knowing that reading problems have consequences all across development including into adult life, question themselves, feeling alternately guilty and angry.

Find the cause to find a ‘cure’

Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes the problem. A disease such as scurvy claimed the lives of thousands of seamen during long sea voyages. The disease was cured fairly quickly once the cause was discovered, viz. a vitamin C deficiency. A viable point of departure would therefore be to ask the question, What is the cause of reading difficulties?

“To understand what causes reading difficulties we need to take note of the fact that learning is a stratified process,” says Susan du Plessis, Director of Educational Programmes at Edublox. “One skill has to be acquired first, before it becomes possible to acquire subsequent skills. It is like climbing a ladder. If you miss one of the rungs you fall off.”

Language is the first rung

Di dunia kini kita, tiap orang harus dapat membaca… Unless one has first learnt 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, colour, 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 skills include auditory discrimination. This refers to the ability to hear similarities and differences between sounds. Auditory blending is the ability to put individual sounds together which form a word. The child who has a difficulty in this area is unable to blend the individual sounds in a word, such as /c-a-t/. The child may know the individual phonemes but simply cannot put them together.

Auditory memory important for phonics

According 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 a sufficient auditory short-term memory in order to learn, utilise and understand reading using the phonics method.

According to Ringoen, in order to begin to utilise phonics beyond memorising a few individual sounds, a child must have an auditory digit span 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 visual memory, sequential memory, iconic memory, long-term memory and working memory.

What parents can do

The worst thing parents can do if they suspect that their child has a reading problem is to do nothing, says neuroscientist Dr Sally Shaywitz. Thus, if you observe the signs mentioned below, 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 being 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 learnt time is of the essence in developing reading skills, the parents regretted the lost months or years.”

Du Plessis offers the following advice to parents when selecting an organisation to help their child overcome reading difficulties:

• Have your child assessed, but budget wisely. The assessment is the first step; your budget should go towards 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?”

• Do not rely on computer programs to improve your child’s reading ability, speed and comprehension. Research has proved that computer reading programs cannot solve reading difficulties.

• 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.

Signs of a reading difficulty

• Reverses letters like b and d, or p and q, or reads words like no for on, rat for tar, won for now, saw for was.
• Puts letters in the wrong order, reading felt as left, act as cat, reserve as reverse, expect as except.
• Misreads little words, such as a for and, the for a, from for for, then for there, were for with.
• Loses orientation on a line or page while reading, missing lines or reading previously-read lines again.
• Reads aloud hesitantly, word by word, monotonously.
• Tries to sound the letters of the word, but is then unable to say the correct word. For example, sounds the letters ‘c-a-t’ but then says cold.
• Mispronounces words, or puts stress on the wrong syllables.
• Foreshortens words, for example ‘portion’ for proportion.
• Omits prefixes, omits suffixes or adds suffixes.
• Reads with poor comprehension.
• Remembers little of what was read.
• Cannot match the appropriate letter when given the sound.
• Often ignores punctuation, omitting full stops or commas.

Edublox specialises in educational interventions that make children smarter, help them learn and read faster, and do mathematics with ease. Our programs enable learners to overcome reading difficulties and other learning obstacles, assisting them to become lifelong learners and empowering them to realise their highest educational goals.

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