By Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman, MA
” Jason is an avid reader,” one woman boasted. “He was already reading in Kindergarten. We read to him a lot, and he seemed to pick it up.” You bite your lip and then smile sweetly. “How lucky for you.”
Most of us know that many children do not pick up reading so easily. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a full 20% of people in this country have difficulty learning to read. The act of reading involves interpreting meaning from the printed word. How many times have you read a page and then realized that your mind was elsewhere and you have no idea what you just read? Reading, then, involves two components: one is decoding the letters and the other is comprehension. Each of these obstacles is treated differently.
First I will discuss difficulties in decoding. Children learn to read both by memorizing sight words, like “school,” and by using phonetic strategies. If your child sees a word new to her, like “giraffe,” and guesses “goat,” you have a clue that she is not using knowledge of phonics to figure out the word. If over time she still does not grasp the phonetic structure of reading, she may be dyslexic. Many people think of dyslexia as turning around the letters d and b. Actually, dyslexia is “a disturbance of the ability to read” (Webster’s Dictionary) that does not have an obvious cause such as low IQ or emotional problems. Dyslexia is a neurological disorder, directed in the left hemisphere of the brain, and is often inherited. There are many possible causes for dyslexia, and interventions vary.
Dyslexia can have one or more sources. One possible source is visual. Some children see words jumping around on the page. When b’s and p’s move around, it is especially confusing. Special reading glasses can often remedy this problem. Many children eventually learn to compensate. Rachel Kelley, a Reading teacher with a Masters in English, says, “I can identify with these children because I’m also dyslexic. I never could identify right from left, and print has always been moving around when I read.” Another source can be auditory. Some children have great difficulty distinguishing between various sounds. Other children may know their letter sounds, but have difficulty putting them all together to make words. According to Libby Johnson, a special education teacher for Fairfax County Public Schools, “It all comes down to individual learning styles. Each student learns differently, whether it be visually, auditory, kinesthetically, or a combination.”
To address this variety of learning styles, many reading programs have been developed. The Orton-Gillingham method uses a multi-sensory approach. To learn letter sounds, children write them, say them, touch them, and trace them in the air. This method appeals to auditory learners, visual learners, and kinesthetic learners, who need to involve their bodies in order to learn. Another program, Lindamood, teaches letter sounds according to color. For example, a child might write pop by using the colors red, blue, red. The Lindamood method also teaches children to touch their mouths and throats to help them distinguish between different sounds. Other phonics oriented popular reading programs are The Stevenson Program, The Wilson Program, and The University of Kansas Program. All of these reading programs have been successful in various schools.
The phonics oriented techniques described above are quite different from the “Whole Language Approach” to teaching reading, which is popular in many schools. This approach does away with phonics worksheets and instead emphasizes high interest literature. Phonics are still taught, but in context. The rationale is that completing worksheets on specific skills does not necessarily translate into reading and writing. Many whole language advocates do not like traditional basal readers because their controlled vocabulary results in boring reading that does not motivate the children. The Whole Language Approach is very successful for many children; however, many dyslexic children cannot learn to read using this approach alone.
You can provide additional support by using techniques at home. If your child seems to be an auditory learner, buy books on tape to accompany written books. You can also make your own books on tape. Read to your child frequently. Pick out books that your child can read aloud fairly easily. You may want to read together by alternating pages. A child who struggles through reading becomes tired easily. Your goal is to make reading enjoyable. Most teacher stores sell phonics games to help review the letter sounds. Whatever your child is doing in school, practice and reinforcement at home will help with phonics skills.
Some children can read fluently, but cannot tell you about what they are reading – their problem is comprehension. Potential causes may be processing difficulties, a poor vocabulary, or lack of background knowledge. Before reading a book, you can review vocabulary words that you suspect may be difficult, and you can discuss the topic of the book to make sure the background knowledge is there. For example, if you live in the city and the book is about a farm, you may want to discuss life on a farm before you begin reading. You can also teach children how to figure out words they do not know based on context. Ask your child to guess what the word means. This skill can be developed. Telling a child to look up a word can be counterproductive because it breaks up the momentum of the reading. If your child is reading and asks you what a word means, tell him. You can also help him improve his vocabulary by using a variety of words in your conversations.
One powerful technique that addresses a processing problem is visualizing. While reading, encourage your child to make a movie in her head about the events in the story. Ask her to close her eyes and ask her what she sees. If she describes what the characters look like and what they are wearing, you are on the right track. The Lindamood-Bell Learning Process, called “Visualizing and Verbalizing,” has documented significant success in improving both reading and oral language comprehension using these techniques.
Finally, if you and your child’s teacher believe that your child has a significant reading problem, early intervention is the key. Recent research has shown that testing and intervening as early as possible, through direct instruction, has the best results. Bruce Pennington, in his well respected book Diagnosing Learning Disorders, states, “In terms of remedial recommendations, the single most important step is for the child to receive individualized tutoring in a phonics-based approach to reading.” Testing is available in kindergarten, either at your child’s school or through a private source. If your child is dyslexic, individualized instruction via special education programs, private tutoring, and family involvement, can help your child succeed. With the right intervention, dyslexic children can learn to read successfully and become extremely productive in their chosen fields.