Ten per cent of children present signs of learning difficulties in reading
By Angela Charalambous
Reading is not a natural skill to acquire, it needs to be explicitly taught. Children first learning the ‘code’ of language: that sounds are represented by letters, and then learn to blend letters into words. This ‘decoding’ process – the translation of letters and words into speech is a complex skill and requires a child to have efficient processing of visual, auditory and motor systems.
Reading speed and accuracy should be in place by the end of the foundation schooling phase. If this is not the case, a child is at risk of academic struggles.
The schooling interruptions due to Covid have certainly had a negative impact on reading development for children in early grades. Many have not acquired the foundation phonological skills required to develop fluent reading.
For some children (approximately 10 per cent of the population), reading will be a difficult skill to acquire in spite of adequate teaching, good intelligence or any other environmental factors. These children could be diagnosed with dyslexia (also referred to as Specific Learning Difficulty in Reading). Dyslexia exists on a scale from mild to severe, is often hereditary and can affect an individual’s ability with word recognition, reading fluency, comprehension, spelling or overall vocabulary skills.
It is widely accepted that difficulty with reading is caused by the brain processing phonological information in a different way. Functional MRI scans indicate that the areas of the brain used for efficient reading are not activated in struggling readers. This results in stilted reading that is very labour intensive. Because of the effort required to work through what is often, word-for-word reading, little working memory is available from drawing meaning from text resulting in very weak comprehension. The good news is that the brain is adaptable (referred to as neuroplasticity) and there are interventions that can improve learner outcomes and create the necessary neural connections required for efficient reading.
As a reading specialist, I have delivered workshops on reading difficulties and offered remediation for children with barriers to learning for almost 20 years. Although there is an overwhelming amount of information available, it is evident that there is still little understanding around learning difficulties, both at home and in the classroom. Parents feel shame that their child may be lacking in a skill or be in denial, reluctant to seek out assistance. In class, children get labelled ‘lazy’ or told that they don’t apply themselves or try hard enough. This perception needs to change.
Generally speaking, these children score average to above average on intelligence testing. With the correct diagnosis and support, they can go on to achieve great success in all areas of their lives, and bridge the gap between their potential and level of achievement.
If you feel that your child is struggling, early intervention is essential. Children should improve by 12 months in skill over a year. If they improve at a slower rate, they fall further and further behind their peers who continue to improve. Remediating this gap is challenging, as the ‘finish line’ keeps moving. The first step is to seek diagnosis from a specialist or professional who has experience working with children with learning differences. A diagnosis will allow you to understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses and tailor an individualised support plan with the school and relevant therapists. Children feel supported when they see the adults in their lives working together to help them.
Poor readers will not catch up without intensive intervention. These children learn to read most easily when information is delivered in a multisensory way, in small incremental chunks, at the child’s preferred pace, with opportunities for repetition, and plenty of positive reinforcement. A significant part of finding the “right approach” is understanding it is unique for every individual. and no two children with dyslexia will struggle in the same way.
Speak to your child about what is going on, and what the plan is to achieve goals. Teach your child how to cope and deal with their difficulty – to ask for help, to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Giving your child confidence and resilience will ensure they are not defined by being a slow reader and will go into the world expecting and earning success.
Concessions in the classroom, such as additional time, or a reader, are available to struggling learners and should be utilised and viewed in the same way as someone with weak vision requiring glasses. These concessions and accommodations allow a child to achieve to his ability. I have seen children’s academic performance improve by 40 per cent by having a reader. These children can learn the material, but their difficulty reading text impacts on the ability to give the information back in a testing or exam setting within the required time frame.
Notice and celebrate your child’s strengths which often include excellent special reasoning, creativity and out-the-box thinking, or they may be talented at a particular sport. Nurture and encourage these gifts to boost their confidence.
Continue reading aloud with your child. Focus on finding books that will interest them and spark conversation. This engagement around text offers an opportunity for discussion, developing background knowledge, vocabulary and higher order thinking such as inferential and analytical skills. It also allows your child to have a positive experience around books when it is associated with warm engagement with a parent. First prize is to have personal engagement, but where that is not always possible, there are audio books and text-to-speech apps widely available.
In conclusion, acknowledge the difficulty and educate yourself as a parent, teacher or specialist. Remediate, compensate and accommodate where necessary, promote your child’s strengths, and most importantly, ensure your child knows that they are loved and supported.
Angela Charalambous is a reading specialist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She spends a few months a year in Cyprus, remediating reading difficulties and presenting workshops and talks to create awareness of the difficulties experienced by struggling learners. She can be reached at [email protected]