My child doesn’t read as well as the others. Is she okay?
I get a lot of calls from parents whose children are struggling with reading. Many of those parents are surprised that reading doesn’t come naturally to their child – because the parent learned easily.
The truth is that reading is not a natural activity. We think reading is natural because it is a language-based activity. And we know acquiring language is natural because we watch our children miraculously learn to understand us and communicate with us without any instruction. All it takes is interaction.
To read effectively,
• children need to be able to match the sounds of speech (phonemes)
to the individual and combined letters of the alphabet that represent those sounds (graphemes). This skill allows them to decode and recognize words;
• they need to recognize the vocabulary they use in the words they read;
• they need to understand the significance of grammatical markers – like the ‘s’ that shows pluralization and the ‘ed’ that shows past tense; and
• they need to be able to think about what they read – to look for and create meaning (comprehending skills).
Children usually develop the necessary skills that promote the ability to read when we
• communicate with them in infancy and engage when they coo and babble back; sing songs – and make up new lyrics; and play with the rhyme and cadence of poetry. These kinds of activities teach children the sounds of the language they’re learning, help them recognize the contrasts and similarities between sounds, and encourage them to manipulate sound (phonological awareness). At the same time, these activities develop children’s vocabularies.
• point out signs, give them crayons and paper so they can “write,” and allow them to hold the books and magazines we’re reading with them. These kinds of activities help a child develop print awareness.
• put magnetic letters on the fridge, explore online games that allow them to identify letters and sounds, explore words that begin (or end) with the same sound. These activities help children begin to develop phonemic awareness.
• engage in meaningful conversation, explain ideas, ask (and answer) questions, and play “who am I?” “What comes next?” and “What if?” games. These activities help children develop listening comprehension – which transfers over to reading comprehension (and develops vocabulary). • read books to them, take them to the library, buy them books, and give them a magazine subscription. These activities help children discover the wonder of the world of print.
“Right,” you say. “We did all that.”
So, why can’t your child just learn to read like her seat-mate?
• have speech and/or hearing problems.
• have a central auditory processing disorder (CAPD).
• have a history of ear infections.
• are anxious or perfectionist and fear making a mistake.
• are pressured to be like an older sibling – or like mom and dad.
• are being asked to develop literacy in too many languages at the same time.
• have a receptive language learning disorder.
• have a “garden variety” reading disability.
• have dyslexia.
• have autism/aspergers.
Don’t assume there is a problem just because a new reader doesn’t acquire the skill as quickly as you did – or a quickly as a sibling, a cousin, or a classmate. Some new readers just need more time and more direct instruction than others (e.g., phonics).
But, if the problem is ongoing, if the child is consistently losing ground compared to age-grade peers, if she becomes anxious about her difficulties, or doesn’t want to go to school… If she consistently forgets to bring home her homework, takes “hours” to complete a simple assignment, or can do math computation but not word problems…. then talk to a the classroom teacher and to a professional who specializes in reading development and reading remediation.
If there is a problem, don’t assume your child will outgrow it. Without intervention, children who struggle with reading at the end of grade one will probably still be struggling by the end of elementary school. Indeed, children who do not read well by the end of grade 3 are “at risk of dropping out or failing to graduate.” The good news is that intervention can help – and your child can learn.
 Juel, C, (1996) http://www.reading.org/Publish.aspx?page=/publications/journals/rrq/v31/i3/abstracts/rrq-31-3-juel.html&mode=redirect