Why Is Reading So Hard for Some Kids?

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Picture two students, side by side, reading a fairytale from a storybook.  One student easily reads with expression and enthusiasm, “Once Upon a Time”.  The other student slowly reads “On up a tim.”  Both students live in the same neighborhood, have educated parents that read to them at night, and were exposed to literature at a young age.  So why can the one read and the other cannot?  Is it a fairytale story to think that reading is a natural process?  The answer is “yes”.

How Prevelant Is the Problem?

Almost 20% of children have a reading problem that impacts their ability to learn to read through traditional teaching methods. Most reading instruction in American classrooms is taught through the whole language approach where students are expected to learn to read naturally through exposure to literature.  While this methodology works with many students, it doesn’t work for all.  Critics of the whole language approach state that students also need phonics-based instruction.

Reid Lyon, the former head of National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, makes a valid point by questioning why there are so many illiterate adults and children if reading were a natural process.  According to a recent article in TIME magazine, there are almost 3 million students in special education classes specifically because they cannot read.

Most have a reading disorder, such as dyslexia.   In many instances, the student demonstrates strong reading comprehension, but there is a specific glitch in sounding words out (decoding). Because reading is a combination of decoding and comprehension, a student’s decoding skills are vital to the reading process. To learn to decode a student needs to be able to understand that individual sounds make up words.  Thus, a reading disability that is not based in comprehension is occurring at the basic letter/sound level.  Students aren’t able to quickly pull apart sounds and blend them together.  And interestingly, because reading and spelling are related, a red flag for dyslexia is poor spelling.

What’s Causing Such Difficulty?

Scientific data points to specific neurobiological differences between normal readers and those with dyslexia.  Brain scans show that those with a reading disorder process information from the frontal lobe, while normally-functioning readers process information from the posterior region, the part of the brain that makes reading automatic.  When this occurs, students compensate by relying heavily on memorizing words because they can’t sound them out fast enough.  While this compensatory strategy helps get kids through a school year, without proper treatment, these children flounder as they encounter new, more challenging text.  As students age, they will continue to struggle to decode, however, this does improve with time.  The most significant residual effect of their untreated reading problem is very slow reading.

What Can Be Done?

Twenty years of research demonstrates that we can remediate almost all reading disabilities.  Assessment of a student’s letter/sound knowledge as early as the kindergarten and first grade is key.

Too often the excuse of a developmental lag is given and that eventually Johnny will “catch up”.  Statistics state that 76% of students with an untreated reading problem never do catch up.  Waiting to seek help is not the answer.  When help is given in 4th grade rather than in kindergarten when weaknesses were first spotted, it takes four times as long to improve the same skills by the same amount.  Although it may take longer to remediate a reading problem in a middle or high school student, we do know it can be done.

One-to-one reading instruction or small group instruction is considered the best approach. Explicit instruction is the most powerful way to improve reading. The focus should be on decoding, fluency, and ultimately, comprehension.

In the 1930s, Dr. Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham developed an approach to reading, a ‘course of action’ if you will, to provide reading instruction.  Their method is still the gold standard used today.  The Orton-Gillingham approach is multisensory (instruction taps into the visual, auditory and kinesthetic domains) because this approach aids the processing, retention and application of information.

Although scientific evidence proves that reading is not a natural process for many, obstacles can be overcome.  With the right instruction, these students will be able to open up their books and be whisked away to magical lands.