Although reading presents challenges for nearly every child, those with reading disabilities struggle inordinately — and, until recently, inexplicably. Reading and other learning problems that used to be attributed to laziness, experts now agree, often have causes that no amount of hard work can completely overcome.
As with most learning disabilities, the exact cause of reading disabilities is unknown. However, recent studies suggest that structural and/or functional brain problems may cause people with reading disorders to identify and sequence phonemes less efficiently and to have a harder time making associations within the context of what they read than do normally progressing readers. This neurobiological difference, if it exists, suggests the potential for future medical treatments for reading disabilities. In the meantime, most experts agree that the best course of action is early recognition of problems, followed by sound strategies to help struggling readers.
Helping a child who is struggling with reading begins with recognizing signs of struggle. The following are some of the most common signs indicating a problem in one of the three main developmental areas of reading:
Dyslexia is one of the most common reading disabilities, affecting as many as 15 percent of all Americans. Contrary to a common misconception, dyslexia is not characterized by letter or word reversal but by a simple inability to decode, or break down, words into phonemes. Reading requires the ability to map the phonemes we hear to letters on a page, and vice versa, making this a painstaking process for someone with dyslexia.
Signs of a decoding problem, or dyslexia, include:
Comprehension relies on a mastery of decoding. Children who struggle to decode find it difficult to understand and remember what has been read. Because their efforts to grasp individual words are so exhausting, they have very little mental energy left for understanding.
Signs of a problem with comprehension include:
Children are commonly asked to read passages and to answer questions, verbally or in writing, based on what they’ve read. This requires the ability to retain, which relies heavily on a child’s decoding proficiency and ability to comprehend what is read. As students progress through grade levels, they are expected to retain more and more of what they read — from third grade on, reading to learn is central to classroom work and, by high school, it is an essential task.
Signs of retention difficulty: