Discovering Hidden Reading Problems

The child’s mother was obviously frustrated. “We studied together for hours yesterday!” she complained, “and look what he got on his science test!” The paper, festooned with red checkmarks, sported a large red F in the center. “He knew it backwards and forwards,” the mother continued. “We went over and over his science study guide and he STILL failed the test! What happened? How did he forget so quickly?” Almost under her breath, I heard her mutter, “The boy is NOT stupidÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½”

A quick glance at his test revealed that his answers were indeed far from expectations for fifth grade science. One question read, “What is vacuum?” His answer, “How loud or soft something is,” was completely nonsensical. It seemed like he had written at random. “Tim*?” I asked. “Read question four to me, please.”

Tim read slowly. “What is Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½.. volume?” Suddenly, Tim’s answer about how loud or soft something is made all of the sense in the world. He had misread the question and answered correctly for what he thought it said. When I corrected Tim’s reading, he answered, “A vacuum is when there’s no air or anything else inside.” He knew the science concepts, but couldn’t read the question. Tim’s poor reading caused him to fail that test.

Inadequate reading skills impact thousands of children’s grades. The problem is insidious. Many children who struggle with reading receive acceptable grades in early elementary school. It’s only in the middle grades that achievement begins to slide. A student who had good reports in first grade might begin to receive C’s and then drop to D’s by fourth or fifth or sixth grade. Parents shake their heads in wonder. Adults question the parents’ commitment to education. Some call the child “lazy” or “unmotivated.”

The true problem, however, can often be traced to poor reading skills. Somewhere between third and fourth grade, emphasis in the classroom shifts from teaching children how to read to requiring students to read to learn and complete activities in all subjects. Reading skills and lessons turn into comprehension exercises. Kids are expected to read and study from textbooks, nonfiction books, magazine articles, and other kinds of printed materials. For a child who does not read efficiently, the result is that grades in all areas slip. Even math, which many think of as focusing on number concepts, requires a lot of reading: directions, story problems, labels, and so forth.

A struggling reader wears many disguises. The student generally realizes that something is not quite right, but often mislabels the problem as stupidity. Some kids withdraw; others may exhibit behavior problems. Many have damaged self-esteem and feel they cannot learn. The kids develop a remarkable array of strategies to avoid reading. They pretend to have read the assignments, feign indifference, coax others into reading aloud to them, rely on the teacher’s lectures in class, and many more. Teachers may label poor readers as lazy, inattentive, unmotivated or problem kids. Expectations are often lowered to match performance. Parents, told that their child will grow out of the problem, often ignore it until the grades make that slow, steady slide.

Many struggling readers have some reading skill. They read comic books. They read textbooks. They read novels. They just don’t do it very well. Inefficient readers read more slowly than their peers and don’t comprehend or retain the information as well. Their ability to sound out unfamiliar words may be impaired. They use less-efficient strategies to attack words, such as word shape or beginning sound, instead of the more efficient strategies such as phonic analysis, context clues and syllabication. They retain many of the characteristics of beginning readers long after they should have passed that stage.

However, attentive parents and teachers can identify these children and find them the help that they need. The signs may vary by age group, but they are nearly always present when there is a serious problem.

Students in first and second grade who are struggling will often lag behind their peers in many ways. Spelling may seem immature. The child may show or voice reluctance to read. When reading aloud, the child may stumble over simple sight words that teachers thought were mastered, such as reading “were” instead of “where” or “by” instead of “my.” Most children make these errors for a little while, but struggling readers often don’t seem to notice them. They just plow right on with the text and don’t acknowledge that something didn’t sound quite right or make sense.

Students in third and fourth grades who are having difficulty with reading usually start to have trouble with falling grades. Homework that is intended to take thirty to sixty minutes may take several hours. Parents may check work and find apparently random answers. Some assignments seem to get stellar marks, and others are very low. Work is markedly inconsistent because some assignments or test items are read aloud or receive group guidance while others do not. The child may complain of not liking school or particular subjects in school that are reading-intensive, such as science or social studies. He or she may score well on routine spelling tests, but fail to spell well or form sound sentences or paragraphs when writing longer pieces.

Upper elementary students often begin to show signs of frustration with school when reading is problematic for them. They may exhibit various kinds of behavior problems, including clowning around, seeking attention in other inappropriate ways, or refusing to do their share in group projects. Some students resort to not turning in their homework, wanting to avoid the embarrassment of failing marks. Some don’t bring assignments or materials home to do the work. Parents and teachers may begin to recognize there is a problem, but might call it disorganization, inattentiveness, or laziness.

Middle and high school students with undiagnosed reading problems slip further and further from academic work. They take the easiest course load possible, and adults around them may mutter about wasted potential. Their attitude towards school and learning worsens. Some will drop out of school when they have the opportunity. Others will drop out mentally while still attending. As adults, poor readers have limited career paths and have difficulty with routine adult tasks, such as reading contracts, filling out tax forms, and accomplishing other necessary but reading-intensive things.

If your child is showing any of these signs, you need to investigate reading skills. Parents can easily check to see if their child is reading at grade level expectations. Perhaps the best way to check is to have your child read a page from a grade level textbook aloud. If everything is normal, your youngster should be able to accomplish this task. Keep track of the number of words that your reader stumbles over, hesitates on, or does not recognize. If that number is greater than five to eight words on the page that was read aloud, it’s time for closer investigation. Students should be able to read a page of grade level material and miss no more than five to eight words. Errors on more words will seriously disrupt comprehension and cause the reader to miss important information. Other signs of possible reading problems include monotone reading (no expression), ignoring punctuation marks, skipping lines, or lack of self-correction when words are misread.

If your reader shows any of these problems, you can investigate further in several ways. Talk to the teacher to see what he or she is noticing in the classroom. Tell the teacher that you suspect a reading problem and ask if there is a way for the professionals at school to assess your child’s reading skills. In most states, if a parent requests such evaluation, the school is obliged to provide it. A private tutor or tutorial service can also evaluate your child’s reading skills. Perhaps the teacher or school can make a recommendation to you. If you live in the vicinity of a Thirty-Second Degree Mason Lodge, many of these organizations provide assistance with literacy skills as part of their community service. They may be able to provide a tutor or other help.

Most reading difficulties are easy to remediate once they are identified. Educators with special training in the teaching of reading have developed numerous alternative methodologies to help struggling readers achieve literacy. These methods are more intensive than those used by the teachers in regular classrooms, but they have a high success rate. Many students, once they receive the proper kinds of instruction, can “catch up” to their peers and read with little extra effort. Students with reading problems that go undiagnosed, on the other hand, are destined to a lifetime of partial literacy. Don’t let your child become a statistic! Check those reading skills if you have any concerns, and get your student the needed help as early as possible.

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