A lot of parents are very frustrated now with trying to help their children who are struggling with learning to read. I have been hearing a lot about this because I am a specialist in helping children overcoming reading problems. One of the first things that might help parents understand reading problems is to know how the brain processes words when you read. It uses three steps and a child may have problems on just one of them or even all three.
The first step is called Orthographic – knowing letters and sight words. Early signs that a child is going to have problems with this step are difficulty learning to print their name, problems with printing the alphabet past the first few letters (if they do not have anything to copy or trace), and reversals of letters. Often children who have trouble with this step can sing the alphabet but can’t print it well. They may need several minutes to print the alphabet while they use the song to cue them about what comes next, going back to A each time and singing it forward as they figure out what letter comes next.
The second step is called Phonological – matching the letters and syllables to the sounds that they represent. This step is much harder for children learning to read English than most other languages because the symbols don’t always have the same sound (think of the letter “c” for instance which can sound like a “k” or an “s”) and different syllables can represent the same sound (think of oh and bow). A lot of attention has focused on this step over the last twenty years. It is a very significant part of the problem that a child may have. It is not always the whole answer because children’s problems may mostly be on that first step. Also, once children conquer basic reading they may have problems when they start reading sentences and paragraphs. They may make errors even though they can sound out the words if they are on a vocabulary list. They may guess at words based on the first letter (reading Basketball for Baseball for example) substitute vowels (come for came) or miss words like no, an, or the entire. These errors are often blamed on the child’s not taking enough time or making enough effort to get the words right. It is usually just a problem with how the muscles of the eyes move them across the page.
The third step is called Mnemonic -the memory of what the word means. In a way, this is the step that tends to be overlooked. It is a given that the words a second grader reads almost always well known to the child. It is only in higher grades usually starting in the Fifth Grade that it start to show up. Even if there were early struggles, a child may be reading okay by then. Problems with reading comprehension can be disabling as a child gets into middle school and starts failing tests or makes much lower grades. They are not often, however, recognized as correctable problems with how the brain processes reading.
There are a couple of simple exercises that correct this problem that I will get to in another blog. The true phonological processing problems are related to how accurately the brain hears sounds. There is some controversy about this. I will go into that and ways that can be helpful to work on it in my next blog.
Often when I discuss my evaluation with a child’s parent they ask me, “Does that mean that my child has Dyslexia?”