Helping Children Overcome Reading Difficulties
Helping Children Overcome Reading Difficulties
Author:Carl Smith|Roger Sensenbaugh
Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Almost everyone knows a story about
the nice little youngster (or sometimes, a grownup) who
works hard but can't seem to learn to read and to write. The child's mother
works with him or her at home, reading to the child and reading with the child.
The child has a tutor at school. The youngster tries with all his/her might,
even to the point of tears, but the symbols and the words won't stick. Though
apparently learned today at great pain, tomorrow they will be gone. The
question is: what do we know about problem readers that will help us guide
them? This digest will discuss children with reading difficulties and how these
children can be helped to read and learn more effectively.
Most children begin reading and
writing by the first, second, or third grade. By the time they are adults, most
can't recall or can't remember what it was like not to be able to read and
write, or how difficult it was to figure out how to translate patterns on a
page into words, thoughts, and ideas. These same adults usually cannot
understand why some children have not yet begun to read and write by the third
grade. They have even more difficulty understanding how adults can function in
our society with only the most rudimentary literacy skills.
Dyslexia is perhaps the learning
disability that is most widely known, primarily because of Barbara Bush's
efforts to make adults aware of the problem of children with this and other
learning disabilities. Stories about children (and adults) trying to overcome
their learning disabilities appear in the mass media with some regularity.
Despite the relative familiarity of the word "dyslexia," there is no
clear-cut, widely accepted definition for dyslexia. In the broadest sense,
dyslexia refers to the overwhelming difficulty in learning to read and write by
normally intelligent children exposed to suitable educational opportunities in
school and at home. These often very verbal children's reading levels fall far
below what would have been predicted for their quick and alert intelligence
(Bryant and Bradley, 1985).
Just as educators and researchers
cannot agree on a specific and precise definition of dyslexia, they do not
agree on the cause or causes. Recent research (Vellutino, 1987) has challenged
many commonly held beliefs about dyslexia: dyslexia results in reversal of
letters; dyslexics show uncertain hand preference; children whose first
language is alphabetic rather than ideographic are more likely to have dyslexia;
and dyslexia is correctable by developing strategies to strengthen the child's
visual-spatial system. Instead, Dyslexia appears to be a complex linguistic
deficiency marked by the inability to represent and access the sound of a word
in order to help remember the word and the inability to break words into
It does appear that there might be a
hereditary factor in dyslexia. In one study of 82 average children with reading
problems, the children were divided into two groups, "specifics"
(reading and spelling were their only difficult school subjects) and
"generals" (problems with arithmetic as well as with literacy). When
the families of the children in both groups were scanned for a history of
reading problems, 40% of the families of the "specifics" showed
problems among relatives, while among the "generals," only 25% showed
problems. Thus, the specific disorder does seem to run in families more than
the general disorder--a plus for the hereditary factor in dyslexia (Crowder and
Wagner, 1992). More research is testing this factor.
It is important to remember that not
all individuals who have problems with reading are dyslexic. And the diagnosis
of dyslexia should only be made by a qualified reading professional. Many slow
readers who are not dyslexic, however, can be helped with a variety of reading
experiences to improve fluency.
the Problem Reader
There is growing evidence that it
might be more appropriate to refer to the amount of time a learner takes to
complete a reading task rather than using qualitative labels, such as good,
best, or poor reader (Smith, 1990). If we accept the premise that all
individuals are capable of learning to read but some need to stretch their
learning time, then we can search for adjustments. Slow readers could read
shorter passages. In this way, they could finish a story and experience the
success of sharing it with a parent or friend.
Let's examine some other conditions
that will help improve comprehension for those learners sometimes labeled reading
disabled. Besides reading more slowly, the person with reading difficulties can
be asked to find specific kinds of information in a story, or can be paired
with a more capable reader who will help in summarizing the essential points of
the reading or in identifying the main ideas of a story.
One of the reasons that these
learners read more slowly is that they seem less able to identify the
organization of a passage of text (Wong and Wilson, 1984). Since efficient
comprehension relies on the reader's ability to see the pattern or the
direction that the writer is taking, parents and teachers can help these
readers by spending more time on building background for the reading selection,
both in the general sense of concept building and in the specific sense of
creating a mental scheme for the text organization. Many times, drawing a
simple diagram can help these readers greatly.
Direct intervention of parent or
teacher or tutor in the comprehension process increases reading comprehension
in slower readers (Bos, 1982). These readers often need help with vocabulary
and need reminders to summarize as they proceed. They also need to ask
themselves questions about what they are reading. The parent can prompt
thinking or can provide an insight into the language that may otherwise elude
One effective strategy for slower
readers is to generate visual images of what is being read (Carnine and Kinder,
1985). For the reader to generate images, he or she must first be able to
recognize the word. Assuming the reader knows how to recognize words, he or she
needs concepts to visualize the flow of action represented on the page. The
same kind of concept building techniques that work for average readers also
work for slower readers. The slower reader, however, gains more from concrete
experiences and images than from abstract discussions. It is not enough for the
parent to simply tell the slower reader to use visual images--the parent has to
describe the images that occur in his or her own mind as he or she reads a particular
passage, thus giving the child a concrete sense of what visual imagery means.
Pictures, physical action, demonstrations, practice using words in interviews
or in an exchange of views among peers are only a few of the ways that parents,
tutors, or teachers can make the key vocabulary take root in the reader's mind.
As is the case with most learners,
slower readers learn most comfortably with materials that are written on their
ability level (Clark et al., 1984). The reading level is of primary concern,
but parents can help their reader select helpful materials in other ways.
Choose stories or books with (1) a reduced number of difficult words; (2)
direct, non-convoluted syntax; (3) short passages that deliver clear messages;
(4) subheads that organize the flow of ideas; and (5) helpful illustrations.
Older problem readers often find that the newspaper is a good choice for
improving reading comprehension (Monda, et al., 1988). Slow readers can succeed
with the same frequency as faster readers as long as the parent or tutor
maintains a positive attitude and selects materials and approaches that
accommodate the child's learning speeds.
of a Positive Attitude
A positive attitude on the part of
the child is also crucial to the treatment of difficulties in reading and
learning. Tutors who have worked consistently with problem learners are very
aware of the role of the self in energizing learning, and the potential damage
to the sense of self-worth that comes from labeling. Teachers and parents
should appreciate children's thinking as the foundation of their language
abilities, and maintain some flexibility in their expectations regarding their
children's development of decoding skills such as reading. For children to feel
successful, they need to become aware of their unique learning strengths, so
that they may apply them effectively while working to strengthen the lagging
areas (Webb, 1992). The child needs to feel loved and appreciated as an
individual, whatever his or her difficulties in school.
Bos, Candace S. (1982).
"Getting Past Decoding: Assisted and Repeated Readings as Remedial Methods
for Learning Disabled Students," Topics in Learning and Learning
Disabilities, 1, 51-57.
Peter and Lynette Bradley (1985).
Children's Reading Problems. London: Basil Blackwell.
Douglas and Diane Kinder (1985).
"Teaching Low Performing Students to Apply Generative and Schema
Strategies to Narrative and Expository Materials," Remedial and Special
Education, 6(1), 20-30. [EJ 316 930]
Clark, Frances L., et al. (1984). "Visual Imagery and Self-Questioning: Strategies to Improve
Comprehension of Written Material," Journal of Learning Disabilities,
17(3), 145-49. [EJ 301 444]
Robert G. and Richard K. Wagner (1992).
The Psychology of Reading: An Introduction. Second Edition.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. [ED 341 975]
Monda, Lisa E., et al. (1988).
"Use the News: Newspapers and LD Students," Journal of Reading,
31(7), 678-79. [EJ 368 687]
Smith, Carl B. (1990). "Helping Slow Readers (ERIC/RCS)," Reading Teacher,
43(6), 416. [EJ 405 105]
Vellutino, Frank R. (1987).
"Dyslexia," Scientific American, 256(3), 34-41. [EJ 354 650]
Webb, Gertrude M. (1992). "Needless Battles on Dyslexia," Education Week, February
19, 1992, 32.
Bernice Y. L. and Megan Wilson (1984).
"Investigating Awareness of a Teaching Passage Organization in Learning
Disabled Children," Journal of Learning Disabilities, 17(8), 77-82. [EJ