Early Signs of Reading Difficulty

July 2, 2014 by Geoff Nixon

Looking for Clues

Article by Geoff Nixon published in Parent Guide

Sarah began reading when she was 4-years-old. Her parents, Sue and Tom, were amazed at how quickly her reading improved. She whizzed through kindergarten, her only blemish being some difficulty with rhyming, and her parents could not have been more thrilled. They anticipated Sarah would continue to make great reading progress. Then came third grade. The 8-year-old dynamite reader suddenly faltered. She had difficulty with longer words, needed phonics help and started to resist reading out loud. Sue and Tom were stumped.

Sarah and her family are not alone. One out of five children has some form of dyslexia, defined by Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist at Yale University School of Medicine and author of Overcoming Dyslexia, as simply an unexpected difficulty in learning how to read. Some children struggle with their sounds right from the outset. But many others are like Sarah — they start out well and then, for no apparent reason, run into difficulties.

Therefore, it is important for parents to be vigilant. They need to understand how the brain works when it’s reading, and they need to know the clues to look for to ensure that their children really are on a sound reading track.

The Brain and Reading

While spoken language is 100-200,000 years old, reading is a relatively new invention — less than 3,500 years old. So there is no natural reading zone in the brain. To read, the brain has to create new neural circuits; the challenge is which ones?

It turns out proficient readers all read the same way. They lean heavily on their language knowledge, called their phonological vocabulary that has been developing since birth. Good readers have strong auditory processing skills that allow them to separately record each sound or phoneme within each word. This makes it easy to attach letters to sounds, that coupled with spelling conventions allows reading to be a simple extension of the spoken language.

Language is one of the fastest processing tasks that the brain has, and so it is not surprising that many children have muddy and unreliable phonological vocabularies. In these brains, the language regions of the brain are often not activated while reading — the phonemes are not clear, and so the brain has had to figure out another way to read. Recognizing early signs of reading difficulty includes recognizing these coping mechanisms.

Identifying Coping Mechanisms

The most common coping strategy is memorization. Confronted with the frustration of not being able to hear the sounds when being taught to decode, many young brains decide to memorize every written word. This technique can work deep into second, and sometimes even third grade, until the brain is overwhelmed by an ever-expanding word list. Since children aim to please, they add to the cover-up. It’s a common story: she was reading fine until second grade, but now the school tells me she has a reading problem. This is Sarah’s story.

Parents should not assume their child is on a good reading track because he or she likes reading or knows lots of words. It is important to look for clues indicating either a phonological awareness vocabulary problem and/or a coping strategy.

Signs of a Phonological Vocabulary Problem, Under Age Five

First, 40% of dyslexia is hereditary. So if one parent struggled with reading, then the children are at-risk readers. Similarly, if one child in a family has reading issues, then parents should pay close attention to the siblings.

Children with language delays (late to either speaking or following multi-step directions) are also at-risk readers. These delays often indicate an auditory processing glitch, which is the single most common cause of reading issues. While the language issues are normally resolved, the reading risk remains.

Another clue is difficulty rhyming. Fluent reading requires comfort and dexterity with the language. Rhyming is playing with the language — it requires dexterity also. Sarah’s rhyming difficulties were a good clue, overlooked by her parents.

Signs of Coping Strategies, Over Age Five

For a time, coping strategies can work, but they are not foundations for future reading success. The sooner they are discovered the better. Look for early signs of reading difficulty when your first or second grader is reading aloud:

  1. Phonetically spelled words like need, mispronounced as often as harder words like enough. This is a clue that your reader may be memorizing rather than decoding.
  2. Trips over the same word more than once on the same page. This is an indication that the whole page is overwhelming, not just that word.
  3. Guesses at or skips longer words. This suggests that the word looks foreign to the child and the phonetic tools needed to decode are not present.

Clues in third and fourth grade that middle and high school reading comprehension may be at risk include:

  1. No reading stamina. If your child can only read a few pages in a sitting, that suggests a labored, exhausting and inefficient reading style.
  2. No ability to draw inferences from the text. This suggests the brain is overloaded with the task of decoding.
  3. Poor fluency in later grades. This is indicative of an inefficient reading style that takes brain capacity needed for comprehension.

Be A Sleuth

The brain’s coping mechanism is often convincing in early grades. If your child is using a coping style, a gap will develop. In most cases, those critical reading skills do not develop, and that gap does not close, making reading a life-long struggle.

So be a sleuth. And investigate reading programs for kids if it is needed. Recognizing early signs of reading difficulty can help prevent your child from getting deep into elementary school before discovering they have a reading problem.