Understanding Reading Delays

How to recognize difficulties that need attention

About 25% of reading delays have deep-seated causes. In these cases, a reading intervention is the only enduring option.

Reading is a miraculous skill that requires proficiency in many areas. A child should not be considered a “good” reader until she is reading with comprehension and metacognition, at an 8th grade level. Any missed step along the way to proficiency and/or if you know your child is an at-risk reader (early speech issues, for instance), you need to look for an underlying impediment.  The four approximate reading milestones are:

  1. Letter sound knowledge, rhyming, phonological awareness (K to 2nd grade)
  2. Automatic decoding, reading fluency (2nd to 4th grade)
  3. Reading comprehension — literal (3rd to 5th grade)
  4. Reading comprehension with critical thinking (6th to 8th grade)

Early Intervention Requires Early Detection

Separating natural glitches getting started with reading and a more enduring reading problem is that not easy. Children want to please parents and teachers. They figure out how to memorize to disguise a phonemic awareness or decoding difficulty and meet whatever standard they think is expected of them, only to be caught out in 4th or 5th grade when reading requires a level of comprehension that’s hard to cover up.

Finding the glitch early though, will not only help your child enjoy school more and help self-esteem, it is also the period in a child’s life where there is time.  Elementary school is the “learning to read” period — there is time to invest in an intervention without your child falling behind.

Why intervene?

  • If your child does not learn to decode with automaticity, reading will be a lifelong challenge.
  • Love of reading. An extended struggle with reading develops a negative connection to reading that may linger.
  • Self-esteem. Struggling when others find it easy erodes self esteem, confidence, leading to avoidance behavior and frustration.

Temporary Glitch or a Problem – Look Outside Reading

How do parents tell the difference between the two?  While temporary delays will resolve, deep-seated delays will need reading remediation or an intervention. One way to tell the difference early on is to look for signs of difficulty away from the reading. Look at your child’s language. Are there warning signs?  Are there attention issues at play here?

For instance, did your child have language delays (speaking and/or listening to directions) in early life? If so, he is an at-risk reader — weak auditory processing language cause language processing delays that are essential for reading.

Did your child have an unusual number of ear infections that might have affected early language development?  Was your child born listening to English? Is there a history of dyslexia or reading difficulty in your family? Is your child’s reading out of line — is reading progress slower than in other areas, math for instance?  If the answer is yes to any of these questions, and your child is a struggling reader, then you should not assume these difficulties will resolve themselves.

Again, if there are no apparent language issues, but reading is an issue early on, we would recommend giving your child a chance to mature. Sometimes a year or so of added instruction can make the difference.

However, if your child has some of the symptoms above and the reading problems persist, and if progress is slow despite extra reading help at school, then there are almost certainly cognitive skill delays impacting reading progress. These skills need to improve before your child can become a confident reader.

Three Reading Help Strategies

And so, what to do?  You have three options, three ways to improve reading skills:

  1. Nature — hope and expect your child to improve without intervention
  2. Instruction – rely on school or tutors
  3. Intervention – exercise the underlying skills required for reading

Leaving It To Nature

improve reading skills naturallyThe problem here is that unlike speech, reading is not natural — it’s a relatively recent human skill.

Having said that, many children eventually acquire the phonological awareness and vocabulary needed for reading through daily language interactions, listening.

If word memory maps properly, i.e., spoken words and the corresponding text are accurately connected in the brain, then reading is relatively easily. All they need to do is learn a few spelling conventions and they are on their way to lifelong reading.

If however your child does not have the phonological processing skills to always pick out the sounds inside those words (the phonemes), then the learning to read experience will be very different.

Leaving it to nature is a reasonable strategy up to the age of 7 as long as your child had no language issues in early life. If there were speech or language issues however, your child is an at risk reader.  If she is struggling with reading the chances are she will not improve reading skills without outside help.

Instruction – What Schools (and Tutors) Can’t Do

Schools focus on instruction – phonics, vocabulary, etc. However, they work with students “as is.” If there is a cognitive delay holding back reading, they work around it. Their focus is teaching the fundamentals of reading, not addressing the underlying cause of reading difficulty, the cognitive delays.

Tutors mimic what goes on at school.

You have probably noticed also that the reading instruction window is shrinking. As curriculum pushes into lower grades, less time is available for mastering the reading fundamentals. If your child still has a reading problem in 5th grade, you may need to look elsewhere for help.

Intervention – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

We are defining a reading intervention as an industrial-strength attempt to break the cycle, to improve reading skills by working on the impediments to reading.

The Good

Because reading interventions target the underlying delays, there gains are deep-seated and permanent. Furthermore, interventions are often fast-acting. The fastest way to solve a problem is to find the cause and then act.  Reading is no different. If you can improve language processing skills and therefore improve phonemic awareness, reading skills can accelerate quickly.

The Bad

The bad is that interventions take time each day, typically for a few months. This is challenging since most struggling readers already have a pretty tough school day. This comes down to making a calculation — forgoing activities near term for longer term ease of learning. The younger a child is, the easier that decision is to make.

The Ugly

Sorry to say, but sometimes interventions do not work. Because every child is different it is not reasonable to expect every intervention will work for every child in every case.

Most interventions work on cognitive skills, expecting those skill gains to transfer into reading fluency and comprehension. If child has unrecognized learning difficulties not addressed by the particular intervention, then that transfer of skills may not result in better reading.

Good, bad or ugly, parents should understand, the only chance to make a profound and lasting change in your child’s reading trajectory is with an intervention. The missing cognitive & language skills holding back your child’s reading are not taught at school and are not addressed by tutors.

Your Next Step

There are early signs of reading difficulty to look for. In addition, as a precaution, be aware of the symptoms of dyslexia. But most of all, parents should know the appropriate reading milestones and where their child stands. The school can help you out with this if you have any concerns at all.  At home, understanding what the common reading problems look like is also helpful.

Helping guide your child through this all important learning to read phase can be scary. The long-term stakes are high.

Gemm Learning Is A Reading Intervention

The choice to remediate reading with an intervention is not an easy one. And the timing will vary depending on the severity of the symptoms.  However, if you are concerned about your child, there is help available. To get started, call Gemm Learning for a free consultation and to find out if your child is a candidate for one of our programs.

Cognitive skills are like physical skills — they improve with exercise. This is how Gemm Learning can improve reading skills, from the foundations of reading up. Our adaptive reading software addresses the underlying language processing and cognitive difficulties first, and then trains fluency, vocabulary, spelling and reading comprehension.

Most Gemm Learning students are able to make 1-2 years of reading gain in 4-6 months, 30 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week. Our gains are measured using the RPI, a Woodcock-Johnson aligned online reading test. For more info on how Gemm Learning can help reading skills, watch this video.