reading difficulties

Ways To Improve Reading Skills

Instruction, Intervention Or Rely On Nature?

About 25% of children show up at Kindergarten and just start reading. They are the lucky ones. For their parents, it is all about selecting “just right” books and building a love of reading that is lifelong.

The parental role for the other 75% is more challenging. How do you balance building a lifelong love of reading with the need to practice reading daily, when you know your child does not like it?  And, how do your distinguish the normal ups and downs of reading growth from a more serious reading difficulty, dyslexia even, that should be treated differently?  Recognizing this difference gets even harder as children improve reading skills. Is reading progressing fast enough, is it age-appropriate?

Here are four approximate reading milestones:

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

A child is not a “good” reader until the last milestone has been met. At that point, reading should be fluent and any reading comprehension problems will be obvious.

Early Intervention Requires Early Recognition Of A Problem

Children are motivated to please parents and teachers. And so, some actually fake reading. They figure out how to work around a reading difficulty and meet whatever standard they think is expected of them. In particular, some incredible children can memorize enormous word lists to disguise the fact they cannot decode.

And so, figuring out where your child stands is not easy. Too many difficulties “suddenly” appear in 4th and 5th grade as the word list gets too big and the reading comprehension requirement escalates. Nevertheless, figuring out where your child’s reading stands is important. So much depends on how the “learning to read” period of life — up to the last milestone — goes.

For one thing, if your child cannot decode with automaticity, reading fluency and comprehension will be lifelong challenges.

A second casualty is love of reading. A tough time learning to read can create a negative connection to reading and learning that many children never get over.

Finally, reading is a huge part of your child’s day. If your child’s peers find reading easy, while he or she struggles, self esteem and confidence erode. That can lead to avoidance behavior and a cycle of frustration.

A Reading Issue or a Temporary Glitch?

How do parents tell the difference between the two?  While temporary delays will resolve themselves, more stubborn delays will need some kind of reading remediation or intervention. Without spending a lot of money, the next best 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 heave 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.

The 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 To Improve Reading Skills

improve reading skills naturallyUnlike speech, reading is not natural. Having said that, most children improve reading skills naturally. Sure, they can switch letters, skip words and/or struggle sounding out words.  But that could be for any number of reasons. It could be a  mild language processing delay or a slight immaturity in focus that temporarily slows reading progress. In short, they can look to be in trouble with reading, but all they really need is a little more time.

Nature is their friend. Eventually they acquire the phonological and language skills 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 map word memory to text, if your child cannot always pick out the sounds inside those words (the phonemes) that would allow him to recognize the word in text form, 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  language issues, then phonemic awareness is at risk and therefore reading is at risk. Beyond the age of 7, language processing skills are mature. Even without language issues, if your 8-year old child is still struggling with reading the chances are he will not improve reading skills without outside help.

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

Schools focus on instruction. This includes phonics instruction, language syntax, vocabulary word lists, grammar, practice reading aloud and reading independently. However, schools 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 cognitive delays.

Reading instruction by most tutors is more of the same, standards-aligned reading instruction. Even the most forward-looking schools tend to improve reading skills using instruction, with curriculum and software that mimics teacher instruction. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia by John Hopkins University lists protocols that require teacher delivery such as phonics systems as the leaders on their list of Strong Evidence of Effectiveness. There are no interventions that target underlying difficulties represented.

You should also bear in mind that teachers are under pressure to keep the whole class on pace, meeting state standards. This can lead teachers to focus on meeting this year’s standards, not the longer term goals. An example of this is word list memorization. This can help boost reading speed scores near term when the word list is small, but it will not help your child learn to decode every word and improve reading skills longer term.

Another concern is that the reading instruction window is shrinking. As curriculum content moves into lower and lower grades, less time is available for your child to absorb, practice and master the reading fundamentals. By 4th or 5th grade, the reading instruction phase is over in most schools. 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 improve reading skills by working on the impediments to reading. Among the leading reading interventions are Lindamood Bell, Barton and Fast ForWord reading software by Gemm Learning.

The Good

The good news about reading interventions that target the underlying source of delays is that if they work they can make a permanent change. Changes in cognitive skills integrate into learning and so the improvement in reading skills endures.

A second positive is that 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 add to your child’s work load since they happen after school. This is challenging since most struggling readers already have a pretty tough school day. Extra academic activity is not an easy ask, even given that most interventions only require a few months with potential gains that are lifelong.

The Ugly

Sorry to say, but the ugly is that sometimes interventions do not work, they do not improve reading skills. This is true of all interventions.  While the leaders all have long track records of success, because every child is different, it is not reasonable to expect they will work for every child in every case.

This is very different to tutoring. If a tutor works on a list of words, your child will know the words at the end of the session. Progress will occur. Interventions have no such certainty. Most interventions work on cognitive skills with the expectation that those skill gains will 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.

The Lifelong Reading Versus Early Intervention Trade-off

making reading easier for kidsThere are good reasons not to panic too quickly if your child gets off to a slow start with reading.

First of all, as we note above, many improve reading skills naturally as their language processing and vocabulary matures.  Furthermore, it is important to keep a positive connection for your child to reading, understanding that the ultimate reading outcomes is for your child to be a lifelong reader.

In early life, the connection to reading is positive. There is the warmth of the reading-at-bedtime ritual and all the positive encouragement children receive around books. Undue extra work around reading though — word lists, forced reading aloud, spelling drills — can quickly undo this positive association. This could turn your child off of reading for life.

On the other hand, schools are moving to “read to learn” earlier and earlier. Therefore, children are under pressure to read by 2nd and 3rd grade nowadays. Looking through this lens, not the lifelong reader lens, early intervention is attractive as the longer you leave it, the further behind your child will be.

Your Next Step

If your child had language or speech issues early on and/or if your child had early difficulties in reading, your child is an at risk reader.  This means you should keep a close eye on the reading even if your child is reading comfortably, at least until 8th grade. At that point, reading comprehension can only be sound if reading is automatic, the hallmark skill of a lifelong reader.

In any event, if your child is struggling with reading, you should stay vigilant. Helping guide your child through this all important learning to read phase can be scary. The long-term stakes are high.

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.

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.