Parenting a Child Who Struggles with Reading
What a complicated maze it is trying to find accurate help for our children! My nine-year-old son is having difficulty with reading. He is in the third grade at a school where they are not at all concerned with his progress. My twenty-one-year-old daughter, who is in college, is also struggling. She attended Smith College for her freshman year, took two years off, and is currently at Colorado College as a struggling sophomore. It is sad to see such bright children work so hard and feel so bad about their capabilities. They echo one another in their personal commentaries about their perceived inadequacies. They say, "I'm stupid." "How come others can do it better? Read faster?"
Children who are bright, eager, and well loved may find reading difficult. Their reality contrasts with a prevalent belief: that children learn to read naturally if their parents surround them with books from an early age. Who has not been told by a physician, teacher, or friend that if you read to your children from the time they are in the crib, they will grow up to be book lovers? You expect that normal, intelligent, book-fed children will take to reading as easily as they eventually take to bicycles.
Some do. Others don't. Unfortunately, only about 5 percent of children come into kindergarten having figured out reading, and 20 percent come to kindergarten knowing all their letters. By the time children leave kindergarten, about 17 percent will have significant difficulty with reading if they do not receive the right kind of teaching. The rest are likely to learn with an organized program, but how well and how easily they learn depend on what kind of program and how it is taught. Most children must be taught how to read, even though they love the books and stories the adults in their lives share with them.
Reading ability is like height and weight: it is distributed on a continuum. Some people are very good at it, some people are very poor at it, and the rest are somewhere in between. In this way, reading ability is like musical ability, athletic ability, artistic talent, and mathematical ability. Reading ability, however, is not just a reflection of intelligence. Some very intelligent children have trouble reading, and some decidedly unintelligent children can read fairly well. For children who have very few other problems, reading might not "click" and spelling might be well-nigh impossible.
We, the authors of this book, have bright children who experience difficulty with reading. Both of us have communicated with and worked with hundreds of other parents. We have learned that parents face unique problems as they seek help for a child who is struggling with words. When something as fundamental as reading is hard for one of your children, you may feel uncertain, anxious, confused, helpless, and--yes--angry if you cannot solve the problem easily. You begin to envision the worst. You acknowledge that this may be a challenging journey, for your child and for you, and that finding effective help may be no small task. One parent wrote this to us:
I read your book Straight Talk about Reading and found myself getting angry. I was angry that I hadn't done more for my son who was still struggling with spelling. I was angry that I trusted the teacher to help with my son's spelling. But I did become convinced, after reading your book, I was on the right track having my son tested and having him tutored in the O-G [Orton-Gillingham] method. . . . Your story echoed "my son's story" almost exactly; however, I waited much longer than you to seek help for him. I believed the "developmental lag" theory I was being told by the first-grade teacher.
We receive many letters from parents. As they reflect on their quest for understanding and solutions, parents often share their regret over their inability to act sooner when they sensed that something was wrong. Many wish that they had known more about learning to read so that they could have made better choices or understood what their child was facing. The boy described in this letter did not catch up in his classroom even though his teacher believed that he would. Eventually, acting on her own, his mother arranged for him to be tested and to have individual, specialized instruction. In hindsight she wishes she had questioned the teacher's judgment and trusted her own. She wishes she could have saved her son a few days, months, or even years of anxiety about the written word.
Until the last few years, parent-friendly resources about learning to read and reading difficulty have been scarce. Now there are many websites, articles, and books for parents, such as those listed in this book. Most important, our recommendations are based on more than our collective experience. Scientists have generated enough research on how children learn to read, what causes reading difficulty, and what instructional methods work best with struggling readers so that you can avoid false starts and wrong turns in your search for help. But first let's examine why your role as the parent of a struggling reader presents some unique challenges.
Why is it hard for most parents to confront school personnel with questions about their child's well-being?
Reasons vary why parents of children with learning problems hesitate to question school personnel or express their concerns. Social rules, respect for the authority of teachers, and doubts about their own knowledge in a special area (e.g., reading instruction) inhibit parental action. Challenging school authority can be very uncomfortable for ordinary people. Many parents do not trust their own intuition about something as complex as teaching a child to read. Sometimes parents are simply reluctant to interfere too much in their child's life. They want their children to be independent and to manage school challenges without a lot of parental intrusion.
Enrolling your child in school assumes a tacit social bargain: the teachers will teach if you prepare your child to receive their instruction. Your job is to support learning from the sidelines. Indeed, research shows that children are more likely to succeed if their parents prepare them for school, provide good care after school, support homework, and encourage an interest in education. Teachers count on parents for home support and collaboration.
The tacit bargain assumes trust between home and school. With trust, you send your preschooler into the hands of receptive caretakers. With trust, you send your children to professionals whom you believe are trained to do a special job. With trust, you can overcome your natural tendency to hold on and be protective. You can reassure your child that school will be fun, interesting, and safe. You cheerfully conspire with teachers who help your child separate from you with as little fuss as possible.
Blind trust, however, can be hazardous. Although we want to believe that educators whom we trust should know how to meet our children's needs, time and again the parent is the first or only adult to recognize a child's learning problem. You, the parent, are first to notice the worrisome signs. Your child is complaining that he doesn't like school. At breakfast he reports a mysterious tummy ache or headache. When asked about his favorite part of the day, he says it's recess or lunch. He mentions his friends but not his schoolwork. He begs for you to continue reading aloud to him when many children are starting to read some of the words in books. He'd rather wash the dishes than sit down to read or write. When he finally does take out the book, he stumbles on every other word.
You know that something is amiss, but you get no validation from the school. You suspect that the other children in the class are learning more easily, but you have no way of being sure. You question whether learning to read should be this hard. If you are like many other parents, you ask the teacher's opinion. Your son's teacher says she does not think anything in particular is wrong and any day now your child will start to read. Dissatisfied, you want to ask more questions, but you don't know what to say. Doesn't the teacher know better than a nonprofessional parent?
All of our previous social learning does not prepare us to question the opinions or actions of well-meaning, dedicated teachers. Where are we trained to ask hard questions about how reading is taught, how progress is observed, and why our child might have difficulty? Nowhere. Yet the ability to ask these questions may be critical to the child's future.
Parents who question teachers or administrators may feel they are intruding or crossing an important role boundary. Teachers who must answer those questions may well feel that their territory is being breached. As with any employee in the workplace, teachers would like to have their judgment and expertise accepted. Many prefer to have visits announced ahead of time and are ill at ease if someone just "drops in" to see what is going on. This discomfort, too, is understandable: teaching is taxing, and justifying the curriculum is more than many teachers want to do. Yet the parent who is concerned about reading instruction must cross this territorial barrier in order to decide what and whom to trust.
Administrators may also give mixed messages about parental involvement in educational decision-making. They need parents for peripheral support, especially for raising funds and running extracurricular functions, but they want decisions about curriculum and instruction to reside with the professional staff. It is hard to run a school by yielding to multiple and sometimes ill-advised preferences of parents, and the professional staff works long and hard to choose how subjects will be taught. Parents usually have access to general information about standards, teaching approaches, and the curriculum but are seldom informed at the detailed level that is necessary to challenge reading instruction.
What approach to questioning the school do you recommend?
Assertive, respectful, and informed questioning is exactly what you need to do if your child is struggling with reading. Parents who want to become advocates for their child must distinguish between informed trust and blind trust and be willing to ask questions in areas traditionally "owned" by educators.
The most critical reason that you need to speak up and express your doubts, intuitions, or observations is that time counts. If there is one consistent message from reading research, it is that the earlier a problem is detected and treated, the more likely it is that the child will overcome it. Another reason is that there are teaching approaches and methods that work with most children who experience reading difficulty, and a change of approach may be needed. Once the child receives instruction using an approach that is systematic, intensive, sequential, and explicit, he may finally find the key to reading.
If I ask for the school to help and my child is labeled "learning-disabled," isn't this going to be a stigma that affects his self-esteem?
In 1999 the Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities (CCLD), a consortium of six nonprofit organizations, commissioned a poll to examine the attitudes of parents about their child's learning problems and to assess the level of public awareness about learning disabilities. The poll revealed that the public is more knowledgeable about learning disabilities today than it was five years ago. More people realize, for example, that learning disabilities may affect specific academic skills like reading, and that the term is not another name for mental retardation. The public, however, does hold some harmful misconceptions about learning difficulties.
The most surprising outcome of this survey of seventeen hundred people was that parents wait a long time to seek help. The undue delay in seeking help often stems from their wish to avoid the stigma that they believe is attached to the label "learning disability." Nearly half of parents (48 percent) feel that having their child labeled "learning-disabled" is more harmful than struggling privately with an undiagnosed problem. The poll found that 4 in 10 parents have been anxious that their child might have a serious problem with learning or schoolwork. Yet 44 percent of these concerned parents waited for their child to exhibit signs of difficulty for a year or more before they acknowledged the problem. According to a news release by CCLD about the poll:
Early identification of a learning difficulty often means the difference between success and failure for children struggling in school. Difficulties with basic reading and language skills are the most common learning disability--as many as 80 percent of students diagnosed with a learning disability have problems with reading. Apparently help by the first grade promises a normal reading ability for 90 percent of children with reading disabilities. If help is delayed to age nine, 75 percent will have trouble throughout their school careers.
"It's clear from the poll that parents do not understand the importance of early intervention. With the right kind of help, children with learning disabilities can go on to be successful in their school careers," said Dr. Reid Lyon, Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health. "But right now about 35 percent of children with learning disabilities drop out of high school. This is twice the rate of students without learning disabilities. Of those who do graduate, less than two percent attend a four-year college, despite the fact that many are above average in intelligence."
You can read the entire report from the Roper Poll Survey commissioned by the Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities on-line at: www.ldonline/pressroom.org.
Children have the best chance at success if the methods used at the outset teach critical skills. We can help older students to read and we do it all the time, but early intervention is best. The more time we waste in trying to figure out if there is a problem or waiting for the problem to cure itself, the greater the chance that the child will need more help later on. More help later on is difficult to come by and often very expensive. Parents who realize this know that they cannot afford to waste valuable time at the beginning no matter what. The importance of acting on behalf of the child should outweigh reservations about the stigma of having a learning problem.
Your child's teacher may not be adequately trained to handle all reading difficulties, or may not have the support and resources necessary to help all children in her classroom. Many educators and psychologists do not have the training to understand and explain the nature of reading problems or to offer immediate and effective intervention that is grounded in research. Practically speaking, if your child's kindergarten, first-grade or second-grade teacher is not not experienced or trained to identify and instruct children with reading difficulties, then you may need to take matters into your own hands. The price of blind trust is just too high.
Copyright © 2002 by Susan L. Hall and Louisa C. Moats, Ed.D.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.