Dr. Mary Mollway, Ed.D.
Help! My Child Can't Read!
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
In every classroom across the United States this school year, a child will struggle to learn to read in kindergarten. Nearly all of them will receive some form of “intervention” or “intensive instruction” and a small fraction of those students will catch up with the additional instruction. For many students, however, the pull-out, push-in, after school, and summer school services do not help and they are left as struggling readers or even worse, non-readers.
The facts about non-readers are startling. In a CBS special on dyslexia that aired in August 2019, they revealed that 50% of prisoners have dyslexia. 50%. Let that set in for a minute. One in five children in America is found to have dyslexia. There are many reasons why children struggle with reading in addition to having dyslexia.
There is a common misunderstanding in education that reading fluency is a skill that can be taught. Fluency is a combination of accuracy and rate and is dependent upon the skills below. Deficits in any of the skills outlined below will impact fluency and thus comprehension.
Let’s review some of the skills involved in reading and how they might show up in your child.
Phonological processing: Phonological processing is a subset of auditory processing. This skill is imperative to become a fluent skilled reader and speller. Phonological processing includes phonemic awareness and phonics. It is the ability to hear, use, and manipulate the sounds of the language. Phonemic awareness is hearing and saying sounds, breaking a word into its individual sounds and blending them together. It only involves hearing and speaking, there are no letters involved. Phonics is using that skill with letters.
Visual Memory: This skill is often overlooked in struggling readers. When you read the letters B-A-T three or four times, your mind eventually stores that word as BAT and from then on every time you see it, you instantly recognize it. Visual memory is housed in the visual word form area of the brain. There are some researchers that are adamant visual memory is not used in reading. I am siding with the work of neurolinguists and developmental optometrists here.
Orthographic Processing: Also called receptive and expressive orthographic coding or orthographic mapping, is the ability to store and use the rules about spelling. This is important for decoding unknown words and spelling them correctly. For example, if I see a word such as trifle, I would recognize the consonant-l-e rule and be able to divide the word before that, making the “i” a long vowel and thus pronouncing it correctly which then facilitates comprehension.
Ocular-motor skills: This is often ignored or undiagnosed in struggling readers but extremely common. Ocular-motor skills are the actual movements eyes make when reading. These are teaming, tracking, and convergence. Eye teaming is the eyes working together in a precise, coordinated way. Eye tracking is the ability to move the eyes side-to-side and up-and-down fluidly without jumping. Convergence is the ability for the eyes to come toward center to read at the midline of the body (where all schoolwork is done). A deficit in ocular-motor skills does not, in and of itself, cause a reading disability, but it can certainly impact the ease and fluidity with which a child is able to view words on a page.
Working memory: This cognitive skill involves holding information in short term memory for use. This is vital for comprehension. When you read sentence parts, you have to hold them in memory long enough to make meaning. For example, in the sentence, “My sister and brother are going to the movies tomorrow night for their birthday,” there are multiple chunks of information- “My sister and brother” is the subject, “are going” is the verb, “to the movies” is a prepositional phrase, etc. This also comes into play when reading longer passages. If the information leaves working memory too quickly, the child will not remember or understand what they read, even if they decoded perfectly.
Processing speed: A hallmark of dyslexia, impaired processing speed slows down the rate at which the information moves from area to area in the brain to decode and make meaning from words. Working memory can impact processing speed and thus the two often go hand-in-hand in cognitive testing.
As a parent, how do you determine in which areas your child is struggling? Pursue good cognitive and academic testing by a qualified, knowledgable professional. Oftentimes, this is someone outside the school system. Ocular motor skills can only be tested by a developmental optometrist. Phonological processing and visual memory can be tested by a speech pathologist or educational diagnostician. Processing speed and working memory can only be tested by a psychologist or neuropsychologist but they can also test the academic skills as well.
Precise testing can provide a road map for an intervention that works for your child. If financially feasible, find a tutor that specializes in an Orton-Gillingham-based program or approach which include the Barton, Wilson, and Slingerland programs or someone who has been trained using the Lindamood Bell LiPs program (particularly for phonological processing deficits). Interventions for kids with reading disabilities must be diagnostic, prescriptive and systematic. In other words, they should be tailored to your child based on their needs and taught in a direct, systematic way to mastery and fluency.