Recently I was talking to an editor, discussing an idea for a teacher resource book. “I think you should include information on what a reading difficulty is,” she said. “Good idea,” I thought. “No problem.” Later, after hours of pouring over articles and studies on reading difficulties, disabilities, and disorders, my thought was, “Yeah, that was easy for you to say!”
Reading, and learning to read, is a difficult for many children. Some experts say up to 20% of our nation’s kids experience reading difficulties. Others, like Dr. Kathryn Drummond, put a number on the problem: “One estimate is that about 10 million children have difficulties learning to read.” Meanwhile, reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that about one-third of America’s fourth graders are reading below a Basic level. According to the NAEP, these children are having a difficult time reading. (Sources below).
The good news is that reading difficulties can be prevented and even overcome. Dr. David Kilpatrick, reading expert and professor of psychology, says research studies indicate that the the number of struggling readers can be reduced by 70-80% or more. Others are even more optimistic. The International Literacy Association, citing the research of Frank Vellutino and Joe Torgesson, asserts that appropriate interventions can “… reduce the number of children with continuing difficulties in reading to below 2% of the population."
But what exactly is a reading difficulty? Who decides how to define them? Are there different types? If yes, what do they look like and what causes them?
Before we consider difficulties in terms of reading behaviors, let’s look at non-reading behaviors, which are also important to note. When you scan your classroom, it’s easy to spot the kids who enjoy reading. They willingly tackle text, independently reading for long periods of time, focusing intently as they read through paragraphs and pages. When they read aloud their fluency is strong. After reading, they happily discuss their thoughts, feelings, and opinions about all they have read. All in all, these children enjoy the act of reading.
Other children are not so involved and contented. They may avoid books. Some don’t want to read in front of their classmates. Others may actively try to avoid the task. Avoidance behaviors include acting silly, asking to go to the bathroom or nurse, or becoming painfully shy.
When it comes to the actual act of reading, as well as spelling and writing, struggling readers exhibit a wide range of behaviors. Each can have a differing degree of severity. The list below, based on the work of Seidenberg, Kilpatrick, and Wolf, gives examples:
Some children show only a few signs of struggle. Others show many. Some students have only mild impairments. Others have severe. For some, reading difficulties are easily corrected and short lived. But other children have problems that are tenacious, long-lasting, and debilitating.
Difficulty vs. disability
Behind each observable reading difficulty is an underlying reading weakness. In other words, there is a reason, or a combination of reasons, why a child makes spelling errors, fails to accurately decode words, cannot remember what was read, fails to read fluently, or doesn’t understand the meaning of the text. Like the behaviors themselves, the reasons for reading difficulties are varied and exist in varying degrees of severity.
Some students may have a reading-related disability or disorder. Often these conditions are rooted in biology. Most, like dyslexia, manifest as a group of specific reading difficulties that are moderate to severe in their impact, persist over time, and are not caused by environmental factors such as economic or environmental disadvantages, a lack of reading instruction, or difficulties speaking and/or understanding the language.
For special education purposes, a struggling reader might be identified with a specific learning disability, an intellectual disability, or a speech-language impairment. Meanwhile, over in the clinical realm, a child might be diagnosed with dyslexia or dysgraphia. Each of these is a specific learning disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association. For example, dyslexia is a learning disorder that is neurodevelopmental in nature and begins at school-age.
To illustrate a reading difficulty severe enough to be labeled a disability, I offer Robert (not his real name). Teachers were concerned about Robert even when he was in kindergarten. He was always a happy child, friendly and outgoing, and he didn’t shy away from reading. But learning to read was chronically difficult for him. He was slow to recall the names of letters. Spelling words using sounds-letter associations was difficult for him, as were generating rhyming words and segmenting the individual sounds of CVC words. In first grade, his progress through the guided reading levels was slow. Because he wasn’t learning through the general classroom instruction, Robert was given instruction in an intervention group twice a week for 25 minutes. By the end of 1st grade, Robert was behind in his reading.
In second grade, Robert received instruction in a co-taught classroom staffed by a general education teacher and a reading specialist. The class size was limited to 16 students. Still, Robert only made 0.3 to 0.5 year’s-worth of growth on various reading assessments.. In third grade, Robert was once again placed in a classroom with low student numbers and two teachers. This time his program included more guided reading, more direct and explicit instruction, more phonics and spelling practice, more guided writing, and a class-wide behavior reinforcement program. Robert made more progress than before (0.8 year’s-worth of growth) but it still wasn’t enough to allow him to reach important reading benchmarks or catch up with other students. At the end of 3rd grade, Robert was referred to the school psychologist who, after giving a battery of assessments, determined he had a specific learning disability.
In contrast with Robert, who had a diagnosed learning disability, I offer my niece Morgan, who graciously gave me the go ahead to write about her. In kindergarten and first grade Morgan was a typically achieving student, neither struggling nor high flying. But her reading took a turn for the worse in 2nd grade. At the beginning of the school year she came down with mononucleosis. For almost seven weeks, she was mostly at home. Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks added to her days out of school. By January, she was experiencing reading difficulties.
Truth be told, Morgan’s school was ill-equipped to help children in her class who were falling behind but weren’t in special education. I know this because I did volunteer work there. Second grade instruction was basal-based, mostly whole group, with lots of workbook assignments. There was a dearth of direct and explicit instruction, little differentiated instruction, and no guided reading. Additionally, non-special ed reading intervention groups met twice a week for 30 minutes, and after subtracting the minutes it took kids to transition, the time left for instruction was more like 20 minutes.
Through January, Morgan fell further behind. At an early-February parent-teacher meeting, Morgan’s mother was shown her daughter’s low reading scores. The homeroom teacher suggested Morgan be assessed for the special education program. Morgan’s mom was dead-set against that option. Instead, she asked me to help.
Before I began tutoring my niece, I listened to her read. It was slow, hesitant and full of errors. Morgan failed to understand portions of the stories she read. She didn’t engage in much self-monitoring or employ meta-cognition strategies. And when I gave her a phonics inventory and spelling inventory, it was obvious she lacked foundational decoding and encoding skills.
Over the next four months, I tutored Morgan two to three times a week for 60 to 75 minutes. She studied phonic patterns, built words with the patterns, and read word lists. She wrote and practiced applying sounds and letters, patterns, and other strategies while spelling. She worked on fluency through repeated readings of passages and I made sure that she looked at every word and read through the entire word using decoding strategies. She read for an extended amount of time in books that were on her independent and instructional levels and we discussed how she could fix up her mistakes, as well as make connections, visualize, and ask and answer questions. And we ended the session with my reading a bit rom a chapter book she had picked.
By early June, Morgan was back on track. I talked to her mom about making sure she read a lot over the summer and Morgan did this. I did a bit of tutoring over the summer, too. Since then, there have been no major problems. Morgan recently told me she has to work extra hard to achieve in school, probably harder than most students, and she’s not much of a recreational reader. Nonetheless, Morgan went on to get her bachelor’s degree. Now she’s working on her master’s degree and pulling a 4.0.
Both Morgan and Robert experienced reading difficulties. Robert’s were severe and long lasting. Morgan’s were not. Both students, however, were helped by specific instructional practices. And in Morgan’s case, specific practices prevented further problems.
All striving readers require instruction that speaks to the underlying causes of the problems. In my next blog I’ll use the Simple View of Reading to go “behind the scenes” and examine the actual causes of many reading difficulties.
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I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.