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Handling a Reading Problem: Skills

When problems arise, we need to discover where the difficulty lies.

What exactly is the problem? First, round up the usual suspects.

1. Remember that our best predictor of reading success is strong Phonemic Awareness.

So make sure that the ‘sound foundations’ are in place.

If students are struggling to learn Phonics,
or if Phonics is so difficult that their reading is labored
or comprehension is suffering,

check for Phonemic Awareness and build it as needed

--regardless of your student’s age.

2. Rapid-Accurate Naming is vital.

Problems in naming are common among poor readers.

But there are only perhaps 50 major written sounds to learn, and 220 or so common words that are used over and over again.

The number of ‘written objects’ which a child needs to name, is not endless.

It is a do-able number.

So if your student fumbles, or learns to name something one day and forgets the next,

Practice naming.

For example, to practice naming letter-sounds:

  • Start with a very small set of sounds your student knows well.
  • Make flash cards and use them to play drill games with these sounds.

Practice this set until your student can name each rapidly, all the time, without having to think about it.
Add new sounds to the student’s set very gradually.

It is better for your student to rehearse a small set successfully, than to rehearse a larger set with hesitations, stumbles and errors.

If your student struggles to name whole words, practice in the same way.

Easy, accurate, fun practice makes perfect.

Seek educational help when you need it.

An educational approach to literacy training is effective for many students who are experiencing problems.

Many teachers, tutors and clinicians are skilled at individual reading instruction.

Positive helpers can re-teach problem areas,
making sure the student learns them, whatever it takes.

You may be an important participant in the educational project, if you like. Ask the teacher.


Seek a clinical approach for fundamental problems.

Students who are hindered in some fundamental way may benefit from clinical diagnosis and treatment.

Educational Psychologists can determine whether the student is of 'normal intelligence' generally, and whether there is a gap between 'performance' and 'verbal' intelligence that indicates a language-based learning disability.

Some will examine many more forms of intelligence than two.

You may already have convincing evidence of normal intelligence.

ASHA certified Audiologists can determine if hearing sensitivity and skill are adequate for reading.

ASHA certified Speech/Language Pathologists can determine the characteristics of the student’s language as needed:

listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Speech/Language Pathologists may identify areas of language weakness that affect reading, and develop them.

Students learn to read more effectively when listening
and other language foundations are strong.

Naming ability and phonology are examples of language areas that can affect learning to read.

Is reading comprehension a problem? Consider this:

It is unlikely that students would be able to understand
something they read,
if they could not understand it if they heard it aloud.

Auditory (spoken) language comprehension is the basis for reading comprehension.

Speech/Language Pathologists may also define areas of written language weakness--weaknesses in reading and writing--and find ways to rehearse these skills successfully, while making the most of the student’s areas of strength.

You may be an important participant in the clinical project, if you like. Ask the clinician.


Can I teach my child myself?

You do not have to be a teacher or a specialist to help a student who is experiencing problems.

It is possible that you can help your student yourself, especially with some knowledgeable assistance.

Some students are easier to teach than others.

Some students can be downright difficult to teach.

For this or other good reasons, you may decide that it is best not to teach your child yourself.

Use your common sense in deciding whether,
and in what ways, you will help teach your child.


Think Twice About These Problems

Problems in learning Phonics are often blamed upon visual perception.

“There is a problem between the eyes and the brain."

“Your child sees backwards.” (Check out
About Reversals.)

The truth is that visual problems are rarely, if ever, enough to account for a persistent problem in learning Phonics.

Counting upper-and lower-case variations, I count only 41 basic letter-shapes to recognize.

This is a learnable number.

(Fancy styled print can wait until the child is up and reading.)

Distinguishing faces is trickier, visually, than distinguishing letters and words.

“Your child has a visual tracking problem.”

Tracking with our eyes, left -to- right across a line of print, is a skill that we develop from reading smoothly.

Children are not born with this skill.
Children who have never read smoothly,
have not had a real opportunity to develop this skill.

  • Try this: Look carefully across a line of print, left-to-right.
  • Now look carefully backwards, from right -to- left.
  • Notice any difference?
A child’s poor tracking may be a symptom of non-fluent reading--not necessarily the cause.

Children who read haltingly, getting stuck on sounds or words, or backing up frequently, do not
learn to move their eyes smoothly.

Children who read without much sense of language meaning, easily 'get lost' in the lines of print.

The truth is that reading requires a bit of visual skill,
and a whole lot of language.


The Visual Skills Include
The Language Skills Include
Visual discrimination:
Ability to see details and distinguish one letter or one word from another.
Auditory discrimination:
Ability to hear details and distinguish one speech sound from another.
Visual recognition memory:
Ability to recognize letters and words that have been seen before.
Auditory working memory:
Ability to hold sounds in the 'Mind's Ear’ in order to work with them.
Vision therapists would add:
Visual-motor skills such as visual tracking and binocular coordination.
Phonemic Awareness:
Ability to hear similarities and differences between words; to play with sounds in spoken words: separating them, blending them, changing them

Naming ability:
Ability to name objects rapidly and accurately--including ‘written sounds’ (letters) and whole written words

Language comprehension:
Ability to understanding spoken words and sentences.
Understanding various purposes for which language is used.

Ability to guess what might be coming n____.

Successful reading can--and does--build visual skill.
But when the language system is too weak to support reading,
vision therapy will not help this.

So be sure to provide plenty of successful, fluent reading opportunities, before deciding whether to invest in vision therapy for a reading problem.

Find ways to make rehearsal successful for your student throughout The Reading Treehouse.


Be wary of exotic explanations.
In the decades I have paid attention to this, I have heard all manner of intriguing explanations for persistent reading problems.

Most do not eliminate the obvious explanations first (Phonemic Awareness; and Naming ability), and come with an exclusive solution for sale--which may have little or no relationship to the well-known processes of reading.

Most, unfortunately, come with dogma about the ‘permanence’ of the reading disorder.

This belief in a 'permanent' disorder is not surprising, since their one-size-fits-all solution does not discover or strengthen the weakness actually causing the problem.

The truth is that reading problems are not strange or fantastic conditions understood only by experts.
They are comprehensible in the realm of your ordinary experience.

Just so you know: There is no such thing as ‘crossed wires’ in the brain.

The truth is that we are all born with individual brain-based strengths and weaknesses.

We now know that brains of any age respond to exercise.

When we can isolate a weakness,
and rehearse it in the right way,
we can strengthen that weakness.

It works like strengthening a muscle.
It may never be our best area. But it can be better!