As a child learns to read, it is not uncommon for that child to experience some struggle. Learning to read is complex and somewhat lengthy process, so it is typical for most students to struggle a little. But what about the child who continues to struggle in reading? Who is frustrated and responds to reading with anxiety? It could be the first signs of a reading disability.
When I was teaching third grade, I had a student who was very behind in reading. Very, very behind. All her data (and I collected a lot of it) suggested she ranked in the bottom 7% of my class and the bottom 5% of the entire third grade at my school. Despite all the intervention I could offer she just wasn’t making progress like my other struggling readers were.
I decided to investigate a little further by talking with the teacher she’d had in second grade, who reported the same things I had been seeing. Looking more closely at the data, this poor child’s graph lines were practically horizontal. She had made negligible growth over the last year, and that was problematic.
So, I filled out the mountains of paperwork and took my concerns to the IEP board…where they were promptly dismissed. You see, yes, this little girl had made such minimal gain it could hardly be considered as such, but she was also an English Language Learner. She was originally from South Korea and English was her second language, so the IEP board sent me on my way with a gentle pat on the head.
But I knew in the heart this was not a second language problem. This little one had been living in the same house in our town since she and her family moved to the United States five years prior. She spoke English well, albeit sometimes making very strange connections between concepts, and both of her parents spoke English as fluently as me. No, I could not chock this up to a second language issue.
But, what choice did I have? I kept more data and I worked even harder with her small group and I sent home specialized homework in reading that was designed just for her. I continued to keep notes and data, and finally did my own in-depth assessment to try to identify where the problem lay.
And I went back to the IEP board. This time, three months later, they took me seriously and her parents consented to have her evaluated.
Sure enough, the struggle this little girl had been experiencing in learning to read was not related to the fact the her first language was Korean, it was related to the fact that her brain just wasn’t making the connections as easily as her peers, or at all.
She had a reading disability.
This little girl finally started receiving the services she needed, but what I would have given to know what I do now about identifying reading disabilities.
Reading Disability Defined
A reading disability is a type of learning disability wherein a child struggles and shows extreme difficulty in learning how to read resulting primarily from neurological factors. A reading disability is sometimes referred to as a reading disorder or “reading impaired.”
Recent research suggests that structural or functional problems within the brain may be the culprit for reading disabilities, but the truth is, like other learning disabilities, the absolute cause for reading disorders is unknown. What the evidence does tell us is that children who have a reading disability have a much harder time identifying and sequencing phonemes and making associations within context than their peers. While other students in their classes continue to progress, these children tend to flat line.
Three Types of Reading Disabilities
Researchers have identified three types of reading disorders.
- Phonological deficit – suggesting a core problem in the phonological processing system of oral language.
- Processing speed deficit – affecting speed and accuracy of printed word recognition (problems in fluency)
- Comprehension deficit – often coinciding with the first two types of problems, but specifically found in children with social-linguistic disabilities (e.g., autism spectrum), poor vocabularies, generalized language learning disorders, and learning difficulties that affect abstract reasoning and logical thinking.
Signs of a Reading Disability
There are several signs to look for that help identify if a child does indeed have a reading disorder. Some are basic learning habits, such as the following:
- poor pencil grip
- attention problems
- anxiety in reading
- task avoidance
- lack of impulse control
- easily distracted
- problems with comprehension of spoken language
Other signs of a reading disability are related more closely to the act and process of reading. They fall under the more general categories of decoding, comprehension, and retention difficulties. Signs of a reading disability may include the following:
- consistent difficulty sounding out words and recognizing words out of context
- confusion between letters and the sounds they represent
- slow reading rate when reading aloud (reading word-by-word)
- lack of expression while reading
- ignoring punctuation while reading
- confusion about the meaning of words and sentences
- inability to connect concepts and ideas within a passage
- omission of, or glossing over, detail
- difficulty identifying significant information from details
- high distractibility during reading
- trouble remembering or summarizing what is read
- difficulty connecting what is read to prior knowledge
- difficulty applying content of a text to personal experiences
- inability to view content from different of new perspectives
What to Do if You Suspect a Reading Disability
If you have gone through the checklist and feel like your child or student may have a reading disorder, here’s what to do next.
- Learn about the symptoms of reading disorders.
- Keep a journal (aka data) of behaviors associated with said sympotoms and their frequency.
- Follow your school’s protocol for learning concerns.
- Discuss your concerns with your child’s teacher and pediatrician.
- Get a formal evaluation.
- Meet with IEP board to discuss results and write up a plan.
- Explore more ways to help the child learn to read.
Thinking back to the little girl in my third-grade class, I didn’t suspect she had a reading disability, per say. I just knew something was not right. I knew there was something blocking her from making progress in reading because there was not other reason for her not to be making the same kind of gains as her peers. I wish I had had a checklist like those above to help me clarify the behaviors I was seeing in her reading.
More Learning to Read