knows a story about the nice little youngster (or sometimes, a grownup)
who works hard but can't seem to learn to read and to write. The child's
mother works with him or her at home, reading to the child and reading
with the child. The child has a tutor at school. The youngster tries
with all his/her might, even to the point of tears, but the symbols
and the words won't stick. Though apparently learned today at great
pain, tomorrow they will be gone. The question is: what do we know
about problem readers that will help us guide them? This digest will
discuss children with reading difficulties and how these children
can be helped to read and learn more effectively.
Most children begin reading and writing by the first, second,
or third grade. By the time they are adults, most can't recall or
can't remember what it was like not to be able to read and write,
or how difficult it was to figure out how to translate patterns
on a page into words, thoughts, and ideas. These same adults usually
cannot understand why some children have not yet begun to read and
write by the third grade. They have even more difficulty understanding
how adults can function in our society with only the most rudimentary
Dyslexia is perhaps the learning disability that is most widely
known, primarily because of Barbara Bush's efforts to make adults
aware of the problem of children with this and other learning disabilities.
Stories about children (and adults) trying to overcome their learning
disabilities appear in the mass media with some regularity. Despite
the relative familiarity of the word "dyslexia," there is no clear-cut,
widely accepted definition for dyslexia. In the broadest sense,
dyslexia refers to the overwhelming difficulty in learning to read
and write by normally intelligent children exposed to suitable educational
opportunities in school and at home. These often very verbal children's
reading levels fall far below what would have been predicted for
their quick and alert intelligence (Bryant and Bradley, 1985).
Just as educators and researchers cannot agree on a specific and
precise definition of dyslexia, they do not agree on the cause or
causes. Recent research
(Vellutino, 1987) has challenged many commonly held beliefs
about dyslexia: dyslexia results in reversal of letters; dyslexics
show uncertain hand preference; children whose first language is
alphabetic rather than ideographic are more likely to have dyslexia;
and dyslexia is correctable by developing strategies to strengthen
the child's visual-spatial system. Instead,
DYSLEXIA APPEARS TO BE A COMPLEX LINGUISTIC DEFICIENCY MARKED
BY THE INABILITY TO REPRESENT AND ACCESS THE SOUND OF A WORD IN
ORDER TO HELP REMEMBER THE WORD AND THE INABILITY TO BREAK WORDS
INTO COMPONENT SOUNDS.
It does appear that there might be a hereditary factor in dyslexia.
In one study of 82 average children with reading problems, the children
were divided into two groups, "specifics" (reading and spelling
were their only difficult school subjects) and "generals" (problems
with arithmetic as well as with literacy). When the families of
the children in both groups were scanned for a history of reading
problems, 40% of the families of the "specifics" showed problems
among relatives, while among the "generals," only 25% showed problems.
Thus, the specific disorder does seem to run in families more than
the general disorder--a plus for the hereditary factor in dyslexia
(Crowder and Wagner, 1992). More research is testing this factor.
It is important to remember that not all individuals who have
problems with reading are dyslexic. And the diagnosis of dyslexia
should only be made by a qualified reading professional. Many slow
readers who are not dyslexic, however, can be helped with a variety
of reading experiences to improve fluency.
HELPING THE PROBLEM READER
There is growing evidence that it might be more appropriate to
refer to the amount of time a learner takes to complete a reading
task rather than using qualitative labels, such as good, best, or
poor reader (Smith,
1990). If we accept the premise that all individuals are capable
of learning to read but some need to stretch their learning time,
then we can search for adjustments. Slow readers could read shorter
passages. In this way, they could finish a story and experience
the success of sharing it with a parent or friend.
Let's examine some other conditions that will help improve comprehension
for those learners sometimes labeled reading disabled. Besides reading
more slowly, the person with reading difficulties can be asked to
find specific kinds of information in a story, or can be paired
with a more capable reader who will help in summarizing the essential
points of the reading or in identifying the main ideas of a story.
One of the reasons that these learners read more slowly is that
they seem less able to identify the organization of a passage of
(Wong and Wilson, 1984). Since efficient comprehension relies
on the reader's ability to see the pattern or the direction that
the writer is taking, parents and teachers can help these readers
by spending more time on building background for the reading selection,
both in the general sense of concept building and in the specific
sense of creating a mental scheme for the text organization. Many
times, drawing a simple diagram can help these readers greatly.
Direct intervention of parent or teacher or tutor in the comprehension
process increases reading comprehension in slower readers (Bos,
1982). These readers often need help with vocabulary and need reminders
to summarize as they proceed. They also need to ask themselves questions
about what they are reading. The parent can prompt thinking or can
provide an insight into the language that may otherwise elude the
One effective strategy for slower readers is to generate visual
images of what is being read
(Carnine and Kinder, 1985). For the reader to generate images,
he or she must first be able to recognize the word. Assuming the
reader knows how to recognize words, he or she needs concepts to
visualize the flow of action represented on the page. The same kind
of concept building techniques that work for average readers also
work for slower readers. The slower reader, however, gains more
from concrete experiences and images than from abstract discussions.
It is not enough for the parent to simply tell the slower reader
to use visual images--the parent has to describe the images that
occur in his or her own mind as he or she reads a particular passage,
thus giving the child a concrete sense of what visual imagery means.
Pictures, physical action, demonstrations, practice using words
in interviews or in an exchange of views among peers are only a
few of the ways that parents, tutors, or teachers can make the key
vocabulary take root in the reader's mind.
HELPFUL READING MATERIALS
As is the case with most learners, slower readers learn most comfortably
with materials that are written on their ability level
(Clark et al., 1984). The reading level is of primary concern,
but parents can help their reader select helpful materials in other
ways. Choose stories or books with (1) a reduced number of difficult
words; (2) direct, non-convoluted syntax; (3) short passages that
deliver clear messages; (4) subheads that organize the flow of ideas;
and (5) helpful illustrations. Older problem readers often find
that the newspaper is a good choice for improving reading comprehension
(Monda, et al., 1988). Slow readers can succeed with the same
frequency as faster readers as long as the parent or tutor maintains
a positive attitude and selects materials and approaches that accommodate
the child's learning speeds.
IMPORTANCE OF A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
A positive attitude on the part of the child is also crucial to
the treatment of difficulties in reading and learning. Tutors who
have worked consistently with problem learners are very aware of
the role of the self in energizing learning, and the potential damage
to the sense of self-worth that comes from labeling. Teachers and
parents should appreciate children's thinking as the foundation
of their language abilities, and maintain some flexibility in their
expectations regarding their children's development of decoding
skills such as reading. For children to feel successful, they need
to become aware of their unique learning strengths, so that they
may apply them effectively while working to strengthen the lagging
areas (Webb, 1992). The child needs to feel loved and appreciated
as an individual, whatever his or her difficulties in school.
Bos, Candace S. (1982). "Getting Past Decoding: Assisted and Repeated
Readings as Remedial Methods for Learning Disabled Students," Topics
in Learning and Learning Disabilities, 1, 51-57.
Bryant, Peter and Lynette Bradley (1985). Children's Reading Problems.
London: Basil Blackwell.
Carnine, Douglas and Diane Kinder (1985).
"Teaching Low Performing Students to Apply Generative and Schema
Strategies to Narrative and Expository Materials," Remedial
and Special Education, 6(1), 20-30. EJ 316 930
Clark, Frances L., et al. (1984).
"Visual Imagery and Self-Questioning: Strategies to Improve Comprehension
of Written Material," Journal of Learning Disabilities, 17(3),
145-49. EJ 301 444
Crowder, Robert G. and Richard K. Wagner (1992).
The Psychology of Reading: An Introduction. Second Edition.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. ED 341 975
Monda, Lisa E., et al. (1988).
"Use the News: Newspapers and LD Students," Journal of Reading,
31(7), 678-79. EJ 368 687
Smith, Carl B. (1990).
"Helping Slow Readers (ERIC/RCS)," Reading Teacher, 43(6), 416.
EJ 405 105
Vellutino, Frank R. (1987).
"Dyslexia," Scientific American, 256(3), 34-41. EJ 354 650
Webb, Gertrude M. (1992). "Needless Battles on Dyslexia," Education
Week, February 19, 1992, 32.
Wong, Bernice Y. L. and Megan Wilson (1984). "Investigating
Awareness of a Teaching Passage Organization in Learning Disabled
Children," Journal of Learning Disabilities, 17(8), 77-82. EJ