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Spotting the signs of reading problems

Published on: October 01, 2009

Little boy readingBellevue mom of four Lisa Mead has a bright 10-year-old daughter who wants to go to college and be an Olympic swimmer. And while Mead’s daughter already excels at swimming, she needed extra support to meet her academic goals.

Mead noticed early on that her daughter wasn’t keeping up with the reading pack at her public school. “We sensed something was wrong toward the middle of first grade,” she says. Mead raised the issue with her daughter’s teacher and was told her daughter was on track.

By second grade, says Mead, her daughter wasn’t processing things properly. “All the B’s and D’s were backward, and she could not self-correct or sound out words.” Homework created havoc. “She would be in tears every night because she couldn’t do the work,” she says.

In December of that year, Mead had her daughter privately tested and learned she was mildly dyslexic. They began working with a tutor who specialized in phonemic awareness. “Over the past year and half we have seen improvement,” says Mead.

According to the Society for Neuroscience, as many as 15 percent of children nationwide have dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read and write — no matter how smart the child is. “You cannot wait for the school to tell you your child needs help,” says Mead. “If it gets to that point, then your child is already so far behind it takes a long time to catch up.”

Daelene King, director of Seattle’s Learning and Language Clinic, says that when it comes to identifying a reading problem, the earlier, the better. Ideally, she says, intervention should be provided for at-risk children even before they are expected to actually read in school. “Much of a child’s future reading success can be predicted during the preschool and early grade-school years by the strength of certain fundamental processing skills, such as an awareness of sounds within words.”

Watching for signs
Parents can support a child’s reading development by reading aloud — even when kids get older — from chapter books during a daily reading time, says King. “I read chapter books aloud to my children into their early teen years, and now that they are in high school and college, we still often discuss books we’re each reading over dinner.”

Reading with your child is an opportunity to spot those early signs of a reading disability, she says. “If a 5-year-old cannot rhyme or separate words into syllables, or if a 6-year-old can’t name the first sounds of words, these are red flags.” When their children get a little older, parents should watch for difficulty sounding out words, which often appears as consistent guessing at words based on the first letter or two, says King.

Other warning signs can be persistent letter reversals (for example, reading “saw” for “was”), substituting similar-looking words (e.g., “what” for “that”) or making word substitutions based on word meaning rather than word appearance (such as “finger” for “thumb”). “Any child in first grade on up who is regularly frustrated about trying to read is telling us she needs additional support of some kind, and she should be evaluated for a potential reading problem,” says King.

King also says parents should prepare ahead of time for parent-teacher conferences. “Get ready to ask questions such as ‘Does my child seem to be on track in her reading development?’ or ‘What are some ways I can facilitate his reading at home?’” And find out what test scores mean. How do your child’s scores compare to those of his classmates?

If you think something’s wrong with your child’s reading ability and the school is not addressing it, get a private evaluation, says King. The Learning and Language Clinic offers evaluations, as do learning specialists, including child psychologists and educational consultants. For more names and information, go to Washington state branch of the International Dyslexic Association.

Kathleen F. Miller will always be grateful to her third-grade teacher at Bainbridge Island’s Blakely Elementary, Mrs. Thatcher, who spotted her dyslexia and recommended the support she needed to learn to read.


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