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How Can I Best Help My Child Who Has a Reading Disability?

This article, part two of our series on special education and individualized education programs, focuses on how families can help children with reading disabilities.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Almost half of children with an individualized education program (IEP) have learning disabilities, and approximately 5 percent of school-aged children have a reading disorder. And just as there are different types of reading disabilities, different interventions are needed to effectively support children’s difficulties in reading.

The Three Main Reading Disability Subtypes

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading includes difficulties with word reading, fluency and comprehension. Commonly known as dyslexia, these challenges consist of inaccurate or disfluent word recognition and poor decoding (sounding out words) and spelling. If a child has a reading disability, their reading skills are much lower than others their age and these difficulties have persisted for at least six months.

There are three underlying causes of a reading disability: phonological, rapid automatic naming and orthographic processing. Knowing the type of difficulty your child has allows you to support them and advocate for their needs in school.

Phonological

Children with phonological weaknesses have difficulty pairing letters and sounds (e.g., knowing the letter “A” makes the “aaa” sound[CB1] [RS2] ); sounding out words; reading nonsense words (e.g., mib, fob, jap); and understanding spoken language and expressing themselves verbally.  These youngsters also tend to compensate for their reading weaknesses by guessing at words. Although phonologically based dyslexia has a very strong genetic basis, this does not mean if you or someone in your family has this type of dyslexia, your child will automatically have it as well.

Rapid Autonomic Naming

Children with rapid autonomic naming difficulties may struggle with fluency. In other words, their reading may be slow, laborious and “choppy.” In our experience as school psychologists, children who read fluently also tend to understand more of what they are reading.  This is because when reading is quick and accurate, less energy is spent on figuring out unknown words.

Orthographic

Compared with the other two types of dyslexia, orthographic processing is the least familiar, especially to parents and caregivers. Because reading requires both auditory and visual skills, children with orthographic weaknesses may have difficulty reading sight words (e.g., words that do not follow the regular rules of spelling); overlook letters in the middle of words; or complain that words and letters are moving on the page. Their writing may also contain letter and number reversals, spelling errors and incorrect capitalization and punctuation. (Note: Although it is fairly common for youngsters to have reversals in their writing until the age of 8, some research shows it can be typical until the age of 12).

It is also possible that children have a combination of two of these subtypes and, in rare cases, all three. Next, we will describe interventions that may help your child based on the subtypes described above.

How Can I Help My Child Based on Their Specific Area of Deficit?

Before getting into specific interventions, this is an excellent resource to help parents and guardians identify signs of a reading disorder at many stages of life.

Phonological Difficulties

  1. Use word families (e.g., cat, hat, sat, bat or run, fun, sun) when teaching children to sound out words.
  2. Read poems to your children that use different rhyming patterns. When reading, have them raise their hands each time they hear a rhyme.
  3. Talk to your child’s teacher about specific phonics activities you can do at home. It would also help to have a multisensory approach (e.g., using sight, hearing, touch and movement by writing words in shaving cream or sand and clapping the syllables when reading) to strengthen sounds your child already knows and encourage them to use those strategies to read unfamiliar words. Refer to this resource for multisensory phonics activities.

Rapid Automatic Naming Difficulties

  • Repeated readings can be very beneficial. For example, have your child read a short passage on Monday for one minute, and keep track of how many words they read correctly. Similarly, on Friday, have them read the same passage and record the number of words. You and your youngster can also chart their progress. We’ve noticed that children really enjoy this because they can see the progress they’re making. For a more detailed description of this intervention, click here.

Orthographic Processing Difficulties

  • Find out if your child’s school has a reading program that uses a multisensory approach to teach and review concepts regularly.
  • Use sidewalk chalk outside and draw a letter or numeral as large as 10 feet. Have your child “walk out” the letter or numeral as if they were actually writing it. Make sure they start and end at the proper place.
  • Make up sentences that contain correct and commonly reversed words (e.g., saw/was). Next, have your child point to the correct word while saying the word. Repeat this until the youngster no longer makes any errors. If your child continues to make errors, underline the correct word with a colored pen. Continue this strategy until they no longer make errors.

As you’ve likely heard before, reading is fundamental.  In other words, it’s a building block for all areas of academic success.  For this reason, it is important for young children to learn to read because when they get older, they’ll be expected to read to learn.  If your child is experiencing difficulty learning to read, early intervention that is tailored to their specific weaknesses can be extremely helpful. Talking to your child’s teacher is a great first step for addressing reading challenges, and asking about the types of errors your child is making, as well as the assessments that have been given to show your child’s performance compared to others their age, are excellent questions. Next, inquire about the programs and resources offered at your child’s school to help strengthen their weaknesses. As always, knowledge is power; and in this case, the more you know about your child’s reading, the more you’ll be able to advocate for what they need to be successful in school and in life.

Desiree Vyas, Ph.D., NCSP, is a school psychologist and faculty member with Loudoun County (Virginia) Public Schools’ APA-accredited doctoral internship program in Health Service Psychology. Follow her on Twitter @DesireeVyas and Instagram @desiree_vyas.

Charles Barrett, Ph.D., NCSP, is lead school psychologist with Loudoun County Public Schools and an adjunct lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Howard University.  Follow him on Twitter @_charlesbarrett and Instagram @charlesabarrett using #itsalwaysaboutthechildren.

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