When a child struggles with reading, life can be hard: the ability, or inability, to read directly affects every aspect of her life, including her self-esteem. Unfortunately, almost 40 percent of 4th grade students in the United States read below grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The large number of struggling readers is due in part to the fact that reading problems — namely dyslexia, which affects 10 million children nationwide — often go undiagnosed until children are well into elementary school, when it's much more difficult to address them.
However, we now know that reading problems can be identified in early childhood and, with the appropriate support, there is a good chance struggling readers will go on to become good readers. A groundbreaking study by researchers at Yale University School of Medicine revealed that when children are taught solid decoding skills (connecting sounds with letters) early on, and get prompt, intensive help in learning spelling, vocabulary and comprehension skills, they can indeed master necessary reading skills. In fact, researchers discovered — through comparing brain scans of struggling readers with those who received intense help — that the intervention helped "turn on" and stimulate the brain's reading systems.
To find out what it really means to have dyslexia and what you can do to help your child build stronger literacy skills, the editors at Scholastic Parents turned to Sally Shaywitz, M.D., a co-author of the Yale study and the author of the widely acclaimed book Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. "Teaching matters," says Shaywitz. "You can change a child's brain when it comes to reading."
Scholastic Parents: What is the leading reading problem among young children?
Dr. Shaywitz: Dyslexia. People think it's a rare problem, but it's not. It's simply not true that reading comes naturally and easily to everyone. In fact, many boys and girls — including very bright ones — have a hard time learning to read. This problem is called dyslexia.
SP: What challenges does a child with dyslexia face?
Dr. Shaywitz: For beginning readers, dyslexia involves an inability to notice and manipulate the sounds in spoken words. This deficit affects reading accuracy, and later, reading rate and spelling. Once a child develops an awareness of the sounds of spoken words, he can then link the letters to these sounds and go on to sound out new words. That's the key to breaking the reading code — and we have to help children who struggle to do it.
Very often, children who are dyslexic also have terrible handwriting. Their mouths have trouble forming sounds and their hands have trouble forming letters.
SP: Do dyslexic children also see letters and words backward?
Dr. Shaywitz: No, that's a myth. And it's also a myth that dyslexia will be outgrown, that it's just a lag in a child's reading skills. Dyslexia is not outgrown; this means that children need to get help as soon as a problem is noticed.
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SP: What are the signs that might signal a young child is struggling?
Dr. Shaywitz: Children around age 3 and older may have trouble enjoying or learning common nursery rhymes, like Jack and Jill, or recognizing that in the "Cat in the Hat" rhyme, the common link is "at." A little later, they may have trouble recognizing the names or sounds of letters in the alphabet. I'm not talking about singing the ABC song, but about identifying a letter and knowing its name and then its sound. They may be unable to read or write their own names.
The good news is that this is a time of great hope. Until now, we didn't know why children were slow readers. Now we know, and we can help. We know we can prevent a child from developing a reading problem in the first place — or solve the problem early by helping at the first sign of a struggle.
MORE: 10 Early Signs of Reading Trouble — And How to Help
SP: You recommend "intensive intervention" to help. What exactly do you mean?
Dr. Shaywitz: A reading problem is very serious. Kids with reading problems need reading programs that are scientifically proven to work; they also need to have intensive intervention — not just 15 minutes or a half-hour a week. They need to practice often; the brain learns from practice. If we want a child to be a good baseball player, we say, "Go out there and throw that ball." Reading is not natural; speaking is. Reading needs to be taught, and it needs to be taught in ways that are proven to be effective.
SP: What kind of support can a parent provide?
Dr. Shaywitz: Reading to your child is important, and especially reading books that rhyme. You can also make up your own jingles and stories that highlight a certain sound, like "sss."
From the time a child starts talking, you can help him break words into syllables. You can teach him to clap the number of sounds in his name, or the syllables in each day of the week. The idea is to pull apart spoken words.
If your child is struggling, it's equally important to encourage him to do something he loves and is good at, whether it's playing soccer or painting. Even though it takes a lot of time to help children learn to read, there has to be time for fun too.
SP: What should a parent do if she thinks her child has a reading problem?
Dr. Shaywitz: The first step is to see your child's pediatrician, who can make a referral for further evaluation. For young children, the best expert is usually a speech and language pathologist.
SP: In your book, you write about the special strengths of children with dyslexia. Please explain.
Dr. Shaywitz: A lot of successful people are dyslexic, including the author John Irving, the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, the financial expert Charles Schwab, and the noted heart surgeon, Delos Cosgrove, M.D. My husband [Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, M.D.] and I have developed a model: A dyslexic child has a weakness in decoding surrounded by a "sea of strengths." These higher-level strengths apply to comprehension, knowledge, problem-solving, and more. Children who struggle with dyslexia often see the big picture when others don't, and they often excel in life.