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Reading Problems in Elementary School? Go Back to Kindergarten.

By: Cathryne E. Wells, CCC-SLP

I saw it again this week. In fact, I see it almost every week at Connections. Parents will bring a student to our clinic, typically a second or third grader, who is hitting a brick wall with reading. As I probe for more information, I will hear something like:

“We’ve always worked so hard, even back in kindergarten, because we don’t want him to fail.”
“He’s bored and that’s why he is not doing well.”
“He just does not care about school.”
When she wants to, she can read.”
“He’s great in math. He just doesn’t pay attention in reading.”
“He’s just lazy.”
“Her brother can read. He’s smart.”

When these statements are coming from parents of students in second and third grade, it is very concerning, because not only do parents form incorrect opinions about student performance, but students do as well. Many of these students have concluded in their own little hearts and heads that they are not smart. They are very anxious about school and show signs of poor self-esteem, frustration, or even anger. So at this point, we are not just addressing a reading problem, but a mental health issue as well.

When I take these parents back to review their child’s kindergarten experience, I often find the following about the child’s learning experiences:

  • The child struggled more with learning letter names and sounds than their siblings or peers.
  • They had poor ability to rhyme.
  • They had difficulty isolating sounds within words.
  • If the child had a strong academic preschool experience, almost always, they were able to “sound a word out,” but still could not blend those sounds into words.
  • They struggled with reciting the alphabet, the days of the week, and the months of the year without singing them.
  • They had more difficulty learning their birth date than their peers.

Often this is the child who, with much help from home, advanced to first grade and continued to find that blending sounds together to decode words was quite difficult. Their compensatory strategy was to memorize every word they learned. This is not an efficient process for reading and leaves the student vulnerable to word confusion.

The dyslexic child is most often very bright. They know that their reading is not what it should be. In fact, I always say that the child is the first to know. Very soon, they realize that what their teacher is teaching in the classroom simply does not work for them as it does for their peers. They find ways to keep up, but at a great cost. The amount of concentration, intensive study, the time needed to memorize words, extended time needed to complete assignments, and dropping out of fun activities to work, work, work turns that smart little child into a nervous wreck or, sometimes, a rebellious child.

The goal in kindergarten is to begin well, and that means that a bright child, by the Christmas break, should be an active learner in kindergarten. They should be able to complete his or her homework with very little assistance from parents, and this child should know letter names and sounds, give and identify rhyming words, isolate sounds in words, and both sound out and blend sounds together when a simple word is unknown.

He or she should know the individual letters of the alphabet. The child should not only recite the days of the week, but this information should have meaning. He should understand that if today is the last day of the school week, tomorrow is Saturday. He or she should also know their birth date.

The student should be a confident learner. At any point that this breaks down, there is most likely a problem.

According greatschools.org, “The Red Flags of a Learning Issue,” Carol Lloyd writes, “There’s an idea in general education that learning to read is like osmosis – and it’s true. Most kids learn to read and write with very little instruction. That is true for about 80 percent of students, but the other 20 percent don’t learn that way.” (Lloyd, 2014)

To me, that is a snapshot of the difference between confident kindergarteners and struggling kindergarteners (which later results in confident or struggling second and third graders). Those who learn easily, because their brains are wired for reading, are the norm. If your child is not in the 80th percentile, there’s likely a problem. The other 20 percent that Lloyd speaks of are typically your dyslexic students.

Dyslexia needs to be addressed in a different way than reading is taught in the classroom. Dyslexia will not be overcome by repeating a grade, moving to a new school, or spending hours after school in tutoring with professionals or with parents. Dyslexic students must be taught in an intensive, systematic, and multi-sensory format.

Dyslexia requires the help of a specialist, a certified Dyslexia Therapist.

A couple of years ago, I had a hard conversation with a little boy who I love very much. This is a precious child who spent two years in a preschool that beautifully focused on music, art, and cooperative play with some introduction to reading. In that environment, some of his peers were reading simple words at age four. For most students, a preschool program loaded with educational content is not necessary. Children can attend a school like this little boy did, and will not only soar in music and in art, but will pick up on the letters and sounds that are presented, ready to go to kindergarten where they will quickly begin to read. While the dyslexic child is soaring in the arts and music, however, he is not connecting to the letters and sounds. And he knows that he does not know them.

So this sweet boy went off to kindergarten feeling a bit of stress concerning reading, and before he even got both feet in the classroom, his confidence was a bit down. Anxiety was a bit up.

He stumbled with saying the alphabet, even though he had been given toys that played the Alphabet Song from his earliest playtime experiences in his nursery at home. He could not give a rhyming word, although his mother and father had read rhyming books to him from birth. If asked to give the first sound in a word, he was helpless. Matching upper case and lower case letters caused him great stress.

Although he got many “plus marks” on his report card, by the end of the first nine weeks, he was placed in the “low reading group” in his classroom without his parents even being told. He had a great teacher. She loved him. He was such a good little boy. Yet when his parents requested a consultation with the teacher, they discovered that he ranked in the lowest 25% of his classroom for reading.

After the Christmas break, his very concerned mother spoke to the teacher again. The teacher said to her, “This child is so incredibly bright! He can infer and comprehend better than the other students, but he can look at the letter E and totally not recall its name.”

That, my friend, is the profile of a dyslexic child.

Once we put it all together, his parents requested a dyslexia evaluation and asked me to prepare him for the test to come. We went to our favorite restaurant, where he would begin his journey of understanding why it is so hard for him to read. We talked about how awesome he is at drawing, his love for taking wood scraps and building things, his great baseball skills at only six years of age, and his fearlessness to ride anything with wheels on it.

Sitting in our booth at our favorite restaurant, I asked, “Which do you like better in school, letters, or numbers?” He first said, “Both.” He said this because he’s a people pleaser, but when I pressed for an answer, he said, “Numbers, because they’re easy.” I then shared with him how I have tested many, many children who struggle with letters and how they are often the smartest kids in the class.

This precious boy looked at me and said, “That just doesn’t make sense.” When I asked why, he said, “It just seems to me that if you can read, you must be really smart. And if you can’t read, you’re probably not very smart at all.” This little boy had incorrectly diagnosed his reading problem as a lack of intelligence. His tests would later reveal gifted intelligence and an inability to recognize letters and sounds. His true diagnosis: dyslexia.

I hope that parents will read this and understand that kindergarten experiences are very important. If your child is in a higher grade now and struggled with reading in kindergarten and presently continues to struggle, please don’t keep driving them to “work harder” while thinking this will eventually get better. What if it doesn’t?

And if your child is in kindergarten and struggling, don’t wait. If we can identify dyslexic students early and place them with a certified dyslexia therapist and get school accommodations, these often intellectually gifted students will learn to soar in reading. And if found early, we can avoid that anxiety and frustration, and see their confidence soar as well.

If we can serve you through a parent consultation or an evaluation, please call Connections at 601-261-5159.

Information on this page should be utilized as a guide, not medical advice. If you feel you need to speak with someone regarding yours or a loved one’s behavioral or mental health, please contact our office.

Connections serves as a regional resource center providing medical, educational, speech/language and dyslexia evaluation services for children and teenagers. Following diagnosis, we work with you and your child to determine the best course of treatment and therapy for them. If you would like to schedule an appointment, please call us at 601-261-5159.