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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 beginning in kindergarten, because we don’t want him to fail.”

“She used to be smart.”
“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 second and third graders, it is very concerning, because by that point in a child’s education, he or she has formed some opinions about their own performance that are hard to change. Many of them have concluded in their own little hearts and heads that they simply are not smart. Many of these students are becoming very anxious about school and showing signs of poor self-esteem, or even anger. So at this point, we are not addressing just a reading problem, but a mental health issue.

When I take these parents back to review their own memories of the child’s kindergarten experience, I often find the following about the child’s learning in kindergarten: 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 may have been able to “sound a word out,” but still could not blend those sounds into words. They struggled to say the alphabet and with reciting the days of the week and months of the year without singing them.

This is the child, who with much help from home, typically advanced to first grade where they began to compensate by memorizing every word they learned. 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 is not working for them as it does for their peers, so they find ways to keep up but at great cost. The amount of concentration, study, 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, able to complete his or her homework with very little assistance from parents; and this child should know letter names and sounds, give or identify rhyming words, isolate sounds in words, and both sound out and blend sounds together when a 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 for him in that he understands, for example, that if today is the last day of the school week, tomorrow is Saturday. He or she should know their birth date. The student should be a confident learner.

At any point in which this breaks down, there is most likely a problem.

GreatSchools.org tells us: “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, but the other 20 percent don’t learn that way.” (Carol Lloyd)

To me, that is a snapshot of the difference in confident kindergarteners and struggling kindergarteners (which later results in confident or struggling second or third graders). Those who learn easily because their brains are wired for reading are the norm. If your child is not in that group, there’s likely a problem and it could be dyslexia.

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. The other 20 percent that Carol Lloyd speaks of are the one in five students who are dyslexic and must have words broken down and taught in an intensive, systematic, multi-sensory format.

Dyslexia requires the help of a specialist, a certified dyslexia therapist.

I recently had a conversation with someone 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. For most students, a program loaded with educational content is not necessary.

They 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 percent of his classroom for reading.

After the Christmas break, his very concerned mother spoke to the teacher, again, who finally 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 know its name.”

That, my friend, is dyslexia.

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, of his love for taking wood scraps and building things, of his great baseball skills at only 6 years of age, and of his fearless skills at riding 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,” 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.” His tests would later reveal gifted intelligence and an inability to recognize letters and sounds.

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, 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 turn that anxiety around and see their confidence soar as well.

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


At Connections, we serve as a regional resource center providing medical, educational, and speech/language 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.

Information on this page should be utilized as a guide, not medical advice. If you feel you need to speak with someone regarding behavioral therapy or counseling, please contact Connections to make an appointment.