7 ways to help a struggling reader

Reading and learning difficulties

Reading is defined as a cognitive process that involves decoding symbols to arrive at meaning. In our education system, it is a skill fundamental to learning.


The process of learning to read

Before formal schooling starts, children are exposed to language, and pre-reading skills by being spoken, and read to. They understand that print on a page tells the story represented by the picture in a book. They develop speech and vocabulary, learn to play with words by rhyming etc. They identify their names and prominent signage (eg. the McDonalds sign) by colour, shape and pattern.

With the onset of formal schooling, children learn that a shape (letter) on a page has an associated sound. This letter-sound association needs to be explicitly taught, and is of course, different for varying writing systems such as Greek and English.

Sounds are blended together to form words, and words are strung together to form sentences which hold meaning. It is initially labour intensive, using extensive working memory. We see this reflected in the static, stilted nature of early readers.

As skill develops, reading becomes more automatic and fluent. Decoding, blending and allocating meaning, happens in milliseconds for proficient readers. Working memory becomes available for higher order skills such as comprehension, analyzing and inferring information from the text.

Why do some children struggle?

Brain scanning research has allowed us to see what happens in the reading brain. For proficient readers, the areas of the brain that process both auditory and visual information (as well as the pathways that link them) are activated during reading. This explains why a child with an Auditory processing or Visual processing difficulty could have problems with reading. For a child with a difficulty eg. Dyslexia, these same areas of the brain are not activated in reading, resulting in slow, laboured reading that persists beyond the Foundation Phase, often with poor comprehension.

Reading is multifaceted, relying on various skills such as motor, vison, hearing, vocabulary, attention and working memory. When a child has difficulty in any of these areas, it can impact on reading, and subsequently, learning.

Like any skill, some children take longer to acquire reading, compared to their peers. In the early years, the difficulty may be developmental, or may persist requiring a more structured intervention and potentially concessions. Early intervention can prevent a reading problem from becoming a learning problem.

What can I do?

If you suspect that your child is not reading at age level, I suggest the following:

  • Check with the teacher what age-appropriate skills should be in place. Sometimes if you have an only child, it is difficult to know where they should be performing. A teacher has a classroom full of children and will be able to tell you if she feels your child is age-appropriate.
  • Check that your child knows her letter/sound association and can decode unfamiliar words. Often children with reading difficulties are extremely bright and develop coping mechanisms such as memorising whole words. These coping mechanisms generally serve them only in the junior years, and problems become evident when the academic workload increases, and children are required to do more independent work.
  • Mix up the school reader and cover the picture to ensure that your child has not memorised the sequence of the story or is relying on visual cues.
  • Check ears and eyes. Ensure that you get a visual and auditory processing assessment done. Visual acuity checks if your child can see, and a visual processing assessment checks what the brain does with the information received from the eyes. A child with a visual processing difficulty may have difficulty distinguishing between letters that look almost the same, difficulty moving eyes across, or keeping place in the text. A child with an auditory processing difficulty can hear, but may have difficulty distinguishing differences between sounds, struggle to block out background noise or make sense of the order of sounds.
  • Be aware if there is a learning difficulty or dyslexia in the family. Difficulties are hereditary.
  • If your gut tells you that something is not as it should be, seek help.
  • An assessment by a Reading Specialist or Educational Psychologist can give you a wholistic view of your child’s strengths and weaknesses and guide you to professional help.


My child has a learning difficulty, now what?

Learning differences are unrelated to IQ and have an impact on an individual’s ability to process, store, or produce information. Difficulties often co-exist. For example, research indicates that 30-50 percent of children with ADHD also have a specific learning disability, and that the two conditions can interact to make learning extremely challenging.

Read, read, read, read. Read material that is:

  • Easy – to build confidence
  • Age appropriate – to keep developing skill
  • Challenging (which you would read to the child)- to engage with your child, develop vocabulary, and maintain a love of the written word.

Be patient. Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Understand that if a task is difficult, he is going to be reluctant to do it. Encourage, support, highlight and develop his strengths.

Children with difficulties CAN SUCCEED. Concessions can be put in place as recommended by an Educational Psychologist. Additional time, readers or scribes can be implemented in order for children to achieve according to their cognitive ability and effort. It is very disheartening for a child to be trying and trying, and his results to not reflect this.

In our reading centre, child-parent-teacher-therapist work together as a team supporting the child with difficulties to get through their schooling with their confidence and self-esteem intact. These children are often out the box thinkers, creative, entrepreneurial, with a very good work ethic. They have much to offer the world.


Experiencing the child with learning difficulties

The workshop “Experiencing the Child with Learning Difficulties” will be presented in Nicosia on Sat 7th September 2019 at 9.30am. Presented to parents, teachers and specialists, the attendees undergo various exercises which simulate learning difficulties. In this way, they come away with an enriched level of understanding of children that they parent, teach or remediate.

Topics cover: The process of learning to read, Specific Learning Difficulties and associated learning difficulties (including practical exercises), why difficulties occur, processing, concessions, ways to assist.

For more information and booking   https://bit.ly/32ICA80

You can now win a place to this wonderful workshop by entering our #WednesdayWin competition here! Open until Tuesday, 3 September 2019.

Limited places

Presented by Reading Specialist Angela Charalambous

Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, Angela has a postgraduate qualification in Linguistics and is currently researching long-term efficacy of reading interventions. She established The Workshop Reading Centre in 2005 when she brought the Cellfield reading intervention to South Africa from Australia.  Since then, The Workshop Reading Centre has provided reading assessments, remedial intervention and workshops to children of all ages who struggle with reading.

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