A road map for reading

Many parents believe that learning to read is a natural process, as inherently human as learning to talk.

If you simply read to your child daily from birth to pre-K, teach your child her letters and expose her to oodles of books, she’ll pick up enough reading readiness for kindergarten.

Unfortunately, science begs to differ. 

According to a September 2018 report from American Public Media — Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? — research has repeatedly revealed that reading doesn’t come naturally.

“The human brain isn’t wired to read. Kids must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters — phonics,” the authors wrote. “But many educators don’t know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.”

If your child has a suspected reading disability, this mindset can be particularly challenging — if not destructive — to your child’s academic future. 

For guidance on this issue, we turned to John Alexander, the executive director at Groves Academy in St. Louis Park. 

Groves is Minnesota’s only established school for students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and attention disorders. It’s also a nationally renowned center for literacy — including instruction, education and advocacy.

Alexander, who writes and speaks regularly about reading disabilities, has created a road map for parents of children with suspected reading disabilities.

Here it is, condensed slightly for space:

What can I do to help my child?

The most important thing you can do for a child with a suspected reading disability is to become his ardent advocate. This often requires becoming an expert in the subject through extensive reading and research. You’ll need enough information to persuade school administrators that you know the law, understand reading and know what your child needs to get back on track. 

The public school system, due to its sheer size and lack of funding, isn’t designed to meet the needs of every child. To ensure your child receives what he needs, you must fight for him.

Parents in this situation often feel discouraged. You might feel like giving up. But don’t. 

Find a parent support group (in real life or on Facebook) or start one. There are other parents in your school who feel similarly. Join together and share stories. Support each other.

What’s a reading disability?

It’s the inability of a child, with otherwise good potential, to read fluently (with accuracy and appropriate pace) and/or with good comprehension. 

The problem isn’t intelligence: We all have a limit to our cognitive capacity. If a child is spending an inordinate amount of mental energy trying to read words on the page, he won’t have enough mental capacity to take in the meaning of what he’s reading. It’s critical that children reach a level of automaticity with decoding words so they have the mental energy for comprehension.

Reading disabilities are the most prevalent form of learning disability, accounting for about 80 percent of all learning disabilities. 

Research from the National Center on Learning Disabilities suggests that one in five individuals is affected by the reading disability known as dyslexia. 

Many people believe dyslexia involves swapping similar letters such as Bs and Ds or Ps and Qs or even reading words backwards. Dyslexia, however, is actually an inability to assign the correct sounds to the abstract concepts of letters.

Students with dyslexia fall on a continuum: One can be mildly affected or significantly affected. The good news is that outcomes for dyslexic children are good, especially if problems are identified early and interventions started thereafter. 

Unfortunately, many educators don’t want to stigmatize children by labeling them with a learning disability, so they’re reluctant to recommend children for evaluations that might determine whether a child has a reading disability, another type of learning disability or an attention disorder. 

Other educators mistakenly believe it’s a maturity issue and that the reading “light bulb” will go on when the child’s brain has sufficiently matured. 

Both attitudes do a tremendous disservice to dyslexic children. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, there’s only a 25 percent chance that a student with dyslexia will catch up in reading if the disorder isn’t addressed during the third grade or earlier.

Why can’t my child read? 

Most students who struggle with reading have an issue with decoding, which is the effortless recognition of words. If they struggle with decoding, they’ll struggle with reading fluently, which is required for comprehension. 

In general, there are two reasons for decoding issues. One is that a student doesn’t have a solid foundation of phonemic awareness, which is the ability to sequence, segment and manipulate sounds within words. If a child has poor phonemic-awareness skills, it will be very difficult for him to understand how abstract visual representations (letters) correspond to certain sounds. 

For example, the letter “C” usually is pronounced like “K” as found in the word “cat.” However, when the C is followed by I, E or Y, it’s pronounced as a “S” as in “city,” “cent” and “cycle.”

Phonics also includes word-attack strategies such as breaking words down into component syllables. For example, students learn that when there is a vowel-consonant-consonant-vowel construction — as in the word “splendid” — the word should be divided between the two medial consonants; thus “splendid” would be divided as such: “Splen/did.” 

As students learn to decode individual words, they must also learn — and practice — oral reading of connected text to attain fluency, which encourages good comprehension. 

Finally, even when students reach fluency, they may still struggle with reading if comprehension eludes them. 

Comprehension can break down at various levels. Perhaps the student doesn’t understand important vocabulary from the passage; perhaps he’s not familiar with the structure of the written form: Is it a narrative (a story) or expository? If it’s expository text, what is its form? Cause and effect, persuasive, sequential, descriptive, comparison or problem-solution? 

Perhaps he doesn’t have enough background information about the topic; or perhaps he’s a more literal thinker. Just as with phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency need to be taught directly and systematically; vocabulary acquisition and the teaching of comprehension skills require the same approach. 

What are the signs of a reading disability?

In children, signs to watch for include:

  • Family history of dyslexia;
  • Late development of oral language;
  • Confusion with spatial directions (up, down, under, over);
  • Difficulty knowing the seasons or months of the year;
  • Difficulty rhyming or playing with words/language;
  • Trouble identifying letters of the alphabet by kindergarten;
  • Difficulty learning to read in first grade; can’t associate letters with sounds;
  • Tries to memorize words rather than knowing how to sound them out;
  • Remains fixed in the inventive-spelling stage; spelling doesn’t improve despite instruction;
  • Not interested in books, even being read to;
  • Behavior changes when starting school.

What should I do? 

If your child has one or more of the above characteristics, you should have your child evaluated. 

An evaluation includes a cognitive assessment — typically the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI) for children younger than 7 and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV) for ages 7 and older. 

Your child also should have achievement tests in reading, including a testing of phonological processing; isolated real and nonsense words, sight words, connected text for fluency and reading comprehension. 

The Woodcock-Johnson Achievement subtests of word identification and word attack are often used for isolated word reading. The Gray-Oral Reading Test is a good assessment for oral reading fluency. The Gray-Silent Reading Test is a good measure for reading comprehension.

For younger students, the Gray-Oral may also be used for comprehension. Your child should also be given a spelling and written-language assessments. 

A good evaluation will also include a math assessment, such as the math subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson tests. If you suspect your child has a language-processing difficulty and/or an attention deficit disorder, you should request testing in these areas as well. 

Where do I get an educational assessment?

You may request an educational assessment from your local public school at no cost. A sample letter requesting services from your school is available at grovesacademy.org/resources. Please feel free to individualize it for your child and your child’s school. 

The school has 15 school days to present an evaluation meeting plan to you. You then have 15 school days to sign off on the plan or to offer revisions to the plan. Once you’ve signed off on the plan, the school has 30 school days to complete the evaluation and set up a meeting to discuss the creation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) — if your child qualifies for services. 

You may also have your child evaluated privately. Typically a private evaluation is more thorough and the recommendations are more specific to the needs of your child. Depending upon the depth of the evaluation, costs can range from $1,000 to $3,000. (Check with your health insurance for possible coverage of this service.)

Be sure that the evaluator, usually an educational psychologist, has the proper credentials to give the cognitive assessment. To find a qualified evaluator, ask friends or do an internet search for an educational psychologist in your area. We recommend interviewing a few to determine who would be a good fit for your child. (Editor’s note: Groves offers these services at a mid-range price.)

Most professionals who have an assessment business will provide you with a written report and a follow-up conference to discuss the report; most will also want to meet with you before giving your child an assessment to learn more about your child. 

If pre- and post-evaluation conferences and a written report aren’t part of a particular service’s practices, we recommend looking for another professional to conduct the assessment. 

It’s critical that your child receive a comprehensive evaluation and that you receive a thorough written report detailing your child’s strengths and weaknesses with specific recommendations. 

This document will be used to determine whether your child qualifies for services from your local public school. 

Note: If you’re leaning toward having your child evaluated privately, check with the special education director at your local school to be sure that the school will accept test results from the individual or service you’re considering. 

What’s next? 

If your child was evaluated at your local public school, the special education director should have called for an evaluation share meeting to discuss the testing results within 30 days of your signing the evaluation meeting plan. This meeting often includes the writing of the IEP and, if not, a separate IEP or 504 meeting is scheduled.

If you had the testing done privately, present the testing to the special education team at your local public school and request a date be scheduled for an IEP meeting. 

To determine whether a student qualifies for special services, an IEP team will meet. The IEP team generally consists of the special education director, the child’s teacher(s), the parents, special education teacher(s) and any specialists such as speech and language therapists or occupational therapists. 

The team will discuss the results of the testing and whether your child qualifies for special services. Factors such as IQ, test scores and other information will influence their decision. (You can learn more about the various models schools use — and the laws surrounding them — by reading the long version of this article at tinyurl.com/roadmap-groves.)

If you feel you’re not being heard when advocating for your child, you may want to consider retaining the services of an education advocate or an attorney who specializes in educational law. Sometimes this is what it takes to have your voice heard at the table. 

My child qualifies for services. Now what?

If the IEP team determines that your child qualifies for special services, an IEP will be written detailing the specific goals and objectives his/her teachers will be helping him to meet during the course of the school year. 

It’s very important that the goals and objectives are specific, measurable, realistic and relevant to your child’s disability. 

If she qualifies for services due to a reading disability, we recommend you include reading goals that include progress in her reading achievement tests of more than one year. 

For example, if your child is two years behind in reading, you’ll want to establish an annual goal of more than one year per year in school. Otherwise, she’ll never close the gap between her reading level and grade level. 

Students on an IEP should be given achievement tests annually to be sure they’re making adequate yearly progress. Annual achievement testing usually happens in the late winter through the spring. 

An annual IEP meeting should be held after the testing has occurred. The purpose of the IEP meeting is to discuss progress towards the goals and objectives of the IEP as well as to discuss the achievement testing results. The IEP team will then determine if the child continues to qualify for an IEP. If she does, the IEP will be changed to reflect new goals for the coming school year. If the child hasn’t made adequate progress, a new intervention/program should be explored. 

It’s critical that — throughout the process of requesting testing and establishing an IEP — you become a strong advocate for your child. School personnel are stretched thin and most special education departments carry very high caseloads. Often your child is just another child in need of services. 

You might (or might not) receive the attention you feel your child deserves. Know your rights and fight for your child.

John Alexander is the executive director of Groves Academy in St. Louis Park.