Book fairs, celebrity story hours, readathons, special classroom activities – such events filled the calendar all March as the country marked National Reading Month. The annual commemoration highlights the importance of reading, spotlight reading resources, and, especially in schools, to foster in young children a love of reading.
But not every child is eager to check out the titles at the book fair. Many youngsters regard a trip to the library as the equivalent of an hour in the orthodontist’s chair. And when they hear lectures about the joy of reading, they react with a scowl.
These are the struggling readers for whom a book is not a gateway to a magic world, but a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Through no fault of their own, they find reading slow, difficult, and frustrating. So, while we at Reading Success Plus join in the celebration of reading, we also are aware of those who are left out. We want to help them join the party.
A range of challenges
Lawrence Kloth, co-founder of Reading Success Plus, says the first step in helping a child overcome reading difficulties is to identify their problem.
“We try to explain why your child is struggling with reading,” he says. “Is it fluency? Is it decoding? Is it sight words? That could be dyslexia. Maybe your autistic child is fluent but can’t see the big picture after they’ve read something. Or they lose focus because of ADHD, and they can’t sit still long enough to read a piece. “
Or, adds Anne Kloth, the other co-founder of Reading Success Plus, the child may have none of these disabilities and simply needs extra help to master reading skills. “They don’t necessarily have a label or need a label,” she says. “The students just aren’t getting what they need from the school. They aren’t being taught the way they learn, that is, in a multisensory way.”
And even those diagnosed with disabilities can’t be sorted into neat, distinct boxes. For example, dyslexia and ADHD are commonly found together, with 50 to 60 percent of those with ADHD also having dyslexia.
But while labels alone do not define a struggling reader, they help define a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and point to strategies that will improve their reading skills. Lawrence and Anne explained the different challenges faced by those with dyslexia, autism, and ADHD, as well as the paths to overcome them.
Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that creates difficulty with word recognition and reading fluency, spelling, and writing.
“They can’t make the words come together in a sentence,” Lawrence says. “Even within a word, they might not have the fluency to blend the letters together. They might have a problem with phonemic awareness, a prereading skill that has to do with sound and symbol correlation.”
Anne adds: “The heart of the issue is they can’t decode words very well. That makes it really difficult to read, because if you can’t decode words and don’t know any strategies to help yourself, you are just at a loss, or, alternatively, start guessing.”
Though dyslexic children and adults struggle to read, that difficulty has no connection to their overall intelligence. They may be slow readers, but otherwise can be fast-thinking, creative thinkers with great intellectual ability and unlimited potential. They just need help in turning that potential into achievement.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a brain disorder affecting 11 percent of school-age children. Symptoms continue into adulthood in more than three-quarters of cases. ADHD is characterized by developmentally inappropriate levels of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.
“ADHD people struggle with reading sometimes because it’s simply tough for them to sit down and read,” says Lawrence, who was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia as a youngster. “If they are not moving, their brains automatically turn off. They have a finite amount of focus. If you ask them to go beyond it, they shut down. They’re done.”
Complicating the situation, Anne says, is that 50 to 60 percent, and maybe even more, of those with ADHD also have dyslexia. “So, you’ve got the inability to focus, plus probably the dyslexia piece and all that goes with that.”
Autism is not classified as a reading disability, and it does not have the same coincidence with dyslexia that ADHD has. Yet it poses its own problems.
“The autistic individual may do a great job decoding,” Lawrence says. “Their fluency is great. They read wonderfully. Then you ask them to tell you what the story was about, and they can’t. They have a very tough time seeing the bigger picture.”
Some students with autism may excel at the mechanics of reading – fluency, pronunciation, spelling – “but they struggle on the reading portion of standardized tests because they can’t make a picture in their head about what they’ve just read,” Lawrence says. “That really, really negatively impacts their test scores.”
But again, labels fail to tell the whole story. Anne agrees that some students on the autistic spectrum have difficulty with comprehension. But she also recalls a student with autism who also had dyslexia. “He was as bright as can be and had no problem with comprehension. He had a problem with the reading piece because of his dyslexia. Once he understood the reading, the decoding, the vocabulary, he thrived.
“It’s just different problems for different individual with different issues.”
None of the above
Not every student who has difficulty reading has dyslexia, ADHD, or autism. Some estimates say dyslexia affects about 20 percent of the population. But in Michigan, 55 percent of third graders fail their reading assessment, and more than 70 percent of fourth graders are not reading at grade level.
“It’s not all dyslexia,” Anne says. “It’s not all developmental issues.”
The problem, Lawrence and Anne say, is that teaching methods usually don’t match students’ learning styles. Most schools present material in a step-by-step fashion, starting with the introduction of basic ideas and gradually building up to complex concepts. Along the way, students are expected to learn through drills, repetition and timed tests. But not all students learn in this fashion.
Struggling readers often are visual learners — they think in pictures, not words. Traditional education offers few of the visual cues that they can easily process – images, color coding, audio and video – and instead floods their minds with a rapid onslaught of words that overwhelms them.
“These students we work with tend to be visual learners,” Lawrence says. “Plus, we live in a much more visual world that we did even five or 10 years about, so their brains are going to be wired differently.
“If you would teach them in a more visual manner, more kids would get it.”
Anne says it is not possible for students to change the way they learn just to accommodate a curriculum.
“Students don’t need a completely different learning style,” Anne says. “They have their learning style. They just need to be taught in the way that they learn best, which is a multisensory approach, the Orton-Gillingham approach.”
Look for help
While the four groups of struggling readers Lawrence identified – those with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, plus those with no diagnosed disability – exhibit great differences, they have one important thing in common – all can be helped with appropriate instruction. That means a multisensory sensory approach such as the Orton-Gillingham programs. (Reading Success Plus uses Orton-Gillingham methods in its reading and math programs.)
“Tutoring is essential for these students to make progress,” Lawrence says. “With the right program, they’ll be taught the right way for their learning style. The instruction will be consistent. And if they’re patient, they will see success, get more confidence, and continue to succeed.
“That’s why tutoring, especially in a one-on-one setting, is paramount. Yes, you could do it in a small group, but you won’t the success as quickly.”
One of Anne’s biggest frustrations is that many parents simply do not seek help for their children.
“People think it’s something they have to manage through rather than actually getting help,” she said. “They need help. They can’t do it on their own. Even though they’re doing their best, they just don’t know what to do.
“They just need outside help that’s appropriate for their child, and, unfortunately, most schools don’t provide it or can’t provide it.”
On the positive side, she adds, “It’s never too late. No matter where someone is in school, they can be helped. And that also goes for the adult population who never got the help that they really needed.”
Lawrence concluded: “We don’t want their reading difficulties to be the obstacle that keeps these people from their dream job or dream college. They’re brilliant minds that think differently. Tutoring could give them the leg up that they need.”
Reading Success Plus has offices in Grand Rapids and Troy and offers one-on-one tutoring online or in person in reading, math and writing. You can get more information at readingsuccessplus.com. To contact us, call 833-229-1112 or go online to https://readingsuccessplus.com/#contact.