Reading Difficulties Explained

A Primer for Parents of Kids with Reading Difficulties

By Dr. Holly Shapiro, Founder Director of Ravinia Reading Center

Reading difficulties are all around us. And while reading is a frequently discussed topic among parents, struggling to read isn’t. Families who know their children struggle, or who have reading difficulties themselves, may not want to talk about it. But that’s only one reason we don’t hear more about the struggling reader.

A study of 445 children in 24 randomly selected Connecticut schools found that fewer than one-third of the children reading below their age, grade level, or ability were receiving school services for reading difficulties. This figure suggests that reading problems are seriously under-diagnosed. In cases like these, families may not know that their children need help. This finding is consistent with what we see at Ravinia Reading Center. Smart children employ phenomenal compensatory strategies to hide their inability to read adequately.

Classroom teachers, who teach many children at a time and are expected to have expertise in many areas, frequently reassure parents that skills will come later. We have not met teachers who have followed children into later grades to see if these predictions are true. Schools may not be eager to pinpoint reading problems because they are then legally obligated to address them, placing additional burdens on their already stretched cost structures.

Sometimes skills do come later, but often they don’t. Reading is unlike spoken language, which is innate. Speaking is learned through imitation, while reading must be taught. Some children intuitively recognize, remember, and apply the conventions of written language and can learn by whatever method of reading instruction is offered. However, many cannot.

Research supports these observations. Dr. G. Reid Lyon, former Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes for Health, estimates that a lucky five percent of kids seem to read with no effort at all, and another 20-30 percent of students overall learn to read with ease when exposed to any kind of instruction.

He says that for about 60 percent of students, though, learning to read will be hard work and their success will depend largely on the effectiveness of the instruction. About 20 to 30 percent of students will find reading to be one of the most difficult tasks they have ever encountered. How these children are taught to read is critical to their success.

“Reading is the most important work of childhood and yet as many as one in five children struggle to learn to read, with consequences extending beyond childhood into adult life,” said Sally Shaywitz, M.D., the co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity and the author of the book Overcoming Dyslexia. Lyon’s estimates are consistent with Shaywitz’ 20 percent.
Shaywitz’ figure does not highlight underprivileged socioeconomic groups. It reflects a cross-section of American society. Other reputable studies have found even more reading difficulties. Large-scale surveys testing thousands of children annually carried out by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1998 showed that 69 percent of fourth graders and 67 percent of eighth graders were reading below proficiency levels.

And here’s the figure that hits close to home for a lot of us: 55 percent of the children of college graduates performed below proficiency levels in eighth grade. It’s not necessary for us to know exactly which of any of these figures is the most precise. What we know is that in study after study too many of our children cannot read or read below proficiency levels. As a child’s education progresses and the demands of schoolwork increase, the problem becomes more acute. The prevalence of reading difficulties is found everywhere. Fortunately, it’s treatable. Reading is a skill, and it can be taught.