Early Warning Signs of
a Poor Reader
Q. In our district, the percentage of students who can't read at grade
level is getting downright scary, and very expensive to try to fix. Yet we're a
nice, middle-class district with a big budget. What can be done to prevent
these reading problems from developing in the first place?
Get to them before the children
leave first grade. It's as simple as that. How do you find out if your child
needs help? Simpler still: read to, and with, your child, every night. This is
why teachers are always harping on parent-child reading sessions: they want you
to join them in preventing reading dysfunctions and bad habits. Invest 20
minutes a night in reading to your child and listening to your child read to
you, and you'll quickly see if your child is doing well, or struggling. If you
think it's the latter, and your child is past first grade, insist on help from
educators and work closely with them to kindle the priceless life skill of
reading in your child ASAP.
As a rule of thumb, 80 percent of
the students labeled as "learning disabled" in a given school have no
particular, discernible medical disability, but they do have trouble reading.
There are other reasons besides ineffective reading instruction, including
speech and language problems. But the name of the game in preventing learning
disabilities overall is preventing reading problems with good curriculum and
Since most districts don't have
phonics-only curricula in place, or intensive reading intervention programs in
the early grades, reading problems often can fester and become entrenched. The
longer they persist, the harder they are to cure. By about third grade, they
become very difficult and expensive to ameliorate. It may take four or five
times the effort as simply teaching pupils to read with phonics-only
instruction in the first place. At any rate, an aggressive, prevention-minded
strategy should be in place.
According to reading expert Elaine
McEwan and others, the research shows that the typical kindergarten or first-grade
classroom has five categories of readers. Pay special attention to category 4:
1. Approximately 5% of the students
will come to school reading, having essentially taught themselves to read.
2. Another 30% of the students
will learn to read no matter how they are taught.
3. Another approximately 30%
will learn to read only with hard work and some support. That support might be
mom or dad working with the student every night, some type of tutoring, or effective
phonics curriculum in the school.
4. Now we come to the 30% of
students who will learn to read ONLY with systematic, intensive, explicit
phonics, taught well. If these students are to read at grade level, they need
to start in kindergarten, and by first grade need to have an hour a day of an
intensive reading program. Most of these students can be at grade level
reading by second or third grade if a prevention model is in
place, and DIBELS (reading test) scores are used to catch these students
the minute they start falling behind.
5. Finally, we have the 5% of
students who are truly dyslexic and need to receive learning-disability services
throughout the grades.
In high-poverty districts there are
slightly larger percentages of kids whose reading ability is measured in the
lower categories, but the configuration remains essentially the same.
Children who are likely to fall into
category 4 have these traits:
n They lack or are slow to
pick up phonemic awareness skills.
They have trouble with blending and segmentation of words and can't discern
where one ends and another begins. They can't replace one letter with another
and pronounce the new one correctly, as in "big" and "pig." They often can't
match written letters with the sounds they make when spoken.
They have poor memory
retrieval as evidenced by slow letter-naming.
They have difficulty making the leap to the alphabetic principle, the idea that particular letters represent
They don't automatically decode
the words, but slowly and laboriously try to blend them.
They read in a monotone, rather than with expression, indicating
All of these warning signs are largely
preventable with proper, phonics-only reading instruction in kindergarten and
first grade. If your school doesn't offer that kind of instruction, either
switch schools, or arrange for your child to have outside phonics tutoring.
Homework: See Elaine McEwan's book and
online seminar, "Catching the Kids Who Fall Through the Cracks," on www.elainemcewan.com