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Coaching Your Child        < Previous        Next >


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 instructional techniques.


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.


n      They have poor memory retrieval as evidenced by slow letter-naming.


n      They have difficulty making the leap to the alphabetic principle, the idea that particular letters represent particular sounds.


n      They don't automatically decode the words, but slowly and laboriously try to blend them.


n      They read in a monotone, rather than with expression, indicating poor comprehension.


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


By Susan Darst Williams Coaching Your Child 07 2008

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