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This section addresses selected key questions regarding children and reading.  More complete answers to these and other questions are included in Straight Talk About Reading and Parenting a Struggling Reader, by Susan L. Hall, EdD. and Louisa C. Moats, PhD.

Q.  How Do I Decide Which Books My Child is Ready to Read?

A.  One of the most important roles you play is choosing books that are at your child's reading level.  Unfortunately, choosing successful beginner books is not that easy.  Some reasons for this difficulty are:

bulletthe levels indicated on the books aren't consistent among publishers (i.e. a Level One book in one series may be closer to a Level Two book in another series).
bulletpublic libraries frequently color code easy reader books by level of difficulty, but often the range of difficulty within one category is too large
bulletit is difficult to find an abundant supply of the very easiest early reader books

Because of the inconsistency among publishers in determining reading levels, you will need to preview your child's books.  Some quick tips are provided below.

How to Review a Book for the Beginning Reader
Visual Review Content Review
FONT SIZE -- most children prefer type that is larger than a standard 12-point font. VOCABULARY -- skim two or three pages to see if the vocabulary is at the appropriate level of difficulty for your child.
NUMBER OF WORDS PER PAGE -- look for less than 10 words per page PUNCTUATION -- look for books with few punctuation marks, except for periods (note especially that quotation marks are confusing for beginning readers).
PICTURES -- look for interesting pictures that provide clues about unknown words, as well as about the story.  

Ask your child to read aloud and if she stumbles over more than 1 word out of 10,  choose an easier book until she is comfortable, then step up to the more difficult one.

Don't be surpirsed if for every beginning reading book you select you reject at least two others as inappropriate.  Even with such a high rejection rate, this process doesn't take long because it takes less than 30 seconds to review each book.

Q.  How Important is the Approach a Reading Tutor Uses?

A.  This is probably one of THE MOST important things to consider, and in some ways the hardest for parents to assess.  Consider the personal story of a family who has children in our neighborhood school.  My son was in the same kindergarten class as a little girl whom we shall call "Alice."  Alice was clearly bright and was one of the most eager and enthusiastic children in kindergarten.  she was very verbally confident and volunteered answers in class readily, always having some background in every topic, which she was eager to share with her classmates.  She comes from a good family, with two dedicated and caring parents.   Alice began to have problems learning to read in the first grade.  Her mother and I would exchange stories from time to time.  At the end of first grade we had our son tested and during August, just before the beginning of second grade, he started tutoring twice a week with a tutor who was very experienced in multisensory structured phonics approaches.  He received intensive Orton-Gillingham tutoring twice a week throughout all of second grade.  Alice received tutoring after school once a week from her current second-grade teacher.

During the fall of third grade I got a call from the mother of one of Alice's best friends.  She was looking for a reading tutor.  After a month in tutoring, this little girl made dramatic improvement.  This mother talked to Alice's mother about the incredible breakthroughs her daughter was making with the systematic phonics tutoring.  Alice's mother then decided to have her daughter tutored by the same Orton Gillingham tutor once a week, along with an additional time each week with her second-grade teacher.  After about a month, Alice finally commented to her mother one day, "Gee, Mom, Mrs. D. (the tutor) could sure teach Mrs. G. (the teacher) a lot about how to teach reading!"  It's amazing that this eight-year-old girl could tell the difference between tutoring that was just more of what did not help, and tutoring that exactly met her needs.

Q.  Isn't it Harmful to Label a Child as Learning Disabled?

A.  For the most part, no.  Children with learning disorders or dyslexia are different and most likely they are aware of it from an early age.  They are often relieved when they know that adults can identify what is going on with them.  Informed parents are better advocates for their children; with a diagnosis they can gain access to information, resources, and services.  It is a relief for parents to have some way to understand what they have been observing about their child, possibly since infancy. 

Priscilla L. Vail, in her book, About Dyslexia:   Unraveling the Myth, explains how a diagnosis can be positive:   "Medical research now shows that the combination of emotional peace and psychological energy opens extra pathways to thinking and learning.  Children expand their abilities (and use their strengths to support their weaknesses) when they are in joyful, secure environments.  Oddly, the more secure the child feels, the greater his willingness to risk.  And without risk, there is no real learning."  A classroom where the other children can do things the dyslexic child cannot easily do doesn't feel like a safe learning environment.  Whether you want to have your child identified as learning disabled with the school system depends on one criterion -- if it is beneficial to your child, it's all worth it.

Q.  Can Reading Failure be Prevented?

A.  Recent, well-designed studies have shown clearly that early intervention prevents reading disabilities in all but the most severely disabled children.  We know that children at risk for reading problems can be brought up to the average range or better if kindergarten and first-grade programs teach critical language and reading skills effectively.  If kindergarten children are helped to discover the individual sounds in words, and if they leave kindergarten knowing their letter names and sounds, they are likely  to succeed at reading.  If first-grade children are taught how to decode words and given enough practice applying their decoding skills to meaningful reading and writing, they are likely to succeed.  One study in Houston, Texas -- which is now being repeated -- examined inner-city children who traditionally score low on achievement tests.  Several different classroom teaching programs were compared -- direct and systematic phonics, embedded or less direct phonics, and whole language.  The approach that used direct and systematic phonics, phoneme awareness, practice with decodable text, and instruction in comprehension, was clearly superior in bringing children up to grade level.

Another major project led by Dr. Joseph Torgesen of Florida State University studied how to help children in the bottom 10 percent on tests of reading aptitude in kindergarten.  The study analyzed the effectiveness of alternative approaches to teaching basic reading skills.  The program (Lindamood-Bell, or Auditory Discrimination in Depth) that was most helpful with students who have low phonological skill emphasizes awareness of speech sound segments and their representation in print.   Major gains in reading single words and comprehending were achieved in 80 hours of tutorial intervention with first and second-graders.  In addition, major gains were achieved with third, fourth, and fifth-graders after 80 hours of instruction using the same approach.  The older children required two hours of intensive teaching per day, however, to bring their achievement scores up to grade level.  They remained slow at reading and needed much more work on reading fluently for understanding. . . . . . . .

Q.  My Child has a Habit of Guessing When He Encounters a Word He Doesn't Recognize.  Should I Discourage Guessing?

A.  Experts explain that an over emphasis on guessing new words, either from context or pictures, doesn't help in learning to read independently.  First, guessing instead of reading through the word doesn't help the child learn the letter patterns.   Furthermore, even if the child guesses correctly, because the letter patterns weren't studied, the work will be no easier to recognize later.  In addition to diverting attention from the details of the word, guessing does not produce the correct word often enough to be an effective strategy.  Based on research by Dr. David Share and Dr. Keith E. Stanovich, guessing an unrecognized word from context clues is successful only 10 percent of the time.

Q.  If I suspect reading difficulties, how do I get my child tested?   What can we expect from the testing process?

A.  There are two approaches to getting your child tested.  One is to get the school to do the testing and the other is to have your child privately tested.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each decision.  Although parents have a right to have their child tested if the child is having difficulty in school, many schools have long waiting lists of referred children.  When the school does the testing, they generally pull the child out of classes and test him during the school day using school personnel or consultants.  These people may be more or less qualified, but it is sometimes difficult to assess their qualifications.  Parents should know that licensed psychologists and school psychologists do not, as a matter of routine, have any training in language or reading disabilities and may know very little about what tests to use, what to look for, or how to interpret information.  If you find a qualified expert in private practice, you may have more control over the circumstances and nature of testing.  But finding a qualified person takes time, effort, and money, and even then the person may be booked for many months.  The full psychoeducational testing process now costs on average between $1,000 and $1,800 in major metropolitan areas.  Sometimes, if parents can show that school-based testing would be inappropriate and an outside evaluation is necessary, the school system will pay for testing by an outside expert.  However, schools are not obligated to foot the bill unless they have already done their own in-house evaluation and there are still legitimate disagreements about the child's needs.  This whole process can take months;   meanwhile, the child is without help.

An individual who is qualified to test a child with reading difficulty must have a strong background in language, reading, writing, and psychological evaluation.   Their training is usually in psychology, reading and language education, or speech/language pathology;  typically a lead evaluator will hold a doctorate in her field, and frequently an interdisciplinary team will be involved.  Don't hesitate to ask about credentials and whether he/she has diagnosed dyslexia in other individuals.

Q.  What do I do if my child's school says her reading problem is just a "developmental lag"?

A.  Beware of the "developmental lag" diagnosis.   Although some children do develop slowly and will benefit from extra time to achieve expected skill levels, "developmental lag" has been used too often to allay parents' concerns.  Research done at Yale University and elsewhere strongly suggests that most cases of reading failure do not spontaneously get better, and children generally do not catch up once they fall behind, unless they receive intensive assistance.  Many parents of children who have experienced reading problems regret waiting too long to find help.

Q. Is all Phonics Instruction Equally Effective?

A.   No, and it is important for you to understand what approach your school is using and whether it is working for your child.  Two key characteristics of phonics instruction are summarized below:

Ways to Describe Phonics Instruction
Criteria Definition
Implicit vs. Explicit -- Whether sounds are taught by themselves (in isolation) or in the context of words

-- Whether sound-symbol correspondence is taught explicitly or left for the child to infer from the patterns in works (implicit phonics)

Systematic and Sequential vs. Random -- Sound patterns taught systematically -- with a predetermined, logical sequence -- or sounds taught in random sequence, as they come up in words children naturally use.

The whole-language version of phonics is not only contextualized, it is implicit.   In implicit instruction, phonics is learned only after or during story reading, not as a separate lesson component.  Under such conditions, there is usually no direct teaching of individual sounds.  An implicit, non-systematic phonics lesson might occur if the teacher is concentrating on literature, selects a word in a book the class is reading, and spontaneously writes a list from a word family.  Then she might ask the children to figure out how to read another word with the sound-symbol  correspondence buried in the whole word. 

Phonics instruction may be systematic or random.  Word families (hutch, clutch, crutch) can be used in either way.  Reading researchers who have extensively compared different approaches usually conclude that the phonics lesson must be explicit and systematic to benefit most children.

Explicit teaching of phonics requires planned, sequenced instruction of the spellings for individual sounds and their patterned use in words.  The teacher needs not only to present the sounds and their common spellings in a logical sequence, but also to assess whether the children in the class are developing proficiency with what they have been taught as they are asked to read and write. 

Q.  If my child doesn't know a word, should I tell him what it is, or ask him to figure it out?

A.  If the unknown word can be sounded out phonetically, and your child has adequate knowledge of the sounds of letters, then it is best to ask him to figure it out.  However, if the unknown word  is one that cannot be sounded out phonetically (i.e knob, where the k is silent), then it is best to supply the word.

If the unknown word is one you believe that your child can figure out, then try to suggest a strategy and work it through with him.  For example, if the word he doesn't know is cookie, then work it through.  You may want to supply the beginning sound to get him started and let him try to finish the second half of the word.  You might try asking "What sound does a c make?", and so on.  While the goal is for your child to recognize words by grouping letters into chunks such as syllables, at the beginning he may need help letter by letter.   Eventually he will know the sounds of letter combinations so that he will be able to sound out coo followed by kie.

If the unknown word is a compound word such as anyone, try covering the second syllable and ask him if he knows the first syllable.  Then cover the first syllable so he can read the second syllable.  Then ask him to put the two words together.  This will help him develop the strategy of studying unknown words to see whether they contain words he already knows.

Regardless of whether you supply the unknown word or your child figures it out, encourage him to repeat the word.  If he re-reads the sentence including the word just learned, it helps him recall the word the next time he encounters it.


For a complete discussion of these topics, please see Straight Talk About Reading: How Parents Can Make a Difference in the Early Years.