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Who Are the Children Who Have Reading Difficulties?

By: Susan Burns, Peg Griffin, Catherine Snow
Knowing which children are more likely to be at risk for reading problems allows for early intervention to prevent the majority of these problems from developing. Learn what group and individual factors make certain children at risk.

Children who attend a chronically low-achieving school

In a school that produces large numbers of children who cannot read at grade level, year after year, it is not necessary to assess children individually. We already know that children who attend this school are being placed at risk for reading difficulties.

In these cases, teachers and principals should probably consider addressing the problem with system-wide restructuring and change, rather than invest in a costly child-by-child remediation process. Good teaching and a good classroom reading program can bring most students up to or near grade level during the primary grades. But sustaining this accomplishment is difficult when a large percentage of a school's students are failing.

Central to this restructuring is the need for effective reading instruction. A large number of students, who should be capable of reading ably given adequate instruction, are not doing so, suggesting that the instruction available is not appropriate.

If the instruction provided by the school is ineffective or insufficient, many children will have difficulty learning to read (unless additional instruction is provided in the home or elsewhere). Children whose reading difficulties arise when the design of regular classroom curriculum, or its delivery, is flawed are sometimes termed curriculum casualties.

Children with low English proficiency

Hispanic students in the United States are at especially high risk. Despite progress over the past 15 to 20 years, they are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to read well below average for their age. Many of these children also have parents who are poorly educated, come from low-income families, live in low-income communities, and attend low-achieving schools.

With multiple risk factors in place, we can predict that, without excellent instruction, large numbers of these children will be at risk for reading difficulties.

Despite various controversies, considerable evidence suggests that limited or non-English-speaking language learners are generally more likely to become betters readers of English when they receive initial instruction in their native language.

Spoken language must come before written language; it is extremely hard to read a language that still is incomprehensible to the ear. Some language-minority children arrive at school with no proficiency in English, but speaking a different language for which there are instructional guides, learning materials, and locally available proficient teachers.

These children should be taught the basics of reading in their native language while acquiring oral proficiency in English, and they should be subsequently taught to extend their first language literary skills to reading in English.

Other language-minority children will arrive at school with no proficiency in English and speak a language for which the above conditions cannot be met – and for which there are insufficient numbers of children to justify the development of the local capacity to meet such conditions.

In this case, the initial instructional priority should be developing the children's oral proficiency in English. Print materials may be used to support the development of English language skills. But formal reading instructions in English should be postponed until an adequate level of oral proficiency in English has been achieved. Ensuring this proficiency will require extremely rich and well-adapted oral language environments.

In general, non-English speakers in the United States are highly motivated to learn English, but they still require an adequate amount of time and exposure to well-structured input from native speakers to do so.

Children unfamiliar with standard English dialect

Differences between the dialect children speak at home and the dialect taught at school may contribute to difficulties in learning to read. In the United States, some teachers, administrators, and policy makers view dialect differences not as regional variations, but as incorrect English. Some teachers develop low expectations for these students. Under these conditions, children are being placed at risk because of their unfamiliarity with standard English dialect.

Developing children's awareness of the sounds of words – their phonemic awareness – is a critical step toward helping them learn to read. However, what they need more specifically is an appreciation of the phonemes or sounds of words that are presumed in how the words are spelled.

This is especially hard for dialect-speaking children. A teacher pointing out the "d" sound in the words sold or find can befuddle the African American child who pronounces these words sol and fine. A child who pronounces the words deaf and death in the same way is likely to be confused if the teacher uses these words in a lesson on contrasting final consonants.

However, these kinds of confusions in phonemic awareness and reading instruction can largely be avoided by making teachers more aware of dialect differences. A teacher who is sufficiently knowledgeable and sensitive about dialect will prepare materials and lessons that are consistent with the phonology, syntax, and vocabulary of the children's dialect.

Children living in communities in poverty

Poverty undeniably poses numerous threats to children's educational prospects. Children in low-income families tend to have uneducated parents, lack adequate nutrition, live in poor communities, and attend substandard schools. All of these factors can be detrimental to reading.

However, all else being equal, coming from a low-income family, in and of itself, does not greatly increase a child's risk for learning to read, provided they are given the instruction and support they need. Therefore, poverty in individual families should not be used exclusively as an identifier for children at risk. It is more effective to identify children who come from families with low income status and attend a school with large numbers of poor students.

Schools with kindergartners who are poorly prepared in language and literacy skills must have programs that are better than or at least equivalent to the programs found in schools with well-prepared kindergartners.

In order to provide such reading programs, schools with underprepared students need extra funding. To be effective, the extra funding should be used for methods with previously established success, and should be coupled with smaller student-teacher ratios, capable, experienced teachers and specialists, and a sufficient quantity of high-quality books and other materials.

Children with cognitive, hearing, and language impairment

Because they are one of the few professionals in contact with very young children, pediatricians, nurses, and other health care practitioners are in the best position to detect problems at routine checkups from infancy through preschool years. Day care and preschool settings also offer an important opportunity for early identification of the following kinds of risk:

Severe cognitive deficits

Within the normal range, IQ is moderately associated with future reading ability. But severe cognitive deficits are usually associated with very low, if any, reading achievement.

Hearing impairment

It has been well documented that children with hearing impairments are at risk of future reading difficulties. Although hard-of-hearing children tend to do better than deaf children, they are still at risk, even if they have good speaking abilities.

Early language impairment

Children acquire language at tremendously variable rates during the first four years of life. Yet some children are clearly behind by age two or three. This is an important signal. Delayed language development can be the first warning of a pervasive developmental disability, hearing impairment, or neurological problem. Any of these conditions puts a child at risk of future reading difficulties.

Often an evaluation by a speech-language professional reveals that these children have early language impairment. About 40 to 75 percent of preschoolers with such an impairment develop reading difficulties later – often along with other academic problems.

Expressive and receptive language delays

Children's development of language during preschool years is strongly related to how well they will later learn to read. An infant's achievement of "expressive" language milestones appears to have a particularly strong link to later reading achievement. Assessment of these milestones is part of regular well-baby visits and can be used to identify children at risk.

Children whose parents have a history of reading difficulty

A child whose parents had trouble learning to read is not destined to failure. But such children face a substantially greater risk of reading problems. Once a child is having reading difficulties in school, pediatricians or educators often discover that someone else in the family has reading difficulties.

It is wise for pediatricians to ask the parents of young children whether they had difficulty learning to read and, if so, to encourage them to lend extra enthusiasm to books and reading from the start – and to pay extra attention to signs of difficulty.

Adapted from: Burns, M. S., Griffin, P. & Snow, C. E. (Eds.). (1999). Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children's Reading Success. Copyright by the National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of the National Academy Press. Reprinted with permission.

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