Is It a Reading Disorder or Developmental Lag?

How do parents know if their child's reading delay is a real problem or simply a "developmental lag?" How long should parents wait before seeking help if their child is struggling with reading? Susan Hall answers these questions.

As I travel across the country speaking to groups of parents about reading difficulties, I often say "beware of the developmental lag excuse." I have several reasons for saying this. First, I have listened to parent after parent tell me about feeling there was a problem early on, yet being persuaded to discount their intuition and wait to seek help for their child. Later, when they learned time was of the essence in developing reading skills, the parents regretted the lost months or years. Second, research shows that the crucial window of opportunity to deliver help is during the first couple of years of school. So if your child is having trouble learning to read, the best approach is to take immediate action.

Knowing how soon to act can be easy if you are informed about important conclusions from recent research. Reading researchers tell us the ideal window of opportunity for addressing reading difficulties is during kindergarten and first grade. The National Institutes of Health state that 95 percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive effective help early. While it is still possible to help an older child with reading, those beyond third grade require much more intensive help. The longer you wait to get help for a child with reading difficulties, the harder it will be for the child to catch up.

The three key research conclusions that support seeking help early are:

  • 90 percent of children with reading difficulties will achieve grade level in reading if they receive help by the first grade.
  • 75 percent of children whose help is delayed to age nine or later continue to struggle throughout their school careers.
  • If help is given in fourth grade, rather than in late kindergarten, it takes four times as long to improve the same skills by the same amount.

Parents who understand these research conclusions realize they cannot afford to waste valuable time trying to figure out if there really is a problem or waiting for the problem to cure itself.

These research conclusions make it imperative for schools to implement screening tools that emphasize phonemic awareness skills. As discussed in the earlier Q & A on Assessment Issues, the best plan is to begin screening children in mid-kindergarten and continue screening at least three times a year until the end of second grade.

Reading researchers who designed these screening tools recommend identifying and providing additional assistance to the lowest 20 percent of children. The rationale is that it is better to slightly over-identify the number of children who may be "at risk" of reading difficulty than to miss some who may need help. The worst outcome of over-identification is that a child who would eventually have caught on receives some additional help. Parents should follow this strategy and act early because the worst that can happen is their child will get a little extra help she really didn't need.

Yet identification is only the beginning. Effective and intense intervention must be offered immediately. Students who lag behind their peers must be given extra help, preferably in groups of three or fewer students, by a well-trained educator who knows how to deliver effective instruction. Assignment to these groups can be fluid, with children joining whenever the teacher determines skills are lagging and others moving out as they master skills.

Early signs of difficulty should not be attributed to immaturity. When a kindergarten child confuses letters, associates the wrong sound with a letter, or cannot distinguish a rhyme, it usually has nothing to do with social maturity. These warning signs do not necessarily mean the child has a reading disability; these signs may indicate the child had insufficient preschool preparation. If a child has not been exposed to letters and letter sounds, she usually catches on quickly once exposed. It is only after effective instruction has been provided and the child is still struggling that one can conclude there may be a more serious problem.

Why do parents wait to seek help? In a recent Roper Starch poll, parents' attitudes about their child's learning problems and the public's general awareness of learning disabilities were explored. The poll showed many parents waited far too long to seek help for their child because they worried their child might be stigmatized if found to have a learning problem. Nearly half (48 percent) of parents felt having their child labeled as "learning disabled" was more harmful than struggling privately with an unidentified problem. Of the parents who expressed some concerns their child may be having trouble, 44 percent said that they waited a year or more before seeking help.

Parents who understand the risks of delay in getting help for their child's reading problems are motivated not to wait. Children can be brought up to grade level much more successfully and with less effort if effective intervention is offered early on. Once parents understand the risks of waiting, hopefully it will be easier to overcome concerns and get help immediately.

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Hall, S. (2009). Is It a Reading Disorder or Developmental Lag? Retrieved July 12, 2009, from GreatSchools Web site:


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Currently I'm doing my bachelor's. I want to increase my reading speed and writing speed too. I want to write like I can write at a very paced rate without paining my brain. Can anyone suggest what exercises or methods I can read or take to work on my writing and reading speed ? How many words per minute can I read , how much far can I go like if my reading speed is 200 words per minute and I'm a grown up, Is there a chance that I can increase it up to 1000 words per minute ?Please help me on this , I wanna know the answer to it as soon as possible..

There are many learning disabilities that affect reading fluency and comprehension, getting psycho-educational testing is very helpful in identifying any processing speed, visual processing, auditory processing, or speech/language issues your child may have. Many parents aren't willing to get this testing for their child, and these types of learning disabilities respond better to alternative multi-sensory teaching methods such as Wilson, HillRap, Orton-Gillingham or others. Some of these children have above average intelligence that is all that has helped them figure out what they are supposed to see, hear, or respond based on what the others around them are doing. Please encourage assessment so you, as a teacher, can use a method of teaching that works for each of these children.

I am a second grade teacher researching learning disabilities. I have a student that was intensive at the beginning of the school year. I have been tutoring her after school two days per week. She is recieving extra instruction with the title teacher as well. Her parents work with her and at mid year she is still intensive. I think she could have a learning disability, but I keep feeling as though I can get her caught up if I just keep working with her. She is making improvement but not at the rate needed to catch up to her peers. I feel responsible for her and I want to give her more time, but at least if we test we will know for sure and use that information to better assist her.

I must apologize for all of the misspellings in my last post. Was typing fast and was distracted by my children. I should have used the spell checker. :-)

I have run into the addage "he is just immature for his age" "he will catch up" "it is just a lag, that is all, nothing to worry about", but I know that they are wrong. I see how my children struggle. All of my children are intelligent and have wonderful imaginations. My oldest is a great reader but struggles with comprehension. I finally held him back in second grade because he couldn't keep up with the work in third grade and would take 6 hours to do an hours worth of homework through frustration and tears. He did better this year, he is basically a straight A student with a lapse here and there, but he struggles still with comprehension, organization, and keeping up with the pace of the others. My next son went to homestart, headstart, and kindergarten and still did not know all of the alphabet or how to say them. I had him repeat Kindergarten. He now knows the alphabet and can read a little. I have had both of them tested. Everyone says that you can not detect dyslexia before third grade, but by them you have missed valuable time. My second son was found to be a little behind in reading and comprehension but was great in math and cognative. He is in speach and language therapy in school to help with his speach problems and comprehension. I will continue to advocate for my children though it is hard and tiring. But as parents we know our children better than the teachers because we have them more. Teachers have to focus on 22 students so it may be harder for them to see what our child needs. It is a long process, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease. So advocate for your child. I know in my heart that my second child has dyslexia and I know that whether it is ever diagnosed or not, that I am going to try my hardest to see that he gets what he needs to succeed and be happy in his career as a student. By the way, I got my children assessed at a regional health facility that offers that kind of testing. It took too long to get the school system to do anything.

I have to say that I thought all along that my daughter has a reading disability and I have been told by teachers since she was in kindergarden that she was just a little slow in learning to read. She is now in fourth grade and struggles with her reading. I'm still going through the process of trying to get her assessed in school. So I have to say that it is sometimes the schools and not the parents who have a hard time addmiting that a child could have a disability! Why is it so hard to get the assesment?

Please help me understand why it might be left to a parent (who may be reluctant to face the growing feeling in their gut that something may be amiss) to push for intervention? Though the research makes a compelling case for initiating intervention sooner rather than later, I don’t understand why a parent would need to educate the school about the risks of waiting. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? What am I missing? I never thought that I would ever have cause to ask this question, but here I go anyway: Aren’t the kindergarteners being tested for reading? If not, why? If so, is there not funding for intervention? Again, what am I missing? Are we spending so much money on testing in hopes of holding our teachers accountable that there is no money left for assessment that will enable our teachers to be more successful in their efforts? When Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” I think he aptly summarized the cost-benefit ratio of an excellent early childhood education to the great many years of learning (and earning) potential that will follow. Dear President Obama and all government leaders, we need an ounce (or two) of investment in our young children, and we need it now.

We know early intervention is key, but as a KG teacher I see that this group is the last to be given consideration. No Child left behind was an expensive and misguided. Administrators focus on the grades that are tested rather than building on the solid ground of early intervention.

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"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan