The five-year-old who can’t quite learn her letters becomes the six-year-old who can’t match sounds to letters. By age 11 she is the child who would rather hide in the school bathroom than read out loud in class. At 18, her excruciatingly slow reading makes it nearly impossible to finish important tests in the allotted time—potentially hurting her college and career prospects.
The threads persist throughout a person’s life. But with early intervention this scenario doesn’t need to happen.
Delays in breaking the phonetic code means a child will miss much of the reading practice that is essential to building fluency and vocabulary. Then, when that crucial shift from learning to read to reading to learn occurs around fourth grade, that child will fall further behind in developing comprehension skills—and acquiring knowledge through reading.
While no one wants to be an alarmist, it’s important to be alert to your child’s struggles and not to delay voicing concerns to your child’s pediatrician and/or teacher. As Dr. Sally Shaywitz states in Overcoming Dyslexia, “The human brain is resilient, but there is no question that early intervention and treatment bring about more positive change at a faster pace than an intervention provided to an older child. The sooner a diagnosis is made, the quicker your child can get help, and the more likely you are to prevent secondary blows to her self-esteem.”
Screening can be accomplished early and reliably by the kindergarten or first grade teacher using the Shaywitz DyslexiaScreen, published by Pearson. This instrument has a high degree of accuracy in identifying children at risk for dyslexia.
Fortunately, parents can play an active role in early identification of dyslexia. You don’t have to wait until children start failing at reading. You don’t even have to wait for them to enter school to start observing and listening to your child’s speaking and reading skills. You just need to know what to look for. The following points offer a scientifically sound and sensible approach to identifying young at-risk children before they experience reading failure:
- Observe your child’s language development. Be on the alert for problems in rhyming, pronunciation and word finding.
- Observe your child’s ability to connect print to language. Notice if he is beginning to name individual letters.
- Know your family history. Be alert to problems in speaking, reading, writing, spelling or learning a foreign language. Some families with more than the average complement of dyslexics seem to have an abundance of photographers, artists, engineers, architects, scientists and radiologists. Somewhat less frequent, but still impressive, are the large number of families sprinkled with great writers, entrepreneurs and jurists who are dyslexic.
- If you see evidence of problems with spoken language, learning letter names, and especially if there is a family history, have your child tested.
- Focus on strengths, not just weaknesses. The goal is to make sure that a child’s strengths, rather than weaknesses, define his life.
These steps will help you judge if your child is ready to read or requires special attention or educational support to start reading. If his testing indicates that he is not quite ready to read, you have the choice of delaying kindergarten or allowing him to enter school while receiving help through intensive, evidence-based reading instruction. Some schools may offer this type of support, but you are more likely to find it through an outside tutor or learning center like the Scottish Rite Children’s Dyslexia Centers or Lindamood-Bell centers. Our recommendation is not to delay kindergarten; waiting another year will only delay needed help.
Trust your intuition and act now. We have yet to meet a family that feels they acted too soon.
Click here to see a guide to reading-related skills.
(adapted from Overcoming Dyslexia, by Sally E. Shaywitz, M.D.)