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Why is My Child Struggling to Read?

Reading problems are one of the main reasons a child is referred for a Special Education evaluation. It’s no wonder, considering that reading issues impact so many areas other than just reading, including self-confidence. Struggles in reading can cause difficulties in all subject areas, especially in the higher grades. Teachers and parents become very concerned when a student is struggling to read.  We have meetings, try interventions, and conference to address the problem.  However, there is never a universal fix to address the reading problem, because there is not just one broad reason as to why the child is struggling to read.

Reading is a skill that requires several abilities working together to be able to master. If a child is weak in any of those abilities, it can impact the ability to read. Finding out the source of the reading problem can make all the difference.  Here are some of the skills and abilities required for one to read. Each of these abilities can be broken down into even more specific aspects when necessary:

  • Visual processing. A reader must be able to correctly perceive what is seen in order to read. If one has difficulty remembering symbols or order of symbols he or she may struggle with remembering site words. A person who has difficulty with spatial relations might also have difficulty viewing letters or words in the correct order. This might be the problem when the student struggles with reversals past the normal developmental period, or has difficulty remembering b/d, 6/9, etc.
  • Phonological processing.  A reader will need to have good processing of sounds and be able to interpret what letters make each sound. Phonological processing includes blending words, rhyming, and being able to differentiate between similar sounds. Phonological processing is particularly important in the early stages of learning to read.
  • Auditory processing.  A reader must be able to correctly interpret auditory information in order to learn basic reading skills. A child that struggles to understand what he or she has heard will have difficulty with learning the foundations for reading or understanding books that have been read aloud.
  • Processing Speed (fluency). A reader will need to be able to quickly process the written information in order to derive meaning. When a student is a slow reader, it is often difficult to remember words from the beginning of a sentence. This often affects comprehension.
  • Working memory. A reader needs to be able to remember what has already been read, even while reading new words. A person has to be able to remember the previous paragraph, even while moving on to the next paragraph. Early readers need to be able to remember the letter sounds and memorize site words to be strong readers.
  • Comprehension. A reader must be able to comprehend and interpret what is read. Even a person who can decode words easily must be able to make meaning of those words. Comprehension requires strong reasoning skills.

If interventions have been attempted and the child is still struggling to read, more information to determine which skills are stronger or weaker may be necessary to develop a plan.  Parents should be aware that schools are usually only able to complete this level of assessment after interventions have been attempted and the child is significantly below grade level in reading and a Specific Learning Disability is suspected.

An evaluation should have depth to address reading problems.   Identifying why a student is struggling in reading will help to make more targeted reading interventions. A Learning Disability is never as simple as having a discrepancy between ability and achievement or not responding to targeted reading intervention. Either of those methods can be requirements for determining if a student meets criteria for a Specific Learning Disability, but an evaluation should not stop there. It’s important to dig deeper to determine the root cause for why there is a discrepancy or why the student is not responding to the reading interventions. A Psychological evaluation should address the various processing areas to find strengths and weaknesses in a person’s ability. I personally use the Cross Battery Approach, but there other styles that still address the processing areas.

If a student is found to have a Specific Learning Disability, it is very important that the IEP be targeted to address that student’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner. There is no one-stop approach. A student who has a visual processing deficit needs something very different than the student with the phonological processing deficit, even if both students are in the same grade and are reading at the exact same reading level. It is important for the School Psychologist and the Special Education teacher to discuss the results of the evaluation before the IEP is written to brainstorm appropriate services and accommodations. A decision needs to be made about investing time strengthening the weaker areas or teaching the child to use his or her strengths to compensate for weaker areas.

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