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Struggling Readers

Reading is a complex process of decoding symbols in order to construct or derive meaning. Children learning to read develop skills in two critical areas: correctly identifying words (decoding) and understanding their meaning (language comprehension). To be fluent readers, children must be able to read new and familiar words quickly. To understand the meaning of texts, children must have sufficient language comprehension skills. 

For example, if a text says, “the pig with the big ears rolled around in the mud,” a proficient reader is able to read each word accurately and knows what the words mean. The relationship between word recognition and language comprehension is what academics call the Simple View of Reading.

There are five key skills that children need to develop to become good readers:

Phonemic awareness.

The ability to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes – the smallest segments of sounds in spoken words. For example, the word cat has three phonemes: /c/ /a/ /t/.

Phonics.

The understanding that letters and combinations of letters represent sounds that come together to make words. Phonics is the understanding of how written letters translate into spoken language.

Fluency.

The speed, accuracy (number of words read correctly), and expression that a child has when reading. Fluency is strongly related to comprehension, since when children struggle to read one word at a time, they are unable to gain a broader understanding of the sentences and paragraphs they are reading.

Vocabulary.

The knowledge of words, including the number of words and how well each word is understood. A child may have a basic understanding of a word (that an engine is 2 something that makes a vehicle move) or a deep understanding (that there are many types of engines and that an engine can refer to what makes something happen).

Comprehension.

The ability to understand what is reading, including skills like making inferences. Comprehension requires a child to understand the words they read, reading “between the lines” to make inferences and “beyond the lines” to draw connections to bigger ideas and concepts. Children understand what they read when they combine their background knowledge, or what they know about the world, with information from the text.

Although each child is unique, all children must master this same set of skills to become a proficient reader. For many reasons, children develop as readers at different rates and in different ways. Learning these skills does not come naturally. Both accurate word reading and comprehension require careful, systematic instruction. Some children move along just fine with developing early literacy skills, and then become “stuck” requiring a change in learning strategies.

Understanding Struggling Readers

Families with struggling readers often wonder if their child might be “dyslexic.” According to the Simple View of Reading, dyslexia is one of four possible types of readers that result from different combinations of word recognition and language comprehension skills:

Good readers. (Upper right-hand quadrant.)

These children have strong word recognition and strong language comprehension skills for their grade level. This is our goal for all children.

Dyslexic readers. (Upper left-hand quadrant.)

These children have good oral language comprehension skills, but struggle with word reading. (In other words, they know the words verbally but struggle to read them.) Note that dyslexia is not an “either-or” specific condition, but rather a continuum of reading difficulty as it relates to word reading skills (decoding) in the context of good language comprehension skills. Just like other conditions such as hypertension and obesity, there are different levels of severity. Children in this category need specific strategies to help them strengthen their phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Many practitioners believe strategies that engage multiple senses in the learning process – sight, sound and touch – may be particularly effective for these children.

Struggling readers. (Lower left-hand quadrant.)

These children have poor oral language comprehension skills and struggle with word reading. Many children reading below grade level who fall in this category will improve with frequent one-on-one interactive, shared reading (i.e. Active Reading) to build language, vocabulary and oral comprehension skills as well as systematic phonics instruction.

Hyperlexic readers. (Lower right-hand quadrant.)

These children have precocious ability to read, often far above what would be expected at their age, but significant difficulty in understanding and using verbal language. Like dyslexia, hyperlexia also exists on a continuum. Children with hyperlexia usually have other disorders such as autism and reading strategies to help these children should be employed by specialists within the context of more comprehensive speech and language treatment for their specific conditions.

For more information in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, check out these links:

Official definition of dyslexia in the State of North Carolina: http://www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmsdepartments/ec/Pages/Understanding-Dyslexia-and-Dyscalculia-.aspx

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Programs for Exceptional Children: http://www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmsdepartments/EC/Pages/default.aspx

Project Child Find: http://www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmsdepartments/ec/Pages/Child-Find-Information.aspx

The Rankin Institute (Charlotte, NC): http://www.thefletcherschool.org/rankin-institute/community.cfm