Does My Child Have Dyslexia? Where to Start When Concerns Around Reading and School Arise
For parents, trying to figure out whether their child is a struggling reader or has a learning disability is no easy task given the conflicting opinions and information on how and when children learn to read. For instance, in countries like Finland, formal schooling—which typically includes reading instruction—does not begin until children are 7 years old. And while many parents in the United States may be oblivious to what is going on in Finland, saving formal reading instruction for the post-kindergarten years used to be common practice in the U.S. as well, which today’s parents may remember from their own childhoods. Indeed, some education policymakers and practitioners still hold up the Finnish method as the gold standard for how to educate young people, despite some countries' shift away from the approach.
An uptick in expectations
As far as the U.S. is concerned, a 2017 Ohio State University study that looked at the emerging literacy skills of students entering first grade over a period of 12 years found that average scores on key reading indicators such as word recognition and print awareness rose over time, “suggesting that many children end kindergarten with the skills they used to learn in first grade.” In a Science Daily interview about the study, OSU researcher Emily Rodgers went as far as to say that “kindergarten is the new first grade when it comes to learning reading skills.”
According to the National Education Association (which, along with the American Federation of Teachers, represents public-school teachers across the U.S.), the reasons for this uptick in expectations can be traced back to 1983, when the Nation At Risk report was released. In a 2015 blog post on the NEA website, Brenda Alvarez explained that the report warned of U.S. students falling behind on key fundamentals such as reading; this led to a flurry of reforms that included the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (which yielded a new emphasis on annually testing children's reading aptitude from third grade onward) and the 2009 Common Core State Standards (which ushered in a round of higher expectations overall). In tandem with this evolving legislation, a growing body of research into the complexity of learning to read has emerged, and educators are looking to play a greater role in making sure students with reading problems do not fall through the cracks.
Of course, conversations about reading instruction and best practices go back much farther than the release of the 1983 report, and the resultant confusing array of approaches and opinions offers little comfort to parents who suspect their child may have dyslexia or a similar language-based learning disability.
While it can be difficult for parents to acknowledge that their child is not a “typical” learner, it is important to remember that most children will need help and support somewhere along the way. For parents who may be unsure where to start when concerns around reading and school arise, the following guidance provides a solid jumping-off point:
Don’t wait! Even though there are differing opinions about when children should begin reading independently, researchers are becoming increasingly opposed to the “wait-to-fail” approach to reading intervention that recommends delaying help until students are in third grade. After all, as the University of Michigan’s Dyslexia Help center noted, “Professionals with extensive training in diagnosis can accurately identify the precursors to developing dyslexia as early as age 5, [so] we can make a definitive diagnosis as soon as the child begins to struggle with learning to read, spell, and write.”
Remember that every kid is different. Any parent with more than one child will know that kids don’t all follow the same path on the road to becoming confident, successful readers; while some learn quite early, others don't achieve fluency until later. Given the scope of these natural variabilities, what's a parent to do? Simply put, the key is to stay observant and trust your instincts. If you suspect that your child is having trouble grasping basic literacy concepts—for instance, letter recognition or phonemic awareness—don’t hesitate to ask their teacher for an evaluation, even if you think such a request is premature.
Pay attention to other cues. Unlike teachers, parents are not typically trained to watch for reading problems in students, but that doesn't mean they're incapable of picking up on behavioral cues that suggest something's amiss. For example, repeated refusals to go to school might signify that a child is struggling with academic tasks such as reading. With this in mind, education writer Annie Stuart penned an article titled “Is My Child’s Behavior the Sign of a Learning Disability?”
Embrace the label. In 2019, freelance writer Gia Miller wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post in which she cautioned parents not to avoid seeking help for their children out of fear associated with the stigma of a "special education" label. Describing her own experience of growing up decades ago, Miller recalled how students with learning issues (including herself) were not given the help they needed to succeed because they never received an official diagnosis. Today, much more is known about the benefits of intervening early to help students access the support and resources they require.
Reading is truly a fundamental skill that can open doors to higher levels of literacy, improved performance in school, and a more successful life trajectory overall. If you suspect that your child is struggling, it makes sense to ask for help sooner rather than later, as early intervention can make a world of difference.
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