The Reading Process

Reading and spelling are not natural skills like speaking. Babies learn to speak whatever language(s) they are exposed to by imitating the sounds, accents, and cadence. Given normal hearing acuity and intact vocal mechanisms, eventually all children will learn to speak through a natural, innate process. However, this is not the case for reading. Young children must be taught to read. Their brains hold the key to making sense of the whole process. As everyone already knows from personal experience, our brains are not all wired in the same way. We need only reflect a moment to compare our natural abilities and skills with the next person to see that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Yet, sometimes we get frustrated with our children if they do not catch on to reading and writing with the same ease that other children do.

Societies determine what skills are most valuable.

Imagine for a moment living in a society in which the ability to carry a tune, or to draw, was critical for success. There would be a whole different set of people in the halls of power and influence! People who are skilled with language might suddenly find themselves signing up for remedial singing or art.

According to many experts in the field of reading, about thirty five percent of children will learn to read with little or no effort. Thirty-five percent will get to grade-level reading with some effort. But, the other thirty percent will find reading to be most difficult. Fifteen to twenty-five percent or more of the last group will find reading to be the most difficult thing that they have to learn. It is clear that we are not all wired to learn language skills with ease. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, author and pediatrician at the Yale School of Medicine, sums it up in her book “Understanding Dyslexia” when she says, “Reading is the most important work of childhood, and yet as many as one in five children struggle to learn to read with consequences extending beyond childhood into adult life.”

The five pillars of reading

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development did an in-depth study of reading research (of 1,373 previous studies) and published their findings in 2000. The NICHD Reading Panel wrote that there are five pillars of reading. They are: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and fluency. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, manipulate, and reproduce the distinct sounds of words. It involves sounds but not print. Phonics is the ability to associate certain letters and letter combinations to certain sounds. Phonics relates to print and sound. Vocabulary is knowledge of word meanings. Reading comprehension involves getting meaning from text. There are different levels of meaning- surface and deep also known as literal and inferential. Fluency is the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and correct intonation. Weaknesses in any of the five pillars mentioned above will detrimentally affect the reading process.

The NICHD Reading Panel also studied what works best in terms of effective instruction. Overall, the findings showed that, “teaching children to manipulate phonemes (sounds) in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels and that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness.” Specifically, the results of the experimental studies led the panel to conclude that, “…systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read.” They also said that, “Across all grade levels, systematic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell.”

You can find out more about what the National Reading Panel has to say in their report.

What is LD?

A learning disability or learning difference exists when a person’s achievement or skills in certain areas is not what one would expect given the person’s aptitude or intelligence. People with learning differences exhibit weaknesses in visual and/or auditory perception, processing, memory, or attention.

A person with a learning difference may also have ADD or ADHD, although not always. It may affect several skill areas or only one: reading, spelling, writing, or math.

The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) defines the term learning disability as:

a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to Central Nervous System Dysfunction. Even though a learning disability may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (e.g. sensory impairment, mental retardation, social and emotional disturbance) or environmental influences (e.g. cultural differences, insufficient/inappropriate instruction, psychogenic factors) it is not the direct result of those conditions or influences.

Learning disabilities are diagnosed by school psychologists, clinical psychologists, and neuropsychologists through a combination of intelligence testing, academic achievement testing, and other assessments of perception, cognition, memory, attention, and language abilities. The data is used to determine if a person is achieving at his or her potential.

Learning disabilities stem from deficits in four broad areas:

  • Input: Visual/auditory/tactile perception, sequencing
  • Integration: Interpreting, categorizing, generalizing, and relating new knowledge to previous learning
  • Storage: Short term (working) or long term memory in visual, auditory, or kinesthetic modalities
  • Output: Oral language, writing, drawing, gross and fine motor (muscle) activity

As indicated above, the traditional approach to the diagnosis of learning disabilities has been to wait for a significant discrepancy between IQ scores and achievement. By this time, the student has experienced a great deal of failure. Much current research now focuses on a treatment-oriented diagnostic process known as Response to Intervention (RTI). This model involves early screening of all students, immediate remedial intervention at different intensities depending on risk factors, and close progress monitoring. The RTI model attempts to catch students before they fail and results in fewer students being referred on to special education.