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Developing Reading Skills in Young Children

Dr. Reid Lyon discusses how children develop reading skills and what parents can do to help.

By Diana Moore, M.L.S.

Dr. Reid Lyon is a research psychologist and serves as Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He also serves as the Director of Research Programs in Reading Development and Disorders, Learning Disabilities, Language Development and Disorders, and Cognitive Neuroscience. Dr. Lyon delivered this lecture on February 20, 1999 in San Francisco.

How many children experience difficulties learning to read?

Approximately 20 to 30 percent of school-age children have difficulties learning to read. About 15 million youngsters do not have access to the wonders of books and other kinds of texts for learning and enjoyment. Almost as many girls as boys experience difficulties learning to read. Boys seem to be identified as reading disabled more readily because they tend to be more active and boisterous than their female agemates. While these estimates are alarming, they are on the conservative side.

Are there social and emotional consequences of not learning to read?

Indeed there are. If you observe children with reading difficulties, many negative effects become apparent. During the early grades, their difficulties are quite embarrassing to them. This humiliation leads to a predictable decrease in motivation and self-esteem. Children are easily frustrated and ashamed of their difficulties once they notice that many of their classmates read so effortlessly. As the youngsters mature, many of them drop out of school, and of those who manage to graduate from high school, less than two percent attend a four-year college.

What kinds of skills are required to learn to read?

Skilled reading requires the integration of several skills and abilities. You cannot learn to read an alphabetic language like English unless you understand that the words that you hear contain smaller sounds called "phonemes." Phonemes cannot actually be "heard" by the ear because when we speak, the sounds in each syllable and word are folded into one sound to permit rapid communication. Thus, when speaking the word /cat/, the ear hears one sound, not three as in /c/ /a/ /t/. Many readers must be taught "phoneme awareness" if it does not come easily to them.

Understanding that spoken words are composed of phonemes is critical because in beginning reading, new words are decoded by linking the phonemes to the letter symbols. Once children learn how to apply sounds to letter symbols, they must practice the process to ensure that their reading becomes rapid and fluent. Reading requires phoneme awareness, phonics, reading fluency, and comprehension skills. Each of these skills is necessary and none are sufficient in their own right. They must be integrated and applied in text through consistent and frequent practice. Learning to read is not a natural process - it requires systematic and well-informed instruction.

What are some common signs of reading problems?

Most reading problems can be observed when the child attempts to read out loud. You will notice a labored approach to decoding or "sounding out" unknown or unfamiliar words. Reading is typically hesitant and characterized by frequent starts and stops. If asked about the meaning of what was just read, the individual frequently has little to say. Not because he or she isn't smart enough: in fact, many people with reading problems are very bright. Poor comprehension occurs because they take too long to read the words, leaving little energy for remembering and understanding what was read.

Comments from readers

"hi my son is 8 and is having a hard time reading i read some of your suggestions like phonemic awareness to teach kids to read what is my best option on helping my son to read i feel really sad for him and i want to do everything i can to help him also tried to get a tutor to assist but so expensive is there some books or something else i should be looking for to help him i would appreciate any suggestions you may have thanks"