By Susan Hall, Ed.D.
As I travel across the country speaking to groups of parents about reading difficulties, I often say "beware of the developmental lag excuse." I have several reasons for saying this. First, I have listened to parent after parent tell me about feeling there was a problem early on, yet being persuaded to discount their intuition and wait to seek help for their child. Later, when they learned time was of the essence in developing reading skills, the parents regretted the lost months or years. Second, research shows that the crucial window of opportunity to deliver help is during the first couple of years of school. So if your child is having trouble learning to read, the best approach is to take immediate action.
Knowing how soon to act can be easy if you are informed about important conclusions from recent research. Reading researchers tell us the ideal window of opportunity for addressing reading difficulties is during kindergarten and first grade. The National Institutes of Health state that 95 percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive effective help early. While it is still possible to help an older child with reading, those beyond third grade require much more intensive help. The longer you wait to get help for a child with reading difficulties, the harder it will be for the child to catch up.
The three key research conclusions that support seeking help early are:
Parents who understand these research conclusions realize they cannot afford to waste valuable time trying to figure out if there really is a problem or waiting for the problem to cure itself.
These research conclusions make it imperative for schools to implement screening tools that emphasize phonemic awareness skills. As discussed in the earlier Q & A on Assessment Issues, the best plan is to begin screening children in mid-kindergarten and continue screening at least three times a year until the end of second grade.
Reading researchers who designed these screening tools recommend identifying and providing additional assistance to the lowest 20 percent of children. The rationale is that it is better to slightly over-identify the number of children who may be "at risk" of reading difficulty than to miss some who may need help. The worst outcome of over-identification is that a child who would eventually have caught on receives some additional help. Parents should follow this strategy and act early because the worst that can happen is their child will get a little extra help she really didn't need.
Yet identification is only the beginning. Effective and intense intervention must be offered immediately. Students who lag behind their peers must be given extra help, preferably in groups of three or fewer students, by a well-trained educator who knows how to deliver effective instruction. Assignment to these groups can be fluid, with children joining whenever the teacher determines skills are lagging and others moving out as they master skills.
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