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LD or Just Not Bright?
Q: My fifth-grader is in the advanced group at school, but has to work very, very hard. She seems to have problems with reading comprehension and with some learning skills. Before a test, I usually re-teach the chapter, pull out key concepts, then prepare a study guide and quiz her. She sees the material, but can't seem to implant it on her brain for an exam. It's very frustrating. I'm giving her tons of support -- but she just doesn't test well. She generally scores proficient to low on standard exams. How do I discern between her having a learning disability or just not being as bright as I want her to be or think she can be?
A: There are so many different reasons a child may have difficulty with reading comprehension. Some children who are not really fluent readers use up all their mental energy trying to read the words on the page so they don't have any resources left for comprehension. This is often true for kids who did fine with reading when words were primarily one and two syllables that were in their own vocabularies. When they have to tackle unfamiliar multi-syllable words, their comprehension suffers. Other kids either don't have adequate background knowledge about what they're reading or they don't activate that knowledge when they read, drawing connections between the new and the known. Another group of students struggle with comprehension because they are not reading actively. They focus on reading the words correctly and don't really think while they read.
Good readers ask themselves questions as they read and organize the information in some manner (e.g., main ideas and details) for easier retrieval. They monitor their understanding, using "fix up" strategies (e.g., rereading, clarifying difficult vocabulary, reviewing text structure, making a mental movie as they read) to help themselves if they get off track.
Although you may have some insights into what's going wrong for your daughter, the only way you can be sure is by having a reading specialist have a look at her to see what, if any, strategies are actively in place to aid comprehension. Once you know for sure what she's doing, then you can plan support to meet her specific needs. Excellent information on reading comprehension and resources for reading strategies can be found on LD Online (www.ldonline.org) in the "In Depth" or "For Teachers" links.
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For more than 20 years, Eileen Marzola has worked with children and adults with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders, and with their parents and teachers. She has been a regular education classroom teacher, a consultant teacher/resource teacher, an educational evaluator/diagnostician, and has also taught graduate students at the university level. Marzola is an adjunct assistant professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York. She also maintains a private practice in the evaluation and teaching of children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.