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Youngest in Class Has Reading Problems

LD and ADD/ADHD Expert Advice from Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D.

Q: My son is in the fifth grade, and is one of the youngest kids in the class. He started early and I have fought with this decision for a while now. I never really thought about it until last year when he began to have problems with reading. His teachers say that if he reads a story out loud he can answer the questions right every time. However if he reads silently, he gets most of it wrong. I know he rushes sometimes, but how else can I help him? If you can't read silently, it will affect every subject that you have to take. He does well in every other subject. In fourth grade he was a "C" student; his teachers said he just needs to slow down. Hope you can give me some advice. I feel like maybe I should have not started him so early. Thank you in advance!

A: It doesn't sound as if this kind of reading problem is related to his age, and since you said that he does so well in other areas, I wouldn't worry so much about him being the youngest in the class. If he "gets it" when he reads out loud, two things are helping him. First, reading aloud slows down his processing by "forcing" him to focus on each word. This allows him to get more meaning than he gets when reading silently, when his eyes can race ahead of his brain. In fact, he may not be reading every word when he reads silently, or he may even be skipping phrases or whole lines. Some kids have visual tracking problems, and reading aloud helps them keep their place. This kind of eye movement problem requires specific intervention, usually provided by a developmental optometrist.

A good way to improve silent reading is to have your son follow along with his finger, while someone reads to him. He can point while reading silently by himself too, as this would help his eyes focus on each word. The reason that teachers always tell kids not to point (which, it turns out is not always good advice) is that it...slows...you...down! In your son's case, it's just what the doctor ordered. His teachers have said he just needs to slow down. Well, for some kids it isn't that easy! They need help with this, and they need to practice.

There are also computer-assisted reading programs that highlight each word or a group of words or a sentence at a time. Even very good young readers say that these kinds of programs help them focus and read with greater understanding. The difficulty is getting textbooks turned into print. This is starting to get easier, since a growing number of textbook publishers sell a CD with their texts just for this purpose. The time consuming method is to scan each page into a computer and then have computer "read" the material back (with the "highlight" feature on and the sound either on or off, depending on preference.) Ask the special education teacher or the reading specialist in your son's school (or a teacher of blind children) about software that reads text. They might already have it in the school. If this all sounds hi-tech, it is, but it's really not that hard to do and it's very effective.

Also, your son may be the kind of child who learns better auditorily (through his ears) than visually (through his eyes). We've all re-read a sentence out loud to gain more meaning from it. If this is your son's preferred learning mode, then leaving the voice turned on on a software-based text reader, or listening to books on tape, or continuing to read out loud (they'll need to find a place for him to do this, or have him read to younger kids) will be very helpful. Hope these suggestions help. Let me know.

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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.

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