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When reading gets tough, the tough get reading

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on August 30, 2012)

A new school year often brings challenges for students and parents alike. For example, what if a teacher approaches you with a concern about your child’s reading ability?

It is not unusual for some children in kindergarten or the early elementary grades to have trouble putting together letters with their sounds, the basic building blocks of reading at the word level. Learning letters and their sounds helps children decode and read words. Thanks to federal programs such as Reading First and the No Child Left Behind law, the importance of these early reading skills is now widely understood.

Parents should know that among learning problems, reading difficulties are by far the most common. For many children who struggle, these difficulties are treatable in the early grades. As my colleague, professor of special education Donald Compton, told me, “The key message here is that schools are much better at identifying reading problems and getting help to kids. There’s a lot we can do if we catch it early.”

With timely and appropriately intensive instruction, such as instruction that is skills-based and delivered in small groups by a knowledgeable teacher, most children can build decoding skills.

Of greater concern are reading problems that emerge later in elementary school. Around fourth grade, students are asked to make a shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Texts become more demanding, with greater variation in language. The learning challenge shifts from decoding to comprehension. As a result, a reading problem may reveal itself in lowered scores in subjects like language arts, science or social studies. Educators refer to the phenomenon as the “fourth grade slump.” Fourth grade is also when school reading texts begin to rely heavily on background knowledge.

Treatment can be difficult, and a comprehensive and systematic strategy is most helpful. Parents who think their child may have a problem should partner closely with teachers to develop a plan that should include research-backed approaches to strengthening reading comprehension. Children may need to read a lot more material that is appropriate for their reading level. They may also need to learn to apply active reading strategies like questioning, visualizing or predicting what will happen next, and they should write more, too. Children who apply these strategies and write about what they read can improve their comprehension.

What matters most at this point is building language skill and vocabulary. Even parents who find reading difficult themselves can help. Instead of listening to music in the car, listen to audio books and talk about them. Ask the teacher if your child’s texts are available in audio format, listen together, and talk about the content. Since television typically doesn’t use complex language, keep TV to a minimum and use that time for reading.

A strong home and school partnership, with parents, teachers and children working together to overcome reading challenges, is the best strategy for success.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.