learning differences

My First Grader Can't Read! At What Point Should I be Worried?

If you’re anything like me, you grabbed every opportunity you could to read with your children when they were young. As soon as they were old enough, I started shifting from exclusively reading to them to reading with them. For my daughter, reading came pretty easily, but for my son, there were some early indicators that he would struggle later on. As a mom with zero experience with dyslexia at the time, I had no idea that the struggles he was experiencing were red flags that he had a reading disability.

Even though my son was diagnosed by second grade, getting him the right interventions by kindergarten or first grade could have prevented some of the academic, social and emotional challenges he encountered. Now that I am a dyslexia advocate, I want to share some of those early warning signs with you, so you can start asking yourself the important questions before self-confidence, academic and social issues set in for your child.

  1. Your child struggles significantly to name the letters of the alphabet – When I was two years old, my mom said that I knew all of my letters. By four, I was reading like a champ, so I fully expected that my own children would have a similar experience. While my daughter picked up her letters quite easily, for my son, it was a constant struggle. The letters he knew one day, he seemed to forget the next — and when he attempted to name the letters, it was labored, slow and definitely not automatic.
  2. Your child skips/replaces words – When I used to read even the simplest of books with my son, I would find that he would skip entire words or phrases. I would have to redirect him to back to the words he skipped because without them, the sentence held a different meaning. 
  3. Your child doesn’t recognize words that he read correctly in the prior sentence – The practice that confounded me the most was my son’s inability to recognize words that he had read correctly in the prior sentence or on the prior page. It was as if he had never seen them before. Words like “for”, “the” and “in” were completely daunting for him. I could tell that he was equally as frustrated by the experience.
  4. When reading, your child uses context clues rather than decoding strategies to figure out the words - In other words, your child depends on the pictures to determine what the word is. Typically, my son would be able to get the first letter or groups of letters correct but would guess at the rest. When I knew for certain that he was using this strategy, he tried to read the word “rug”, but after looking at the illustration at the top of the page, he said the word “carpet”. I knew in that moment that he was depending entirely on the pictures rather than decoding strategies to determine the words he was trying to read. While pictures can be helpful tools when children are first learning to read, once they are decoding in kindergarten and first grade, dependence on pictures will likely prevent or delay a child from learning how to break down and decode words.
  5. Your child memorizes entire books or pages of books to feign reading – When I realized that my son was doing this, it was a huge aha moment for me. I remember the day distinctly! He brought home several books from school called “Buddy Books”. He was super excited to show me how well he could read each and every one of them. I sat in amazement as he blew through each book with ease! On one hand, I wanted to celebrate this milestone met... and we did. However, on the other, I knew something wasn’t right, so I took my little guy down to the library and we chose some books of the same level as his Buddy Books from the shelf. With trepidation, I opened the first book and asked my son if he could read it to me. I then watched with sadness as my suspicions were confirmed — my son had memorized each and every Buddy Book. He wasn’t reading at all! That moment was both heartbreaking and eye-opening. Memorizing is a common coping strategy for dyslexic children. Dyslexics are typically very smart — average to above-average intelligence — and they are very adept at discovering ways to get around their areas of weakness. My son would use his exceptional memory to help him feign reading. Even his teachers were convinced that he was actually decoding the books in front of him... but he wasn't.

Once we had our son evaluated, we realized that although he had a gifted IQ, he had weak phonological awareness and poor rapid naming skills. His many strengths helped him compensate fairly well, but his weaknesses prevented him from making adequate progress as time went on. Dyslexia is often missed by parents and teachers until middle school because kids can be so good at masking their weaknesses. That is, until their coping strategies fall apart as the content increases in complexity. That is why... time is of the essence! If a child is not identified until middle school or later, it becomes almost impossible for them to close the gap.

I wrote this piece was so you will have the information and the tools you will need to take the appropriate steps to get your child evaluated. Each and every year that goes by without a proper diagnosis can lead to academic stress, progress gaps and self-esteem issues. Had I not had a friend who was an advocate at the time my son was struggling in school, things may have turned out very differently. It was MY advocate who told me not to waste any more time and to have my son evaluated... and I'm so very glad she did. My son's future is forever changed because we took action early.

I am happy to report that because my son received the help he needed by third grade, he is doing amazingly well now. As a rising sixth grader, he is reading above-grade level and loves school. However, if we had taken action even earlier, we could have prevented our son from enduring unnecessary pain and struggle. Although we did what we could with what we knew at the time, acting even earlier could have spared my son feelings of stupidity and failure. As well, he may not have had to make up for lost time. That said, I am grateful that we took the steps we did early enough to make a difference and his future is ever changed because of it.

As a dyslexia advocate, I don’t want to watch one more family go down the road of wait and see. Far too often, my clients tell me that their child’s teacher told them to allow their child time to catch up. Research tells us that dyslexic kids will never “catch up” on their own without the right interventions and explicit instruction, so it is vital that you have your child tested as soon as you suspect that he or she is struggling.

Don't accept the explanation that your child just needs time to mature. You are your child's best advocate! If you feel like something is not right, act now! If you would like to receive my free parent's guide so you can determine if your child requires further testing and take the steps to get your child evaluated, please download my "Is My Child At-Risk for Developing a Reading Disability?" guide below.

Want to take more action to
protect your child's self-esteem and academic future?

If your child is showing signs of at least 2 of the 5 red flags above, please download my free parent's guide "Is My Child At-Risk for Developing a Reading Disability?". In it, you will receive the following:

  1. Dyslexia Checklist - A warning sign checklist for dyslexia.

  2. Teacher Cheat Sheet - A guide to help your child's teacher get to know your child the way you do!

  3. Sample Letter: Request for a Special Education Evaluation - Should you decide to have your child tested by the school, use this sample letter to request that your child be evaluated for special education.

Please don't just wait and see!
Download this guide so you don't miss the chance to help your child before they start to struggle in school.

Three Things To Be Aware of Before Your Child Begins Elementary School

Sending your child off to school is an exciting experience for the whole family. Your child has the opportunity to spread his wings, learn new skills and develop independence. As fabulous as this new opportunity is, there are a few things that every parent should know about before embarking on the journey. Becoming knowledgeable and aware is the best way to ensure that your child will get the best instruction for his or her learning style. Below are three things that every parent should be aware of before their child begins school. 

  1. Kindergarten is the New First Grade
    The kindergarten class you may remember as a child was probably filled with blocks and baby dolls. Playtime was a not only experienced, but expected. Today, however, the focus of kindergarten has shifted away from play and rather, towards academic achievement. What kids are missing is the physical, social, emotional and cognitive development that occurs as a result of playtime. When children play, they learn how to interact, regulate emotions, practice verbal and non-verbal communication and build self-confidence. This is especially important for children with special needs as many struggle to understand social cues. Therefore, practice at a young age is an important tool for success.

    That said, I do feel that there is some benefit to introducing academics at the kindergarten level and that is simply because it allows teachers the opportunity to "flag" children who may experience language-based learning difficulties down the line. Since kindergarten and first grade are the ideal ages at which to introduce the appropriate interventions for struggling readers, the earlier a child is identified, the better. That said, there are, in fact, some simple and inexpensive screening tools available today that offer teachers an effective way to identify children, as early as kindergarten, who may later develop a learning disability. While screening tools are not widely-used at this time, if utilized, children with learning differences could be identified and given appropriate interventions early on. Since we know that more of the same does not help children with dyslexia learn to read, continued practice without the proper interventions will likely lead to low self-esteem and delays in academic progress. If allowed to use these important screening tools, however, children who may later struggle academically could benefit from early intervention while also gaining the social, emotional and communication skills that come from play. 

    According to the U.S. Department of Education, “The Nation’s Report Card,” as of 2013, only 35% of fourth graders were reading at or above grade level. As well, 64% of eighth graders were reading below grade level and only 36% were reading at or above grade level. What does that tell us with regard to the effectiveness of an academic kindergarten experience? Are we seeing the value from sacrificing vital social practice? Perhaps there is another solution. Well, interestingly enough, Finland, which arguably has the most effective schools in the world, does the opposite of what we are doing in the United States. In Finland, children don’t receive formal instruction until the age of 7. Their school experience through age six includes learning through song, play, games and interaction. Outdoor breaks are not only encouraged in Finland, they are mandatory! They don’t have standardized testing. Instead, they have engaged teachers who challenge the children to learn through experience. If we take a step back and analyze our reading proficiency rates by third grade, we may want to take a page from Finland's playbook and revisit the kindergarten classroom of yesteryear. 
  2. More of the Same Is Not Always the Best Approach
    As I mentioned above, more of the same does not help children with dyslexia. So, if you are sensing that your child may be a struggling reader, you may be wondering if he or she will make improvements if provided with more opportunities to practice. When it comes to dyslexic children, more of the same can actually do more harm than good. Dyslexic children need explicit, direct and systematic instruction in both oral and written language in order to be successful. This type of instruction is only offered through special education. What often happens, however, is that a teacher will provide the child with reading difficulties more opportunities to practice reading one-on-one with a general education teacher. However, since this reading practice is not specialized and is rather, more of the same, the child naturally becomes frustrated and experiences even more self-doubt. His typical reading peers are able to read without the additional help he is receiving, while he continues to struggle.

    It is imperative to identify a child with dyslexia as early as possible so self-esteem issues do not set in. Since more of the same will not allow a dyslexic child to make progress, time spent in general ed reading practice will only delay the implementation of the right instruction. As the parent, you have the right to request that your child be evaluated [in writing] at any time. Time is of the essence. If you are concerned about a struggling or reluctant reader, do not wait.
  3. When It Comes to Identifying Learning Disabilities, General Education Teachers Don't Always Know What to Look For
    Since Federal law states that children with special needs must be placed in the least restrictive environment, children with learning disabilities are often integrated in classrooms with typical learners. While the idea behind integration is a good one, most general education teachers do not receive any training regarding the needs of children with special needs. In fact, a 2009 study demonstrated that teachers receive little to no instruction as to how to address the needs of different learners. They are instead expected to “pick it up on the job”. That means that children with dyslexia are often identified after academic and emotional issues have set in. Since research tells us that 1 in 5 students is dyslexic, that means that the average classroom includes between 4 and 5 students with a potential learning disability. Many teacher-education programs offer general education teachers a single class to learn about special education. That means that most general education teachers are simply ill-equipped to address the needs of special needs students.

    Fortunately, we know from scientific research that if children receive the right instruction and early intervention, they will be able to master the content and stay on target 85% of the time. The problem is, however, that years often go by before a child is identified, which can result in progress gaps and emotional distress.

    The key is not to segregate kids with learning differences from the rest of the student population. The key is to make sure that if the teachers are not properly trained to recognize learning challenges, that you know what to do so you can get the proper interventions in place for your child.

If you have a family history of learning disabilities or suspect that your child has dyslexia, I encourage you to take advantage of my free training so you can become your child's best advocate. The goal is to get your child the support he or she needs before your child experiences academic and emotional challenges in school. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to advocate for your child's needs

Want to take more action to protect your child's self-esteem and academic future?

Download my free guide to you can determine if you should get your child evaluated further and help your child's teacher get to know your child the way you do.

  1. Dyslexia Checklist - A warning sign checklist for dyslexia.

  2. Teacher Cheat Sheet - A guide to help your child's teacher get to know your child the way you do!

  3. Sample Letter: Request for a Special Education Evaluation - Should you decide to have your child tested by the school, use this sample letter to request that your child be evaluated for special education.

Please don't just wait and see!
Download this guide so you don't miss the chance to help your child before he starts to struggle in school.

The Pride of Ownership

I often find that parents struggle with the idea of "owning" dyslexia and sharing with others that their child is struggling with it. Perhaps it's the stigma... perhaps it's the constant reminder of dark days. Whatever the reason, I think there is so much to be gained by owning the label and allowing your child to call it by name. That is not to say that your child should ever be defined by dyslexia. By no means is dyslexia everything that your child is. But, it is a big part of her and is part of the reason she is who she is. Allowing your child to claim dyslexia gives her permission to tell herself that she is not damaged. She simply learns differently.

The minute you claim dyslexia, you accept the obvious struggle that comes along with the journey, but what you also gain is command over its impact on your spirit, your drive and your willingness to reach for the stars. If you are ashamed of dyslexia and push it down like it’s something to be embarrassed about, then it will never be a badge of honor for you. If, on the other hand, you wear it proudly and accept that the road ahead may be a bit bumpier than it is for others, the journey may also allow you to uncover the beautiful you that would not exist without dyslexia! It may also teach you that you are strong and have what it takes within you to overcome.

I tell my son every day that I am glad he has dyslexia because without it, he wouldn’t be him. Dyslexia is a part of him, a big part of him. With struggle also comes strength. Today, my son owns his dyslexia and the lessons it has taught him. Big or small, dyslexia is helping to shape the fighter, the hard-worker, the determined spirit, the passionate person and the talent I see before me today.

As his mother, I am not afraid to let anyone who asks and even those who don’t, know that my son has dyslexia. His journey is an inspirational story that I am proud to share. Although not every journey has a happy ending, we all have so much to gain from owning each and every part of our story and who we are.

My struggles as a child did not include dyslexia. For me, it was bullying. However, I know in my heart that I wouldn’t be who I am today without experiencing all that I did… as hard as it was at the time. Let me be clear, I am NOT suggesting that you should allow your child to be bullied so he or she can develop “character”. There are other ways to go about developing character. However, what I am saying is that if your journey includes struggle in any form, embrace the lessons the experience can offer you. We all have a great deal to gain from experiencing both mountain climbs and valley crawls, but we have to be open to continuing to move forward, despite the rough terrain.

As my father used to tell me as a child… “if you are in a valley, just keep walking because life is not like Texas. You will eventually encounter another hill.” It’s relevant to mention that I lived in Texas at the time.

Even though it has taken me decades to appreciate the tough years I experienced in middle school, I am starting to own that part of my journey. I still find it hard to reflect back with appreciation for those years, but I am becoming more and more aware of the gifts I also gained. Today, I know that I am a better mother, coach and friend because of the empathy I developed as a result of that experience as a child. The key is to remain open to the gifts that your journey offers you. Maybe it’s dyslexia, maybe it’s bullying, maybe it’s an illness, maybe it's a loss. Whatever it is, if you are open, there is a hill before you and a valley to look down upon… if you just keep walking forward. Own it.

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