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7 common mistakes parents make when addressing their child’s reading difficulties
Working as a literacy intervention specialist with children who have dyslexia and other reading difficulties I have seen it all; the good, the bad and the downright destructive.
How do you rise above the noise to find an approach that works? How do you make sure the time you spend helping your child read is time well spent?
The short answer is this: by avoiding the 7 common mistakes that, despite empirical research, remain pervasive within reading programs and with many educators.
Mistake 1: No Clear and Scaffolding Structure
Most reading programs, phonics books and online activities follow a swiss cheese approach to reading intervention, missing vital skills development. These small holes widen with time and can truly make the difference between competent reading and significant struggles.
Successful reading intervention programs require a scaffolding structure, that comprehensively covers the key skills via explicit instruction (Winkler, 2016). Piecemeal worksheets, books, online games and activities lack a coherent and evolving flow. With these approaches, it is easy to do too much too soon while missing critical skills.
Countless studies have demonstrated the importance of repetition, consolidation and gradually building on taught skills while introducing new ones in a purposeful sequence.
Tip 1: Find an intervention program that has a scaffolded day-by-day, step-by-step drip fed approach that is easy to understand and builds skills sequentially.
Mistake 2: An Exclusive Synthetic Phonics Focus
The reading process is a complex one, requiring the development of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension skills. Synthetic phonics teaches letter sounds and then progresses to blending these sounds together to decode whole words. Shortcomings arise when a child ultimately learns there are more than the initial 26 sounds aligned to each letter, requiring a rewiring of what has been learnt previously.
Further, for a child with reading difficulties, it is important that sounds and words are sometimes supported by clues such as illustration and context. Phonics is an essential step in the journey of reading, but in isolation, even for beginner readers, it is insufficient and can be misleading.
Blending sounds alone is not reading. Reading for meaning is important, even in the very initial developmental stages.
Tip 2: Adopt a multi-sensory approach, with flexible phonics activities supported by auditory phonemic tasks, high frequency words, inferential and literal comprehension and spelling activities.
Mistake 3: Insufficient Repetition and Duration
To effectively address a reading disability or shortcoming, at least 4 short bite-sized lessons should be delivered each week.
Too often tutors and other specialists are employed on a weekly basis, making recall from previous lessons near impossible.
Reading programs that cease after a few short months are likely to deliver substandard long-term results. Indeed numerous parents have expressed their dismay at the cessation of Australia’s Reading Recovery program after only 100 lessons. Not surprisingly, a 2016 study of effective literacy interventions for K-2 children identified sufficient intensity and duration as crucial elements in effectively addressing reading difficulties (Forman et al; 2016).
Tip 3: To develop holistic, transferable and sustainable reading skills, your structured intervention program needs to follow a daily drumbeat. Little and often is your mantra.
Mistake 4: Computer Activities Without Book Reading
Various set and forget computer programs claim to enable independent learning for children with reading disabilities.
The Good: Multisensory online programs and apps serve as a useful buffer to standard repeated reading. Instant reward based feedback can assist with your child’s engagement and motivation, while digital features like animation and audio can improve comprehension skills. However, these programs are severely limited when they:
- Do not follow a scaffolding and evolving structure;
- Advocate a set and forget approach, without one-on-one educator or parent support;
- Do not include real and engaging books that provide a context for taught skills
A common shortcoming of these programs is they fail to engage children in actual reading, incorporating activities and games with a pure decoding focus. A study of teachers showed a consensus that these online resources need to provide thoughtful books that engage students and increase motivation to read (Bippert & Harmon, 2016)
Tip 4: Computer assisted learning is a fantastic addition to the arsenal of parents and teachers. However, reading skill sequencing and progression needs to be cleverly incorporated, as do real book reading exercises.
Mistake 5: Looking for Help in the Wrong Place
I have seen parents, with the best intentions, enlist the help of speech pathologists, tutors, behavioural optometrists, occupational therapists and even chiropractic professionals to address their child’s reading difficulties. Such help can be beneficial however it is usually expensive and its frequency can be insufficient.
I have also witnessed the potency of parents as teachers and reading role models, an inexpensive resource that commands a special position in their child’s mind. And, I am not alone. Studies find parents achieve unique benefits when delivering content to their children with reading difficulties (Mcconnell, 2016).
Tip 5: Mahatma Ghandi once proclaimed ‘every home is a university and the parents are the teachers.’ You are your child’s first and best teacher, consider seeking out tools that empower you to deliver reading interventions and instruction to your child.
Mistake 6: A School-Parent Divide
Parents often feel alone and overwhelmed when their child is diagnosed with a reading disability or is otherwise falling behind in their reading.
Worry, anxiety and uncertainty are also common and understandable emotions. Concerned parents can feel unheard or at extremes made to feel ‘crazy’ when it comes to discussions with their school. However, as trite as it sounds, collaborative and constructive discussions are vital to ensuring an integrative approach and effective reading results.
Tip 6: See our post on how to successfully advocate for your child’s learning disability here.
Mistake 7: A Focus on Short-Term Test Results
Many reading intervention approaches might (temporarily) improve test results. However when they are punctuated by isolation and endless repetition, the strategy often frustrates the child, decreasing long-term motivations for learning and reading.
Moreover, a number of studies cite a gradual wash-out effect of certain reading intervention approaches, whereby initial gains tend to fade. Similarly, various researchers have called into question the lasting impacts of the Australian Reading Recovery program.
Tip 7: Don’t place excessive value on short-term test results following an intervention. Rather, ensure proven evidence based methods are used that drive sustainable results.
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