Helping kids understand their reading difficulties is an important component of specialized reading instruction. It can help children and their families cope successfully with a disability. Why and how?
Why talk about the reading disability? Doesn’t it just cause more anguish? Isn’t that likely to make the child feel worse? Most kids are already thinking a lot about their reading problems. They are comparing themselves to others in their class. They are probably worrying and imagining the worst. They are also likely to come to the wrong conclusion: “I can’t read so I must be stupid.” The greater a child’s self-awareness, the more they need to have the problem demystified.
How do you talk about this with a young child? Won’t it be confusing? Hopefully, the reading disability is recognized early on because that will certainly lessen the emotional impact of the problem. Match your discussion to the child’s needs and developmental level. I have found that even first graders are fascinated with colorful, magnified pictures of neuron growth, those little “trees” that keep growing as the child develops more skills. I also use a ladder analogy. Dyslexic kids may be on the fourth rung of the memory ladder for reading but on the first rung for the phonics and “word play” (phonological skills) ladder. They may be much higher on math ladders. The essential point is that there are ladders, a way up, and that they have already accomplished a lot in some/many areas of learning.
Aren’t you building false hope for these kids? Won’t they always have difficulty? Infusing hope is vital. Who would start out on a mission that is doomed to failure? Research demonstrates that physical changes occur in the brain as a result of effective reading instruction. And while it does seem that the neurological differences will remain, research is “scant but suggestive” about the strengths of the dyslexic brain. Certainly every child has unique strengths and the child will need to be reminded of that. A lot.
What about the struggle in learning to read? Should kids know how hard it will be? The better the instruction, the less fatiguing the struggle will be. Instruction should be paced in small, successful increments, with a way for kids to measure their growth. But it is a marathon, not a sprint. The typical learner is moving into chapter books while the challenged student is working on consonant digraphs. Again, analogies are helpful. There’s a steep climb ahead but also a point where the basics have been acquired and the struggle is lessened. Some have called it “getting over the hump.” With the right instruction and practice, it will happen. Remember that it’s always easier to imagine the worst. Help kids imagine the best.
How do you help these kids feel “normal?” In the most important ways, they are just as normal as any of us. You can normalize the reading disability just as you would the need to wear hearing aids or take insulin. While teachers and parents should spend time talking with the child about dyslexia, that can’t be the child’s whole existence. Explore activities or topics where the child can feel successful. It may be math or science, or perhaps sports or scouting. Remind your child that others are facing the same issues. Follow this link for an excellent list of books with characters who have reading difficulties, many of them authored by adults who themselves struggled to read.
If you have other questions I haven’t addressed, please let me know.