I’ve been asked if kids can struggle with reading WITHOUT having an actual reading disability. My answer is yes. Some kids grow up in homes with limited exposure to books and reading. Their parents may be semi-literate and/or not understand the impact of early reading experiences on a child’s potential success in reading. I have also worked with kids who performed poorly in reading due to misguided attempts to have them “read” books far beyond their beginning reading skills; consequently, these kids had unpleasant associations with reading and were likely to approach that subject with anxiety.
For the majority of non-disabled students with whom I’ve intervened in reading instruction, their difficulties came from faulty and unbalanced reading instruction. In most instances, these were kids who suffered “trauma” from Phonics Wars. If teachers/parents are engaged in Phonics Wars, they typically align themselves in one of two battle postures. The side I am most familiar with does not teach phonics systematically, can’t stand the idea of “sounding out” words, expects kids to memorize most words, and relies heavily upon context as a means of decoding. The other side teaches phonics to the exclusion of other strategies for developing vocabulary and deriving meaning from text. The latter position is infrequent in my experience but I have seen it practiced.
When kids are not taught phonics skills systematically, they must rely heavily upon language and context in order to read. Many of these kids “run out of memory” by about second grade, with particular difficulty reading words that are visually similar. The texts they are expected to read no longer have enough illustrations to compensate for their weaknesses in decoding words phonetically. They have learned to “keep going” when they make an error, which can become habitual and lead to reading without meaning, especially when kids come from language-starved backgrounds.
The solution is to build the child’s toolkit of decoding skills, while improving his or her reading for meaning. For one student, reteaching the process of reading meant continual external monitoring for understanding (by me) until he learned to monitor himself. In his case, it took a year to relearn the process of reading for meaning while acquiring phonics skills as a tool.