* Helping Kids Understand Reading Difficulties

NeuronaHelping 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.

* Explode the Code

This is my personal review of an online reading program I’ve used successfully for several years: Explode the Code Online.  It’s a giant of a program, a digital version of a highly successful series of workbooks for teaching phonics published by EPS.  The online program mirrors the 8 workbooks.  Both workbooks and online program provide systematic and sequential instruction in phonics.  Here’s a screen shot of an online sample page.  ETC online

How it works:  The program will start with an automatic assessment of short vowel sounds, which also includes segmenting sounds, isolating beginning sounds, and spelling CVC words (Book 1).  However, teachers may choose whatever starting place is appropriate for the student.  Here is an overview of the content:

  • Book 1: short vowel sounds
  • Book 2: beginning and ending consonant blends
  • Book 3: long vowel sounds, consonant digraphs and trigraphs,
  • Book 4: compound words, word endings, syllable division, syllable types
  • Book 5: word families, 3-letter blends, qu, and sounds of -ed
  • Book 6: r-controlled vowels, diphthongs
  • Book 7: soft c and g, silent consonants
  • Book 8: suffixes and endings

What kids do: There are numerous responses required for each skill, including identifying correct letter-sound associations by dragging letters or typing; reading words; spelling;  matching; answering questions; practicing vocabulary; and reading sentences.  The activities themselves range from matching pictures and words to choosing one of two sentences to match a picture.  Student voices are used throughout, the graphics are animated (changing from black and white to color), and the all the individual sounds are carefully but naturally spoken, segmented, and then blended (see Cons below for one caveat on this).  After completing each lesson, students earn one of four icons for their scorecard: an airplane, a butterfly, a ladybug, or a bee.  Earning a certain number of icons (which can be adjusted by the teacher) rewards the student with the FUN button, a page of links to online games and websites.  Students may time themselves during each lesson and check their own student summaries when they log in (for the same information that teachers get below).

What teachers get:  Each student’s progress is  recorded in detail.  Serious detail.  You can generate reports that indicate how many minutes and seconds a student worked (and the actual time they were online), their accuracy rates, problem skills, comparison to California State standards, overall progress, number of lessons mastered, and number of assessments passed.  You name it, the program measures it.


  1. The abundant repetition and built-in programing ensure that students get sufficient practice before moving to a new skill
  2. It can be used to support a special needs student in the regular classroom to reinforce special education services
  3. The continual visual and auditory representation of segmenting and blending support phonological awareness
  4. This program provides a worksheet-free way to practice phonics skills
  5. Student progress is recorded in minute detail, which is excellent for EC kids as well as those in Response to Intervention
  6. A great program for English Language Learners (ELL)
  7. It is reasonably priced; seats can be swapped out if a student leaves or masters the content and all data is preserved
  8. It is easy to use for both teachers and students
  9. Students are motivated to earn the better icons (‘airplanes’ trump ‘bees’)


  1. Kids usually find the program boring, airplanes and bees aside.  The Fix: Plan on an external motivation system or get them to buy into the importance of this practice.
  2. If a kid “goofs” off and makes multiple errors, the program will continue to repeat the activities that were completed incorrectly.  The Fix: Explain what will happen if they goof off.
  3. The program does not correct for unaccented syllables.  The syllables “but” + “ton”  are pronounced correctly on their own, but the word doesn’t sound the same when combined into “button.”  The Fix:  Use this as a teaching opportunity for blending syllables.
  4. The program can be occasionally “glitchy” due to the enormous amounts of audio and graphic files.  The Fix: Buy a better computer.

My Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5


* What nonsense!

NonsensicalSilly UselessImpediment to instructionUnnecessary.  I’ve heard all these expressions, and more, to describe the use of nonsense words in teaching phonics.  A recent opinion column argued that there are enough unfamiliar words to go around, so why would teachers make up words?  An interesting volume is available through Heinemann Publishers, which decries the use of DIBELS in assessing and driving reading instruction. Anti DIBELS pdf

This is not a post about the merits or “demerits” of DIBELS for assessment; the majority of students will learn to read fairly easily without ever seeing a nonsense word.  Unless they read Dr. Seuss, of course.  I am writing to say that nonsense words play an important role  in reading instruction for kids with dyslexia and other reading disabilities.  These kids struggle with the alphabetic code.  They struggle to manipulate sounds.  They can’t read chapter books in second grade.  They feel stupid no matter how bright they are.  (Check out this article on Forward which concludes: People with dyslexia tend to be creative and out-of-the-box thinkers, the very characteristics that can mask the fact that a child is having a tough time reading.)  It is unfair to paint reading instruction for all kids with the same brush.  And that’s where nonsense words come into play.

For those reading disabled students who must learn phonics systematically and sequentially, nonsense words allow them to practice phonics skills on words they have not already memorized.  These pseudo-words, as they are also described, allow intervention-resistant students to get the extensive practice they require.  Without the use of these words for both practice and monitoring progress of their skill acquisition, these kids may not get adequate instruction.   Refer to Sally Shaywitz’s terrific book, “Overcoming Dyslexia” or read her online discussion with folks from Reading Rockets for more details.

Let’s not undermine effective instruction for struggling readers by tossing nonsense words under the DIBELS bus.