Helping children with reading difficulties

Learning to read is difficult for some children. How can we best help?

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Apr 13, 2017
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Helping children with reading difficulties: some things we have learned so far

A new perspective article has gone live on npj Science of Learning. Authored by Genevieve McArthur and Anne Castles of Macquarie University in Australia, the piece discusses the commonalities and differences observed in the ~16% of children who struggle when learning to read.

First, the authors emphasize that reading difficulties don’t all stem from the same root problem. Even for a given reading impairment, such as struggling to correctly sound out a new word, a number of causes could be at play.

To delve into this more deeply, McArthur and Castles distinguish between “proximal” and “distal” causes. Proximal causes are the immediate causes, for example an inability to link the “sh” sound to the letters on the page. Examples of distal causes include problems with memory or attention that make learning more difficult. Citing a review that analysed 23 randomized controlled trials of reading interventions, the authors suggest that to manage a child’s reading problems, it is more effective to address proximal than distal causes.

Another issue raised is that poor readers often develop problems with other aspects of their lives: attention deficit disorder, anxiety and low self-esteem are all seen at higher rates in poor readers than in their peers. However, the authors point out that while reading difficulties could be the cause of these cognitive and emotional problems, the reverse is also possible. Because reading problems can be exacerbated by emotional and behavioral issues, the authors recommend taking the time to learn whether such non-academic factors may be contributing.

Based on these findings, the authors recommend four steps to alleviate reading difficulties:

1) Find the specific reading behavior that is deficient (e.g. poor comprehension, problems linking visual letter appearance to letter sound)

2) Identify the likely proximal cause(s) of the problem

3) Pay attention to the child’s behavior and emotional state

4) Develop an intervention—ideally focussed on proximal causes—that can address both the cognitive and emotional/behavioral deficits

Go to the profile of Alan Woodruff

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute

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