It's never too early to address reading problems

Back to School 2007: The First 'R' / The Strugglers

Bennett Shakoske of Turtle Creek was only in first grade, but he was already beginning to give up on school.

He was having trouble reading.

It was only when he moved to another district, repeated first grade and found a special-education teacher who used his love of Legos to motivate him that he was able to progress. Now, he is starting his senior year at Woodland Hills High School.

Years ago, some advised waiting until third grade to get extra reading help to see whether the child would grow out of it.

Now experts advise stepping in as soon as a reading problem occurs.

"The research over the last 30 years really lays out very clearly you can't start too early. I wouldn't hesitate, if I were running a preschool, to try to address these kids' needs,'' said Dr. Timothy Shanahan, immediate past president of the International Reading Association and a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Without the help of teacher Angela Livingston, then known as Miss Twyman, Mr. Shakoske, 18, said, "I probably would have dropped out of school already. I would have gotten too frustrated and just not cared."

Without early help, the picture is bleak.

A child who is four or five months behind at the end of first grade has only one chance in five or six of ever reading at grade level in a typical school environment, said Joseph Torgesen, director emeritus of the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University.

"It is occasionally true that children who are lagging behind at the end of kindergarten have a growth spurt in first grade. It's quite rare that that actually happens," said Dr. Torgesen.

Rosanne Javorsky, senior program director for curriculum and instruction at the Reading Achievement Center at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said educators used to wait because they thought the children weren't developmentally ready to learn.

Now, however, she said experts know that "waiting will not produce the desired outcome for kids."

Nationally, about 10 million children -- 17.5 percent -- experience reading problems in their first three years of school, according to the National Reading Panel.

Ms. Javorsky said there's hope for struggling early readers. "A lot of the research shows that if you intervene early and intensively you can actually make a difference for those kids. If you don't, it becomes much harder as the kids get older."

Getting help early doesn't mean the child will never need help again.

"This isn't like a vaccine that if we just give the kids a shot of education in first grade, everything is going to be fine," said Dr. Shanahan.

The key is, if children have received help and have trouble again, they won't be as far behind as they would have been without extra help.

Mr. Shakoske, who is dyslexic, has continued to get specialized instruction in reading, seeking help both at school and at the Duquesne University Reading Clinic.

With what he's learned with extra help and on his own, Mr. Shakoske, who is still working to reach grade level, said, "I might actually stand a chance of making it to college."

For some kids, reading is relatively easy while for others it's a "huge challenge," said Dr. Shanahan.

"To read, your brain has to use a lot of different parts to do different things. Some people have trouble with the coordination of those parts across the brain."

He said there are many reasons for difficulties, including neurological challenges, a lack of exposure to text in the preschool years and inadequate instruction. Sometimes one problem isn't enough to cause the struggle, but multiple problems compound each other.

The cause of a reading problem can vary by age.

"If my kid is struggling in second grade, it's almost guaranteed it's a decoding problem," said Dr. Shanahan, referring to a child's ability to grasp letters and their sounds.

By middle school, the problem is less likely to be decoding or simple fluency but more likely to be about vocabulary, text interpretation and understanding how an author organizes a book.

Children whose parents create a culture of reading in the home have an advantage over others.

"I can't stress enough to read to your babies as soon as they're born, if not before. It helps them develop the ability to read so much more easily," said Laurie Moser, director of Read! 365, which is a campaign of Beginning with Books.

"Children who have been read to and talked to since a very young age have heard more than 30 million words by age 3. They have a vocabulary of up to 20,000 words by age 6. That gives them a great head start."

For those who are behind, Dr. Torgesen said special help -- such as learning in small groups or being tutored by a skilled teacher -- needs to last up to 45 to 50 minutes every school day in first or second grade.

"Not very many kids get that kind of intervention. Some schools offer 20 minutes three times a week. That's usually not going to get the job done," Dr. Torgesen.

It only gets worse if the problem isn't addressed.

"The longer you go as a poor reader, the more practice you miss out on. This practice builds vocabulary. It builds reading strategies and it builds fluency," Dr. Torgesen said.

By fifth grade, the child in the bottom 10 percent tends to avoid reading and reads only about 60,000 words a year in and out of school. A child who is in the middle of the group reads about 800,000 words a year, he said.

A problem with reading affects other classes, such as social studies and science, where students are expected to be able to read well enough to grasp the material.

"We have some kids who are reading reasonably well in the younger grades -- kindergarten, 1, 2, 3 and 4," said Donald Deshler, a special-education professor and director of the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas.

But some of these children get stuck moving from narrative text in the early grades to expository text in middle school.

At the same time, many students don't get additional instruction in reading in middle and high school.

This fall, Donald Teti, assistant superintendent of secondary schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, will meet with Quigley Catholic High School teachers in Baden, Beaver County, to show content-area teachers how to help secondary students become better readers.

Mr. Teti said students today need a higher level of reading skills to be able to analyze complex material.

Students with reading difficulties may not let on, but parents and teachers can see the warning signs, such as a student who complains about having to read too much or lags behind on assignments.

"It may be a signal that their skills are not at a sufficiently fluent level enabling them to respond to the demands of the curriculum," said Dr. Deshler.

Reading problems can cause embarrassment, which can result in the struggling readers reading even less.

Michael Pompa, of Plum, now 13 and an eighth-grader at Sacred Heart School in Shadyside, felt the sting in fourth grade at another school.

"Whenever I read, people started laughing and stuff. I didn't raise my hand to read anymore," he said.

Michael got help at the Duquesne University Reading Clinic, where teachers-in-training test and tutor struggling readers. Now after about three years, he has become a more confident reader.

His mom, Sue Pompa, who said her son has auditory-processing difficulties, said, "He reads fluently. He does struggle on some of the bigger words. He will attack them. He will try them. Before, he wanted to give up."

Some of those who don't master reading -- including some who simply drop out of school -- later turn to organizations such as the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council for help as adults.

Gary Piriano, 48, of Stanton Heights, said he couldn't read well enough to fill out applications or read directions when he graduated from Peabody High School. For the last 19 months, Mr. Piriano has been getting tutored for two hours twice a week through the council and practicing on his own.

"I'm reading books that would intimidate me before," said Mr. Piriano, who is reading Stephen King's "Blaze."

Even if a reader is struggling, it does not have to result in disaster.

"I know through well-designed, high-quality instruction, the vast majority of kids can be very good learners and good readers," said Dr. Deshler.

But not all students have access to the best techniques.

"If we were implementing the best of what we know, we would not have the number of kids not reading at grade level that we've got," said Dr. Deshler.

He said some teachers know the most effective methods but can't use them because they don't have the necessary working conditions, such as small classes.

Giving too little help is like giving a sick child too little medicine, he said. "You do not wipe out major deficits in reading without having a very intensive intervention."

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at or 412-263-1955. First Published August 27, 2007 3:15 AM


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