Does ‘Reading’ Harm Your Child?

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by Bill Sardi

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Momma D is at her wit's end.

She is exasperated at how many times she has to instruct her child to put on his socks in the morning. Her whole repetitious litany begins again when her 7-year-old boy, Jeffrey, has to be told numerous times to pick up his toys, brush his teeth, finish his homework.

"We're raising a kid who is going to be a criminal," she says in a raised voice. "He doesn't listen to a thing I say!"

Her precocious child is also a behavior problem at school. His 1st-grade teacher says he is disrespectful, he won't read in unison from the chalkboard with the other kids. She says he isn't trying. She caught him writing down answers to a test in pencil on his desk top. Another time he barked out the answers to a spelling test to all the other kids in the class. Pulling "bad behavior cards" and sending him to the principal's office didn't curb his uncooperative behavior. His teacher suggests home schooling.

Momma D tells off her husband, saying she has had to bear the brunt of this all, that he isn't sharing in disciplinary measures and not taking the lead as father in the home. Momma D is thinking about a divorce she is so exasperated with both her child and her husband.

Finding help from the gardener, not the school system

Not knowing whom to share her frustration with, one day while in the garden she mentions in passing the challenges she faces with her child to the gardener whose wife just happens to be an accomplished self-employed reading and music teacher. Momma D takes her child to her for some extra learning sessions.

Coincidentally, this boy is getting good-to-excellent grades in math, spelling and social studies, but his reading isn't up to par. Even special classes have only marginally improved his reading speed and fluency.

Mary Beth, the reading and music coach, notices Jeffrey had learned to read and do math the hard way. Jeffrey adds 7 + 3 by saying in his mind "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, 9, 10." He is adding the long way around instead of starting at 7 and then 8, 9, 10.

When shown a list of words to spell he memorizes them instead of spelling them. When asked to spell "dog" he thinks of the position of that word on the spelling list and tries to recall how it was spelled. If he improperly recalls the position of the word "dog" as the next word on the spelling list, which is "cat," he will write it out as "c-a-t" even though it isn't even phonetically close to "dog."

He is getting good grades but doing it all without learning how to properly add or spell. He has some unlearning to do. Teacher Mary Beth starts him on a phonetics program.

By the third encounter with Mary Beth she thinks Jeffrey is exhibiting signs of dyslexia (he is writing his "d's" backwards like a "b" and visa versa). She suggests he undergo developmental tests.

Jeffrey's parents are shocked to learn why he won't follow instructions

So Jeffrey and his parents are off to visit a specialist who tests kids for developmental problems. After two hours of testing, the evaluator calls Jeffrey's parents into her room and asks: "How many times do you have to ask Jeffrey to put his socks on in the morning?"

Momma D responds: "At least twenty times."

The evaluator says this should not be surprising. When Jeffrey is shown instruction cards and has them read to him, he properly followed the instructions three times out of ten, about normal for his age group. But when the evaluator had Jeffrey turn away and face the wall and she read a different set of ten instructions he was able to properly perform ten of ten.

Jeffrey's parents were stunned. What did this mean?

"It means he isn't able to process verbal and visual commands together in a coordinated and understandable way," said the evaluator. Jeffrey also had problems getting his two eyes to work together. He was having trouble tracking words across a page, or writing words in a straight line even though the paper was lined.

Slow learners not allowed

Not a word was said about "tracking" problems at the private school Jeffrey attended. His father, a bit miffed, headed down the street from home to make direct inquiry of three teachers who lived on the block. All three said they believed Jeffrey was having "tracking problems" which explained his reading difficulties. For some unexplained reason, school teachers and administrators were late to refer Jeffrey for developmental testing.

Jeffrey is just one of an estimated 15 million American children who have developmental problems. Jill Stowell, MS, author of At Wit’s End (2010, Green Dot Press) says: "What teachers typically don't do is work below the level of these content areas of reading, writing, spelling and math to train the brain to pay attention and process information more effectively. Teachers generally do not have the funding, training or time to provide this kind of specialized programming."

She adds that "Attention problems often clear up when the processing problem is solved."

Who led parents and slow learners out of the woods?

Stowell says it wasn't till the 1970s that Patricia Lindamood, a speech pathologist, teacher, researcher and author, discovered that the reason people had trouble learning to read was not because they couldn't see the letters and words properly or because they had bad teachers or reading programs. It was because they could not process, or think about, sounds. The sounding process supports learning. Even the best phonic programs may be ineffective if the brain can't hear the sounds, she says.

Where is this all headed?

Seven months after entering 1st grade Jeffrey's parents were finally urged to take him for developmental testing offered by the public school system and/or be examined by a pediatrician. His parents correctly felt this might stigmatize their child and lead to the predictable suggestion their child be placed on a stimulant — Ritalin. A private testing center had already been contacted by that time, as mentioned above.

Kids with attention problems shouldn't be treated as if they have a drug deficiency. Exasperated moms may acquiesce to the drug approach, feeling they can't take it any more. Kids on Ritalin, an amphetamine-like stimulant, then can't get to sleep. Developmental therapy is a drug-free approach, says Stowell.

In her book, Stowell says she has heard it all — the myths about kids with learning problems — that they just aren't smart, that they are lazy, they aren't motivated, that they can't be helped or they will grow out of it. Stowell says these are kids that can hear but not listen; children who can see but not read.

Accelerated learning may not be age appropriate

What many schools are doing is accelerating their programs and teaching reading two or three years earlier than when their parents learned to read. But between the 1st and 3rd grade, when kids are developing, some slower than others, is when these reading disabilities go undetected. Bridgit Gergens, PhD, a California educator, says by 3rd grade they will be two years behind.

When Jeffrey entered 1st grade at his new school he was tested for reading and his parents were informed then he would never be able to catch up and enter 2nd grade. Were his teachers saying they can't teach?

Our kids are being placed under inordinate pressure to read. Their curriculums are not age appropriate. Kids are doing an hour of homework each night in the 1st grade! Frustrated kids who are falling behind in the 1st grade will likely become angry by the 3rd grade.

Reading disease spreads

The reading disease has also spread across the Atlantic. In Great Britain, the school system there is introducing a new national reading test, to be taken by all five- and six-year olds at the end of their first year of compulsory schooling, to assess their word-decoding skills. The test consists of reading 20 real and 20 made-up words. Only a third of these youngsters passed the test in a pilot exam. The brighter kids were trying to take the made-up words and make them into real words, which led to the poor pass-fail rate.

The bright kids get stigmatized

Sally Shaywitz MD, author of Overcoming Dyslexia (Vintage Books 2003), says "a substantial number of well-intentioned boys and girls — including very bright ones — experience significant difficulty learning to read through no fault of their own."

Dr. Shaywitz says: "The harsh realities of the day in and day out experience of living with reading disability (dyslexia) can often clash dramatically with the perceptions of those teachers, administrators, acquaintances, and self-appointed opinion makers who question the very existence of the disorder (dyslexia) that holds so many captive."

Jill Stowell, founder of Stowell Learning Center in Chino, California, says she is challenged by teachers, school administrators and doctors who insist "it can't be done," but has observed miraculous results in her own learning center.

Dr. Shaywitz goes on to say that most parents and teachers delay evaluating a child with reading difficulties because they falsely believe the problems are just temporary, that they will be outgrown. This is simply not true, she says.

She, like Stowell, says a key to learning how to read is to have a child read words out loud so they can listen to the words and teach their brain how they sound. Then when they read, they "hear" the word being said in their brain.

Dr. Shaywitz says early on, in the preschool years, children who have difficulty pronouncing words, who persist in baby talk, who have trouble learning nursery rhymes (Jack and Jill; Humpty Dumpty), who can't read the letters in their own name, are likely to have difficulties reading as they enter school.

Dr. Shaywitz' book Overcoming Dyslexia is a classic, but it is a long and difficult read for a busy parent to wade through. The best starter book for frustrated moms and dads is Jill Stowell's At Wit’s End. It helps both parents and children.

Get your kids on the reading railroad

Our school systems are leaving kids standing at the train station instead of seeing that they move forward on the Reading Railroad. Kids need to learn to read so they can read to learn. When kids are slower readers and the school system has a special school for slower learners, the schools may be quicker to refer the kids for testing hoping they won't be saddled with these kids and ruin the school's aggregate test scores. Parents are going to have to take charge. Working parents don't have the option of home schooling. Don't let your kids get stigmatized, drugged, or embittered. There are many resources available to help them to read.

Take home lessons

The take-home lessons here are: (a) be alert for early signs of reading and learning difficulties; (b) recognize behavioral problems and inability to follow instructions are critically linked to the ability to listen and read; (c) obtain developmental testing as early as possible; (d) don't allow your child to be drugged just to appease your own frustration; (e) early on, have your child read out loud so they can hear themselves and imprint in their brain what words sound like when they read them; (f) recognize school systems are attempting to teach kids to read before they are ready.

Bill Sardi [send him mail] is a frequent writer on health and political topics. His health writings can be found at His latest book is Downsizing Your Body.

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