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Is Your Child Facing A Learning Challenge, Or A Learning Disability?

Why do some children learn to read so easily? And why do so many very bright children have such difficulty with what appears to be a simple task? How is a parent to know if a child is just a bit delayed in reading or perhaps actually learning disabled? Here's what the latest research tells us.
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Boy studying in library
Boy studying in library

Why do some children learn to read so easily? And why do so many very bright children have such difficulty with what appears to be a simple task?

The first thing to understand is that reading is not simple. In fact, it is much more complicated than rocket science.

The fact that some children learn to read so easily is therefore quite astonishing and is best understood now from what reading researchers call the self-teaching hypothesis.

Published scientific research on the complex processes involved in reading over the past 30 years has shed light on this hypothesis and the complexities of learning to read. In a nutshell, some children learn to read easily because of their ability to learn the relationship between letters (which are visual and very concrete) and their underlying sounds or phonemes (which are very abstract and auditory in nature).

The two main ingredients that beginning readers need to learn are (1) that every word consists of sounds and that (2) sounds can be represented by a letter or combination of letters. Many children acquire such knowledge quickly while others require much in the way of direct instruction in both (1) and (2). The Discover Reading Program is one of the few programs that provides direct instruction in these complex relationships.

English is difficult to teach because of the varied ways in which sounds can be represented. Many alphabet languages have a consistent letter/sound relationship. In Spanish, for example, the letter "i" is always pronounced as /ee/ as in the word "adios." In English, the sound /ee/ can be spelled at least nine different ways, and the letter "i" can represent sounds other than /ee/! This can be confusing to students who do not fully grasp the concept of letter/sound relationships (those who are "challenged") but is learned easily by students who already have a firm grasp of them (the "self-teachers").

The term "learning disability" is used to describe those children who show a significant discrepancy between their intelligence (an individual intelligence test is administered to determine this) and their performance in academic areas such as reading, math, comprehension, or written language (determined by administering a standardized battery of academic tests in these areas). For more specifics, see

Once given this diagnostic label, the school will write an Individual Education Plan or Individual Program Plan and provide the student with accommodations such as extra time on exams and possibly some remedial help. Unfortunately, this delivery system, while helpful in some respects, does not typically provide the student with sufficient gains in their areas of weakness and "catch them up" to their classmates.

So how is a parent to know if a child is just a bit delayed in reading or perhaps actually learning disabled? Early indicators of delay and possible disability include (1) difficulty learning the names of the alphabet letters, (2) difficulty learning sounds associated with the letters, (3) avoiding activities involving reading, and (4) difficulty with spelling.

As the child advances in school, these difficulties become more pronounced and the gap between the child and their peers becomes more evident. The school will typically encourage parents to practice reading at home, but in many cases, this leads to Word War III battles between the parent and child.

If you are having these battles with your child, he or she is likely very stressed about the process and is really screaming for help. I have not met children who are "not motivated" and "don't want to read."

Those children, once taught properly, can learn to love reading.

What is important in these situations is not a diagnostic label, but a strong intervention-oriented assessment which will identify the processes that are weak for the child and are blocking the child's ability to learn to read.

Once those blocks are identified, the student will need a remedial program which is structured, sequenced and very direct in teaching the student how to read. There are research-based intervention programs that are effective in accomplishing this goal. (

The bottom line: if your child is learning to read easily, then rejoice in that fact. This child will always want to read independently and will become very fluent in both reading and spelling. On the other hand, if your child is struggling, monitor carefully over time and take appropriate action if progress doesn't appear to be forthcoming despite the efforts of your school, yourself, and any tutors you may have already tried.

My experience over many years at The Reading Foundation has been that almost all children, even those labelled as "reading disabled" or "dyslexic" can learn to read if they are provided with a strong intervention program and sufficient remedial hours in such a research-validated program. They need the "right stuff" and "enough time" to transition from weak to strong reading.

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