If you think that your child may have a special challenge, talk to his teacher and pediatrician. It can take some time to determine what the challenge actually is. There is usually some extra support at school for reading, such as reading with a Literacy Volunteer, small group support with an Intervention teacher like myself, and computer programs like Lexia and Text to Speech. After these interventions have been tried, your child may be assessed to see if he qualifies for time with a Resource teacher. Whether he qualifies or not, your support at home makes a real difference.
As an intervention teacher for first through fifth grade, I taught small groups of students to give them more individualized support for reading and writing. Dyslexia and difficulty with attention were the issues for many of my students. Here are some stories and tips from what I’ve learned over the years.
A Positive Attitude
Children with special challenges need to feel that their efforts are appreciated. If they become discouraged, their confidence needs to be rebuilt. If your child says, “I can’t,” you can say, “You can’t yet.” If they feel sensitive or embarrassed about needing extra help, you can remind your child that everyone has strengths and challenges. I tell my students who worry about how they compare to other students, “You can’t really know what someone else’s challenges are, and if they don’t have challenges now, they will later. What’s important is that you’re doing your personal best. You know how to work hard and later that will put you ahead.” You can remind your child of his strengths and the progress he’s made.
Your Child’s Reading Strengths
Students with dyslexia and ADD have a common strength in reading.
Those with dyslexia who struggle with reading accurately compensate by paying attention to the bigger picture of what they’re reading. The context helps them with unknown words. Dyslexics generally have excellent comprehension. Those with focus issues also keep track of the bigger picture, quickly absorbing the main ideas but needing to slow down to absorb details. They also have very good understanding.
When my friend, Arlyn, was driving her son home from school, he said, “You know how the words move around on the page?” That’s when she realized he was dyslexic, like herself. Although this description may not be accurate for how most dyslexics see words on a page, it is especially difficult for a child with dyslexia to decipher the letters inside words and to track the words in a line without skipping little words. The difficulty stems from how the brain processes the sounds that make words (phonemes).
Tip: A yellow line marker, available online, can highlight text to help a child focus and stay on the right line.
Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing, and spelling difficulties. It isn’t caused by hearing or vision problems or brain damage. In fact, all of the children I’ve taught who have this issue are very bright.
Albert Einstein, the most influential physicist of the 20th century, was dyslexic. He loved mathematics and science, but he disliked grammar and always had trouble with spelling.
Phonemic awareness means being able to discern the sounds of the parts of a word, like ch-ee-z (3 sounds for cheese),
Tip: Strengthen your young child’s phonemic awareness by playing with the sounds of words through
- matching beginning and ending sounds
- blending sounds to make words, like d-o-g = dog
- breaking words into their sound parts, like cat = c-a-t
- noticing repeating sounds. Tongue twisters are fun, such as ”Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” (More online.)
- noticing rhyming and repeating words through singing.
Tip: An easy game to play in the car with your child as a captive audience: Ask which of three words rhyme (or which one does not belong), for example, ice, bite, nice. Or which of these three words begin with the same sound: sit, stop, block? Or end with the same sound: sip, sound, end. You can emphasize the sounds of the correct answers to give your child a clue too.
Tip: The spelling, phonics and sight word games described here will give your child practice with phonics patterns and help him with visual memory. Try SPELLING GAMES & ACTIVITIES and FUN WITH WORDS & PHONICS.
Spelling is especially challenging for a child who has dyslexia.
Tip: Many dyslexics have a strong auditory memory. Chanting the letters of the word can help your child memorize the spelling, at least long enough for a spelling quiz. Writing the word a few times can also help. Clapping the letters or syllables in a word can also help memory, like bun-ny, 2 claps for bunny, and el-e-phant (3 claps).
Mark’s Challenge with Dyslexia
Mark, a student I tutored for several years, was strongly dyslexic. He had extra support at school with the Resource teacher and a lot of support at home from his parents and older brother. His family often read textbooks and stories for school aloud to him. He was able to listen to some books on the computer through Text for Speech while the text highlighted as the words were spoken. With his strong auditory memory and quick mind, Mark took it all in. As his tutor, I also read aloud to him, discussed the readings, and wrote down what he said in response for writing assignments. Then I would read it back to him and he would say what he wanted to change or to add. After that, I would feed back to him what he’d told me, a bit at a time, for him to do his own writing. I would help him with spelling when he needed it. Mark prepared for tests by going over the material until he had it fairly memorized. He was a hard worker and in time became an A student. When he was a teenager, he was given a choice of continuing with his Resource teacher or exiting the program. He realized that he’d do better by continuing.
Mark loved playing basketball and baseball. He was a team player. And, as he said himself, he was competitive and liked to win. His interests, strengths, and support helped him persevere with academics, become successful, and continue to love learning.
Attention Deficit Disorder
Robby, a second grade student I was tutoring, moved around the room, picking things up, and asking questions about everything he found interesting. When he settled in his chair and started to read a second grade version of King Arthur’s story, The Sword in the Stone, he was very curious about the illustrations and what was happening in the story. He had a lot of questions, “Why was the sword in the stone?” “How did it get there?” “Why was the kid the only one who could get it out?” “Why couldn’t the other men pull it out?” “Who was the wizard?” “How come he had special powers?” “Why didn’t he take out the sword and just give it to Arthur?” They were all good questions. I had read adult books about King Arthur so we had a little discussion before I asked Robby to tell me what seemed the most important to him about the story. I took notes and we picked the ones he wanted to write for his own responses with my help. This is a helpful practice for early writers in general and especially for those with special challenges. I find students with attention issues or ADD are often curious, sometimes restless, and generally imaginative and creative.
Attention Deficit Disorder affects a person’s concentration, organization, and impulse control. About 50% of children with Attention Deficit Disorder have difficulty with reading. A child with ADD may skip, substitute, or guess at words because of his difficulty with focusing his attention. It can look like dyslexia, but the cause is different. On the other hand, children with ADD can be quite focused at times, which can make it difficult to assess this challenge.
Tip: Without over-doing their screen time, working on the computer can help them focus their attention.
Students I’ve taught who have this issue have been very bright and quick to grasp concepts. They are often quite verbal, and have trouble not calling out in class. It helped Robby to become aware of his calling out in class when we took turns pretending to be a student and the teacher, with each of us raising a hand and waiting to be called on before talking.
Tip: Children with a focus issue learn best when they are working with one person or in a small group, where there are fewer distractions. They need routines and methods for keeping materials in order and to remember to turn in schoolwork. They can miss important information in the classroom or while reading, leaving gaps in their learning that need to be filled in. It can be helpful to ask questions and check for understanding after your child has read a paragraph or page. Having him read out loud also helps him to slow down. Identifying your child’s gaps in learning and re-teaching that material in a quiet setting can help a child get back on track.
In Sweden, ADD and ADHD, with the hyperactive element, are treated through child Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and parents are trained with the Coping Power Program, with positive results. In the U.S. medication is more usually prescribed. It’s not easy to know what to do for your own child. I have seen the difference that medication can make for an ADHD student in the classroom. I have also seen some students who have an issue with keeping focused, for whatever reason, do better with extra individual support over time without medication. Children do the best they can. They learn to compensate for their difficulties and their strengths help them do this.
Tips to Help with Focus
If your child gets distracted easily and has a hard time sitting and paying attention, here are some suggestions.
- Have your child read aloud to you even after he’s able to read on his own. This will help him slow down and take in what he’s reading. If he’s reading quickly, seems confused, or just to check for understanding, ask him to reread or answer questions about what he read.
- Break homework down into manageable pieces so that it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. Ask him which homework he wants to do first. Children often have a sense of what will work for them. Brainstorm ideas for time management and organization, try them out, and check back about what works and what doesn’t. Help him clean out his backpack every so often.
- Give your child short breaks when he’s doing homework as needed or every so often. With primary grade students who need to move around, I usually have them work for fifteen minutes, then take a five minute break, then back to work.
- If your child wants to tell you a story rather than the task at hand, you can tell him, “Let’s talk about that later. I’ll write a note here so we can get back to it.” ADD children often are great storytellers, so when you get back to your note, you can take the time to turn into a writing and drawing session if he’s still interested in it.
- Encourage your child’s writing, which will help him slow down, while he learns language skills along the way. Before your child starts writing, story maps can help him think ahead and organize his thoughts. Many children like to use their drawing to think about what they want to write, which can also be helpful. If that becomes a distraction from your child’s writing, you can work out “writing first, drawing after.” This is what I did with the student whose writing illustrates The Steps of Writing.
- Check with your child’s teacher about what’s available at school for extra support, such as reading with a literacy volunteer, being part of a small group for support at his reading level, or computer programs for reading and math skills.
- Find other help when needed from a family member, friend, tutor, teenager or college student.
- Find support for yourself. There’s a lot of information and support online for parents with special challenges.
Remember that love and the acknowledgment of his efforts are important ingredients for supporting your child. Celebrate his effort, his progress, and his strengths!