wealth of information on reading has been streaming our way over
the last 2 decades from both the neurology and education research
arenas. With all this research and money focused on the brain
and problems related to reading, it’s hard to imagine how educators
can still be asking the question, ‘Why can’t Johnnie Read?” It
is with a bit of tongue- in- cheek that I report that the answer
should be obvious.
all, brain imaging studies have told us that some children with
dyslexia may have a very low capacity to their short term memory
from dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex. But the research
has also told us that children with dyslexia may have small
planum temporal area of the brain, or that their right hemisphere
is over involved in speech or over-involved in reading. (Hugdahl,
K. et al, 2003; Beeman, et.al, 2000)
research indicating that there are defects in the brain’s minicolumns.
(Casanova, M.. et al, 2004)
studies have also shown that children with dyslexia have an
inability to comprehend that words can be broken down into smaller
units or that ambiguous verbs may cause them to lose the context
of the material. (Shaywitz, S, 1999; Pickering, M. & Frisson,
has also suggested that they have a dysfunctional angular gyrus
in the left hemisphere or that there is a left hemisphere processing
limitation in the disembedding mechanism. (Pugh, et. al, 2000;
Rumsey, et.al., 1999)
studies have shown that children with dyslexia have a significantly
smaller cerebral volume and some cerebellum dysfunction. (Ramus,
F. et al, 2003)
has also indicated that these children have lower blood flow
in the temporal and inferior parietal regions and even that
an area of the perisylvian region known as the caudal infrasylvian
surface is significantly larger. (Rumsey, et.al., 1999) And,
the right hemisphere apparently is over-involved in processing
reading. (Breier et.al, 2003)
So, it’s all
fairly clear then, isn’t it? (If this were an email, I would insert
the “smiley face” here)
Actually the correct answer to what causes dyslexia and other
reading problems may be along the lines of “all of the above,”
or one of those other familiar choices like “both a and c,” or
“a,b,d, but not c,” etc. Reading is an extremely complex activity
for the brain so it should come as little surprise that reading
problems are complex as well.
society and educational system puts so much emphasis on the written
word as the avenue for information, those of us in education feel
tremendous pressure to ensure all of our students eventually master
reading before leaving our system. In addition, we are frustrated
and stifled when faced with poor readers in various academic courses
as our traditional instructional methodology heavily relies on
Much has been
written on using other means of instruction to teach students
with poor reading skills. In fact, I have authored many articles
and books on this topic. Regardless of how important it is for
teachers to be competent in a variety of reading strategies, the
fact remains that reading is very important. And any student who
struggles with reading will face many challenges and may have
their options limited in the adult world.
much pressure has been put on teachers in the primary grades to
turn all students into competent readers before 3rd grade. In
fact, in many districts it is even the kindergarten teacher who
carries the great bulk of this responsibility. There is a belief
that all school success pivots on reading successfully at an early
believe that children who can be taught reading at an early age
will remain “gifted” throughout school and that those who don’t
master reading until late in the normal range, will remain a member
of the group of underperformers in school.
is some research that shows that children’s 1st grade performance
differences only get greater in the next 2 or 3 years (an achievement
gap that widens - strugglers struggle more, accelerated learners
move ahead further), there is a larger body of evidence that shows
that “slow-readers” eventually tend to catch up with the “fast
learners” and that the “fast learners” slow down a bit, so that
the two groups do not show so much variation from each other by
4th and 5th grade. (Parrila, et al, 2005; Schatschneider, et al,
2004; Guthrie, J, 2004)
us to what is known as the ceiling effect- the idea that two children
may have similar learning potentials, but their rates of learning
vary. To use a simple example of ceiling effect, one child may
start to walk at 8 months of age and seemingly has mastered walking
by his first birthday. Another child may not start to walk until
16 months of age. But by the age of 3, both children are fairly
competent walkers. In other words, there’s a ceiling to the mastery.
We do see
that some students perform well in reading early and continue
to do so through most of their school years. We also see that
some students perform poorly and continue to do so through most
of their school years. But a sizable number of poor performing
students improve to become above average or good performers later
in school. What you rarely find is a child who is a good performer
in 1st grade but becomes a poor performer by 4th grade. (Guthrie,
In fact, there
is significant research which indicates that first graders who
perform in the “above average” group ( defined as more than one
standard deviation above the mean) have only about a 50/50 chance
of being in that same “above average” group in 4th grade. And
those first graders in the “below average”group (greater than
one standard deviation below the mean) have only about a 50/50
chance of being in that same “below average” group in the 4th
So the research
seems to indicate several factors at play here in reading skill
variability in the elementary grades. First, our schools seem
to be doing a pretty good job in helping children learn to read
within the first few years of school. The extra effort and focus
on those children seen as “at risk” or “below average” is probably
well founded and worth continuing as that extra focus seems to
help reduce the gap by 4th and 5th grade.
there probably is a bit of a ceiling effect at work here in that
children may begin at age 5 with very similar learning potentials,
but their rate of learning may vary widely. In other words, children
reach the “ceiling” of competent reading at different times.
So while much
research shows that reading delays between the age of 5 and 8
may very well simply be developmental differences, there’s certainly
no reason to be lax in our work with children who seem to struggle
to be proficient readers. This brings us to the second focus of
this article and that is, what does the research tell us about
what works and what doesn’t work with struggling readers?
of the educational psychology research seems to indicate that
the practical matter of struggling readers really needs to be
divided into two groups - those under the age of 12 and those
over the age of about 9. (The 9 -12 year olds overlap into both
groups) The reason for that is that struggling readers tend to
be “struggling” with different issues in those two age groups.
Most early struggling readers are working with phonological processing
and phonemic issues. Most reading problems in the middle and upper
grades are associated with fluency issues - the student cannot
read with enough fluency to allow for comprehension of the material.
To put it simply, elementary aged children are generally learning
to read and secondary grade children are generally reading to
learn, so the educational problems are different.
with struggling readers at the Elementary Level
the younger group are learning to read. A young struggling reader
may have problems with phonemes, short term memory, sight word
recall, fluency or even a combination of these factors. Various
banks of research tell us that problems in “learning to read”
must be addressed systematically with specific, direct instruction
in all of the following:
• phoneme analysis
• fluency building
• oral reading practice
popular with school budgets, to be effective, this systematic
instruction really needs to be one-on-one as opposed to small
group, pull-out programs. (Blachman, et al 2004).
You can also
increase elementary students’ feelings of self-efficacy by helping
them learn specific reading strategies for reading improvement
and mastery. (Schunk & Pajares, 2002). These specific reading
strategies may include:
• activating background knowledge prior to reading
• offer questions that are generated from the reading
• offer the use of graphic organizers to help students comprehend
• provide students a way to monitor their comprehension during
reading (Baker & Zimlin, 1989)
with struggling readers at the secondary level
We can find
excellent research as well on secondary reading issues. Students
at this level need to not only be fluent readers, they need to
be engaged, motivated readers, if they are to glean information
from their reading.
that because students are good readers, they can effectively learn
from a textbook. The key to effective reading at the secondary
level is having students that WANT to understand the material.
Motivation and engagement are required if they are to process
the reading at a deeper level for better reading comprehension.
that merges motivation and cognitive strategies will increase
comprehension. Again, we find that the research suggest we use
multiple strategies to improve reading and learning with secondary
should be to have “engaged readers” as opposed to “disaffected
• are active and involved
• interact socially to learn from the text
• are persistent
• are goal directed
• think during learning
• are alienated from the learning process
• may be apathetic or rebellious
So, how does
a teacher create or encourage reading engagement? Regardless of
what age you are teaching, you can help students become engaged
in their reading by first giving students "content learning
goals." Help them see or set goals for what they should learn
through the text. Students gain more knowledge from reading with
content goals than simply suggesting or hoping they will score
better on a test. (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987).
to make engaged learners is to provide students with a choice
of texts. If you are unable to offer text choice, at least offer
them a choice in their discussion group partners or the way in
which they will present the information they glean from their
reading. Try also, to find texts that the students themselves
of the keys to engaged readers is allowing social collaboration
during the reading process. In other words, allow a sort of “book
club” event by designing discussion activities for the students
throughout the reading process. You may also want to include hands-on
activities that can be done in groups to help students process
the information. (Guthrie, et al 2004).
Further Reading, I recommend:
B.et al. (2004). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 96(3),
et.al (2003). Neuropsychology, Vol17 (4), 610-621.
et al. (2004). Journal of Child Neurology, Vol 19(4), 275-281.
E. & Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self determination
in human behavior, New York: Plenum Press.
S. et al. (2003). Elementary School Journal. 103: 239-267.
Elbro, C. &
Petersen, D. (2004). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol96(4),
& Skinner, E. (2003). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 95,
W. & Ryan, R. (1987). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Vol 52, 890- 898.
J. et. al.(2004). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 96(3),
K. et al. (2003). Neuropsychologia, Vol 41(6), 666-675.
D. (2003). Journal of Learning Disabilities. Vol 36(4), 307-317.
et al. (2005). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol.97(3), 299-319.
M. & Frisson, S. 2001. J. of Exp. Psy.: Learning, Memory and Cognition.
Vol 27(2), 556-573.
et. al. (2000). Psychological Science, vol. 11(1), 51-56.
F. et al. (2003). Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied
Disciplines, Vol 44(5), 712-722.
P. & Symons, S. (2001). Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol
C. et al. (2004) Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 96(2),
Roth, Ennemaser. J. of Ed Psych 2000 vol 92,(2) 284-295.
D. & Pajares, F. (2002). The development of academic self-efficacy.
In A. Wigfield & J Eccles (Eds), Development of achievement motivation.
(16-32). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
S. (2003). Biological Psychiatry. Vol 54(1), 25-33.
(1999). Developmental Neuropsychology. Vol 16(3), 383-384.