In this article, Tanya Rivka Dy-Peque, an educational therapist who has worked closely with children with learning difficulties for several years, explores why early intervention in reading is so crucial to children’s future literacy.
If your child doesn’t learn to read, they are more likely to have social problems, develop a poor self-image, and earn less than their peers as adults.
Hearing this shouldn’t come as any great shock. After all, reading is central to daily life for most of us. Even if we don’t consider ourselves big “readers,” we still read bills, ads, emails, websites, and correspondence at work.
But for people who never learned to read, or who can only read a little, everyday life is a constant battle of faking their way through a literate world, hoping they don’t slip up. To combat this problem, a number of adult literacy programs have sprung up, but most research shows that it’s much more difficult – and time-consuming – for adults to become literate. In fact, even high school and middle school programs for slower learners seem to be a case of too little, too late.
Now, that’s not to say that older kids and adults can’t learn – quite the opposite. But the job does get tougher the more time passes and the more we struggle. This kind of failure – without proper help and guidance – makes us withdraw further and try less because we’d rather fake our way through than endure ridicule – real or perceived.
Luckily, the answer is right in front of us, because many students have shown marked improvement – so long as they have that proper help and guidance we mentioned, and provided they get it early enough.
By some estimates, students who find themselves struggling may begin to withdraw by as early as the middle of first grade! That’s why the most successful early intervention programs in schools tend to start before primary school and work to catch issues as they’re developing rather than discovering them after the fact and attempting to fix them.
So what are some common features of successful early intervention programs?
In the same way that going to a foreign country can help you to learn the language by immersing you in it, students having difficulties with reading and writing need to be receiving extra help as often as possible – preferably every school day. Moreover, these daily sessions should last at least 20 to 30 minutes, and at-risk kids need to be given an ample number of sessions to improve (several programs recommend around 100 extra sessions).
Small group and individual learning in combination with full classroom sessions
The tendency when dealing with at-risk students is to isolate them into smaller units and even one-on-one tutoring so that educators can give them their full focus. That kind of strategy is helpful in increasing literacy, but studies have shown that it should not replace full-classroom learning. Something about the communal power of learning to read and write together appears to enhance the process.
Meaning over memorization
With our increasing focus on test scores as a means of measuring aptitude, too many teachers expect students to learn from simple repetition, assuming that they either already know or will catch on to the meaning of the word over time. Unfortunately, this is not always true for at-risk students, so successful early prevention programs put a focus on making sure that the meaning of each word is clearly understood before moving on. This helps to create context and a real-world connection for many words.
A concentration on words
Too often, kids experiencing reading difficulties are asked to put words together into sentences before they understand the words themselves. Early prevention programs start from the bottom up, concentrating on words as the building blocks of sentences and slowly grouping them together to form simple phrases.
Writing as a means of word identification
To reinforce word recognition, successful early prevention programs often have students write out and spell words. Teacher assistance is provided, but only to the extent that students need it to spell words correctly.
Building confidence through re-reading
One of the best ways to increase reading confidence is to encourage students to read books over and over. This allows them to become comfortable with the words and meaning of the story, instead of forcing them to struggle through something new too quickly.