Dyslexia: How do Children Learn to Read?

Learning to read is the most important task that children face during the first year of school. Whereas speaking is natural and develops naturally for most children, reading has to be taught. In spite of good instruction, however, many children fail to learn to read by the end of their first year in school. Many reasons are given to explain why they fail.

Two commonly held beliefs are

(a) a lack of exposure to printed or written material, and limited experience with reading material in their daily environment, and

(b) the child has a delay in her/his development or has a specific deficit in intellectual skills which affects the ability to transform spelling to speech. Without this ability to transform the written word, reading is inhibited from being an automatic activity.

Such children read laboriously with great effort instead of reading fluently. Typically, reading fluently appears to be second nature at the end of the third year of formal instruction at school.

Learning to read is a process that passes through several well-defined stages. Briefly, children begin by reading short words as though they are pictures. In other words, they are not aware of the relationship between the letters or syllables and their sound. Thus words such as man, cup, boy and girl form a whole picture that children read by sight. The word bus is visually similar to bush, and children at this stage of reading may be unable to distinguish between the two.

As their reading progresses, they encounter unfamiliar words that they cannot read by sight. They break these words down into segments and sound them out (an-i-mal). Thus, though they are unaware of how they are reading or what processes they are using, children read familiar words by sight and unfamiliar words by sound.

Reading is not simply a matter of identifying words; it also in¬volves comprehension, that is, understanding the words in context. For many years educators did not separate word decoding from comprehension, but treated them as one entity called reading. But it became clear that some schoolchildren can read but have difficulty in understanding and, conversely, others cannot read but have no difficulty in understanding passages that are read to them. (Children with dyslexia fall into the latter category.) As a result, today word identification (decoding) and comprehension are treated as two separate processes.

The dyslexic child’s inability to convert spelling to speech can be observed by any teacher. Additionally, deficits may exist in certain intellectual skills, such as the ability to put things in sequence or to follow the sound patterns in a word. In general, these children lack the cognitive processing that is essential for breaking down words into an ordered sequence of sounds. This kind of skill is at the heart of what is called “phonological coding” or “phonological recoding” and is discussed in the next chapter. For the time being, let us accept that there are two main causes believed to be associated with reading difficulties:

1. A specific intellectual or cognitive processing difficulty that is at the root of phonological coding.

2. A failure to learn to read due to a variety of external as well as internal conditions, which may include the child’s inability to profit from instruction where the standard of instruction is poor, and the inability to pay attention during instruction.

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