Reading and Learning Challenges at Home

This has been a school year unlike any other. Many children are learning at home via virtual or distance learning. Parents may find themselves in closer contact with their children’s education than ever before. They may notice their child has some problems with reading. Why? Virtual school exposes a child’s reading and learning challenges at home to a greater degree. What should parents understand about their observations?

I recently conducted a Zoom video interview with educator and reading specialist Faith Borkowsky. I thought I’d share some highlights from the video interview here on my blog. This week, Faith offers some words of advice to parents wondering if their child needs additional help with reading. She also offers an observation and a general caution to parents of kids engaged in virtual learning this year.

The following information is from the video interview with Faith Borkowsky. You can watch the whole interview  below or on my Don Winn YouTube channel.

Don: As an educator and reading specialist, what sort of challenges have you observed this school year?

Faith: The challenges in reading instruction are the same as they were before the pandemic. Schools are still using leveled readers instead of teaching kids to use their phonics skills and to look through a word from left to right, and schools are giving kids books with words they don’t know how to read without looking at pictures. None of this has changed. It’s the same challenges.

Don: Many parents that I’ve talked with are seeing the degree of difficulty their child faces with reading and learning challenges at home, but have no idea how to help them. Do you have any suggestions?

Faith: You have to know exactly what the issue is. We can’t help children unless we know what the deficit areas are. You have to figure out what exactly is holding this child back.

Usually it’s the foundational skills like phonological difficulties and decoding difficulties.

For a parent to be able to help and determine what the problem is, it can help to take some words out of context (you can make a list of words) and see if the child can actually read these words when there are no pictures and no other repetitive words. I’m a big believer in using words they have to truly decode, not words they’ve already memorized.

You can see if children are able to rhyme. This is not a determining factor. We know that what’s really important, what’s predictive of children being able to read, are the individual phonemes, but when young children have difficulty either producing rhymes, generating rhymes, or understanding rhymes, that’s a sign that there could be something going on. So if you see those types of phonological difficulties, decoding difficulties, a parent might want to start trying to get kids to attend to letter/sound correspondence; reading left to right; encouraging children to use their finger under the words, so that they’re really looking at the words, not at the pictures; and getting them decodable books—those types of books encourage children to look through a word, especially if they are cumulative in nature. You could start at the very beginning, seeing what they’re able to do, and start showing them the letter/sound correspondence.

[Here is a list of recommended decodable books.]

Photo from overhead as a little boy reads from a colorful board book, using his finger under the words as he reads from left to right. Parents who see that their child has reading and learning challenges at home can help their child learn to do this and other things to help.

If, on the other hand, that seems to be okay, what then is holding the child back? Are they able to understand language—just spoken language? Because if that’s difficult, it’s going to be hard for them to understand if they’re reading it themselves. If they can’t even understand how to follow directions or multi-step types of information, it would be difficult for them to read, so that’s something you would want to work on in language, just slowly, having them really listen to what’s being asked and how to respond, responding in complete sentences. So it really depends, I think, ultimately, on what the child’s issue is.

Don: What suggestions would you offer to parents who observe reading and learning challenges at home and wonder if their child needs to be tested for learning challenges?

Faith: I would not depend on the school to tell me if my child needs to be tested. I think that’s probably the number one suggestion.

Don’t let someone tell you that your child is just doing fine. If you feel that there’s something wrong, follow that feeling. You’re usually right. You know your child better than anyone, and I think many times, children get help probably too late—and I don’t mean too late where it can’t be helped, but late in the game, where they’ve already missed that window of trying to close the gap [the gap between a child’s grade-appropriate expected academic performance and their actual academic performance] when it’s a narrow gap, and then it makes it so much harder when the gap widens.

So do not listen when the school tells you everything is fine, just wait and see, the child could be immature, etc. We don’t want to delay getting help.

With that said, I think we really do need to know about speech and language difficulties and how they align to reading. If a child received speech and language help before starting elementary school, there is a very good chance that child will struggle in reading and writing. So, right away, if you have a child who had any type of early intervention, before school even started, when they were 2 or 3 or 4 years old, you should be on high alert and not wait.

Follow your instincts. If a child had OT, fine motor, physical therapy—any of those types of things, there’s a good chance that a child will struggle with reading and writing because there is comorbidity. There are things that overlap. There are indications that there could be a problem. A child with attention deficit issues early on—it’s hard for them to attend to a task. You have to be really on top of these things and don’t let people tell you it’s developmental. Don’t wait.

A Danger of Distance Learning

Don: What special challenges face parents of students who are new to distance learning or homeschooling?

Faith: Children get more of an opportunity to write and to speak while in school. There’s a danger that distance learning can become very passive, where everything is receptive—they have to listen a lot. With distance learning, teachers don’t have the social cues to know when a child really needs to respond, or what he or she might be thinking.

The expressive part—being able to speak and to write—is huge in terms of being able to retain information. From what I’ve seen and heard from parents, kids are just sitting there clicking the mouse. They’re really not able to express themselves the way they would in a classroom.

A young girl uses a laptop to do schoolwork, looking bored. There is a danger of too much passive learning when kids do virtual school. It can worsen reading and learning challenges at home.

Don: Thank you, Faith, for offering your insights to parents who find themselves in a new and often overwhelming situation. I’ll be sharing more excerpts from Faith’s video interview over the next few weeks. Look for the upcoming topics “Does Your Child Have Too Much Homework?” and “Affordable Ways to Make Learning Fun.”

Faith Borkowsky is the founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching with over thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher, reading and learning specialist, regional literacy coach, administrator, and tutor. Ms. Borkowsky is a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner and provides professional development for teachers and school districts, as well as parent workshops, presentations, and private consultations. Ms. Borkowsky is the author of the award-winning book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention and the If Only I Would Have Known… series.  She is also a board member of Teach My Kid to Read, a 501(c) non-profit organization with a mission to support and empower students, teachers, and parents through education so all kids, including those with dyslexia, learn to read.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.