Early Signs of Reading Difficulties

Early Signs of Reading Difficulties: Interview with reading specialist Faith Borkowsky

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Cover of Can you see me? Yes, I see you: Literacy Discussions Workbook by Faith Borkowsky. This workbook can help anyone notice early signs of reading difficulties and later indicators of reading struggles in children.

One of the most dynamic, energetic people I know is fellow author Faith Borkowsky. Faith has decades of training and experience as a specialist in reading instruction and has helped countless students overcome obstacles to reach their potential. So when I noticed that she had written a free workbook for people who care about struggling readers, I had to find out more. I reached out with questions, and the resulting interview follows. You will learn about possible indicators to be on the lookout for that may predict that a child will struggle to read later in life–early signs of reading difficulties–and also the effect that struggling to read has on a child’s mental health. Enjoy!

Don: What prompted you to write your new workbook, Can You See Me? Yes, I See You?

Faith: It is designed to stimulate discussion about what each of us, regardless of background, education, or socioeconomic status, can do to change a child’s life. The workbook follows the evolution of a child falling through the cracks in plain sight. The downward spiral illustrated in the workbook is an extreme case, but it is meant to shine a spotlight on the ever-growing emotional distress of children who struggle to learn to read and the societal consequences of missing the signals at every stage.

photo of a mother helping her bored young daughter look at the alphabet on an ipad screen. When children don't reach speech language milestones early in life, it may indicate early signs of reading difficulties.

Don: What are language milestones, why might they be early signs of reading difficulties, and why should parents watch for them?

Faith: Children develop the majority of their speech and language skills in the first three years of life. If a child is not reaching language milestones, speech and language intervention services should be started as soon as possible during this critical period. Speech and language difficulties and delays impact reading development, and parents should be aware if their children are at risk for later reading impairment. Here is a link for more information: https://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/chart/

Don: I see several chapters in the workbook that point to sensory processing issues that a child might have. Why is it important for parents to see these and understand them? How might they be early signs of reading difficulties?

Faith: Sensory challenges can be indicative of other problems and should be part of the conversation when looking at a child’s development. It is not unusual for children to have overlapping areas of concern. Sometimes the education community describes this as “co-existing,” “co-morbid,” or “co-occurring” disorders. I choose to look at such factors as “red flags” of possible reading problems. To be clear, sensory issues do not cause reading problems, but they can be symptomatic of underlying problems that seem to make processing sounds more difficult. Since reading requires multiple areas of the brain to work together, there is a high degree of overlapping conditions.

Don: You point out the link between a child’s struggles to communicate and the onset of self-loathing. Would you share an example of a student you have worked with?

Faith: Can You See Me? represents many children I have taught to read over the years. Their difficulties might not all look the same, but most children with profound reading problems have a history of speech and language delays or articulation difficulties. Many of them have poor self-esteem and either misbehave or become withdrawn. It can happen as early as kindergarten or as late as middle school. Children respond to their environment, so adults must have patience and understanding. For instance, it’s not a good idea to complete a sentence for a child or rush him or her to answer a question. This can make a child feel stressed and uncomfortable.

A mother and teenage daughter speak with a school counselor or teacher. Everyone looks sad and concerned.

Don: Why are motor skills important to address, what might point to a child’s having issues with motor skills, and how might difficulties with motor skills potentially be early signs of reading difficulties?

Faith: Just like sensory issues, fine-motor difficulties are often present in children with reading difficulties; however, correlation doesn’t mean causation. Although one may observe this relationship, I want to emphasize the importance of not wasting precious time on generalized movement activities in the hope of improving reading and writing. Handwriting must be taught explicitly and thoroughly, just like reading should be taught. Writing properly-formed letters requires visual motor integration, and it is likely to see kids struggling, possibly because of a slower processing link. Cognitive deficits as potential predictors of dyslexia and dysgraphia show a high similarity. Preschool and kindergarten teachers should be trained to identify such areas of concern and not take them lightly.

Don: What is the “mixed method” approach to reading instruction, and why is it so confusing to a struggling reader?

Faith: Mixed methods to decode unfamiliar words is traditionally what reading instruction looked like in school, such as using context cues and pictures. Even worse, many kids are still taught to memorize a list of “sight” words without teaching a connection to letters and sounds. Any strategy that encourages kids to guess or read around a word instead of left to right, all through the word, makes it more difficult for children to learn to read, especially those kids who struggle. Instruction should focus attention on building the foundation.

A middle-school age boy lies on a couch in a fetal position while a psychiatrist makes notes.

Don: You quote a shocking statistic from the Journal of Learning Disabilities. What is the link between unremediated learning challenges and mental health?

Faith: I wrote a blog a while ago called “Dying to Read and Write” where I wrote about how some instances of suicide can be traced to the inability of learning to read and write. Students with learning disabilities like dyslexia have a three times higher risk of attempting suicide, according to the 2006 Journal of Learning Disabilities. We barely talk about the role illiteracy plays in creating anxiety and depression. Your book, Don, is one of the few that addresses this need. So many parents of my students are faced with finding therapists to deal with the emotional baggage that goes hand in hand with learning difficulties.

Don: How can parents benefit fully from using this free workbook?

Faith: The Can You See Me? workbook can be downloaded for free from my website at www.ifonlybooks.com. They can click on the tab labeled “Free Resources” and download the .pdf to use with their child’s school district or community organization. It is a tool for raising awareness, and, more importantly, setting the wheels in motion to build a community action plan. At the end of the workbook, there is a timeline for all participants to commit to doing something that is within their power to make a difference. Accountability is extremely important in terms of seeing real progress.

Don: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Faith: Under the “Free Resources” tab, parents will also see the If Only Book Discussion Guide for those who would like to take the next step and organize a book club discussion of my book series, “If Only I Would Have Known…” The discussion guide provides questions to help facilitate conversations about early literacy and language development, literacy instruction, dyslexia, and intervention for struggling readers. They can take a moment to view the video for a demo of a book club in action.

Cover of the book Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent's Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention by Faith Borkowsky. It has great tips for finding early signs of reading difficulties.

Thanks so much, Faith, for sharing these points with my readers. I know that this free workbook will help so many families and educators detect early signs of reading difficulties and connect in a meaningful way with the struggling readers in their life. And please: help us spread the word! Let family and friends know about this incredible free resource. This book presents an opportunity to, as it were, sit next to an expert and learn from her decades of experience. Every child needs to learn to read well, and the issues and techniques in this book will make the difference.

To learn more about how every student best learns to read, you may enjoy Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist and shortlisted World Literacy Award Nominee Faith Borkowsky.

And for a thorough discussion of dyslexia, you may also enjoy the second edition of my award-winning book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio. In addition to facts on testing and accommodation, my book gives you the tools to provide the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require. The second edition has the same great content as the first edition but now contains a very helpful bibliography and index and an exciting new cover.

Cover of the book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don m. Winn, another great book for finding early signs of reading difficulties.

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.