When to Be Concerned About a Struggling Reader

Mary Pembleton’s son was in kindergarten when the start of the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the country. He didn’t return to in-person learning for nearly a year, and once he did, it quickly became apparent his reading skills weren’t taking off as they had when her older son was the same age. He struggled to recognize basic sight words he’d reviewed many times, couldn’t recognize letters, and often switched letters and words.

“His first-grade teacher assured us he was doing okay, even when I repeatedly expressed concerns,” says Pembleton, a freelance writer. “It wasn’t until I began writing about dyslexia … that I recognized my son had many of the early warning signs.”

Pembleton decided to have her son evaluated, and he was diagnosed with dyslexia.

Even in the best of times, it can be challenging for a parent to understand why their early reader is struggling and what’s a cause for concern. Now, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic — which left many students behind academically — is making it much harder to know if and when a child should be evaluated for a learning disability, especially if you’re not trained to recognize the signs.

[READ: What Parents Need to Know About Testing for Dyslexia in Schools.]

COVID-19 Learning Loss in Grades K-2

An analysis from McKinsey & Company found that the pandemic has had a significant impact on K-12 learning, with students an average of four months behind in reading by the end of the 2020-2021 school year. And a February 2022 research report from the education company Amplify found that COVID-related learning loss has hit developing readers in grades K-2 especially hard. Although schools have made meaningful progress as students returned to in-person learning, more students are at risk of not learning to read than pre-pandemic, especially in grades K-2, according to the report.

That’s a critical time for developing reading skills. In kindergarten, writes Dr. Sally Shaywitz, in her book “Overcoming Dyslexia,” kids learn letter names and the sounds those letters make. They also begin decoding words by applying letter-sound relationships and putting sounds together. By the time they get to first and second grade, most students will have decoded hundreds of words and read many books, which is essential for mastery.

Disruptions to learning during the pandemic — from reduced instructional time to students who skipped kindergarten altogether — have left many early readers behind where they would typically be. But as the daily disruptions from COVID-19 diminish, students should start to make progress with focused intervention. In fact, the Amplify data shows fewer students were classified as “far behind” in learning to read in the 2021-22 school year compared to the year before (though still more than pre-pandemic).

[Read: What Do Kids Learn in Kindergarten?]

Reading Development

Diane Tracey, a literacy specialist and the author of “Helping Your Child Overcome Reading Challenges,” says there’s a lot of individual variability around when children master reading skills. But educators typically look for some key benchmarks, like children being able to recognize all upper- and lower-case letters by the end of kindergarten, or being able to read 300 high-frequency words by the end of third grade.

At each grade level, certain types of difficulties will likely be common, according to the Center for Effective Reading Instruction and the International Dyslexia Association. For example, third graders may have trouble decoding multisyllabic words.

But two years of disrupted instruction have made these distinctions less clear. “I almost feel our standards need to be modified in order for all kids to catch up,” says Ryan Stitt, a reading specialist at Soaring Hawk Elementary School in Castle Rock, Colorado.

Her team has been discussing these issues all year, and there are still many unknowns. “On an individual level it’s hard to know who’s behind because of pandemic disruptions and who will need greater support,” she says. “But, typically we find that kids who don’t have a learning disability will have a faster rate of progression in response to intervention.”

When Reading Difficulty Could Indicate Dyslexia

Federal law defines dyslexia as “an unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader.” According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, dyslexia affects 20 percent of the population, and represents 80–90 percent of those with learning disabilities.

“At the center is a weakness in getting to the sounds of spoken language, which interferes with decoding, reading fluently, et cetera. But that weakness is surrounded by a sea of strengths in higher-level conceptual thinking, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving,” Dr. Shaywitz explains in an interview.

Kids with dyslexia are often exceptionally bright, Dr. Shaywitz says, allowing them to do just well enough to go undetected. They could be meeting some benchmarks and missing others by a wide margin. For this reason, she says, it’s critical to recognize the child’s cognitive load. How much is it taking out of them to keep up in class?

It can be helpful to check with the teacher to see if your child is struggling more than their classmates. Although many kids may be behind this year, kids with learning differences often work much harder than their peers for a similar or worse outcome.

Anny Yang, a licensed clinical neurologist, says disruptions to the classroom won’t likely affect things like the ability to rhyme or recognize letters and their sounds, so challenges there may be early signs of dyslexia. Tests of rapid automatic naming, which require children to quickly name a series of items on a page, can also identify a potential problem. “This skill depends on our ability to quickly recall information from our mind, and kids with dyslexia won’t get faster with repeated exposure,” she says.

[READ: 504 Plan Versus IEP: A Guide for Parents.]

When to Consider Screening

Learning disabilities are often initially flagged when students don’t make progress in response to intervention, says Yang. But with the learning delays of the pandemic, “the concern is many teachers will take a ‘wait and see’ approach.” She also worries that with a high teacher turnover rate, less experienced teachers won’t be as skilled at identifying at-risk students.

Dr. Shaywitz developed an evidence-based online screener that teachers can use to identify children at risk for dyslexia.

A key indicator of a reading disability, experts say, is if students don’t improve with focused reading instruction. “If you’re wondering whether you should request for the school to evaluate your child for a learning disability, especially considering pandemic disruptions, I ask parents and teachers if the concerns you’re seeing are consistent and persistent, even though there’s now adequate instruction in place,” says Amanda Morin, director of thought leadership and expertise at Understood.org.

But Yang recommends at-risk intervention, like speech-language therapy or tutoring with a reading specialist, to any parents concerned their child is not reading at grade level, regardless of whether they have a learning disability diagnosis or evaluation. “There’s no question kids are missing reading benchmarks due to the pandemic, and reading is the foundation upon which all academic skills are built,” she says.

Pembleton says she felt uneasy questioning the school’s guidance to give her son more time, but she’s glad she did. Knowing he has dyslexia allows him to get additional help, and it enables Pembleton to focus on his sea of strengths, instead of his weakness in reading.

More from U.S. News

What Families Should Know About K-12 Online Schools

What Should a First Grader Know?

What Is a Montessori School?

When to Be Concerned About a Struggling Reader originally appeared on usnews.com

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