Heather Ross, a mom of two in Vancouver, noticed her daughter Eliza was a weaker reader than some of her classmates during Grades 1 and 2. Ross was hoping things would click for Eliza by Grade 3, as they had for her older brother when he reached that age. They didn’t, and yet Eliza’s teacher still wasn’t overly concerned. “We were told she was doing well enough and wasn’t really that far outside the range of normal,” recalls Ross.
But as the year progressed Ross became even more convinced there was a problem: Eliza started to dislike school and seemed stressed out—there were more and more meltdowns at home over seemingly small issues. So Ross paid $2,000 out-of-pocket for a private psycho-educational evaluation, which diagnosed a learning disability. The recommended course of action was an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at school and specialized tutoring, which cost Ross an additional $5,000 that year.
Eliza’s story is far from unique: Many students show signs of a learning disability in reading, or dyslexia, early on, but aren’t diagnosed until they fall far behind their peers. Many experts, however, say learning disabilities, can—and should—be screened for as early as kindergarten or Grade 1, so remedial tutoring can begin right away.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, approximately 10 percent of the population has reading difficulties, also known as dyslexia, which is a neurobiological, hereditary condition that makes it harder to learn to read accurately and fluently. Dyslexia doesn’t result from kids being underexposed to reading when they’re young, or from slacking off in class. It also doesn’t indicate intellectual limitations but rather denotes a difficulty with language processing skills.
“Most kids get to the point where they see ‘d-o-g’ and automatically know that it’s ‘dog,’” explains Todd Cunningham, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto. But those with dyslexia can have trouble with literacy skills as basic as rhyming, pronunciation, spelling and letter sequences, which makes learning to read a challenge. They might also find it hard to follow a series of events or directions, confuse small words such as “at” and “to,” and misuse letters that have similar shapes like ‘b’ and ‘d.’
If a student has trouble reading in Grade 1 or 2, public schools often delay intervention for a year or so to see if they catch up. If the student doesn’t, an assessment might be scheduled, but usually, a child needs to be failing dramatically for that to happen, and in many places, the wait can take up to another two years. By then, however, troubled readers are “double impaired” because the assumption is that from Grade 3 onward, students are no longer ‘learning to read’ but ‘reading to learn.’ “If left untreated, this weakness becomes a huge issue,” says Cunningham. “Since these kids can’t read, they can’t access the information in the curriculum that we’re presenting to them.” And that contributes to them falling further behind their peers.
The good news is that with the proper assistance, troubled readers can be helped. But they need to be identified—and the sooner the better. Research shows that when measures—like specialized tutoring—are taken in Grade 1, 80 percent of kids who have difficulty reading can be remediated, meaning their accuracy when reading can be improved greatly. If steps are deferred until Grade 2, the success rate is 50 percent. And if remediation is delayed until Grade 3, the success rate falls to about 20 percent or 30 percent. “Early intervention is essential,” says Cunningham. And a kid doesn’t need to have started learning to read in order for a screening to be effective: Looking at things like a kid’s ability to rhyme, as well as their ability to pull apart sounds and words—like separating the ‘duh’ sound from dog, and getting a child to say baseball, then asking them to remove the word ‘base’ and see what they say—can predict whether that child will go on to struggle to learn to read.
Early screening and intervention would be a marked departure from how learning disabilities are currently treated in our school systems, but change might be coming: The Ontario Human Rights Commission recently launched an inquiry into low literacy rates in Ontario and is investigating how well school boards employ early screening and remediation techniques. Cunningham would also like to see changes to the curricula at teacher’s colleges, so that new teachers have a deeper understanding of the underlying processes involved in learning how to read, write, and do math, and are more familiar with the warning signs and protocols that can help students who aren’t progressing at a typical rate.
While it’s Cunningham’s dream that all kids are one day screened in Grade 1 or earlier, until then, the onus is often on parents to seek support for their kids. “If parents have a gut feeling that something’s up, they should first address it with their child’s teacher,” he recommends. But if the teacher thinks things might improve on their own or advises to give things time, the parents should seek additional help—perhaps in the form of a private assessment—rather than delaying intervention. The website of the International Dyslexia Association’s Ontario branch offers ideas for supporting your child at home as well as a basic online screening test. Dyslexia Canada lists books and websites for both parents and kids in addition to a database of professional literacy specialists, testing centres and specialized tutors.
As for Eliza, her reading has improved thanks to tutoring and an IEP and is now reading close to grade level. She even chose to take a book with her on their family vacation last summer, which is a great relief for Ross. “Eliza had been flying under the radar,” Ross says. “If she hadn’t been assessed and diagnosed, she would have continued to struggle and eventually just fallen off a cliff.”