Helping A Child Who Struggles To Read

South African children are in the throes of a literacy crisis. Mandy Collins finds out what to do if your child is battling with reading.

The University of Pretoria released a report in December 2017 revealing the shocking state of literacy in South African schools: 78% of Grade 4 pupils could not read at an appropriate level for their age.

The figures came from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which assesses reading comprehension and monitors trends in reading literacy at five-year intervals. Countries participate voluntarily, and pupils write the test in the language of learning and teaching used in Grades 1 to 3 in their school.

South African pupils fell below the lowest level on the PIRLS scale, meaning that they do not understand what they’re reading. Writing in The Conversation about the results, Peter Rule, associate professor at the Centre for Higher and Adult Education, Stellenbosch University, said: “There was some improvement from learners writing in Sesotho, isiNdebele, Xitsonga, Tshivenda and Sepedi from a very low base in 2011, but no overall improvement in South Africa’s performance. South Africa was last out of 50 countries surveyed. It came in just behind Egypt and Morocco.”

Educational psychologist Hennie Vorster agrees that South Africa has a literacy problem. “My own daughters are in Grades 3 and 5, and I see that they are not being taught to sound out words,” says Vorster. “Instead they’re taught word identification. And what happens then, is that they get to a word they don’t know and they don’t have a method for deciphering it.

“We also have a generation exposed to smartphones and tablets, engaged in activities where there is no reading going on,” he adds. “A lot of what they see is purely visual. In what I call the BC era – before cellphones – you were forced to read. Now kids don’t have to read quite as much.”

Parents in more affluent schools might think that their children are immune to reading problems, but when these issues are affecting 78% of children, there’s a chance their children could be a statistic – and Vorster says often reading problems are only picked up in high school. So how do parents assess whether children are reading well enough?

“Parents need to try and understand at what level their child should be reading,” says Vorster.

“At the end of Grade 1, for example, they should be reading four to five word sentences with ease. If they are still struggling with that, then there is a problem. Grade 1 really lays the foundation, and in Grades 2 and 3, teachers don’t really have time to go back and check that those foundations are in place.”

The trouble with reading is that it underpins everything else children do at school – even maths. Reading and comprehension are vital to every subject. So when children can’t read at the appropriate level, they underachieve.

“It affects their memory – because they do not understand what they are reading, they can’t remember it either,”  says Vorster.

“And they can manage until they get to high school, but then the volumes of information they have to cope with go up significantly, so they struggle to learn.”

Before high school, children can get away with not reading well enough if they listen well in class, he says. So they can still score 60% or 70%.

“But in high school, with that increased volume, the wheels come off. Many of these children are intelligent, but they fake read. They rely on their memories to read,” he says.

Vorster adds that instilling good reading habits in children begins with parents setting a good example. “Parents themselves need to spend time reading at home. Books, magazines, newspapers, bedtime stories – it doesn’t matter as long as their children see them reading.

“And then they also need to read along with the child. Let the child read out loud, while parents help them to decipher, sound out and blend words they don’t know. And then have a discussion around the story. Ask questions: who did what? Why did they do it? It forces the child to start remembering what they’ve read. And it’s a great way to have quality time with your child.”

If you suspect your child is having a problem, he says, have them assessed by an educational psychologist first, to make sure that it’s a reading problem and that nothing else is going on.

It might be their eyesight – so take them for a full eye test – but it could be an intellectual or concentration issue, or something like dyslexia. So a proper assessment is a good place to start, and then a plan to remedy the situation can be set up that is geared to the problem at hand.

Issues that can cause reading problems

Dyslexia is the best known condition to affect reading skills. But there are a host of other things that can play a role. Here are some causes of reading issues.

Dyslexia: People with dyslexia have trouble recognising letters and associating them with a particular sound. So they can struggle with sounding out new words, or rhyming, and may even forget words they’ve seen before. It takes them a long time to know a word by sight, and they also often skip words and lose their place. Dyslexia can also affect reading comprehension, as well as spelling, writing and even speaking skills. But despite all the challenges it creates, dyslexia isn’t a sign of low intelligence. There’s a long list of very successful people who have dyslexia.

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Children with ADHD struggle to focus during reading and other activities. And if they have hyperactivity as part of their disorder, that only exacerbates the problem. Children with ADHD often fidget, or they misbehave to cover up the fact that they can’t complete certain tasks.

Auditory processing disorder (APD): This affects children’s ability to process the information they hear. So they might struggle to understand what people are saying, or to follow a story that is being read to them, at home or in class. And because reading means you have to be able to connect sounds and letters, children with APD can struggle to sound out new words, because the letters ‘b’ and ‘d’ might sound similar to them, for example.

Visual processing issues: A child who doesn’t process images well is going to struggle to read. Children with visual processing issues battle to see the difference between letters. They sometimes don’t see them in the right order. They may have blurred vision or see double, and you might catch them squinting or closing one eye.

Image: ©Shutterstock - 129546
Image: ©Shutterstock - 129546

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