At one time, we had to wait until a child was in school and learning to read to identify reading problems. Now we know that there are risk factors we can identify much earlier. This lets us intervene when a child is younger and, generally speaking, earlier intervention has better outcomes.
The early clues to potential reading problems are easy to spot when you know what they are. All you have to do is listen to your child speak.
Listen for subtle sounds that tell you your child’s language skills are not developing as they should. It’s easier than it sounds because fuzzy phonemes (phonemes are the individual sounds that produce words. For example, the word cat has 3 phonemes /c/+/a/+/t/) leave a distinct mark on everyday language in highly predictable ways by influencing how a child pronounces certain words, sings nursery rhymes, and learns the names of sounds of the letters of the alphabet.
Here are the things to look for:
Clue #1: Delay in Speaking
As a general rule, children speak their first words around their first birthday, use phrases between 18-24 months of age, and can engage in a conversation, tell a short story, and answer “why” questions between their 3rd and 4th birthdays.
Are there signs that your child's speech is delayed:
- First word at 15+ months?
- Speaking phrases after age 2?
- Having difficulty with conceptual words at age 3 and later such as over/under, before/after, few/more, give/take, left/right?
Clue #2: Pronunciation
Baby talk is appropriate in the first few years of life. However, by age 5 or 6, children should have little trouble pronouncing most words correctly and when they do make errors their mispronunciations should be easy to correct.
- Does your child struggle to pronounce new words or articulate long/complicated words?
- Does he sound like he is tripping over the individual sounds (phonemes) in a word as they come out of his mouth? Or does he leaves sounds out of words? For example, a child who calls spaghetti “pisgetti” or an elephant “lelephant” long past the age when such words should be spoken correctly.
Clue #3: Rhyming
What an important skill this is to learn in preschool! When a child can rhyme, we know that she is able to break words down into the smaller segments of sound that different words can share. This is a strong indicator of getting ready to read and it’s why educational psychologists and educators encourage parents to read nursery rhymes ad nauseam (Oh, so that’s why!). Children should be able to make rhymes by age 4.
When a child has early reading problems, he has trouble penetrating the sound structure of words and so is less sensitive to rhyme. Does your child:
- Confuse sounds that sound alike?
- Have trouble hearing the rhyme in a poem or song?
If so, she may not be understanding the phonemes that make two words sounds alike, because she is not understanding that a word is made-up from a sequence of individual sounds.
CLUE #4: Word Retrieval
Word retrieval problems occur when a child knows what he wants to say but cannot pull the right words from his memory. Does your child:
- Talk around a word so that his speech is punctuated by “umm…” and “uh…”?
- Describe a word but not name it?
- Point instead of speaking?
- Use the wrong phoneme, for example saying “volcano” when he means “tornado”?
- Does he use imprecise words, such as “things” or “stuff” rather than naming what he wants?
Clue #5: Knowledge of the Alphabet
Learning to read involves “breaking the code”—coming to understand that words are comprised of sounds that correspond to letters and that when these sounds are blended together they produce words that can be represented visually. Learning letter sounds is critical for reading and is intricately linked to learning the names of the letters. Fuzzy phonemes interfere with the beginning reader’s ability to learn the names and sounds of the letters in the alphabet.
Here is your developmental chart for knowledge of the alphabet:
- Age 3: learns to sing ABC’s. Your child can now sing this song, though the alphabet is an undifferentiated string from A to Z. In this stage, LMNOP is often sung as one letter.
- Age 4: Your child should begin to recognize and name individual letters.
- Age 5: As your child enters kindergarten she should know the name of most upper and lower case letters.
- Age 6: By the end of kindergarten he should know all his letters and their corresponding sounds.
Now you know what to look for. Soon we’ll talk about what to do when you see these warning signs. Now, go listen to your kids!