Reading Disabilities in the Classroom, Part 1 of 4: Chasing Ghosts

 

Two days after launch of the Apollo 13 moon mission in April, 1970, an oxygen tank blew up, severely damaging the spacecraft’s electrical system. The crew of three realized they had a serious problem on their hands, and they knew two things very clearly, if nothing else. First, they knew they had a problem, and a serious one at that. Second, they had no idea what to do about it. All the diagnostic testing that was done in the spacecraft and on the ground served to clarify in some detail what the problem was, but in the end no fix was readily available. Finally, a new look at things and novel solutions were needed to save the day.

Difficulty learning to read and write is not generally life-threatening, but it can still have catastrophic consequences for the struggling child throughout their lives. As specialists working with learning and reading problems, we can sometimes get lost in the questions of ‘why is a child having trouble’, and ‘what exactly is dyslexia’. In the end, the fine analysis of cause and definition of terms, if it leads to no good clinical outcome, is worth only the paper it’s written on. As it stands, children struggle needlessly in classroom all across the Province, and some so severely, they will fall behind and perhaps never catch up.

Reading disabilities are arguably more often a symptom of an underlying problem than the problem itself. If we are truly interested in boosting achievement in the schools and maintain some control over costs, we must then proceed to ensure that all children have a sufficient foundation in the skills underlying academic success (i.e. the child is developmentally ready for learning and reading). That is, there should be no correctable obstacles in the way before we push them to more advanced expectations, such as reading for comprehension. The first 3 years of regular school are the most opportune for detection and intervention. As for intervention, attending to things early costs a whole lot less than trying to fix an even bigger problem later.

It’s easy to detect problems early, before children even start to learn to read. Easy, and inexpensive. The entire examination takes 15-20 minutes, but the benefits last a lifetime. Currently, our approach is complicated and very expensive because we spend our time chasing horses because the barn door was never closed.

Research shows that 1) children with developmental ‘delays’ are directly correlated to poor and / or delayed performance in academics (reading in particular), and that 2) early intervention is the most clinically effective and cost-effective means of intervening in the long term. Early intervention is also the kindest thing to do, for all concerned: parents, children, teachers, and class-mates. As a tax payer, I also feel this is the best investment of public funds as it saves millions down the road. Check things early, fix things early before they become more serious problems. Makes sense.

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