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Three Wishes

At The Reading Clinic we have met hundreds of students who are struggling to learn how to read.  As a result, we’ve heard some common themes about what happens in the classroom and at home. We have three simple wishes that would make a world of difference to any student learning how to read.

If we had only one wish it would be this:

Stop encouraging kids to guess at how to read a word based on a picture or from context.

Let’s take a very common example:  A student learning to read sees the word “dog” and guesses the word “puppy”.  “Dog” is a decodable word, meaning that each letter is voiced with its expected sound.  Most words in the early stages of reading are decodable to encourage sounding out.

There is a sense of accomplishment for kids when they start sounding words out and hear them turn into words they recognize. It is the first magical experience of reading. Guessing undermines the ability for a child to grasp that each letter has a sound. It also robs students of a chance to practice sounding words out. And, most detrimental, by guessing, they are now linking sounds to a word with no corresponding letters. Why would you want a student to associate /p//u//p//ee/ with d-o-g?

Guessing makes sense when you’re trying to understand the meaning of a word, but it is not how you learn to read. In fact, it is the hardest habit for kids to break once they learn to read. For students who struggle with learning to read, especially students with dyslexia, the choice between giving their brain a workout to figure out a word and just guessing is an obvious one. It’s an even easier choice to make when their parents and teachers have told them to guess.

Do not wait for two years to identify a reading disability.

Speaking from experience, we can easily teach a child to read in first grade, even when a child has severe dyslexia. In first grade, they haven’t struggled for so long that they’ve decided they can’t learn. Some of their peers are still having a hard time and everyone is reading at about the same level. They’re still with the pack even if they’re bringing up the rear.  By third grade, a student who is struggling with reading will have developed coping mechanisms like memorization, avoidance, and guessing. They were probably always aware they were having a harder time, but now they’ve been left behind and their discouraging impression of their ability to read often impedes their progress.

Instead of waiting two years to see what happens, it is important to address learning to read in specific stages. There is such a thing as pushing a child too hard to read, but it has little to do with age and more to do with requisite skills. Phonemic awareness is the fundamental pre-reading skill that is often overlooked. Being able to blend the sounds /c//a//t/ into cat, hear that dog is made of the sound /d//o//g/, and recognizing rhymes are some examples of these skills. Many children can speak quite articulately but still have weak phonemic awareness, so don’t let that fool you! Next, students need to be able to recognize that each letter has a sound, and when you sound out a series of letters in order, you make a word. That’s phonics in a nutshell. After that, it is important that students can retain words after they’ve read them. It is common for a child to reread a word several times before they start to recognize it but this is a skill that can be developed when needed. If all of these requisite skills are in place, then waiting might make sense.

If we meet a first grader for whom we’d recommend 20 – 40 hours of tutoring in first grade, we would likely recommend at least 80 – 120 hours of tutoring to them if they get no help by third grade. The idea that reading gets better with time really only applies to students who have already learned to read fluently. Kids who learn to read by memorizing words, and don’t eventually figure out how to read words they haven’t seen before, will suddenly have noticeable issues with reading in middle school once the words get too similar and too long to memorize, like commission versus commensurate.

Recognize that intelligence is a red flag when there is a difficulty learning to read.

“She’s smart, she’ll figure it out” or “He’s so smart he gets bored trying to read such easy books so he won’t try.” Unfortunately, the reality is quite the opposite. Most kids who are having trouble to read are plenty smart and are eager to learn how to read, but the way their brain is wired makes it difficult to learn how to read and so they get discouraged. They might figure it out, but never enjoy it because their ineffective strategies make reading laborious. Great teachers and the right programs for learning how to read can make a huge difference. But sometimes that’s not enough. Some kids, even exceptionally bright kids, will require 1-to-1 support using the right methodology for their needs. Learning to read will be the most difficult and unnatural thing they will ever accomplish.

If you have concerns about your child’s reading ability, it is never too late to seek help. The easiest way to find out what is happening with your child is to schedule a reading assessment. We offer the Slingerland Screening for Dyslexia  as a tool to identify specific strengths and weaknesses. Afterward, we can make recommendations for the best approach to help your child learn how to read.


Beth Powell has worked in the field of education for over 15 years. After completing her BA degree in Math and her MA in Transformative Leadership with a focus on math education, she developed the Math with Ease® Program. She worked at Lindamood-Bell and has been trained in Slingerland. She has given talks at many events, including the California Mathematics Council’s Asilomar conference, the Cupertino Union school district and for SELPA. Beth is also a musician and plays in a sailor band at historical recreation events.


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