Heather is a second-grader who loves to make up stories in her head or have her parents read to her. But learning to read has been a real struggle. She often substitutes similar words (home for house), makes the wrong sound for a letter (b for d), omits, adds or incorrectly sequences sounds (left for felt, sell for spell), or makes other random errors that just seem odd to her parents. In kindergarten, learning the alphabet was a much harder task for her than the other children in her class. The teacher said it was normal for some students to struggle more than others and to not worry about it because the differences often level out once they go to grade school. Heather is a bright little girl, so it surely isn’t a learning disability, right?
First of all, it is always, ALWAYS important to remember that intelligence has nothing to do with a learning disability. That would be like assuming that someone bound to a wheelchair because of a physical disability is lazy. Many children with learning disabilities are incredibly smart but have trouble expressing that because of the challenges of the disability.
The next step is to realize that parents know their children and can often tell something is not right before a school system can. The earlier a child can receive remedial instruction, the better chance that child has of being able to overcome the learning disability.
Fast-forward Heather a few years. She is now in middle school and avoids her English homework like it’s the plague. Her grades are suffering because she refuses to read or do writing assignments. If she does sit down and try to work on them, the stress is far out of proportion with the task and often results in tears. Her handwriting is hard to read, and her spelling is riddled with misplaced letters (siol for soil, or expect for except). When her math homework includes story problems, it is very hard for her to get past the reading portion to formulate a problem, although when the problem is read aloud in class, the work is much easier for her. As her school work continues to progress in degree of difficulty, Heather’s frustration levels also increase. Could this be why Heather frequently “mouths off” to her teachers and acts like she really doesn’t care?
This is an example of one type of learning disability, centered mainly in a phonemic awareness deficit. Heather’s brain is often not able to determine if the sounds she hears in a spoken word match the letters she sees on the page. This creates problems in reading – when she cannot figure out what sounds to make in a word – and in spelling, when she cannot effectively separate the sounds she hears in order to assign letters to those sounds. One-on-one stimulation of phonemic awareness will develop the sensory weakness Heather is experiencing and give her the tools she needs to confidently continue into high school, college and the rest of her life.
The earlier a problem like Heather’s is pinpointed and treated, the better equipped the child is for success.