Literacy: getting the right help and getting it early

It is confronting to admit that your child is struggling to acquire literacy skills. Research tells us that parents fear that their child may be “labelled for life” if he or she is identified as having a learning disability. However, you are not alone!

Consider that there are just over 806,000 school students across Queensland which is 21 per cent of the Australian total. Up to 160,000 of these students have some struggle with reading.  At least 80,000 to 100,000 students have significant difficulty. Statistically 1 in every 10 Australians struggle to acquire literacy skills at the normal rate. America, the United Kingdom and many other western English-speaking countries have a similar experience.

It is very important that you seek help as soon as you realise your child is having difficulty learning. Seeking help and recognising the early signs of a learning disability can mean the difference between success and failure for your child in school.

Most learning disabilities affect reading and language skills. In fact, a significant majority of students with a learning disability have problems with reading. If these children receive appropriate help in the early grades, most of them will become skilled, independent readers. When help is delayed, it becomes harder and harder for children to catch up.

Perhaps the most important reason to seek help early is to spare children the frustration and failure they experience when they don’t do well in school and don’t know why. You must help your child understand that he or she simply learns differently. Among other things, children who learn differently need different resources, different teaching methodologies and more time to learn.

Why get help immediately?

There are many good reasons to get help immediately:

  • 80 per cent of students with a learning disability have trouble reading.
  • 90 per cent will read normally if they receive help by the first to second grade.
  • 75 per cent of children who receive help after the age of nine or grade four may have some difficulty throughout life. This percentage is greatly reduced for students who receive learning support and special provisions at school and who engage in explicit, structured and systematic intervention that is goal driven and administered one-on-one
  • The quality of the human instruction is the single greatest factor in the recovery of literacy difficulties, so high-quality P-3 teachers are essential.

What to do first?

Trust your intuition! No one knows your child better than you, so if you suspect a real problem, speak to teachers and other school personnel, seek information and expert opinions, and do not be afraid to have him or her evaluated right away.

Meet with your child’s classroom teacher and learning support teacher or equivalent. They can tell you how well your child is performing in literacy skills, how concerned they are and what steps could be taken to support learning, including specific testing and/or intervention.

Understand your child’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. Encourage him or her at school and at play, and reward your child for the many things he or she does well.

Realise that you are not alone and that experienced people and groups have information and help for you right now. Become an educated parent about learning issues by reading good websites, subscribing to evidence based journals or newsletters. Find out which professional organisations are available in your area.

Remember that if it is a specific reading, spelling, fluency problem then you should contact a qualified educational professional as allied health professionals are not equipped to deal with specific learning disability.

Work with your child at home

Parents are a child’s first and best teachers. Show your child that reading can be fun. Read to your child every day. Visit the library frequently. Point out words on billboards and traffic signs as you drive, on food labels at the grocery store, on packages, mail, and letters. Play word games like Upwords, Word Whizzle or Boggle. Set an example by giving your child a chance to see you reading and writing at home.

Join with others who care

By joining with other parents and professionals you can increase awareness of the issue, dispel popular myths and misconceptions, help establish educational systems that provide for the needs of children with learning disabilities, and get support for yourself. It is better to become a member of an organisation that physically meets together rather than just a social media platform which unfortunately can ‘breed’ error and spread misconceptions.

Professionals who can help

There are only a handful of professionals that know how to assess literacy and learning, diagnose learning disability and properly administer an intervention. These professionals are:

  • Educational/Literacy Specialist – a qualified teacher in special education with specific additional qualifications in learning disability and the teaching of literacy can assess for and evaluate learning difficulties and implement interventions.
  • Neurologist – looks for possible damage to brain functions (medical doctor).
  • Paediatrician – provides medical services to infants, children, and adolescents; trained in overall growth and development including motor, sensory, and behavioural development (medical doctor).
  • Neuro-Psychologist/Educational Psychologist and/or Clinical Psychologist – provides psychological and intellectual assessment and treatment for learning, mental and emotional health.
  • School Guidance Officers/Counsellors/Psychologist – gives and interprets psychological and educational tests; assists with behaviour management; provides counselling; consults with parents, staff, and community agencies about educational issues.
  • Speech and Language Pathologist – helps children with language and speech/sound production.

Help your child become a better reader (for early readers)

Here are some practical strategies to help your child become a better reader:

  • Work on the relationship between letters and words. Teach younger children how to spell a few special words, such as their own names, the names of pets or favourite cartoon characters, or words they see frequently like stop or exit.
  • Help your child understand that language is made up of sounds, syllables, and words. Sing songs and read rhyming books. Play word games — for instance, think of words that rhyme with dog or begin with p.
  • Teach letter sounds. Sound out letters and words. Make up your own silly words with your child.
  • Sound out new words and encourage your child to spell by speaking each sound aloud.
  • Notice spelling patterns. Point out similarities between words such as fall, ball and hall or cat, fat and hat.

This article was edited and adapted for Queensland Education from ld-online.

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