Reading Problems Can Occur Suddenly
Sometimes Emerge in Fourth or Fifth Graders Who Previously Test Well
June 23, 2003 -- It's often assumed that if reading problems such as dyslexia and poor comprehension aren't obvious in early grades, children will continue to read well. But a new study indicates these problems can emerge suddenly in fourth or fifth grade -- even among students who test well in earlier reading tests.
The problem: While reading tests can detect problems in the primary grades, schools may fail to identify students at risk for trouble in later elementary school grades -- when books and other reading material become more challenging and the shift is made from "learning to read" to "reading to learn."
"Because schools often don't detect a 'fourth grade slump' right away, parents should not ignore signs that reading is becoming more difficult," says Hollis Scarborough, PhD, senior research scientist at Haskins Laboratories, a non-profit research center for the study of speech, language and reading.
"Frequent spelling errors, incorrect reading of words, and slow reading are signs that help may be needed to strengthen word-level processing," she tells WebMD. "A child's misunderstanding of what has been read and difficulties in other subjects with challenging reading assignments, like science or social studies, could be signs that reading comprehension is a problem."
Scarborough and her colleagues at Bryn Mawr College evaluated 161 fourth and fifth graders in 12 Philadelphia-area schools, half of them in affluent suburbs. While 95 had age-appropriate reading skills, 31 were found to have late-emerging reading disabilities -- but only nine had been identified with such problems by their schools. Their literacy, language and cognitive skills were also compared to 35 others, whose reading problems were noted before the end of third grade.
The researchers report in the June issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology that among those with late-emerging reading disabilities, one in three had strong word recognition but poor reading comprehension -- a pattern seen in only 6% of those with early identified problems. Meanwhile, another one in three of those with late-emerging problems fit the dyslexic profile of good comprehension but being slow and inaccurate spellers and readers, as compared to nearly half of those diagnosed earlier. The remaining one-third of those with late-emerging problems had trouble in both recognizing and understanding words.
Because these three distinct patterns were seen in about 20% of observed students after third grade, the researchers recommend that schools use a variety of assessments to identify each child's strengths and weaknesses. For instance, those who score low on reading comprehension tests may have word-level processing weaknesses and should be distinguished from kids who just have comprehension problems.
Nearly one in five Americans have some language-based learning disability, and about 80% of students getting special education have problems reading, reports the International Dyslexia Association. That condition is among the most common.
"The first place to seek guidance in determining whether the child is developing a late-emerging reading disability is the school," Scarborough says. "However, until more educators become aware of the occurrence of this phenomenon and the nature of late-emerging reading disabilities, parents should not be surprised if schools are initially somewhat unreceptive to the suggestion that a child's reading skills are failing to progress in the upper elementary grades."