Understanding the Difference Between a ‘Late’ Reader and a Child with a Learning Issue

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: IvanJekic, E+ Collection/Getty Images

Back in the early ‘70s — before ADHD was common parlance — Mark and Rayma Griffin founded the Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Connecticut, a boarding and day school specifically for children with learning and attentional disorders. They spent the next 34 years with 250 kids with notable learning issues, bright kids, Mark explains, who really struggled with reading and writing.

In that time, the Griffins learned a lot, firsthand, about struggling readers. Now, the Griffins, who have since retired, advise for the site Understood.org, which supports and educates parents with children who might be facing learning or attentional disorders. I spoke to them about my own struggling reader — a boy in first grade — and their wisdom and insight helped me see him, and his challenges, in a new light.

I fear I am raising a late reader. Is there such a thing? I know the word “late” can be controversial.

Mark Griffin: Certainly, some kids read very easily. We’ve heard stories of kids who begin to sound words out and make sense of words and attach meaning to them as early as 18 months and 2 years — and then there are kids who honestly and truly don’t have dyslexia or other learning problems who don’t read until much, much later.

Development is a moving target. We have to be careful. Some kids develop more slowly and have a delay but end up catching up over time — and some are indeed at risk of having a learning issue. It’s not as cookie-cutter clean as we’d like it to be.

Is there something in particular about first grade?

Rayma Griffin: It depends. Back in the olden days, people were teaching you how to read in first and second grade. Now kids come in with a set of skills by kindergarten. With the new standards of what kids are expected to do … it’s hard for a lot of kids.

Mark: By first grade, in some schools, they are already reading to learn, not learning to read. And some kids are still not very solid in their decoding skills, or [in] attaching meaning to words. Those kids in many school systems are often being viewed as kids who are struggling — when developmentally it’s not the time to have that all in place all at once.

And is there something in particular about boys?

Mark: When we first started out, we had a school full of boys. They are identified a whole lot more. There’s been research that shows the numbers [of boys vs. girls with learning issues] are pretty close, but boys do tend to do things that make them more noticeable. They tend to get looked at more quickly.

So, when is it time to really worry?

Mark: If you are beginning to wonder if a kid is at risk for reading problems, there are good early screening tools you can use. Yale University has developed one that is cheap — under $1 to do it — and it doesn’t take long; it’s easy to administer and the standardization is very good.

One criticism of our system is that, for years and years, third grade became the threshold where, if a child wasn’t reading by that time, we did something about it. It has been called the “Wait to Fail” model.

Lots of schools are beginning to intervene much more quickly than that. By the time first grade rolls around, we have some sense of the kids who might struggle to learn to read — and up to 17% of kids could be at risk for a notable reading disability. If the signs are there — no phonemic awareness, a late talker, trouble decoding and remembering simple sight words, can’t rhyme effectively, trouble remembering sequences like the days of the week, or getting mixed up when telling stories — let’s not wait.

Rayma: A good teacher of first graders would recognize these anomalies — and it would be the perfect opportunity for direct instruction, or to get a program in place to help develop the skills for a child who is not getting it more naturally. By that I mean the rhyming skills, the blending skills, the segmenting skills.

The research is so clear in terms of what to look for. We should not be waiting until second or third grade.

What are early signs that parents can watch for?

Mark: The child needs to really understand the sounds of language, and how they break apart and then blend together to create words, before the words mean anything.

Rapid, automatic naming of letters, numbers, colors, and symbols is an important marker. Rapid, automatic naming of nonsense syllables and words that don’t have meaning is key to decoding. Those things should generally be happening, by 5 or 6 years old.  

What are some ways that a busy parent can help support a struggling reader?

Rayma: My biggest thing is read to them, read to them, read to them. The more a child is read to the better — regardless if they are capable of reading themselves. And read to them at a level that is appropriate to their intellect and interest.

Mark: And if you can’t read, or if you are struggling to read, you need to have some other way to make your vocabulary more robust. Being read to, pointing things out at the supermarket, any time you can introduce vocabulary and play with language, will help if they’re struggling to decode.

Kids who struggle to read are as smart as any other kids.

Rayma: Yes, and it’s so important when your child is struggling to find, nourish, and embellish their strengths and talents so that the child sees that the struggle is not what defines them.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.