Have you ever wondered why some children seem to learn to read so effortlessly and others struggle? Have you ever seen a child who memorizes poems, math facts, and the alphabet without even trying? Yet at the same time you might have also known another child who had trouble just remembering their own phone number or address. There are all sorts of reasons that learning—and reading—is easy for some children and hard for others, and believe it or not, it rarely has anything to do with intelligence.
Just as some children are good athletes from the time they are very young, others are great at music or art. We tend to think of art, music and athletics as skills or talents. But actually there are underlying cognitive abilities that enable those talents. For athletics, good hand-eye coordination and quickness can be keys to success. For music, certainly the ability to perceive tones is essential. For art, excellent visual memory is helpful.
It turns out that learning to read also requires some underlying cognitive skills. Children are not born good readers, of course; reading has to be taught. And for a child to be able to learn to read, four core cognitive capacities are needed: memory, attention, sequencing, and processing efficiency (speed and accuracy). It is helpful to tease out each one of these and explain the importance in learning to read.
Memory – Scientists refer to the kind of memory that is important for learning to read as “working memory.” It is the kind of short term memory that enables you to read this blog and remember what was written a few paragraphs earlier. When children have problems with working memory, reading can be very difficult. A child might have trouble remembering what sounds the letters of the alphabet stand for when they are first starting to read and so have a devil of a time learning to decode. Later in school the child with working memory problems might have trouble remembering what they read just a few sentences earlier and so re-read the same passages over and over again. How do you know if a child has working memory problems? Look for trouble following commands or remembering details of instructions or stories.
Attention – Learning of any kind requires good attentional skills. A student needs to be able to pay attention when the teacher is talking and ignore random noises in the room. A student also needs to learn to pay attention during reading. In learning to read, students need to pay attention to the letters and attend carefully to the sounds they represent. Later in school, students who have trouble attending are often those who can’t stick with a reading assignment. What to look for: the child reads a few sentences or paragraphs and then looks around the room, drops a pencil, or gets up out of a chair. It can take a child who has problems sustaining his attention a very long time to finish reading assignments.
Sequencing – Reading requires the ability to sequence letters into words (“saw” versus “was”) and grammatical endings (“the boy runs” versus “the boys run”), and words into sentences (“the dog chased the boy” versus “the boy chased the dog”). It is easy to see that when children have trouble sequencing, they will misunderstand what they read. Some children find sequencing things they hear very hard because the information is so fleeting.
Processing speed and accuracy – Scientists refer to the way the brain handles information as “processing.” Parents may have heard the terms “auditory processing” or “visual processing”. Those terms refer to the way the brain perceives and attaches meaning to information coming in from hearing or vision. Some students are inherently good at processing visual information. Those students seem to learn well visually and are very good at perceiving visual cues, like picking up on facial expressions or remembering how words look when they are spelled. However, some of those students may not process auditory information as well. They might frequently misunderstand words spoken to them or “tune out” when people talk to them. Students with auditory processing inefficiencies might also seem “slow” to respond when others are talking to them. Certainly, if a child has trouble hearing the difference between the vowels in “bit” and “bet,” it makes sense that learning the correspondence between letter and sound will be difficult. In fact, there is a great deal of research indicating that children with auditory processing inefficiencies find learning to read very difficult.
We tend to think that reading is a visual skill that depends primarily on linking letters to sounds. That has led us to expect that reading problems must be due to either difficulties with recognizing the letters or matching those letters to their appropriate sounds. However, we now know that a core set of underlying cognitive skills: memory, attention, processing speed or accuracy, and sequencing underlie the ability to learn to read and later to read to learn.
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Burns, Martha. Auditory Processing Disorders and Literacy. In Geffner, D and Swain, D. Auditory Processing Disorders. Plural Publications.
Caretti, Barbara. et al. Role of working memory in explaining the performance of individuals with specific reading comprehension difficulties: A meta-analysis. Learning and Individual Differences, vol. 19, 246–251. 2009.
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