Brock University: Early intervention, advocacy can prevent reading difficulties, says Brock researcher

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A shift in reading instruction can change the lives of many young people who might otherwise struggle with the skill, says Brock University researcher Erin Panda.

“In the early years, it’s about catching difficulties as soon as possible so they don’t become a lifelong disability,” says the Assistant Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies and co-director of Brock’s Developmental Neuroscience Lab. “Most children can learn to read if they are given explicit and systematic instruction into the sounds of language and how letters are grouped together to make words.”

Panda, who penned an op-ed in The Hamilton Spectator about reading skills instruction earlier this summer, wants people to understand that difficulty reading is not related to intelligence, but rather a question of training the brain to make the correct connections between letters and sounds.

But the longer children go without that training, the more they miss out on.

About 10 per cent of the population has dyslexia, which translates to roughly three children in every Ontario classroom. But this number could be dramatically reduced if more children received systematic, explicit reading instruction, Panda says.

“This is a huge, huge gap that doesn’t need to exist, and it puts people on a trajectory for having anxiety, lower paying jobs and other life struggles,” she says. “It’s really tragic, but if we change the system, we can remove those obstacles right from the beginning.”

Panda and departmental colleague Professor John McNamara are currently working with local schools to help implement recommendations from the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s recent Right to Read inquiry report, which describes literacy as a public health issue.

“One push with the Right to Read report is to try to prevent reading disabilities even before they develop,” says Panda. “This can happen when teachers learn about the science of reading, how to use screeners to catch lagging skills and how to implement structured literacy instruction in their classrooms.”

The report also recommends early and equitable access to evidence-based intervention programs for children who continue to struggle.

Panda, who previously worked at SickKids Hospital, says the Empower Reading program developed there by Maureen Lovett has been implemented in schools across Canada with great success. Another successful after-school program, Reading Rocks, was developed by McNamara.

Panda says parents should get familiar with literacy benchmarks for each age group and keep an eye out for signs of struggle, such as failure to recognize letters or aversion to spending time with books.

“I encourage communication between parents and teachers about where a child is and if there are signs the child is struggling,” she says. “Parents should advocate for schools to provide intervention as needed so that a learning disability can be prevented.”

Panda also says finding fun opportunities to incorporate reading while spending time together, such as reading together, watching phonics-based YouTube videos, practising writing letters and using books like Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons by Elaine Bruner, Phyllis Haddox and Siegfried Engelmann, will help support children learning to read.

She suggests that from preschool onwards, parents can point out letters in the environment, like those on stop signs and cereal boxes. Then, as kids get older, families can play games to identify the first, last or middle sounds in words or even create new words by exchanging letters.

“Helping children build an awareness that words are made up of sounds and that sounds are linked to letters, especially through play — that’s the foundation for learning to read and a lifelong love of reading,” Panda says.

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