The Pressure to Learn to Read Early
There are very few children of average intelligence who cannot learn to read. Learning to read is a difficult process. The only reward in the early stages is the satisfaction of increasing success at breaking the code and being able to do something that adults do. It takes a long time – longer for some than for others – to be able to read independently for fun and for information.
A diagnosis of dyslexia does not mean that a child cannot learn to read. It should only mean that learning to read will take longer. It will take support. It will also take:
- Grit: See How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough
- Resilience: See Raising Resilient Children and The Power of Resilience, by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein
- Perspective: See Mindset, by Carol Dweck
- Focus and Patience: See Focus, by Daniel Goleman
Although I appreciate the intent of Brock and Fernette Eide in their book The Dyslexia Advantage, not every child with reading difficulties will have intellectual gifts which will compensate for this problem. Having to work so hard and so long to learn to read isn’t something that every child will do especially if it is all work and they don’t cherish the reward at the end. Many children come to hate reading when it is forced on them day and night. The Brocks give examples of people with dyslexia who became very successful and learned to read. These are people who have the traits mentioned above. I agree with their statement: “The first key principle is interest. Individuals with dyslexia learn best when their interest is engaged. This phrase should be carved into the wall of every classroom. A state of heightened awareness is often the only condition under which individuals with dyslexia can engage texts deeply enough to make progress with reading skills.” p. 176 But this is not unique to people with dyslexia. We need to remember that it applies to all of us. “Cold reading” is tested in school (reading about something without prior knowledge) when it is known that prior knowledge is as important to our understanding of what we are reading as is our reading ability.
The acceleration of the reading curriculum is a problem for children who will take longer to master this complex skill. Everyone can’t run at the same speed and everyone can’t become a proficient reader at the same time. Accelerating the demand means that more children have the burden of being left behind and cannot do the reading which is required for them to keep up in their other subject areas. Extra instruction and the increased pressure do not work for many children who have not developed the prerequisite skills. For those who take longer, there needs to be other ways for them to acquire information and demonstrate what they know other than reading and writing until their skills are adequate. The ultimate goal should be not how soon you learn to read but do you become a life-long reader.
I was reminded of this while reading Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr. Cooper writes: “Tommy Wilson did not appear at first to be very bright. (Wilson’s full name was Thomas Woodrow Wilson. He went by his first name until he was in his twenties.) He was slow learning to read. His presidential physician, Cary T. Grayson, later claimed that Wilson told him that he had not learned his letters until he was nine, and one of his daughters said that he did not read comfortably until he was twelve…. He told Dr. Grayson that his mother and his sisters would read to him by the hour, ‘and he would listen as long as anyone would read.’ … Tommy’s difficulty with reading most likely stemmed from some physical cause. His vision may have contributed to the problem. As an adult, Wilson would wear glasses to correct astigmatism and farsightedness, but he did not begin to wear them until after college…. In any case, this experience left the boy with no discernible psychological scars, much of the credit for which belonged to his parents.” pp. 19 – 20
In Wilson, A. Scott Berg writes: “His father let Tommy embrace language on his own, never pushing him or humiliating him for being so slow in learning to read…. His father had no desire to rush his son into a schoolroom. He put no faith in dogmatic education, believing that information had to permeate in order to penetrate.” p. 35
It is important to nurture a child’s strengths as well as their challenges. A label should not justify a problem. It should guide the development of the prerequisite skills. Tommy Wilson went on to graduate from Princeton University, get a PhD from the University of Virginia, teach college, write notable books on political science, become the president of Princeton, the governor of New Jersey, and the President of the United States. For all that we now know about reading, we cannot disregard the roles of human nature and motivation which can be more important for the ultimate outcome. We hope that Tommy would have the same potential if he was in the first grade today.