When little kids write the alphabet for the first time, it’s hard to know who’s more excited—the kids themselves, or their parents. After all, we adults know the glories to come: sounds, then words, then all kinds of writing adventures. And we can hardly wait.
But back at the desk with a kid who's learning to read and write, you’ll probably notice that literary progress often comes not by steady paces but by somersaults—some of them backward. In kindergarten and first grade, for example, many children write “b” instead of “d,” and may sometimes confuse “p,” “q,” and “g.” Teachers see these errors all the time, and gradually work to help kids fix them. But as a caring parent, should you worry? The stakes are high. Do these letter problems signal something deeper, such as dyslexia?
To sort out the hype, we turned to two pros: Linda Selvin, Executive Director of the New York branch of the International Dyslexia Association, and Eileen Marzola, PhD., a past Board President of that organization, a professor of special education, and a teacher and tutor in private practice with dyslexic children for more than thirty years. Here’s what they have to say when it comes to three common fears about dyslexia, and identifying it in kindergarten and first grade children:
Myth #1: You’ll know it’s dyslexia when a kid flips letters or misspells a lot.
Fact: While some dyslexic people may do this, it’s not the main problem! Dyslexia, explains Selvin, “is a neurologically based learning disability” in which “people have difficulty associating sounds with letters.” Lots of kids who write “b” for “d,” or reverse other letters, are just making rookie mistakes; what’s more serious is when they cannot hear the “b” in “bear,” and think, instead, that it may be a “d” or “p.” Backwards letters alone are not cause for worry, according to the experts. In kindergarten, explains Marzola, dyslexic kids will have trouble in several related areas. Taken together, these signs indicate that a child is not making the all-important connection between letters, sounds, and word meaning. Instead of worrying yourself sick about reversed letters, “I would look further,” says Marzola. If by the end of a full year of good instruction in kindergarten, a child can’t do all or most of the following, then it's time to be concerned:
- easily name all the letters of the alphabet, with most sounds
- detect rhyming words
- hear initial sounds, like the “c” in cat.
- identify basic sight words like “is” or “the”
- recognize “environmental print” like the word “stop” on a roadside sign
Myth #2: You can’t really diagnose dyslexia until a kid is seven or eight.
Fact: Kindergarten is not too early to evaluate a child. In fact, says Selvin, “Early intervention is key….The longer you wait, the more the problem grows.” Children quickly realize when something is wrong. It’s all too easy for them to conclude, “I can’t read so I must be really dumb,” Selvin says. If your kindergartener does display most of the signs above, both Selvin and Marzola emphasize that you should seek an evaluation with a qualified specialist, either through your school or through independent experts such as those certified by the International Dyslexia Association. Don't let your school convince you to wait. Early intervention makes a huge difference.
Myth #3: Dyslexic kids can’t read.
Fact: With proper instruction, dyslexic kids can read, write…and thrive in school. Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, say Selvin and Marzola, but with proper teaching methods, kids can develop different pathways to get the information they need. Multisensory and tactile forms of instruction—methods that use the whole body to trace letters, or that train kids in how to say their sounds as they connect them to words—are particularly effective. What’s most important, the two experts emphasize, is starting early. Sadly, says Selvin, researchers have found that “if a child does not read on grade level by third grade, there is a 75% chance that that child will never read on grade level.”
So what does this mean for you and your kindergartener? The next time your child proudly writes “bog” instead of “dog” in a story about her lovable pooch, you should probably grin and enjoy it. But if the kindergarten year is nearly over and that same kid can’t spell her own name, looks blank when you ask her to tell you the beginning sound in a word, and just doesn’t grasp those all- important alphabet letters, don’t hesitate to step in. Talk with your teacher, and consult a specialist who can make sure you’ve got the right facts. Reading is a lifetime’s adventure, and with proper help, just about every child can enjoy it