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First Grade Is Not Too Soon to Watch for Reading Problems

April 29, 1993|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School

The importance of being able to read well is obvious. Reading is needed just to maneuver through an average day, and it is particularly important for students: They spend about 90% of their study time reading.

It is crucial to spot and cure reading problems early --in the primary grades. First grade is not too soon to show concern. The rule of thumb among reading experts is that for every month your child is behind in reading, he or she will need two months to catch up.

These days, with class sizes growing and remedial programs shrinking, there is less assurance that the school will be able to come to a child's rescue. A child who falls behind is likely to stay behind.

That's why it is important for you to keep a close eye on your child's reading progress. If you have any inkling that the child is having trouble, get in touch with the teacher right away.

Reading boils down to three basic skills--phonics (sounding out words), vocabulary and comprehension--and weakness in any of them can lead to disastrously poor reading skills.

There are some signs of trouble that you can easily detect while observing your child at home.

Slow or halting reading is probably the most obvious sign. A child with this problem pauses excessively between words and uses no vocal inflection, so the words don't sound connected in a sentence. "Your dog has no fur" sounds more like "Your. Dog. Has. No. Fur."

The best way to help a slow reader is to work with the child to increase the number of words that he or she can recognize on sight. The best tools are vocabulary-building exercises and practice with slightly easier books.

A child who consistently reads books aloud, rather than silently, may have problems with comprehension.

Reading aloud might not sound harmful, but consider this: A typical human can speak only about 125 words a minute, but should eventually be able to read two or three times that fast. Reading speed is severely hindered.

This is not to say reading aloud is always bad. Sometimes it actually improves comprehension, particularly for highly technical reading. For example, I can silently and comfortably read literature and philosophy, but I have to read my motorcycle repair manuals aloud and in "slow motion."

Routinely reading aloud for other reasons, however, can indicate problems in vocabulary or comprehension; it is time to ask the teacher for help.

Maybe your child looks as if he or she is reading silently, but is actually mouthing, mumbling or whispering the words quietly. This practice, known as subvocalization, hinders reading speed and generally indicates weakness in vocabulary and comprehension.

Other bad reading habits include "trailing" words with a finger, pencil, bookmark or other object. Children should be able to follow a line of words with their eyes alone.

A related problem occurs with some children who can read aloud very smoothly but cannot understand or remember what they have read.

Such an irony generally means that the child has mastered phonics but still needs work in understanding the meanings of those words.

Again, some help with vocabulary building is the best cure. A lagging vocabulary is also often at the root of yet another warning sign: a reliance on illustrations, rather than text, to figure out a story.

Savoring pictures and graphics in books is healthy and enjoyable. But a child who focuses on them completely needs help. It generally means the book is too difficult and has too many words that the child cannot understand or pronounce.

Ask the teacher or librarian for some books that are more manageable. Chances are the child will then focus less on the pictures (but will still enjoy them) and rely more on the words.

Word lists and other vocabulary exercises may also help. The teacher is likely to have a grade-appropriate word list, containing vocabulary that children of that age should have at their command. Vocabulary-building books and exercises can be found at larger bookstores and curriculum supply stores. Again, the teacher is your best source of guidance for which ones are best suited to your child.

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