“My first grader is on the third Harry Potter book and loves it!” my co-worker said. Then he asked me, “What’s your daughter reading now?”
Ouch. I wanted to answer that my third-grade daughter was content looking at simple picture books. Instead, I mumbled, “She likes me to read Harry Potter to her.”
Our daughter loved the Harry Potter stories, but she didn’t enjoy reading them. In fact, she was really struggling with reading, but we didn’t know why.
My wife and I felt like we were letting her down. We were worried she’d lose her love of books if she didn’t develop reading skills. Our daughter’s teacher shared these concerns. Together, we decided to do everything we could to help her.
Her school provided a reading instructor to give her special attention. This included word drills and timed reading. The instructor would literally hold up a stopwatch, like a track coach, and ask our daughter to read as much as she could in five minutes.
It was incredibly stressful for our daughter. But the school assured us they were seeing some progress.
We asked what we could do to help. They encouraged us to do word drills with her at home. So we crammed them into our day whenever we could — in the car to and from school or after dinner sitting around the dining room table.
Since my daughter likes to move, we even made up games to drill her on sight words as we ran around outside or did jumping jacks and handstands.
Despite all the drills and what the school said, we weren’t seeing progress. As we went through the flashcards, she’d get a word right one time. But the next time she saw the word, she looked at it like she’d never seen it before.
I started to think back to my childhood. When I was in grade school, I struggled to memorize my multiplication tables. My parents and teachers told me to “put in more time,” “work harder” and “do more drills.” I did, and in the end, repetitive drills worked for me.
So when my daughter was struggling, I simply encouraged her to work harder. I was baffled when drills didn’t work for her. I found myself saying things to her like “You’ve got to focus.” “You’re not trying hard enough.” “You got this word correct the last time — I know you know it. You can do it!”
The more we pushed her, though, the more trouble she had. My daughter even began to rebel. She put off her lessons and found ways to shorten her time with her reading tutor.
The weird thing was, deep down I knew she was working hard — very hard. I could see it in the way she’d wrinkle up her forehead and run her hands through her hair. I could see that she was even more frustrated than I was.
She was also very aware that other kids in her class were better readers than she was. That made her feel even worse.
Watching her struggle, I started to feel guilty about how I was pushing her. It took me a long time to realize that what we were doing simply wasn’t working. We needed to do something different.
In fourth grade, about a year after we started the word drills, we had her evaluated. That’s when we learned she has dyslexia. We also found out that kids with dyslexia can learn to read when teachers use evidence-based teaching, like the Orton–Gillingham approach. Just memorizing words wasn’t enough.
Our daughter started with the Wilson Reading System two days a week. Then she moved to three days. In fifth grade, we started her in an intensive Orton–Gillingham program. Now that she has the right instruction, she’s gone from hating reading to reading on her own. Now she thinks reading is fun!
I also learned something important. When it comes to learning and thinking differences, working smarter is often better than working harder. If I’d known that sooner, our daughter’s early years of school would have been much more enjoyable, and our relationship wouldn’t have been as strained. Thankfully, she’s now being taught in a way that works for the way she learns.
Find out what to do if you think your child might have dyslexia. Explore strategies to help kids with dyslexia at home. And read more about why “just try harder” is a myth for kids with learning and thinking differences.
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About the author
Travis Harker, MD, MPH is a family doctor in Concord, New Hampshire, and the father of a child with dyslexia.