What I’ve Seen: 7 Signs a Student Needs Explicit Reading Instruction

I’ve been a teacher and reading specialist in public schools for 20 years. And I’ve been a certified Orton–Gillingham tutor for 10. Throughout that time, I’ve learned something about specialized reading instruction that has helped me reach a wider range of struggling students.

What I learned is that explicit, or specialized, reading instruction can be helpful not only for kids with reading issues like dyslexia, but also for kids who are struggling just with certain reading skills.

Take Ellie. Ellie was a first grader who was clearly having difficulty learning to read. I wasn’t sure when we first started if she had a reading issue such as dyslexia. But I had concerns.

Ellie knew most of the letter names from A to Z, but she didn’t seem to know their sounds. So I started working with her one-on-one, making and blending sounds.

Soon we got to an exercise where I showed her the letters c, a, t, and we practiced blending the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/. When we finally said the word cat, Ellie looked at the letters and exclaimed, “So that’s what they’re for!”

It wasn’t until we worked together that it clicked for her. Ellie didn’t turn out to have dyslexia. But the instruction helped her work through a reading challenge nonetheless.

Explicit reading instruction can help teachers figure out if a reading issue like dyslexia could be at play. It’s clear to me that this kind of instruction can help all kids gain vital skills. But some kids can really benefit from it.

Here are some signs I’ve seen in my grade school classrooms that lead me to think a child needs more focused instruction.

1. The child has limited knowledge of letter names and sounds.

One of the biggest flags is when a child (such as Ellie) only knows a few letter names or sounds by first grade. Sometimes this is a sign of dyslexia. But it can also occur when a child hasn’t had enough exposure to print or phonics.

2. The child says “I don’t like to read.”

Most children, especially younger ones, will tell me that they love to read. But there’s always at least one child who says “Reading is boring.” Or “I don’t like to read.” These are often the same kids who never volunteer to read or who get upset when asked to read aloud.

When a child says “I don’t like to read,” I don’t take that at face value. I always ask why. More often than not, a child doesn’t like to read because he finds it too difficult.

3. The child has trouble with rhyming.

Singing nursery rhymes with kids is a lot of fun. It can also help reveal how well kids understand language.

As my class sings “Down by the Bay” for the umpteenth time and we get to “Did you ever see an ant…,” most kids are eager to sing their rhyme. But there’s always at least one child who will excitedly yell something like “...sitting on the ground!” He doesn’t realize that ant and ground don’t rhyme. There’s also usually at least one child who doesn’t try to make a rhyme at all.

When kids don’t seem to recognize or try to make rhymes, it can be a flag. Many of my younger students who struggle with rhyming become struggling readers. But again, explicit instruction can help them improve.

4. The child lip-syncs instead of reading aloud.

Along with having them sing, I often have my entire class read a passage or recite a poem together. It never fails that one or two children simply move their lips and pretend to read. They think they’ve fooled me, but I can tell that their mouths don’t match the words. I take this as a sign to build in even more reading instruction for those students.

I once had a first grade student, Timothy, who consistently lip-synced and never volunteered to read. I had already begun explicit instruction with him when I called in his parents to talk.

It turned out Timothy’s father was dyslexic and had had a very difficult time in school. They’d hoped this wasn’t going to be the case for Timothy. We found out that Timothy did have dyslexia, though. So it was certainly a good thing that I’d already started Orton–Gillingham with him! After two years of instruction, he was on grade level, and now he’s excelling in high school.

5. The child has trouble using reading strategies—or overuses them.

Strategies like using contextual clues (such as pictures) help students learn to read. For example, if a child sees a picture of a cow on a page, she may say or write the word cow. But if a student in mid-first grade or later says or writes a word that doesn’t match the picture on the page, it could point to a need for more reading instruction.

It can also be a flag if a student overuses a reading strategy. For example, reading by memorizing words is something many kids do when they first learn to read. It’s a strategy that can help them become good readers. But as kids get older, it can be a problem if they only read through memorizing. It could point to an issue with .

6. The child frequently mispronounces or forgets words.

When a student frequently mispronounces words, can’t remember new words, or both, it sets off alarm bells for me.

For instance, I had a third grader who consistently said and wrote day for they. Explicit teaching of sounds, especially /th/, along with plenty of practice helped her improve.

Keep in mind that young children often reverse letters and words or confuse basic words like was and want. But if they continue to make a lot of these errors as they get older, more explicit teaching and practice can help.

7. No one reads to the child at home.

Many years ago when I first started teaching preschool, I asked a group of children, “Who reads to you the most?” Many shouted “Mommy.” A few said “Daddy” or “Nana.” But a little girl named Molly said, “no one.”

Molly seemed indifferent to reading. When I spoke to her mom, I explained why it was so important for her to read to Molly every day. Mom promised she would—but she didn’t. Later on, I learned Molly’s mom had dyslexia and was too ashamed to read to her daughter.

Unlike her mom, Molly didn’t have dyslexia. But once kids like Molly have more exposure to reading, they usually become more interested in reading, too.

These aren’t all of the signs that a student needs more explicit reading instruction. There are many, many others. But helping a child begins with noticing reading flags like these. As a teacher, it’s the best way I can help a child get better at reading. It’s also a good way to help figure out if a child has a reading issue like dyslexia.

Find out what to do if you’re concerned your child might have dyslexia. Take a look at questions to ask about a school’s reading instruction. And see examples of multisensory teaching techniques that can help kids with reading.

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