Many wonder if an early literacy intervention is best. There’s a widely circulating myth that struggling k-2 readers just “catch on” without any opportunity cost. However, learning to read is a process that requires over a decade of practice. After kids learn how to decode, they then have to focus on developing fluency (or reading speed).
If a child learns to decode late, they’ll often struggle with fluency too. Once a child learns to decode, they do NOT just magically read fast. Instead, they have to practice, often laboriously, until their reading speed improves. During this time, they’re exposed to less text than their peers. Here’s the math:
What happens to kids who fall behind in reading
Let’s take two 3rd graders:
Student A- read at grade level all along
Student B- had a late start in reading
According to reading research, it follows that: student B will read at a slower rate than student A. Let’s add some sample fluency data:
Student A- reads 100 correct words per minute
Student B- reads 30 correct words per minute
Let’s say both kids read for 20 minutes:
Student A- reads 2,000 words total
Student B- reads 600 words total
Are you beginning to see how hard it is for student B to catch up?
Student B is exposed to far less text. To get the same text exposure as Student A, Student B would need to read over 3x as long. To get Student B and Student A to read the same amount of words:
Student A-must only read 20 minutes a day
Student B-must read 67 minutes a day
(At this point, Student A and Student B are reading the same number of words a day.)
Kids who fall behind read slower. Thus, they’re exposed to less text.
However, this doesn’t account for the fact that Student B has been exposed to less text all along. Student B did not receive an early literacy intervention. For months (possibly years), Student B has been behind Student A.
It’s very unlikely that Student B really read 67 minutes a day all along. Student B is a struggling reader. Thus, like all struggling readers, he has learned to dislike reading. Do you see the aggregate loss Student B has experienced? Student B has less time to develop accuracy, fluency, academic vocabulary, and familiarity with academic concepts and syntax. All this added up amounts to a huge loss.
There is an opportunity cost to a late start in reading.
Unfortunately, there is a huge opportunity cost to read late. Early literacy intervention is essential for success.
Opportunity cost- the loss of potential gain from other alternatives. In the case of a struggling reader, the “other alternative” is an early literacy intervention.
There are several reasons why struggling readers tend to fall behind in fluency, reading comprehension, spelling and writing. None of the reasons have to do with the student. Most students don’t receive specialized instruction early enough, and any delay in decoding sets a deleterious ripple into effect that impacts performance in subsequent years.
When a struggling reader finally learns to decode, his reading problems are not “solved.”
Many think that as a long as a child can decode, her reading problems have been “solved.” Yet, the effects of a late start in reading are profound. Struggling k-2 readers are almost destined to struggle with fluency and reading comprehension. Why?
Struggling readers…get limited exposure to sophisticated texts
Kids who haven’t received an early literacy intervention often haven’t had as much exposure to complex texts. They get stuck reading texts far below their intellectual capabilities. This stasis means they get limited exposure to complex syntax and diction. Since they lack exposure, they fall behind in comprehension, spelling and writing.
Struggling readers…read fewer academic words.
Since struggling readers don’t get to read words like “tantalizing” or “begrudged” or “congenial” as early and often as other students—words only found in texts (not speech)—they don’t get to build connotations for these words. They often have been working on decoding for so long, they haven’t been able to view as many key terms. They also don’t get as many opportunities to use these text-only words in writing.
Struggling readers…develop fluency later than their peers. Thus, they read slow (often for many years).
FLUENCY TAKES TIME. Fluency builds slowly over time. Any delay in decoding, means the child will struggle with fluency. For example, if a child hasn’t learned “ai” yet, how can she possibly work on recognizing “ai” words quickly? Once she finally has the right exposure to “ai,” she’ll need extensive practice to gain speed. This process takes time. It’s a common pattern—struggling readers are working on decoding for so long, they have little time to build fluency.
Struggling readers…often struggle with reading comprehension in upper grades. This impaired comprehension has nothing to do with the student. It has everything to do with getting a late start in reading.
IF FLUENCY IS SLOWED…the child will struggle to comprehend texts. Slow reading is difficult to understand. If you pause in-between sounds and words, you don’t receive the author’s message as quickly. If you don’t hear the message as quickly, it becomes muffled. In speech, we don’t pause in between words. In reading, any slowness impairs comprehension.
Struggling readers…read less and are exposed to fewer academic concepts.
Struggling readers miss out on opportunities to build background knowledge. They don’t get as many opportunities to connect what they already know to what they read. If they’re reading a third less than their peers, you can expect their awareness of academic concepts to be a third less too.
In short, there is no neuroscientific term for why late decoders struggle with comprehension, spelling and writing. However, the above cycle is well-known and well-documented in reading research…it’s known as the Matthew-Effect. The Matthew-Effect is brutal. It means struggling decoders who don’t receive an early literacy intervention often stay behind in reading.
Early literacy interventions are effective if they include explicit, systematic phonics.
Reading Elephant offers systematic phonics books that guide kids through the code. If you see that your student is behind, don’t wait. Instead, teach your student systematically, meaning one phonics sound at a time. Allow him to gain mastery over one phonics sound before introducing another. Don’t expect him to just “get it” one day.
Largely, ignore all the myths circulating in your community. Parents of struggling readers rarely discuss their trials openly. If you listen to your community, you’ll hear magical stories of kids that just “got it,” often from parents of kids who never struggled in the first place.
Understand which kids are in the bottom 30% of their K-2 class. Are these kids struggling with basic sound-symbol correlations? If so, then do an early literacy intervention. Teach these kids explicitly and gradually. Offer them decodable books so they can master the code.
Don’t wait. Early literacy interventions are effective. Waiting is risky.
Reading Elephant offers a systematic phonics books series that guides kids through the code.