How to know if your child has a learning disability

May 8, 2012

Q. How can I know whether my 8-year-old, who began to read two years ago, has learning disabilities?

She has always been at grade level, her reading is where it should be, her comprehension is terrific and she can connect the text to just about anything. But her word recognition isn’t as good as her comprehension. Is this a flag for a learning disability? Or is she just developing at her own pace?

She also struggles with her spelling. Her teacher told me that she was surprised when she first saw her spelling and handwriting and said, “We need to work on it.” But the teacher wasn’t concerned about her ability to learn, or at least she didn’t say so. I’m concerned, though, because my daughter hasn’t learned as fast as her two older brothers. If my brain didn’t tell my mouth to be quiet, I’m sure that I would be comparing the children out loud.

A. You’re a parent, so you have to worry. That’s your job.


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

As things go, however, you probably don’t have much to worry about. Your little girl didn’t learn to read as fast or as well as her brothers, but she’s learning now and that’s what counts.

Her spelling may be lousy too, but that’s what spelling tests and spelling bees are for. If they don’t work, spell-check will correct her mistakes. And if it doesn’t? Her teachers may knock a few points off of her essays in high school, which may embarrass her, and her bosses may blame her teachers, which may make them feel superior, but that’s okay. A bad speller can still be president when he — or she — grows up.

Reading is another issue. Since you know your child better than anyone else, you should ask the teacher for a 25- to 30-minute meeting so you can talk with her about your specific concerns. You need to know if your daughter can sound out her letters, if she likes to read, if she can read fairly smoothly and pretty fast, and if she understands the text as well as you think she does.

Once the teacher answers those questions, ask her to show you the assessments drawn from the your daughter’s reading tests, and then ask her whether she thinks your daughter has a learning disability or is just getting over the same hump that all new readers must climb. Reading usually isn’t easy until a child is in the third grade, and if it’s not easy, it’s not much fun, either.

You also need to know how fast your daughter processes information and how she learns best. One child may be so visual that a chapter book runs through her head like a movie, but she’ll have problems because she can’t remember all the sounds that the letters make. Another child will have problems because she is bad at sight words but good at phonics. Any child who has to stop and figure out more than five words on a page will get bogged down, and reading will turn into a chore. That makes school much harder than it needs to be.

If the teacher thinks that your daughter is a little behind the other children, she can ask a reading specialist to help her, or she can meet with you or her dad and maybe the school’s social worker and the nurse to decide on an 8- to 10-week classroom intervention. That often gets children up to speed.

If that doesn’t work, or if your daughter is more than a half-year below grade level, you can ask that she be tested for learning disabilities so you’ll know whether she needs more time to catch up with her classmates or if she does indeed need some special ed.

If your child doesn’t have a learning disability, you can turn her into a reader pretty quickly by giving easy, fun-to-read books to her and insisting that she read 30 minutes a day at home and 30 minutes a day at school. Educators say that even 20 minutes of reading each night is the equivalent of adding 10 days to the school year.

You can improve your daughter’s word recognition too if you introduce words to her conversationally, so she will subconsciously realize that scarlet, cherry and ruby are simply other shades of red.

Toss in a few rules as well, because children love rules and the English language is awash with them. Just knowing that most long words are really short ones that sit between prefixes and suffixes will help her figure out what those words mean, but only if you tell her the meaning of those prefixes and suffixes.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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Check out a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly.

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