When Older Kids Struggle to Read

Teachers and parents are often on the lookout for disabilities in children just learning to read, but a new study suggests that adults should keep an eye on the skills of slightly older children as well.

In a study of 161 fourth- and fifth-graders, researchers from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and Haskins Laboratories in Connecticut found that less than a third of the 31 children suffering from late-emerging reading problems--those that appear in the fourth grade or later--had been flagged by their schools. A third of children with late-emerging reading disabilities had poor reading comprehension but showed strong word recognition, a pattern rarely seen in kids with early reading problems. The study was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

"It's unexpected. No one's looking for it," says Hollis Scarborough, a senior research scientist at Haskins Laboratories and coauthor of the study. She says late-emerging reading disabilities can be quite abrupt in onset, but are often dismissed as a temporary slump in learning. This oversight can lead to problems that may become particularly debilitating in high school and college if left unaddressed.

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Past studies have found that children with early reading disabilities tend to struggle primarily with identifying individual words, possibly because it is difficult to detect comprehension problems in very young kids. The current study found that children with late-emerging problems suffer in roughly equal numbers from word identification problems, comprehension problems or a combination of the two.

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