By Robert Epstein Ph.D., published on January 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
You are doing something that is both remarkable and essential:
Reading. Not everyone can do it, even after extensive training. Why do
some people have trouble learning this basic skill?
Harvard education professor Kurt W. Fischer, an expert in
cognitive development, has spent many years unraveling the mysteries of
reading. Most children, he says, learn to read easily, but perhaps 1 in
10 need extra help.
In the following interview, Fischer gives guidelines for
spotting reading problems early and for giving some children the special
attention they need. The key, he says, is to recognize that people learn
in different ways.
Robert Epstein: Most people think that you put a Dick-and-Jane book in front of a child, and, magically, he or she learns to read. But we know that this is not the case for everyone. Why do some children have a harder time than others?
Kurt Fischer: For some children, it is easy. They grow up in
families in which there are lots of reading materials and in which the
parents coach them, and they learn to read quickly, fairly naturally.
Unfortunately, other children grow up in homes where reading isn't
practiced, so they don't learn the right skills. And then there is a
substantial minority of children with specific dyslexia—which means they have trouble processing the basic information they need to
Just how common is dyslexia?
It depends on where you set the criteria, but about 10 percent of
children have various difficulties learning to read.
Given that definitions vary, how can a parent know whether or not to be concerned?
It depends on the age. It's normal for a 4-year-old to
write his name sometimes in the mirror image. We might be concerned about
a third-grader who does the same thing. Also, letter reversals are normal
for young children but abnormal for older children.
If your child is having trouble learning to read, what
should you do? I understand you offer a variety of creative and fun
Try to help them by reading fun things. You need to teach
them to play with the sounds of words, to break words down into basic
sounds. I often recommend that parents read books such as Dr. Suess to
their kids because the word games in those books are a fun way of
practicing the skills they need for reading later on.
Are there children who simply can't learn the
Yes, there are some children who are severely
dyslexic—who have trouble with basic sounds and alphabet letters. But
many of them find their own "pathways" for learning and grow up to be
very successful. They'll spend endless hours mastering the material, even
though it's very difficult. A few people never learn to read, of course,
and some develop strategies for covering up their deficits—for example,
avoiding jobs where reading is essential.
You mention that children will find their own pathways,
and I understand you're working on a book on this subject. What do you
mean by pathways?
People develop differently. An educational
system that assumes there's only one way to learn gets into trouble. It
loses people. People who don't fit the mold get called stupid. There are
different kinds of intelligence, and each has its own pathway. We need
educators and parents to recognize that. We need an individualized
education system that can build upon natural talents and limitations.
When we stop trying to fit people into a common mold, we'll be able to
produce brighter, more effective citizens.