New Recipe for Reading

Does your child have a reading disability? Why some people have trouble learning this basic skill.

By Robert Epstein Ph.D., published 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 read.

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 suggestions.

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 basics?

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.