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Ask Jeanne: Speech Delay and Reading Comprehension

Ask Jeanne: Would a speech delay directly affect reading comprehend because they are focused on the decoding?Ask Jeanne: Would a speech delay directly affect reading comprehend because they are focused on the decoding?Dear Jeanne,

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In your opinion would speech delay in a child directly affect the child’s ability to comprehend and read simultaneously – meaning, the ability to read words is good, however the understanding while reading seems to be disconnected.

My little girl is turning 6 at the end of the month and although had a speech delay which was identified at 3, she is now within the “normal” spectrum … translated as: her speech and language therapist says she has caught up with her peers but still has some pronunciation issues.

Best regards,    Mary

Hi Mary,

First, the caveats: I’m not a speech specialist, I’m not a reading specialist, I’m not an educational psychologist, and I don’t have training in special needs. You may decide you need guidance from someone with one or more of those specialties.

That said, as a homeschool mom with a lot of years of experience, I think it’s possible that speech delays can be related to other delays, such as delays in comprehension. While some kids apparently “just” have a speech delay, other kids may have a “package” of language-oriented delays that are inter-related or that occur together.

OR – it’s possible that being under six years old can directly affect a child’s ability to comprehend and read simultaneously.

In other words, it’s possible that her lack of comprehension – of understanding what she has read – is abnormal, something that might be called “pathological” by experts.

OR – it’s possible that at five years old, she is quite young and is just learning to read on her own developmental timeline at a pace that is exactly right for her.

You didn’t ask about this part, but for those following along, I’ll make some suggestions for the situation. In a case like this, it’s a homeschool mom’s job to research the potential link between speech delays and reading comprehension, examine normal childhood development, look at how homeschoolers have approached early academics (reading in particular), proceed to give your child experiences that will develop comprehension, and to keep in your mind the possibility that your child could require intervention.

Let’s unpack that paragraph, with some questions for a parent to research and consider.

Research the potential link between speech delays and reading comprehension.

A quick Google search yielded me with confirmation that, indeed, there is a link between speech problems and reading problems. One such article is at the Charlotte Speech and Hearing Center website, “How Speech and Language Deficits Can Influence Children’s Reading Skills.”

I found a resource with ideas for addressing the problem at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website, including a PowerPoint presentation called “Building Your Child’s Skills: Kindergarten to Second Grade.”

Further reading online will tell you more about whether children who have had successful speech therapy are still prone to reading comprehension problems. My cursory reading in the field suggests that some children who develop normal speech after a speech delay still do have problems, but that others, especially those who have benefited from therapy, will not have related reading problems.

This puts your daughter firmly in the “maybe” camp.

I’d also inquire about this with your child’s speech therapist. Many articles at the ASLHA site talk about the role of speech-language pathologists in helping children with reading and other academic challenges.

Research normal development.

Learn all you can about the ages that children begin to read with comprehension. Do all children read with comprehension before age six? Is that a goal or a reality? Is that goal shared by the educational institutions in all countries? Do all childhood education experts think that “reading with comprehension by age six” is a realistic or positive standard? What do studies show? At what ages do home educated children commonly learn to read</a> How about the subset of homeschoolers known as unschoolers? Reading age may even be affected by a child’s dominant learning style.

You might be surprised to find that reading by age six, much less emphasizing reading comprehension, is not universally recommended or expected by child development experts.

Consider how homeschoolers have approached academics, especially reading.

Are you aware that many homeschooling families have children who acquire reading later without any long-term negative benefit? Do you know about the approach to homeschooling that intentionally delays formal academics, including reading?

Do you know the major approaches and resources for reading that homeschoolers use? These vary widely, from providing specific lessons such as Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons (has helped some kids and frustrated some others) and letting kids learn to read “on their own” with phonics rules and comprehension support offered by parents when a child wants or needs to know (has helped some kids and frustrated some others).

It’s a funny thing – but in my years of being around hundreds of homeschooling families – I know parents who have found their reading miracles (and reading disasters) in opposite places. One mom tells me Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons nearly ruined reading for her child; another parent tells me it was the break-through resource with a child who was frustrated with a natural approach. (You can read here at TheHomeSchoolMom.com about something similar that happens with math resources).

This means it’s important for you to know about these approaches and various reading resources, so you can think about what might work for your child and provide your child with learning opportunities that fit. Sometimes you can tell just from your own research what is likely to work, and when you try that resource or approach with your child, you are exactly right. Other times, you try things that seem like they’ll work, and they don’t.

Give your child experiences to develop comprehension.

Read to your child, tell your child stories, encourage her to tell stories, and talk about the books and stories in a relaxed and interested way (not a “testing” way). Have her draw pictures of something happening in a fairy tale or book that you read aloud to her. Listen to audiobooks together and both of you draw at the table together, with you yourself drawing something that you pick up from the story. Don’t make “drawing a good picture” the point – just capture a scene or image or detail from the story in your drawing. Make booklets of her “story drawings.” Encourage dress-up and pretend play, in which the child narrates stories to herself and becomes part of the story. Play word games with rhyming and alliteration; play story games where you each add a few sentences to a fanciful story.

Also, let your child see you reading. Talk about what you read in a magazine, book, or newspaper.

There are many other ways homeschoolers make reading comprehension a relaxed and holistic process. Google for ideas and keep reading together relaxed, fun, and warm.

Don’t stick your head in the sand.

In general, my personal opinion is that many not-quite-six-year-olds are too young to experience much reading comprehension while also laboring with the mechanics of reading words on the page. I really think that the push for this is developmentally inappropriate. In fact, this is an academic reason many parents give for choosing homeschooling rather than public education, which has increasingly pushed acquisition of skills to younger and younger ages, despite what we know about child development.

My research indicates that in cultures (in some other developed countries with fine records of academic achievement and in some education subcultures with the U.S.), adults don’t expect children to read until age 7, 8, or later, and by then children are naturally more able to comprehend what they read, which is then a built-in incentive to encourage a child to read more. You can do a lot of research about how and why this has come to pass in the U.S. (and there are real reasons), but the bottom line is, homeschoolers don’t have to follow this approach to reading, which often leads to loss of confidence, lack of reading enjoyment, and poor achievement in reading.

However, Mary, I say all this with one giant caveat: don’t stick your head in the sand. While I personally tend toward recommending a relaxed approach to reading, with less emphasis on “early” acquisition of reading skills, you are indeed wise to ask yourself about specific challenges your individual child may face along the way. I have seen people argue against “interventions” in favor of letting a child learn to read “naturally,” only to find later that something as simple as a pair of glasses was what unlocked the joy of reading for a son or daughter.

So, I recommend emphasizing doing things to improve your daughter’s comprehension in a relaxed, natural way, while taking time to learn more about the connection of delayed speech and reading, early childhood development, reading ages, homeschoolers’ approach to reading, and reading resources. You may or may not be working with a reading curriculum at the same time, as you discover what works well for you and your child. Even if you don’t use a formal approach to learning the decoding side of reading, you will want to create for your child a rich culture of pre-literacy — talking about letters and sounds, using books for information, visiting the library, having her tell you stories that you write down for her.

With a child who is not even six yet, I think you could follow this path for up to several years, while always keeping an eye out for signals that it’s not just her early age or stage, but maybe also something “else” that a specialist might be able to help you with.

Interventions can be a double-edged sword – sometimes heightening tension and robbing pleasure from an academic skill like reading – other times addressing a special need because a child is not developing in a normal way and benefits from particular, skilled help. So, your job becomes a balancing act – doing the big broad things that provide foundation for her lifelong reading skill – while watching for individual building blocks that might not be forming up in normal ways. Always, at the same time, you are remembering that “normal” is a range of ages and skill levels, and that as homeschoolers, we aren’t bound by school standards, which have developed for reasons other than the reading success of your individual child. And then, if you go the route of consulting specialists, looking critically at whether interventions are helping or hurting your child’s progress – and getting second opinions. To complicate the balancing act, we know that some interventions do work best when they are early in the process and have more time to work, so you have to think about that as well.

Red Herring or Red Flag

I know I have only concluded that it’s possible that the speech delay has interfered with your five-year-old daughter’s ability to read and comprehend simultaneously. I mean, the idea makes some sense to me communication-wise, thinking about how these various linguistic skills are related, and I see evidence-based research online that shows me the possibility.

But I’m also unconvinced that all, or even most, or even many five-year-olds should have or can have effortless reading comprehension while they are busy decoding.

The key may be to homeschool along a “this-is-probably-normal” track, with an educated readiness to switch to a more therapeutic track if you don’t see growth and improvement.

That’s because the speech delay may be a red herring, when what your daughter needs is more time for her brain to develop and more opportunities to practice comprehension, just like many early readers. Or, the speech delay may be your red flag, letting you know to pay particular attention to reading problems.

With growing kids, there is often not a single answer, but some oxymoronic combination of things. Nothing like being a homeschool mom and holding “Relax; it’s normal!” in the same brain with “Caution; get help!”

Learn More...

If authentic engagement represents your homeschool philosophy, read more about how to engage your children in these posts from our contributor Living Education by Oak Meadow covering topics like nature-based learning, creativity, handwriting, homeschooling multiple grades, authentic engagement, and more.

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I wish you and your daughter best of luck. She is fortunate to have you as her advocate.

Jeanne

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Jeanne Faulconer

A popular speaker at homeschooling conferences, business groups, and parents’ groups, Jeanne Potts Faulconer has homeschooled her three sons in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia. She is a former college faculty member, former editor and book reviewer for Home Education Magazine, a long-time editor for VaHomeschoolers Voice, and a recent news correspondent for WCVE, an NPR-member station. Jeanne teaches writing and literature for her youngest son’s homeschool co-op, and she is a student of how learning works – at home, in the music room, in small groups, in the college classroom, on the soccer field, and in the car to and from practice. Holding her Master of Arts degree in Communication, Jeanne conducts portfolio evaluations for Virginia homeschoolers for evidence of progress. To read more of Jeanne’s writing, inquire about a homeschool evaluation, or ask her to speak to your group, see her blog, Engaged Homeschooling.

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