The seemingly simple task of reading is anything but simple. The moment our eyes fall on a word, a complex set of processes -- physical, neurological, and cognitive -- is set in motion, enabling us to convert print into meaning. Nerve impulses from the eyes stimulate an area near the back of the brain that allows us to see the light and dark areas on a page that define each letter. A region of the brain further forward allows us to convert the letters we see into sounds and those sounds into language. Finally, another part of the brain converts the jumble of words in any given sentence into something meaningful that we can interpret.
When a child starts school, reading becomes a primary way of learning. Reading is a means to understanding the world and a fundamental skill required to succeed. But it is a skill that takes years to fully develop. And for some children, those years can be arduous and frustrating.
Helping a student who is struggling with reading begins with understanding the difficulties. In general, a reading difficulty represents a breakdown somewhere in the process of learning to read. However, individual difficulties are as individual as the child, and other factors may be related. Since there are so many interrelated neurodevelopmental and physical tasks involved in reading, finding the problem may not be easy. Testing for the student and consultation with teachers, reading specialists, and others will help significantly in understanding what is going on in a specific case.
Learning to read is a sequential process; each new skill builds on the mastery of previously learned skills. Each step in the process relates to one of the three components of reading: decoding, comprehension, or retention. These are the component tasks of reading and also in a general view, the progressive steps in learning to read, which move from sounds, to words, to sentences and paragraphs.
At a basic level children recognize that letters represent the sounds of spoken words. As children master each letter of the alphabet, they map these letters to the sounds they represent. This mapping enables children to begin to decipher whole words. By breaking up words into their component sounds, phonemes, children can sound words out. For example, the word "bag" is made up of three phonemes, "buh," "aah," and "guh." Children who decode easily hear these three sounds, not because the ear hears them that way -- the ear hears one pulse of sound -- but because the brain automatically separates them. With practice, decoding becomes automatic for the normally progressing reader. Children see words and read them without struggling, even if they don't know the meaning of every word. Decoding is a foundation that children need to read quickly and fluently.
Try it yourself. Experience a decoding difficulty.
The second task in reading is understanding the written word. Comprehension ultimately depends on the ability to decode and master sight words. When that word recognition becomes automatic young readers are better able to concentrate on the meaning of whole sentences and paragraphs while they read. As they read, children also learn to simultaneously connect information within the context of a selection, relate what they are reading to what they already know, and stay focused.
The final task in reading is retaining, or remembering, what has been read. Children must be able to organize and summarize the content and readily connect it to what they already know. Reading retention enables students to keep information in their long-term memories and to call upon and apply it in the future.
Try it yourself. Experience a retention difficulty.
Basics of Writing
Math disabilities can arise at nearly any stage of a child's scholastic development. While very little is known about the neurobiological or environmental causes of these problems, many experts attribute them to deficits in one or more of five different skill types. These deficits can exist independently of one another or can occur in combination. All can impact a child's ability to progress in mathematics.
Incomplete Mastery of Number Facts
Number facts are the basic computations (9 + 3 = 12 or 2 x 4 = 8) students are required to memorize in the earliest grades of elementary school. Recalling these facts efficiently is critical because it allows a student to approach more advanced mathematical thinking without being bogged down by simple calculations.
Try it yourself. Experience a problem with basic facts.
Many students, despite a good understanding of mathematical concepts, are inconsistent at computing. They make errors because they misread signs or carry numbers incorrectly, or may not write numerals clearly enough or in the correct column. These students often struggle, especially in primary school, where basic computation and "right answers" are stressed. Often they end up in remedial classes, even though they might have a high level of potential for higher-level mathematical thinking.
Difficulty Transferring Knowledge
One fairly common difficulty experienced by people with math problems is the inability to easily connect the abstract or conceptual aspects of math with reality. Understanding what symbols represent in the physical world is important to how well and how easily a child will remember a concept. Holding and inspecting an equilateral triangle, for example, will be much more meaningful to a child than simply being told that the triangle is equilateral because it has three equal sides. And yet children with this problem find connections such as these painstaking at best.
Some students have difficulty making meaningful connections within and across mathematical experiences. For instance, a student may not readily comprehend the relation between numbers and the quantities they represent. If this kind of connection is not made, math skills may be not anchored in any meaningful or relevant manner. This makes them harder to recall and apply in new situations.
Incomplete Understanding of the Language of Math
For some students, a math disability is driven by problems with language. These children may also experience difficulty with reading, writing, and speaking. In math, however, their language problem is confounded by the inherently difficult terminology, some of which they hear nowhere outside of the math classroom. These students have difficulty understanding written or verbal directions or explanations, and find word problems especially difficult to translate.
Difficulty Comprehending the Visual and Spatial Aspects and Perceptual Difficulties.
A far less common problem -- and probably the most severe -- is the inability to effectively visualize math concepts. Students who have this problem may be unable to judge the relative size among three dissimilar objects. This disorder has obvious disadvantages, as it requires that a student rely almost entirely on rote memorization of verbal or written descriptions of math concepts that most people take for granted. Some mathematical problems also require students to combine higher-order cognition with perceptual skills, for instance, to determine what shape will result when a complex 3-D figure is rotated.
Try it yourself. Experience a visualization challenge.
From Misunderstood Minds
Paying attention refers to the brain's ability to take all of the stimuli around us, immediately categorize and organize information as relevant or irrelevant, and focus the mind on one thing. For a child in a classroom, paying attention to the teacher means filtering out as many as 30 other students and the dynamics between them, visual or outside distractions, noises, and more.
The psychological and medical communities as a whole have accepted a set of criteria for diagnosing chronic attention problems, and have grouped these problems under the name Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, this term and its use in diagnosis remains controversial, and the approaches to attention problems are varied (see Up Close, Does ADHD Exist?).
This diversity of views comes in part from the fact that although paying attention may seem like an isolated task, it is an elaborate neurocognitive process. Consider everything that is stimulating your senses as you read this sentence. Perhaps there are background noises or a conversation nearby, the aromas of food or pangs of hunger, distractions in your peripheral vision, thoughts of things to do, recent conversations or events still fresh in your mind. Now consider another setting: listening to a class lecture or watching a film. Everyone has experienced a lapse in attention in such settings from time to time. But what if paying attention were a chronic challenge? For some students it is, and they are unable to focus no matter how hard they try.
Try it yourself. Experience a visual distraction.
People with chronic attention problems describe their world as a cacophony of distractions, with no sound or image necessarily more important than any others. Ambient sounds -- papers rustling, pencils tapping -- demand as much attention as a set of verbal instructions.
Try it yourself. Experience an auditory distraction.
"Attention deficit" is one of the most widely used phrases when it comes to learning problems, but it may also be one of the most common misdiagnoses. Although there is much information about ADHD available to schools, focusing on attention deficit may be causing parents and teachers to overlook other learning problems. Dr. David Urion, Director of Neurology and Learning Disabilities at Children's Hospital in Boston, suggests that parents and teachers look closely at any inconsistencies. If a child has trouble paying attention or focusing in one subject area, but not all subjects, a lack of attention may be the symptom of a different learning problem. Only a small percentage of children with learning problems have a neurocognitive breakdown in attention.