Brain Biology = Hope for Reading Disabilities – Part II

In last week’s article, I wrote about Cori, a heart-broken mother who is watching her bright son, Will, struggle with reading. She is out of options and feeling very hopeless.

Today, I am going to share some general recommendations that will help Will “catch up” and read on grade-level within the next 12-18 months. The following information may sound a little overwhelming at first, but I will pull it all together in a simple and manageable plan at the end.

As I proceed, I will be sharing several links from previous articles I have written that provide more specific background knowledge. Corinna may need to invest 2-4 hours reading the information for a solid understanding. But, that’s a small investment of time to her; she is hungry for help…and hope!

To be clear, however, these recommendations are based on very limited knowledge. I have not met Will; I have not seen or heard him read, evaluated his reading skills, or seen any test results. This is an important distinction because I have made some assumptions about his situation.

Nonetheless, my goal is to provide insight and considerations to help his parents find reliable resources and navigate some tough decisions. I know his struggles are far from unique, so I hope this information is helpful for other parents and teachers, as well.

More About Will

Will is nine years-old and in third grade. He repeated second grade and his principal is suggesting that he repeat third grade again. He was formally diagnosed with dyslexia. His reading level is very low and he struggles with some of the common signs of dyslexia, such as “b”/“d’ reversals and poor fluency.

He had been getting two hours of daily reading instruction in a pull-out program at school. Very recently, that time doubled to four hours per day since he is now being pulled from Science and Social Studies. Finally, he has hearing challenges with approximately 65% hearing loss.

Plan Of Action: Stage 1 – The School Environment

Before I even begin to talk about reading, I must address Will’s current situation in school. The decision to have a child repeat a grade is a very tough one. I know Corinna was not comfortable with the suggestion of Will being held back a second time. She’s absolutely right to worry about this! I don’t know all of his circumstances, but if this was my son, I would not support the retention another year.

My greatest concern about holding him back another year is the hit to his confidence. For this reason alone, I would not want my son to repeat another grade. Will’s reading challenges can be addressed with proper interventions (specified below).

Will struggles with reading, but otherwise, he is a normal nine year-old. He is a smart and social child whose cognitive and emotional development is on par with other students his age. Will’s general growth will be stunted if he is the only 10 year-old in a room with 29 students who are two years younger; there is a WORLD of difference between the humor, interest, and intellectual development of 8 year-olds versus 10 year-olds!

Next, I would insist that he return to science and social studies lessons with his class. (Corinna has the right to insist on this!) If two hours per day of reading instruction has not led to significant improvement after all of this time, 24 hours a day won’t help, either! At least, not with the current style of instruction.

Most important, however, is that Will LOVES science. The one-and-only thing that he actually likes about school has now been stripped from him so he can spend four hours doing something that is causing him extreme misery. Why on earth would we do that to a child??? If this persists much longer, Will will totally give up on himself.

Special Education?

Proceed with special education testing. Will would most likely quality for an IEP. In the meantime, he should have a 504 plan in place outlining special accommodations, especially to provide assistance for his hearing challenges.

Plan Of Action: Stage 2 – Addressing the Reading

Miscue Analysis

If you read any of my articles in the Cue to Reading, you will not be surprised that my first recommendation is to do a miscue analysis. There is a formal process for doing a miscue analysis, but Corinna can observe Will’s reading, as described in the Cue to Reading articles. The miscue analysis will help Corinna determine the cueing systems that Will is currently using for reading; it is important for Will to know that he does a lot of things “right” when he reads! Of course, it will also highlight which cueing system is most challenging for Will.

All About Spelling…to Fix Reading

“Dyslexia” is a broad term, so the miscue analysis is critical. However, it typically indicates a deficiency with the visual cueing system. In this case, I highly recommend the program, All About Spelling. All About Spelling is based on the Orton-Gillingham model, which is the most popular instructional method for reading intervention.

Traditionally, Orton-Gillingham training and instruction has been very complex and expensive. All About Spelling, however, is brilliantly simplified and affordable! We used this program with my son over the summer and saw significant gains from it; his reading quickly caught up to grade-level!


Typically, students with dyslexia also struggle with writing. I will assume this applies to Will, especially since his mom reported concerns about reversing letters such as “b” and “d.” The ability to take notes and write quickly is extremely important in middle school, high school, and college. Studies indicate that “transcription fluency” (handwriting) is the greatest predictor of long-term school success for a child.

With this in mind, I also recommend Handwriting Without Tears. Handwriting Without Tears is also brilliantly simple! I never thought I would ever be excited over handwriting or have any reason to rave and rave about a handwriting curriculum, but I can’t say enough good things about this program!

The author has taken great care to present letter-formation in a format that will maximize the strong parts of Will’s brain…and improve the weaker “brain muscles” along the way. Marie Rippel, author of All About Spelling, also wrote a great article about helping students who struggle with “b” and “d” reversals. That article is available here.

Working with His Hearing Impairment

Finally, I would like to address Will’s hearing challenges. I do not have any experience working with hearing impairments, nor have I done any research, so I am not qualified to give comprehensive advice about this topic. I would simply encourage Corinna to seek as much professional advice as possible and research options online. Many success stories regarding hearing restoration have circulated the news over the last several years. I can’t help but think that there is help for Will.

Meanwhile, there are two simple tools that can help Will during his one-to-one sessions, specifically during All About Spelling lessons that will be teaching the variations of sounds:

  1. PVC Phone. Purchase two “elbows” of PVC pipes and hook them together, either in a “U” shape or an “S” shape. In the shape of an “S,” Will can hold one end to his ear while his mom clearly annunciates various sounds on the other end. Then, Will can twist the pipes into a “U” shape and hear his own attempts at making sounds.
  2. A pocket mirror. With a pocket mirror, Will can watch how his mom pronounces sounds and then watch his own mouth form sounds. He can also note how many sounds look the same and, consequently sound the same. The mirror is not essential in the process of learning sound/letter associations, but it will enhance his learning with more visual connections.

Will This Cost a Lot of Money?

No! Both programs are very reasonably priced, especially when you consider that they most likely hold the key to solving Will’s reading struggles. All About Spelling and Handwriting Without Tears each cost about $30-70, depending on how many materials you purchase.

Will This Take a Lot of Time?

Surprisingly, no. The best way to maximize Will’s brain is to work in small chunks on a daily basis. Assuming Cori will need to facilitate the use of these programs at home, she and Will will see the best results from one twenty-minute session of All About Spelling and one twenty-minute session of Handwriting Without Tears per day. (See Tips for Planning Lessons for LD Students here.) Will will see major gains within 2-3 months!

Conclusion – Action Plan

To summarize, if I were in Cori’s situation, I would do the following:

  • Put Will back in science and social studies classes immediately!
  • Avoid retaining him for another year of school.
  • Push for special education evaluations and a 504 Accommodations Plan at school.
  • Seek medical opinions about Will’s hearing loss.
  • Learn about the three cueing systems and pay close attention to Will as he reads to verify his strongest and weakest cueing systems.
  • Purchase: All About Spelling, Handwriting Without Tears, two PVC elbows, and a pocket mirror.
  • Begin daily tutoring sessions with 40 minutes a day.
  • Read to Will, using chapter books of his choice. (As outlined in one of the articles cited above.) This is an essential part of the process; it will allow Will to develop positive associations with reading, expose him to grade-level vocabulary, and age-appropriate/interesting content. Will has been stuck in “beginning” readers for a long time and he’s bored out of his mind. He needs to be exposed to a wider world of reading in the process of learning how to stand on how own two feet.

In four short months, my son’s reading level has increased by 1.5 grade levels and he’s getting straight As in a very demanding school. I shared this with Corinna and she cried. I know those were tears of hope; that is the most important thing I can offer her, or any other parent who is carrying the burden of helping a struggling reader. There IS hope!

For additional reference, see:

Brain Biology = Hope for Reading Disabilities – Part I

The Brain Biology of Learning Disabilities

-Susan Kruger



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