Reading struggles can be obvious, but some struggling readers fly under the radar for various reasons. Reading struggles could be difficult to spot, as some children may seem to easily decode certain words; parents may assume that their child is progressing perfectly fine.
In actuality, the child could have memorized certain words or may even be guessing. So how can parents spot the signs of a child that is struggling to read?
Readability Founder and CEO Ameeta Jain talked to Molly Hill, a speech-language pathologist in California about how parents can identify reading struggles.
Molly is a licensed speech-language pathologist. She lives in Marina, California. Molly graduated in 2009 with her bachelor’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She then completed her master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2011.
Molly has worked in various settings including a skilled nursing facility, an acute rehabilitation hospital, a special day school, an outpatient clinic, and an acute care hospital. Molly is certified in the PESL Accent Modification Method.
She has a passion for working with adults and young children. She provides cognitive and communication therapy, gender affirming voice therapy, accent modification services, and early intervention for children ages 1-4.
An Interview with Speech-Language Pathologist Molly Hill
AJ: Hi, everyone, thanks for joining us today. My name is Ameeta Jain. I’m the CEO and founder of Readability. And today we’ll be diving into solutions for struggling readers. We’re also going to be talking about how to identify if your child is truly struggling to read and some tips and tricks and how we can support those struggling readers and how parents and educators alike can support them. And we’ll be looking at some of the identifiers for baseline skills that kindergarteners need to learn to start reading, and to do this all with today we have Molly Hill with us.
Molly is an expert, and just all around a wonderful person. A little bit about Molly: Molly is a licensed speech language pathologist, and she’s earned her undergraduate degree and her master’s in speech language pathology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has a passion for working with adults and young children. She provides cognitive and communication therapy, gender affirming voice therapy, accent modification services, and early intervention for children ages one through four. Welcome Molly.
MH: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.
AJ: We’re so happy to have you here. And I know that our audience is excited to learn about some of this stuff and get some more information. I know that you work with beginning readers to struggling readers, even children with reading disabilities. Tell us about some of the principles that you follow when it comes to children and reading.
MH: What I like to keep in mind is that especially in English, it’s not a phonetic language. And so there’s kind of a sound system which is our spoken language and that’s what we hear and what we think of. And that’s what children learn initially. And then there’s the written language, which looks and sounds very different from the spoken language. And so you kind of have to, as children and as adults, we sort out that code those rules that bridge the gap from spoken language to written language, and, in my experience, it seems like kids can have problems with any of those kinds of areas.
There are a lot of kids who struggle with just the sound system and being able to play with sounds. And then some kids struggle with bridging that gap, kind of figuring out those rules that take us from spoken language to written language. And then there are children who just have a difficult time with the written language piece of it and comprehending what’s written.
I like to kind of think about the fact that there are several different aspects of it and it’s really hard because with the written words, you can’t necessarily sound them out. And so there are a lot of rules to learn. There is a lot of information to code for children. It’s good to start at the beginning and kind of focus on the sound system and what we’re actually hearing. And then to kind of acknowledge that, “Oh what we’re actually hearing isn’t necessarily how we write it, or isn’t necessarily what we’re reading it.” And so kind of teaching kids to go from the sounds to actual written words or the words that they’re reading.
AJ: Okay when you talk about how the brain sorts out those differences. And so when the brain recognizes, like let’s say two letters, I think you talk a little bit more about how the brain and the words all come together.
MH: Yeah, like for example, the letters K N a lot of us probably learned that that combination just says the “n” sound when we learned the sight word no. And so after that, the next time most of our brains saw on like in the word nil or the word not. Any of those key words we just automatically knew that it was an end sound. And so our brains kind of made that rule in our heads really quickly. Okay K N just that’s an “n” sound. And that’s kind of those rules in the middle between spoken and written language, but a lot of kids with reading disabilities or just new learners have a hard time remembering that rule. And so it just seems very random. K N randomly says, N in this word, and so without pointing that out, it kind of just gets lost. And the next time they see K N in the word knew, they’re not sure what that means and they’re gonna have to sound it out. And then the whole language just seems kind of random.
What I like to focus on is teaching those explicitly, so that when they come to that, they think, oh I’ve seen that before. Just kind of drawing attention to that because some kids just aren’t necessarily going to focus on that. And so we kind of have to draw their attention so they’re ready to recognize that. There are a lot of sound letter combinations in English like that. For example, I N G isn’t phonetic in any way, S H those kinds of things we just have to teach them to see them in chunks and to see them explicitly for what they are.
AJ: Okay, so that takes a lot of practice. What are some of the indicators to watch out for if you suspect that your child or student is really struggling or having a difficult time learning to read? What should we be looking for?
MH: Yeah, with younger students a lot of times they’re having trouble identifying the sounds that go with letters. So a lot of times we teach the letter names really discreetly but then we kind of wait on the sounds the letters make. And so the kids that are having a hard time either learning the letter names but also learning the letter sounds, kids who have a hard time making up a rhyme word or hearing that words rhyme, kids that when they’re reading, they’ll maybe see the first letter and then they’ll just kind of make up a guess. If they’re guess is totally implausible based on the letters, that’s a good sign that they can’t sound out those sounds that they’re not being able to push those sounds together.
I’ve noticed, too, a lot of those kids have a really hard time with sight words. And so they need a lot of repetition. They need a lot of practice to recognize the word a thousand times before that’s going to be memorized. For older kids, it’s pretty normal if you’re noticing that they’re having a hard time learning and reading new words. A lot of them have worked really hard to be able to read and now they’ve kind of memorized most of the words that we use frequently but then they’ll run into a new word. And when they sound it out, it’s not really a good guess as to what that word might be. And so that’s a good sign. Same with writing, if they’re guessing at how to spell things, they don’t really follow the rules in their head. If they’re using weird vowel combinations, that’s a good sign that they’re really struggling.
AJ: Okay, so that’s some really great indicators to know if you’re a young reader or maybe an older reader is having a hard time. Thank you, Molly, that’s some good stuff there. What do you suggest if a parent has identified that, oh I think that my child is struggling to learn how to read, what should they do?
MH: I would say if their child is having a hard time putting sounds together, like just, you have like a three or four letter word, and they’re having a hard time even just putting the sounds together and sounding that out, that I would start with some kind of pre-literacy skills.
I’d work on counting the number of words in a sentence and counting the number of syllables in a sentence and not getting too hung up on it being perfect or being exactly right. Just getting the hang of listening to language and thinking about language as opposed to it just being like a passive thing you can just count on your fingers. We count syllables all the time and they’ll get that confused and refining words and that’s okay.
Just starting to hear the cadence in their heads breaking things down working on rhyming words is really important. Very explicitly talking about what rhyming is and listening for it, picking out the first sounds. A lot of times what we do too is we’ll work on the first sound plus the end of a word. So I’ll say, okay, I’m gonna say C AT, where did you hear C AT? And then if they can’t get that I’m gonna shorten the gap in between those. And so I help them start blending the sounds together. And then we work on sound blending. So C AT like what, word did you hear? And then just kind of smashing those sounds together until they can get it.
AJ: Yeah that’s amazing. And then for the older kids I know you’ve got advice on what older kids can do and what parents and educators alike can do for older children who are really struggling with reading.
MH: What I like to do first of all is I have it’s called a sound drill. I’ll put every letter in the alphabet and all the letters that a lot of times go together like SH TH WH EE those ING. Those sounds that you’re finding are in chunks and go through every day and just have the child say the name or the sound of the letter after I show them.
We’re not identifying BC, we’re saying F B K and going through that so that they just get that connection in their head between the shape, this letter and the sounds and they’re not having to think about that as much when they’re trying to decode. We’re trying to take that difficulty out of it.
Then we kind of do the opposite where I’ll say the sound and then I’ll have them write the letter to work on writing. I would say another tip for older students I like to do is to really explicitly explain anomalies that don’t make sense in the writing and the spelling. I think it’s easy when a kid starts to write out the word incorrectly and it’s not a phonetic word in any way to let them write it out and think, yeah, you’re absolutely right. Like, that’s a, that could be a good way to write that. For some reason, this particular word, we write it like this and it’s because like in the word queen, that’s it would be totally plausible to write Q U E N E, right? That would make sense with English rules. And I say, yeah, that’s absolutely right. You can have the silent E that’ll make that the long E but in this case, it’s a double E and double E usually makes the long E sound. And so then I’ll add the double E to our list of sounds. But again, acknowledging that they’re right, that that’s an absolutely legitimate way to write that word but we just don’t happen to write it in this case.
AJ: So, Molly, I know in Readability a lot of parents get hung up on, well my child didn’t say that word completely correctly. And so they’re stuck. They’re stuck right there. What do you say to parents when a child is struggling with a word and they’re trying to read a sentence, what should a parent do? Should they just bear down on that one word and get them to say it right? Or should they keep moving?
MH: Definitely don’t bear down. That’s one of the things I really love about the app actually is that’s how I teach it too. I accept that we’re not gonna read everything a hundred percent correctly and that’s totally fine. A lot of times I’ll give them a little hint. I say, the word queen if they’re two e’s and they haven’t learned that two e’s makes long e’s sound yet, then I’ll point it out and I’ll say, okay, this is a long e sound. You want to try it again? And if they can’t get it, that’s fine. And then I give it to them and then they’ve seen it. And so they’re still making that connection. It’s still good exposure, but no I’m not gonna disrupt the whole flow of the paragraph or the sentence just for that one word.
AJ: Why is it important not to interrupt that flow?
MH: Because we’re also working on comprehension and confidence. And I think reading becomes really hard for students once it goes from just sounding out really short words, to seeing sight words, to seeing words with all these different combinations that aren’t necessarily phonetic. And so it’s already really hard and their brains are working really hard. And to me, it’s just not worth it to stop and and to pretend like they should know something that they don’t necessarily know.
AJ: Right and I know that speaking to experts like you, education experts, child development, psychologists, and specialists and even reading specialists, they say not to dwell on a word, keep moving. And that part of reading is comprehension. It’s the vocabulary getting the words and the meanings of words. And so I love that you also believe in not just getting stuck and just to keep moving. Okay, so tell us, Molly, what should parents do if they are concerned about their child’s reading? What are some of the first steps that they can take?
MH: If they have time and availability, I would read as much as possible with their child and go through these things. That’s it, if they’re still concerned, if they’ve been doing a lot of reading, they should definitely try the app. I love that, by the way, I’ve been looking through that, right?
AJ: Thank you.
AJ: It’s funny that you say that because, you know you’re saying spending a lot of time reading and we know today that parents and educators they’re just so busy and how do you really commit 15 to 20 minutes a day sitting with a child and going through a passage or a book, especially when an educator has 35 other students that they need to sit with and parents are working full time, or they’re working from home and they’re juggling now with COVID. I mean, it’s just overwhelming. And that’s what I love that we can bridge that gap that time spent because now you’ve got this tool that actually prompts, assesses, corrects, and encourages your child and has that comprehension in there that we need and I think that that’s important because there’s accountability too, right? Okay, my child started to read it this time. They ended at this time, this is the book they read. And I think that that’s something that we also incorporated because of a lot of these things that you’re saying on how, okay so these are the issues X, Y, and Z. So how do we address them? And I love that your expertise helps really validate what we’re doing in Readability. I really appreciate that.
MH: Yeah, I really like that. I was gonna mention that sometimes when we’re reading, I’ll kind of find the words that I think are gonna be hard. And then I’ll just put a star above them just to take the pressure off the child. And so they’ll start reading and then we’ll get to that word. And I say it, and so it just decreases stress that they know that they’re not gonna come to something and stop, and it’s not gonna be an ordeal that we’re just gonna keep going and I’m gonna help them with all these words. And so I love that on your app, you have that option that if they get to a word and they’re like, “Urgh!” Then they’re gonna just click it and see it. And they’ve already had exposure to it. They’ve seen the word, they’ve heard it. I love that, that’s how I do it. So I think that’s a great teacher.
AJ: Well studies have shown that, you know, the best way to learn is guided oral reading. And to hear that word spoken and simultaneously see it in print, but that’s learning and so I really, I would really, you know, want parents to know that even if your child isn’t saying that word perfect they’re learning. Right, Molly?
MH: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. Hence the guidance they need and it’s helpful, yeah.
AJ: That’s wonderful Molly. And is there anywhere else a parent can go for additional assistance or help?
MH: Yes there are a lot of services at any school district. So it’s always good to talk to the classroom teacher, kind of see where your student is compared to the other students in the class. And I talked to the school psychologist kind of you can call it the special ed department and just see if there are extra resources there. They generally have an intermediary reading program that will help students who are struggling. And then you can always pursue a special ed route where you’re gonna get a little bit more resources to help. So that’s always a good option.
AJ: Yes, so parents seek these amazing things out there that are there for all of us to take advantage of and to use. Molly, thank you. Thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us. And I know the parents out there that are listening are grateful as well and we hope to have you back soon.
MH: Thank you, I hope to be back.