Dr. Lorna Kaufman: On Reading

Apr 29, 2016 by

Smart Kid--front cover

An Interview with Dr. Lorna Kaufman: On Reading

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Dr. Kaufman, first of all, can you tell us about your education and experience?

I am a developmental psychologist who specializes in reading problems. Prior to going into private practice, I worked in several of the evaluation clinics in the Boston area: Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, and the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. I evaluate children with reading problems and provide recommendations for remediation as part of the evaluation.

I also visit the schools as part of the evaluation to assess the school’s reading curriculum and the expertise of the teachers to teach reading.  Prior to working as a developmental psychologist, I worked in an urban school district as a reading specialist.  I am currently working with the Smart Kid Can’t Read project to empower parents to take an active role in advocating for reading help for their children.

I have served as President of the New England Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, a member of the national board of directors of the International Dyslexia Association, President of the Massachusetts Council for Learning Disabilities, Chairman of the New England Joint Conference on Learning Disabilities, and member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council on Special Needs.

  1. You indicate that about one third of US school children have trouble reading – where do you get your data and how do you define reading difficulty?

The 2013 study of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that 32% of 4th graders were reading below a basic level, 33% were at a basic level and 35% were proficient or above.

The NAEP classifies the reading skills of children into below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Researchers report that children need to be at a proficient level to be able to learn from reading.

A student who is functioning at a below basic level is fundamentally unable to process (read) the written word.  A student at the basic level can generally locate basic information, make simple inferences and identify details in the text to support a conclusion.  A student at the proficient level can integrate and interpret texts and apply their understanding of the text to draw conclusions.

  1. Is a learning disability in reading different from dyslexia?

Historically we’ve had a problem with labels in our profession.  I think it is most useful to think of the term “learning disability” as a broad category.  There are several subtypes of learning disabilities such as dyscalculia (a math disability), dysgraphia (difficulty with writing). Dyslexia is a language based learning disability that interferes with reading and other language based activities. It is the most prevalent form of a learning disability.

  1. I talk to a lot of teachers who would probably agree with you about students not being able to read – but their question is – “Why weren’t these children retained in earlier grades?”

Some children are retained, especially in kindergarten and first grade.  Sometimes parents request retention in these grades when they believe their child is not ready to move to the next grade.  However, you are right, the current trend in education is not to retain children after the first grade. Retention doesn’t solve the problem.

Children who have reading problems need instruction in a curriculum that has been proven to be effective for struggling readers and with a teacher who has expertise in teaching struggling readers.

  1. Every once in a while we get a phenomenon like Harry Potter or the Twilight series – and then all of a sudden, everybody is reading, is it that school text books are so poorly written that kids don’t want to read them?

I think it is important to make a distinction between being motivated to read and being capable of reading. I have focused on those children who do not possess the reading skills to read Harry Potter or the Twilight series.  Most of those children are very motivated to read the books that their peers are reading but they are just unable to do so. These children had difficulty acquiring the foundational reading skills when they were taught in kindergarten, first and second grades. Research results indicate that in those early grades it is the nature of the curriculum and the expertise of the teacher that makes the difference between becoming a proficient vs. a non-proficient reader.  While I agree that it is important to provide kids with stimulating and well written stories, that does not appear to be a key criterion for developing successful readers in the early grades when kids are developing their foundational reading skills. Good literature becomes more important after children have acquired basic reading skills.

  1. In the title of your book, “Smart Kid, Can’t Read” I question whether or not these kids are really smart – are you talking about kids who have been formally given an IQ test by a school psychologist, or are you just making a generalization? What in your mind is a “smart” kid? An IQ of 80,90,100?

Yes, that is an important point.  Reading problems occur at all levels of intelligence. There are children of average intelligence, below average intelligence, and above average intelligence who struggle to learn to read. Reading is a language based activity and it is very possible to be of average or above average intelligence but to have difficulty with the language structures that need to be in place to become a good reader.

Smart Kid, Can’t Read is focused on children of average or above average intelligence who have trouble learning to read. These children may have no difficulty understanding the concepts in science or social studies but they have difficulty actually reading their texts.  They may be good in math but have trouble with math word problems because of difficulty reading the problems.

Some of these children have been tested and show average or above intelligence.  Others, particularly those in poorer school districts, have not been tested.

  1. Let’s talk tv and reading. Is way too much time being spent watching tv and movies – and not enough time reading.

I would expand that to include video games – in fact all screen time.  But it is not just our children who have become addicted to their screen time: look at adults who can not get along without their smart phones and who are continually checking their social media.  Many people are reading less. This is changing how we get information and the quality of the information we get.  It is also changing how we interact with one another.

  1. Are there some kids that need glasses or at least a vision examination? Do you discuss that in your book?

Sure there are children who need to have their eyes examined and who need glasses. Most schools screen vision and hearing. Even with good visual acuity, there are many children who struggle to read.

  1. How can parents make reading a pleasurable hobby for their children?

It’s important for parents to read to children on a regular basis. Young children begin to associate reading with a pleasurable, special time with their parents. Even after children learn to read, they enjoy being read to at bedtime. Some families enjoy reading books orally together, especially when they are on vacation. When parents enjoy reading themselves and it is a regular part of their lives, their children are more likely to make reading a regular pattern in their own lives.  We teach by example.

I loved your questions and will be glad to answer any others you may have.

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