Identifying and helping children with learning disabilities before the fourth grade is crucial to their success in learning to read, said G. Reid Lyon, chief of child development and behavior at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
In a speech Thursday sponsored by the Jemicy School, a school for learning-disabled children in Owings Mills, Lyon stressed that the longer it takes to diagnose a learning disability, the less likely the child will become an above-average reader.
"If we reach those students with learning problems in the first grade, 88 percent of them will become quality readers by fourth grade," said Lyon, who based his conclusions on a recent nationwide study by NIH of more than 34,000 students ages 5 to 18.
"If we wait until they get to third grade, 74 percent of them will remain poor readers that will require more intensity by the student and more informed instruction by teachers to get them to the same level," he said.
Lyon, a research psychologist and author, is an internationally recognized specialist in language disorders, learning disabilities and reading development. His speech, held at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, gave an overview of research into how children learn to read and the obstacles they may face.
Lyon said it is important for children to have "substantial oral interaction and literacy interaction" with their family from birth. That includes reading to children, teaching them to read and having books in the house.
But even children with these backgrounds can have learning disabilities, he said.
Many children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia "have problems with the linking of sounds, which can be a very labored and slow process for them," Lyon said. "Many get turned off to it. Despite this, many of these kids are very intelligent."
Lyon said many children with learning disabilities have trouble with what is known as phonemic awareness. Not to be confused with phonics, phonemic awareness is the process of making the connection between the sound of the spoken word and the word in print.
Educators need to take a different approach to teaching children with such problems, he said.
"While oral language is genetically driven, reading is not," said Lyon. "Teachers have assumed for the last 20 years that all that was needed was for children to read a lot and they would catch up. If that is so, why are there so many people with reading disabilities and/or illiterate?"
Ellen Barth, a language teacher at Jemicy who teaches third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, attended the lecture and said she agrees with Lyon on the importance of diagnosing a learning disability early.
"That first diagnosis is imporntant, because if they don't know what is wrong with them, it hurts their self-esteem and can cause them problems with their peers later on in life," Barth said.
Stacy and Larry Pellerito, whose daughter, Lauren, started at Jemicy last year, said Lyon's talk gave them some insight into their daughter's disability.
"The teachers at Lauren's old school thought she would grow out of the troubles she was having at school," Stacy Pellerito said. "I think the teachers there did their best, but like Dr. Lyon said, they had preconceived notions that reading is just as natural as speaking."