Reading Delays: Will They Grow Out of It? The Game of Wait and See

Autumn is in full swing! The leaves continue to change and we have mostly fallen into our school year routines. As we close in on the completion of the first quarter of the school year many parents begin to ask, “Will they grow out of it?”.

As parents we have all asked this question, probably more than once, in regards to some undesirable behavior, whether it be thumb sucking, biting, hitting, sleepless nights, or the new theme in our home: taking off one’s diaper. We often comfort ourselves with this popular slogan, “They will grow out of it.” And while it is true, few children will go off to college sucking their thumbs, biting, hitting or even wearing a diaper, this same slogan does not apply to all situations, reading being one of them.

It is completely sensible that a parent would “wait and see” when it comes to their child’s reading development. As parents, we “wait and see” and typically this strategy works. We “wait and see” when they will say their first word. We “wait and see” when they will take off crawling. We “wait and see” when they will take those first steps.” And amazingly, they do! We are trained as parents to “wait and see” because it typically works.

Waiting and actively observing is a great strategy for skills that are naturally developing. Most children do not require any instruction to accomplish the above mentioned skills. Simply by being in a language rich environment, most children will learn to speak. When given the opportunity, they will crawl. And seemingly, when no one is looking, they take off across the floor with their first steps.

We witness this as parents and frequently apply the same approach to reading development. We wait to watch them pick up a book and fluently read it as magically as how they began to speak and take their first steps. While language and motor development are a bit magical, reading achievement is based on instruction. Children do not naturally learn to read. Some children are more dependent on this instruction than others, but overall, reading is not a naturally developing skill and requires continued exposure, direct instruction and close monitoring.

Waiting and seeing is also a typical strategy parents apply to reading development because many of the early development milestones, such as crawling, walking and first words, have large window of what is considered typical. Crawling is said to be between 6-9 months. First word between 11-14 months. Walking tends to have the largest range of typical at 9-18 months! As parents we wait and see where in this range our child will fall.

These large ranges of typical are difficult to apply to reading development. Reading development milestones are more precise; however, reading performance is frequently reported to parents in grade levels which encompasses high, average, and below average readers. Therefore, a child could be below average but still achieve grade level. This is very different from the child who walks at 17 months. This child may be walking later than other children, but it is still within the typical range.

A final reason why many of us “wait and see” in regards to reading development is because we have done it before with no long term consequences. The child who walked at 9 months and the child who walked at 18 months frequently play next to each other on the same soccer team and you could never tell the difference. The baby who crawled at 6 months and the baby who crawled at 9 months may wrestle each other in high school and the winner is not predictable. While our first consonant-vowel production tends to be an indicator of later language development, one’s first word is not. So we “wait and see” knowing that the timeline of achievement for these skills does not necessarily matter.

With reading, timing matters. Waiting 3 months, 6 months or even 9 months for a child to magically read as the child magically walked can have negative outcomes. Time is valuable for a child to learn to break the reading code and time lost cannot be recaptured. As we wait, typical children continue to excel, leaving struggling readers further and further behind. This is different from the skills we previously discussed. When a child learns to walk, that is it. The skill is achieved! They can walk. They do not continue to develop better and better walking skills for the next 20 years, while with reading, it is expected that one does. Commonly in reading interventionist circles this is referred to as the Mathew Effect. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer when it comes to reading. Furthermore, in the absence of reading intervention, children’s reading skills tend to be stable throughout their development. Longitudinal research has supported that children’s reading skills tend to remain within the same percentile throughout their schooling, especially after the 3rd grade. Therefore, doing nothing will most likely get you the same results.

When is it ok to wait? Once a reading intervention is in place, it will take time to determine if the intervention is effective. Anywhere from 6-12 weeks is an appropriate time to decide if an intervention is effective for a child. Is this “waiting and seeing” or how others have called it “watching one fail”?. As long as there is a specific, scientifically-based intervention in place and frequent progress monitoring, a brief amount of time is needed for a child to demonstrate progress. Other unusual situations when waiting may be appropriate is when a child has not been exposed to the curriculum, or given an opportunity to master the code. This can happen in cases when children have not received prior formal schooling for various reasons. In other instances children may have a coexisting medical or behavioral issue that is inhibiting their reading development. Once these issues are resolved, reading development may progress typically, but in the absence of these rare situations, waiting and seeing should be left to naturally developing skills.