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Speech therapist Edita Žalkauskaitė: “Support is the Most Beneficial for Children with Reading and Writing Difficulties”

In every Lithuanian school, we would probably find various difficulties and learning disabilities among children, especially in the context of inclusive education. Statistics show that about 5 to 10 percent of the country’s students experience reading difficulties, while the number of students with writing difficulties reaches up to 15 percent. Edita Žalkauskaitė, a speech therapist at Erudito Licėjus, while analyzing the causes of reading and writing difficulties, mentions genetic factors and emphasizes that reading and writing difficulties do not imply lower intellectual abilities in children.

Writing difficulties can be hereditary

According to speech therapist E. Žalkauskaitė, writing difficulties can stem from various factors: insufficient auditory perception, underdeveloped grammar skills, lack of developed phonemic analysis and synthesis skills (a child may struggle to break down words into sounds or syllables). “Teaching phonemic analysis and synthesis, working with phonemes and words, is particularly important in preschool classes – it forms the foundation of both reading and writing”, says Žalkauskaitė. The specialist points out that without developed phonemic analysis and synthesis skills, a child may add unnecessary letters, shorten words, or fail to perceive their integrity. Writing difficulties can also arise from grammatical deficiencies (a child may not apply grammar rules). Additionally, it has been observed that writing difficulties can be hereditary.

If writing difficulties arise due to insufficient auditory perception or underdeveloped auditory perception, such children may struggle to differentiate similar-sounding phonemes. Writing and reading difficulties can overlap; a child may have difficulty pronouncing words with consonant clusters, associating letters with isolated phonemes (the sound “i” in a word is often unheard, especially between vowels or as a softness marker), memorizing letters corresponding to sounds, or articulating sounds irregularly (especially in children with anatomical changes – cleft palate, tongue tie, narrow jaw, due to apraxia, lisping, etc.).

How do we notice writing disorders? “Altered letter forms, word sequence in a sentence, writing direction reversals (mirror writing, etc.), failure to apply spelling rules, disregard for sentence boundaries (especially evident during dictation), illegible or difficult-to-read handwriting, skipped letters, and so on”, lists the speech therapist. According to her, each child is unique and individual, so when suspecting difficulties or problems, it is best to consult a speech therapist. According to E. Žalkauskaitė, noticing reading and writing difficulties in the third, fourth, or fifth grade can be much more challenging.

When to be concerned? According to the specialist, writing and reading difficulties usually become apparent in the second half of the first grade, when children are expected to be able to write words and simpler sentences. “Indications can be noticed right from the beginning, but we often attribute them to adaptation difficulties, distraction, thinking that the child is not emotionally ready for school, so they are not interested in letters. However, certain signs indicate that a child may have difficulties or even severe problems, so it’s easier to correct them by seeking help from a speech therapist as early as possible”, emphasizes E. Žalkauskaitė.

Doesn’t Understand the Text: Lack of Skill or Reading Difficulty?

Reading difficulties are characterized by difficulties in processing information quickly, short-term memory, auditory and visual perception, speech, and motor skills. For example, a child may not associate a written letter with a certain sound, written word, or may not be able to combine sounds into words or syllables, syllables into words, making it very difficult for them to understand the text.

According to the speech therapist, reading difficulties consist of three stages: difficulties in reading words (skipping letters, syllables, difficulty understanding how words are composed, etc.), difficulties in fluent reading (reading by syllables) – typical for slightly older children from around the fourth grade. “It’s not a problem as long as the child understands what they are reading”, explains the speech therapist. The third stage is text comprehension: the child does not understand the main idea, certain words in the text, the text they have read.

E. Žalkauskaitė draws attention to another difficulty not included in Lithuanian pedagogical-psychological classification – hyperlexia. “It is most often characteristic of children with autism spectrum disorder or five-year-old children. They learn to read very quickly but do not comprehend the text”, says the speech therapist.

When to be concerned? “If a child finds it very difficult to read in the first grade, does not understand the text, and so on, it is worth consulting a speech therapist”, says E. Žalkauskaitė. Although not confirmed by research, it is often confirmed in the practice of speech therapists that if a three-year-old cannot name colors, they are likely to have reading difficulties.

Building Compensatory Skills Helps Those with Dyslexia

Reading and writing difficulties can also be associated with another common challenge – dyslexia. Dyslexia can also be accompanied by dysgraphia (writing difficulties) and dyscalculia (difficulty with mathematical concepts and operations). The first signs of dyslexia can be observed when a child starts attending kindergarten: they may not feel or replicate rhythm, have difficulty memorizing rhymes, songs, may have minor fine motor difficulties, and find it challenging to plan actions. Dyslexia usually becomes more apparent when a child begins to learn to read and write.

According to the speech therapist, this is more of a neurological learning difficulty, quite common in schools, affecting about 10-15 percent of people worldwide. “But compensatory measures can also be used to address it”, says speech therapist E. Žalkauskaitė.

How to help children facing writing and reading difficulties? “By correcting writing difficulties, we develop the child’s cognitive abilities – we learn to work with texts, extract the most important information, apply written language rules, develop oral and written language skills, teach text comprehension”, lists the speech therapist.

“In sessions with such children, we develop phonological awareness, starting from word to phoneme perception, reading skills, rhyming abilities, and develop short-term and long-term memory. Various card games, memory games, lotto, and similar activities can help, which can be played at home with the whole family”, says E. Žalkauskaitė. According to the specialist, memory is crucial in learning to read and write.

The digital generation of children spends a lot of time on smartphones – this can also diminish text comprehension skills. Technology affects us in a way that we cannot concentrate on the text or sustain attention for long. It is necessary to sit calmly, focus on an unchanging object – sometimes it’s just a skill that is lacking, and, according to the speech therapist, sometimes it’s just enough to develop it for text comprehension skills to “return”.

“It is also important to engage with the text, look for topics that are interesting to the child. Research shows that children whose parents read a lot of stories learn to read earlier, experience the joy of reading earlier”, says E. Žalkauskaitė. According to the speech therapist, it is enough to spend 20 minutes a day reading with a child to see significant changes. “This helps expand and enrich the passive vocabulary, from which words later transition to the active one. It’s proven: for a child to speak fluently, they must understand 20 thousand words”, says the speech therapist.

According to E. Žalkauskaitė, it is essential to develop compensatory skills for children with reading and writing difficulties. “Difficult to read? But children are excellent at expressing themselves verbally! Moreover, verbal expression greatly improves the child’s emotional state. Also, with the advancement of technology, there are more and more programs that can convert words into text, and computers can already read the text aloud. Some children find it helpful to use a simple ruler to read text, while for those with dyslexia, transparent colored reading overlays can help capture text lines. Various pictures and diagrams facilitate text comprehension – they greatly help understand the text and connections. Difficult to write by hand? Maybe it’s worth letting the child write on the computer? Sometimes a child struggling with difficulties focuses so much on the act of writing itself that they do not demonstrate their knowledge”, notes children’s speech therapist E. Žalkauskaitė.

According to the specialist, there is now an increasing number of new digital tools – tablets with styluses, interactive reading and writing tasks that children find interesting to perform, and numerous apps where teachers can create tasks themselves. “For example, ‘Learning Apps’ is straightforward to use, and you can create great things with it. The immediate reward visible to the child encourages dopamine release and provides a sense of affirmation. Older children can already use those apps themselves”, says E. Žalkauskaitė. The specialist praises the app “Word Games”, created by Lithuanian educators, which helps expand vocabulary.

Feeling Immense Emotional Tension

In addition to the specialized attention given to a child’s educational processes by involving speech therapists, educators, psychologists, and parents, creating a friendly environment can be identified as one of the key aspects. A child not only has the right to an education system tailored to them but must also be ensured an environment where they can freely discuss their difficulties, feel understood and supported because only in such an environment can positive changes be expected.

“Almost all children who experience reading or writing difficulties feel immense emotional tension”, asserts speech therapist E. Žalkauskaitė. According to the speaker, it is crucial to reduce the emotional tension and anxiety arising from reading and writing difficulties, to encourage the child’s self-confidence. Parents should emphasize their strengths as often as possible, rather than weaknesses. Even in weaker areas, the speech therapist advises recognizing progress, praising the child – discovering and seeing not only what the child struggles with but also what they succeed in.

“Children quickly undervalue themselves, so it is important to highlight their efforts and achievements, not failures”, assures E. Žalkauskaitė. According to the speech therapist, if the child feels emotionally well, sees improvement in their grades, it will be easier for them to overcome reading or writing difficulties.

According to the speech therapist, a child’s emotional state changes significantly after receiving assistance. “Reading and writing difficulties do not disappear. – Therefore, it is important to recognize these difficulties in time, teach the child to use compensatory measures, incorporate them into the educational process, and teach the child to live with them.”

According to the specialist, parental involvement is also crucial. “The speech therapist is important, but parents are even more important”, says the speaker. “It is crucial not to ‘write off’ the child, to believe in them and help them. Strengthening the child’s motivation is one of the most effective measures. Sometimes it is even impossible to recognize that a person has reading or writing difficulties.”