Developing Reading Skills in Children with ADHD

Shelly-Ann McMorris

Preschool Children  

Learning to read is a complex process where a child must establish sound-symbol relationships and then learn how to connect those sounds into words, following the language’s complex and often inconsistent rules. So, the fact that most children learn how to read by the age of 6 or 7 is an impressive accomplishment!

For children with ADHD, the process of learning how to read can be more complex. While not all children with ADHD experience difficulties learning how to read, it is estimated that up to 50 percent of children with ADHD may struggle with the process of learning how to read, reading with fluency and reading comprehension. Learning to read requires attention and executive coordination. This means your child has to hold onto the letter sounds, string the sounds together and make meaning from the individual sounds to read the word – and then they have to do the same thing again with multiple words to read a sentence. Keeping so much active in working memory at once can be exhausting, especially if it is difficult for your child to maintain their attention.

 Fortunately, learning to read is a skill that can be mastered. There are plenty of strategies that can help, including focusing on phonics, word and sound play, and sight words.

Tips for reading success in Preschool.

  1. Establish a love of reading. Read to your child so they can experience the joy of a great story or learn more about something they love. Reading to your child strengthens their listening skills and engages their imagination. You can encourage them to visualize the events in the story and predict what happens next. This will help your child stay focused and engaged, and it’s a great way to spend time together.
  2. Develop pre-reading skills. Rhyming is an essential pre-reading skill as your child has to hear the last sound in the word to find a matching rhyming word. Dr. Suess or other fun rhyming books (like my favourite, Llama Llama Red Pyjama by Anna Dewdney) are a great way to have fun and work on rhyming.
  3. Use movement. Play the game Jump on It by spreading a few letters written on cue cards on the floor. Call out the letter name or the sound the letter makes and ask your child to jump on it! You can play the same game with sight words too.
  4. Use decodable readers. Series such as Bob Books are an excellent tool for learning how to read. They are phonics-focused and help your child develop and build their skills. Have your child read regularly and for short bursts at a time when they are not too tired. Be sure to praise their efforts for staying focused on their reading – you might consider a chart in their bedroom or on the fridge where they can place a big colourful checkmark for each book they complete.
  5. Engage your child’s teachers. Your child’s teacher is an important member of your child’s team. Communicate with the teacher about how you can best to support and reinforce the reading program taught at school.

By working with your child to establish a solid foundation for reading, their energy can be devoted to understanding and interpreting what they read. This is increasingly relevant as your child moves into the higher grades.

Reading Comprehension In School Aged Children

Being able to read and understand increasingly complex exceedingly important for successful student learning in the later years. Deficits in reading comprehension can have a profound effect on achievement, self esteem, and confidence.  In the early years, children focus on learning to read text fluently. However, as children get older, there is a greater need to understand text because of the emphasis on math problem solving, science, and social studies.  For many school aged children with ADHD, reading and understanding text, especially non fiction text,  is a challenge because of the sustained attention needed to focus on text that is often challenging for children with ADHD.

            When reading text there are a number of cognitive processes involved including,

  • Decoding the words, some of those words might be unfamiliar longer words that require a solid understanding of language rules.
  • Comprehension involves inhibiting dominant responses and focusing solely on understanding text. Very often children with reading difficulties will find it incredibly challenging to focus on a reading activity, and will often choose an activity that is more desirable.
  •  While reading, children with ADHD may have difficulty ignoring irrelevant information, and unfamiliar word meanings, causing them to lose sight of important details. As well, children with ADHD often skip words, sentences, and important phrases making it very difficult for children to understand what they read.
  •  Working Memory is a cognitive skill necessary for successful comprehension of text. Working memory and attention are closely related, and children with ADHD often have comorbid Working Memory deficits. When reading, children need to activate prior knowledge, integrate new information with information stored in memory, be able to analyze incoming information, think critically about text, and make connections.

There are strategies that will help children with ADHD develop their reading skills and contribute to their achievement and engagement in reading activities both a home and at school.

  • Providing choice in what you read will increase the likelihood your child will want to read. Children with ADHD will disengage from reading when the material provided is not of interest to them. For those children that are struggling to read successfully, high interest, low readability books are a good choice. ADHD children are more likely to sustain their attention on a piece of reading they find exciting and engaging.
  • When school aged children are initially learning how to comprehend, keep the reading short in order to maintain interest and focus.  Children should initially read easier pieces of text and gradually increase the level of difficulty as children become more proficient at understanding text.
  • Preview text for children by completing book walks and allowing them to make predictions. This will activate prior knowledge. For subject specific content, provide children with specific vocabulary upfront, and teach them how to use text features in order increase their comprehension skills.
  • Set aside time each day to read with your child. Talk together about the characters in the story, where the story took place, and the important events in the story. Encourage them to make connections by reminding them about characters in other stories.
  • Provide a quiet place for your child to read that’s free of distractions. Given them adequate time to read and process text.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about providing reading material ahead of time that you can read at home with your child. This will help children build their reading confidence as well as encourage increased focus and participation in the classroom.

With time and patience, children with ADHD can become proficient readers. Making reading a positive part of your daily routine will increase the likelihood that children will engage in reading voluntarily, positively impacting success in school and beyond.

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