What causes a reading problem?

What causes a reading problem?


Why are there so many bright and hard-working children in our schools that aren’t learning to read as they should?  Interestingly, if you read something to them, giving them information through their ears, they understand.  But when you give them the same words to read or to absorb through their eyes, they fail.  Reading problems seem different from hearing or understanding problems, yet it is the same brain showing these differences in ability.

Our brains are ultimately responsible for us being able to read.  If a child struggles to make sense of written words, surely it must be related to problems in some or other area of the brain.  Is this true and if so, which brain areas are not functioning as they should?[1]


Essentially, reading needs a brain

  • That can change light waves into electro-chemical impulses through the visual system
  • That has organized, adequately insulted neural networks through which the electro-chemical impulses can travel efficiently
  • With an area where storage, retrieval and decoding of information can take place efficiently.


Which of these might help us understand why reading problems occur?


If a child can look at a cow and recognise it as a cow, he perceives it. This means that he interprets the image correctly as being a cow.  The light waves from the cow are changed to electro-chemical impulses by the retina in the eye, then pass on to the brain.  If there is no conflicting information coming in from the cow, the child will perceive a cow. Children with reading problems have no problem recognising objects.  In essence, they can read all the physical things in their environment; they have no trouble recognising and perceiving actual objects.


If we show him a picture of those objects he recognise the pictures quite easily.  He can, in essence, ‘read’ the pictures.  Pictures aren’t real objects but are symbols which stand for the objects but they are closely related to the objects. The picture of a cow is easily related to a cow because the picture (the symbol) represents what an actual cow looks like.


If a child with a reading problem easily recognises a cow when he sees one, and he easily recognises a picture of a cow, why can’t he recognise the written word ‘cow’?  What is there about written words which make them different from the real thing or from pictures?  The problem seems to be one of language.


Language is a man-made code, composed of symbols that have no meaning in themselves.  The word ‘cow’ is a symbol with no relation to the way an actual cow appears to the eye or brain.


To be able to use the code, we first have to memorise the meaning assigned to each symbol. If either the memory of the symbol or the memory of its assigned meaning is forgotten, the code breaks down. Thus, storage of both the symbol and its meaning is essential to memory. We know that language is stored in the left brain hemisphere. This means that language and decoding functions needs organized ‘wiring’ or neural pathways that convey information to this area.  Any scrambling of the network due to shorted wires, inadequate connections cause a breakdown in transmitting the electrical messages.


Once the symbol and its meaning have been stored, we have to be able to retrieve it.  Decoding needs a storehouse from which information is easily retrieved. Poor storage in the brain slows down the process of retrieval of information; children who suffer from this slow-down might speak more slowly, or read more slowly.  If incoming information is stored in an excessively disordered way, then we have a reading problem.


Following this analysis, it seems that reading problems can be the result of lack of development of the nervous system, especially if underdevelopment results in undecided or cross-dominance.


Confirmation of this theory comes by looking at other, sometimes subtle, signs of brain underdevelopment that children with reading problems commonly share.  Some of these include

  • Problems with coordination. They seem to lack grace when walking and running, often have a history of skipping crawling or cannot crawl smoothly without concentrating on doing so
  • Early problems with deciding hand, foot and eye dominance, and showing uncertain dominance after the age of 6 years
  • Show an extreme love for music and listening to music
  • Handwriting characteristically shows little consistency of slant; vertical lines of letters such as ‘h,j,p,t,l” make all kinds of different angles
  • Eye problems even though eyes test as normal.  Many have problems with binocular vision or eye tracking movements
  • Many reverse words or letters
  • Most are poor spellers
  • Many seem to do better in numeracy than reading and all prefer verbal discussions to having to write something down
  • Nearly all poor readers understand language better through their ears than through their eyes.


So reading problems are related to the development of the nervous system.  No amount of remedial reading will be as effective as addressing the nervous system inefficiencies directly.


This is one reason why Integrated Learning Therapy evaluates the neurodevelopmental status of children with reading problems.  We don’t address the symptoms of the problem, but go to the root cause.  Once we understand the underlying causes, we are able to design an individualized programme for the child to give the brain a second chance to develop properly.  By understanding the brain’s plasticity and thus its ability to restructure neural networks, we can stimulate brain areas.  This results in more organized neural networks and better access to storage areas of the language brain.


Visit our website www.ilt.co.za to learn more about this approach. We also offer courses for teachers and other helping professionals that are accredited with SACE, ETDP-SETA and the HPCSA.  These are aimed at shedding light on what can possibly be the cause of the problems your learners experience in the classroom as well as their sometimes puzzling behaviours.


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[1] With thanks to Carl Delacato and insights from his book A new start for the child with reading problems.

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