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Boy's reading trouble has developmental explanation


QUESTION: We have a 6-year-old son who is a late bloomer and is having trouble learning to read. Even though he is immature, I don’t understand why this would keep him from reading.

DR. DOBSON: It is likely that your late-maturing youngster has not yet completed a vital neurological process involving an organic substance called myelin. At birth, the nervous system of the body is not insulated. That is why an infant is unable to reach out and grasp an object; the electrical command or impulse is lost on its journey from the brain to the hand. Gradually, a whitish substance (myelin) begins to coat the nerve fibers, allowing controlled muscular action to occur.

Myelinization typically proceeds from the head downward and from the center of the body outward. In other words, a child can control the movement of his head and neck before the rest of his body. Control of the shoulder precedes the elbow, which precedes the wrist, which precedes the large muscles in the hands, which precedes small muscle coordination of the fingers. This explains why elementary school children are taught block letter printing before they learn cursive writing; the broad strokes and lines are less dependent on minute finger control than the flowing curves of mature penmanship.

Since the visual apparatus in humans is usually the last neural mechanism to be myelinated, your immature child may not have undergone this necessary developmental process by his present age of 6 years. Therefore, such a child who is extremely immature and uncoordinated may be neurologically unprepared for the intellectual tasks of reading and writing. Reading, particularly, is a highly complex neurological process. The visual stimulus must be relayed to the brain without distortion, where it should be interpreted and retained in the memory. Not all 6-year-old children are equipped to perform this task. Unfortunately, however, our culture permits few exceptions or deviations from the established timetable. A child of that age must learn to read or he will face the emotional consequences of failure. This is why I favor either holding an immature child out of school for a year or homeschooling him for several years.

QUESTION: What is the most difficult period of adolescence, and what is behind the distress?

DR. DOBSON: The 18th year is typically the time of greatest conflict between parent and child. But the 13th and 14th years are commonly the most difficult 24 months in life for the youngster. It is during this adolescent period that self-doubt and feelings of inferiority reach an all-time high, amidst the greatest social pressures yet experienced. An adolescent’s worth as a human being hangs precariously on peer-group acceptance, which can be tough to garner. Thus, relatively minor evidences of rejection or ridicule are of major significance to those who already see themselves as fools and failures.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of having no one to sit with on the school-sponsored bus trip, or not being invited to an important event, or being laughed at by the “in” group, or waking up in the morning to find seven shiny new pimples on your forehead, or being slapped by the girl you thought liked you as much as you liked her. Some boys and girls consistently face this kind of social catastrophe throughout their teen years.

Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, eminent authority on child development at Cornell University, told a Senate committee that the junior-high years are probably the most critical to the development of a child’s mental health. It is during this time of self-doubt that the personality is often assaulted and damaged beyond repair. Consequently, said Bronfenbrenner, it is not unusual for healthy, happy children to enter junior high school, but then emerge two years later as broken, discouraged teenagers.

Dr. Dobson is founder and chairman of the board of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, CO. 80903; or Questions and answers are excerpted from “The Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide” and “Bringing Up Boys,” both published by Tyndale House. COPYRIGHT 2007 JAMES DOBSON INC.