A tiny little crack

Reading-related research


This post is a little different from my other posts, and you might find it irksome, or it might even push you to a moment of anger, and therefore, the potential fallout might be that you, my reader, hits that 'unsubscribe’ button.

While I risk that fallout, I still have a few things to state, and you might not be in a place to hear someone preaching to the choir.

So what might I write about that is irksome? Well, this post has to do with the choices we make as parents. I might come across as holier than thou, but that's certainly not the intention.

The last seventeen months have been a test. The pandemic tore open the fabric of life in ways we didn't quite anticipate. Into this very confusing and, at times, debilitating, pandemic-intensive experience was thrown into sharp focus the system's inability to bring the best out of our children. It didn't really matter what Board your child attended (CBSE, ICSCE, IB or State); the jingoism of integrating mainstream education with online or tech-intensive learning began falling apart; it was ripe with problems, concerns and pitfalls. What was once passionate advocacy for tech-driven schooling soon turned to parents, educators and researchers making frantic pleas for in-person education.

In the last seventeen months, the hope is that we've had time to stay home, reconnect and establish new patterns, and that has afforded the opportunity to cut loose from traditional approaches to learning. While we continue to blame the 'system' for not meeting standards, what have we really done for our children?

Several parents have removed their children from school. These choices were either forced or were voluntary. Some of these choices were made either due to difficult financial circumstances or because parents had the wisdom to understand that 'online' was just another grand way of babysitting our kids.

For those of us who continue to 'send' our kids to this mode of schooling, we have yet to realise the shortcomings and deficits our kids have inherited. Let me give you an example:

I recently conducted an experiment with a few children aged between 6 and 10 in my neighbourhood. All of them came from two-income households, and the children attend 'good' English medium schools. I say that because, in this context, English is an important skill to learn, and the home environment coupled with the school environment becomes a significant catalyst in helping children learn a foreign/second language.

I administered a diagnostic test called the DIBELS. Very simply, the test assesses your child's reading capability as per their age. The test is free and can be taken either on-screen or can be printed on paper and administered.

It is designed for a western audience and may not be 100% accurate for the Indian context. However, considering that the children in this group had access to quality English education, the tasks were age-appropriate and within their ability.

I chose to administer the test both ways--on-screen and on paper. First, I asked the children to take the paper test. A few days later, I asked them to return and take the same test, but this time, it was on-screen.

The differences were remarkable, to say the least. The results were of significant importance for children aged eight and below because of what they could do with the paper-based test and the on-screen tests.

With the printed test, they moved their fingers along as they read and made minor errors that one anticipates for their age, but they were confident readers. However, when they took the same test on-screen, their words per minute slowed down, and they had trouble comprehending the words and sentences on the screen. They moved their fingers on the screens as they read, but the tactile experience of paper was suddenly missing leading to a significant drop in their confidence levels.

After the test, I met the parents of these children and asked them what they were doing to help their children read. And here lies the discrepancy.

Children were attending an online program where a large portion of their learning materials was on the screen. When school ended for the day, the parents were combining on-screen and paper-based materials to complete tasks. In some instances, since both parents were busy, this was outsourced to a third party--a tuition teacher.

The tuition teacher in the current circumstances also meets the child online. The tuition teacher, in most instances, was not aware of these different challenges that the child experienced.

The drop in reading rate and the confusion of transitioning between on-screen and off-screen materials were becoming very challenging for these children, and their support systems (parents or tutors) were not equipped to register these cracks that were beginning to form. Remember, this is with children where the school and home environments are largely supportive. If we try using this same experiment with children who don't have similar support systems, the learning loss will predictably be catastrophic.

I will not get into the science of cognition and learning at this point, but it is always helpful to have these scientific contexts in the background to make sense of what I am attempting to say. Children in the age brackets of 5 -8 are still learning to read. Therefore, mastery, along with comprehension as a combined activity, takes time and matures slowly. Without having to state the obvious, reading is the key to success.

In this instance, when a critical skill falls through the cracks because we, as parents, haven't understood the science behind reading, and now, science has varying degrees with online and offline, we need to look at learning from an entirely new perspective.

The question is, have we?

Short Fiction Contest

Making invisibility shine

EDUCATION has the power to lead to ACTION!

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

Thank you for your interest in the short fiction contest. As you already know, this year's competition is dedicated to promoting ill and disabled voices.

The prizes will be awarded to authors whose work has best spoken of the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.

The goal at the heart of A Better Word’s short fiction contest is to create future stewards of diversity. We need young people who are sensitive to others who are differently-abled to create a world that is inclusive.

Remember, the registrations are open until April, 25th, 2021.

What can you do between now and May 1st, 2021?

The writing contest opens ONLY on May 1, 2021 when the topics will be emailed to all registered participants. After you’ve completed the registration process, spend some time reading about disability. Some questions you can ask yourself are:

  1. What does it mean to be disabled?

  2. Do I know anyone who is experiencing hardships because he/she is differently-abled?

  3. Are there people whom I know who have beaten the odds? What do their stories read like?

  4. What types of disabilities do people experience?

  5. What do I want to tell my readers through my short story about disability?

  6. Do I know anything about the challenges famous scientists such as Stephen Hawking’s might have experienced?

The questions listed above are ONLY a starting place. These are NOT topics for the contest.

The following list of words are useful while understanding disability. I will encourage you to look up the meaning if you are not familiar with certain words in the list below:

  • Prejudice

  • Differently-abled

  • Mental-disability

  • Discrimination

  • Empathy

  • Physical-disability

  • Inclusive

  • Sensitivity

  • Hearing impairment

  • Rejection

  • ADHD

  • Intellectual disability

  • accomodation

  • Visual impairment

  • Autism

The above words are just a few. There are many more words that you should be familiar with if you are trying to narrate a story about disability.

If you need further assistance, do not hesitate to reach out to this email id: abetterword.in@gmail.com

Wrecked Writing

What if your child struggles with writing


Writing is a complex process involving working memory and executive functions. I'll dedicate some space to explain the executive function because it is essential to understand.

You already know that the brain in and of itself is an extremely complex organ and consists of several different parts. Executive function is the brain's management system and develops very quickly in early childhood and into the adolescent years and continues to do so into the mid-20s.

It also helps us pay attention, organise, plan, and prioritise, thereby providing the impetus to start a task and sustain the needed focus on seeing it through to completion. In regulating emotions, the executive function also helps us understand different points of view and provides self-monitoring.

In order to accomplish all these tasks, we need to use our working memory. Working memory is like the cache on a computer, sort of an interceptor between the CPU and the RAM. It helps retain new information to use it in some way before sending it away into long-term memory.

As adults, it might seem that there’s no 'big' deal to how children operate in their environments. It should be a seamless progression that just happens; remember, it is never that straightforward. Some children do have impairments that lead to certain types of difficulties. Suppose a child exhibits problems with executive function; in that case, you will notice there is also difficulty focusing, following directions, and handling emotions, among other things.

In this post, I'll discuss how writing might be a place of great strife for children with executive function disorders. If you've missed my previous posts on reading, then you can click on the link here.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Written expression requires several skills to come together. The first on that list is reading comprehension. More about that here.

The second on the list is transcription. For effective transcription, children need to cover the skills of spellings and handwriting. There are several ways in which children struggle with transcription, such as awkward or illegible handwriting. Others might be able to write legibly but will have difficulty spellings words and will not perform without support.

The third on this list is sentence construction. While this is a challenge even for a good writer, children with writing difficulties struggle with using the correct sentence structure. They have trouble distinguishing between nouns and verbs, complete and run-on sentences, statements and questions.

The fourth on the list is genre and content knowledge. Again, the lack of adequate training can cause a child with no difficulties to perform poorly in this area. However, it becomes more complicated for a child with writing specific difficulties because one needs to distinguish between different types of writing, such as narrative and argumentative.

Content knowledge requires that the writer supply the right information based on the assigned task and choose the appropriate vocabulary to enhance the written work.

Finally, the process of revising, editing and proofreading requires the use of the executive functions, especially since it requires a fair amount of focus.

As you can see, writing requires shifting among tasks that include generating ideas, thinking of words and word meaning, organising good sentences, planning, and self-monitoring—all of them require executive functions.

Challenges with any of the basic language or motor skills or in the executive functions required to combine reading comprehension, transcription, and various necessary subskills to write will result in problems in written expression if your child experiences writing difficulty.

So what should you do as a parent to help your child succeed in writing? You can read that in my next week's blog.

How to assess your kutti (little) reader

Valerie Yule's experiment revisited

Photo by Stephane YAICH on Unsplash


At the end of this article, you have two texts of 104 and 110 words each. The texts help you assess at home your young reader's reading capabilities. Using this test, as a complement to existing methods for evaluating children's silent reading such as comprehension questions, cloze procedures and observation of eye movements, you can gain an understanding of your child's reading ability.

This test was developed by Valerie Yule in 1987, but I still find it very useful. I particularly like this test because it gives the young reader authority, which is rarely ever the case when we test children. Authority, since the reader is asked to mark out words they recognise and can read. This instantly helps the reader gain a sense of power over his or her own knowledge of words. In the process, it makes the text familiar before reading it aloud. 

Age group

The ideal age group for this experiment will be between seven to 8.5 years. It could also be tried with older children, but older children have a more expansive vocabulary so it might turn out to be an easy read for them.


The text is sufficiently challenging. One is a fairy story with difficult spelling around a nine-year reading level but with a strong storyline (Appendix 1), and the other is a slightly modified version of a Wordsworth sonnet, renamed 'Very early in the morning on a bridge in London' (Appendix 2), with shorter words and more 'predictable' spelling, but more challenging since vocabulary, syntax and word usage are less familiar.


Once you hand the text, ask your child to read the text silently while marking with a slash every word in it that they considered they could read. Once the silent reading has been completed, ask your child to read aloud from an unmarked copy of the same text that had been read silently. At the same time, you underscore their original marked copy of all the words they read aloud correctly and note the time taken. Keep track of their reading speed (words per minute). 

Let your child know you will not give any clues for any words so that if a word is difficult, they should "just have a shot at it and then go straight on". After the reading, ask open-ended questions to find out what was understood from the read texts. Asking open-ended questions about the content allows you to gauge how much of what they read, they comprehend. The ability to decode as you read silently is an important and sophisticated skill to build.

Why Use Self-Scoring?

Tests ask readers to read a given passage without trying to understand what the reader might already know. In self-scoring, information on silent reading that cannot be obtained in other ways is made available. It provides information about how children may be answering comprehension questions. Are they guessing? Or are they relying on single words as clues to get a full context? This is important for parents to understand. We read the information in sense groups, which means that we read several words together in order for it to make sense to us. The focus shifts away from the pronunciation of individual word sound to making meaning of content. 

If your child struggles to get past pronunciation, perhaps, comprehension hasn't been achieved. If that is the case, you have made an important discovery, and you can now help your child move past the hurdles with specific, need-based support. 

The sample texts to be used for silent reading. 

Ages: seven to 8.5 years

Appendix 1

Once upon a time the beautiful daughter of a great magician wanted more pearls to put among her treasures. 'Look through the centre of the moon when it is blue,' said her mother, in answer to her question. 'You might find your heart's desire.' The princess laughed because she doubted these words. Instead, she used her imagination and moved into the photography business, and took pictures of the moon in colour. 'I observe most certainly that it is almost wholly white,' she thought. She also found that she could make enough money in eight months to buy herself two lovely, huge new jewels too. 

Appendix 2

Earth has not anything to show more fair: 

He would be dull of soul who could pass by 

A sight so touching in its majesty: 

This City now does like a garment wear 

The beauty of the morning: 

silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie 

Open unto the fields, and to the sky, 

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. 

Never did sun more beautifully steep 

In his first splendour valley, rock or hill; 

I never saw or felt a calm so deep! 

The river glides on at its own sweet will: 

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; 

And all that mighty heart is lying still! 

What if your child has reading-related difficulties


If your child has entered preschool, then it's a moment of great celebration since it is the first fledgeling step towards what eventually will become formal education. Pre-school is also when children, with the assistance of their teachers, build foundational academic skills. While the joys of discovery are many during this beautiful time, some challenges might go unnoticed since we, as parents, tend not to register certain early signs of learning difficulties.

The post today discusses briefly the challenges teachers or parents might encounter when their child exhibits reading delays. You may not register them as reading delays, and perhaps they are not, but being aware is essential. 

Source: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It remains in the teacher's hands to let the parent(s) know whether or not a child is at-risk for academic success. Teachers are an integral part of identifying early learning difficulties because they observe the first signs, making it very important that teachers have either the sensitivity or the training to recognise the problem. 

Several studies have shown that teachers can help identify reading difficulties early on if they have the necessary training. They also help provide early support and thereby prevent the need for intensive intervention. The case for training or sensitisation in early-childhood education to identify learning difficulties should be addressed more forcefully through changes in policies that govern early-childhood and educators and parents' mindsets. 

In my interactions with teachers, I have often found that teachers are not specifically aware of what constitutes pre-reading skills (phonological skills, orthographic and letter knowledge, word reading ability, vocabulary, and syntactic ability). Teachers are most often disconnected from essential theoretical knowledge, which becomes problematic because then, a teachers' analysis of a learner's problem stems from a personal and simple qualitative assessment. Research indicates that the most common rationale for identifying as an at-risk student with regards to reading is problems in, for example, letter knowledge and identifying letter sounds. However, assessment should involve several skill areas related to developing reading skills. These include phonological skills, orthographic and letter knowledge, word reading ability, vocabulary, and syntactic ability (Bailey and Drummond 2006; Davis et al. 2007).

If standardised, research-based assessments help identify a reading-related problem, then teachers should be aware of what research instruments are being used in the evaluation of reading difficulties. Along with a battery of tests, teachers' knowledge, based on the observation of a student, will strengthen the assessment. Bailey et al., (2001) state that literacy checklist, teacher evaluations can become more systematised and also lead to a higher identification rate of at-risk students.

It is important to remember that while research sheds light on possible ways to detect reading delays, all readers do not display the same kind of reading behaviour. So what do some of these impediments look like in early childhood?

Some instances include:

Lack of phonemic and phonological awareness:

Phonemic awareness includes learning to map sounds to letters. Difficulties become apparent when the child cannot distinguish between the sounds say, ' B' and 'G', for example. This could lead to a problem in 'recoding' or 'decoding'. To decode, the child should have the ability to sound out words by sound-letter correspondence and blend sounds so that written text can be recognised and interpreted.

Phonological awareness includes "understanding the concept of sounds and syllables making up words, and words making up sentences. It is the ability to process speech sound information so that one can: identify and generate rhyming words; identify individual sounds; break words into component sounds and syllables; blend sounds together; count syllables, words and sounds; read nonwords; delete syllables and sounds; and substitute sounds." (https://www.slhunterspeechworks.com/Conditions/Reading-Difficulties/Phonological-Awareness).

Not having phonological awareness leads to a slow rate when reading, leading to an impairment in reading fluency, comprehension, inference etc.

You could, for instance, give your child "exception" words like "yacht." Suppose your child is unable to read new words accurately that do not follow the regular mappings between letters and sounds, in that case, there might be a problem that is sometimes referred to as poor sight word reading or poor visual word recognition. 

In other cases, there might be accurate phonological recoding and visual word recognition, but there is a struggle to read words fluently.

There is yet another set of problems, where the reader has intact phonological recoding, visual word recognition and reading fluency, but cannot comprehend the passage that was read.

Some ways to test any of these issues, as a parent or a teacher, based on age, could be by:

  • using alphabet cards for letter-sound recognition, 

  • getting children to read nonwords like YIT,

  • asking children to read word lists or sentences as quickly as they can,

  • getting children to answer questions about the meanings of paragraphs they read

If you find that there are certain roadblocks, it is always best to consult with a trained and certified assessor who can then help you understand the specific problem. 

The reason it becomes urgent to understand if there is a deficit, is because reading is a taught skill that unfolds over a period of time and requires cognitive abilities, such as memory, attention, and language skills etc., and the longer one waits, the further the solution or intervention gets. 

Dennis and Victoria Molfese, PhD, identify writing, alphabetic knowledge, rapid naming tasks and phonological processing as critical skills to build. According to these two psychologists, "explicit testing of these skills, combined with carefully monitoring their acquisition, can help pinpoint preschool- and kindergarten-age kids who simply aren't up to speed yet, as well as kids who suffer from bona fide reading disabilities." 

In 1985, Dennis and Victoria developed a method to spot babies at risk of developing reading disabilities at birth with an accuracy of 80%. Today, the same couple have improved their previous research to predict reading disabilities with a stunning 99% accuracy. 

While the research to understand reading difficulties is growing at a steady pace, the concurrent implementations in schools have been slow. If you spend time and keep track, you will notice wonderful things about your child. The key though is to be aware during observation so you can catch a problem early and find a way to work around it. 


Bailey, A. L., Cano, L., Fischer, D., Freeman, S., Jacobs, J., Heritage, M., et al. (2001). The LDC manual: A guide to using the Literacy Development Checklist (Rev. ed.). Los Angeles: University of California Regents.

To read more about Dennis and Victoria Molfese's studies, visit: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/04/reading-problems

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