Research informs us that reading disabilities do have a genetic component, but seem to result from a combination of genetics and environmental factors.

This often surprises parents who state that “they don’t have any difficulty reading”.

It is important to note that reading is a complex behaviour that is integrated from many different processes – attention, working memory, meta-cognition, word knowledge, grammar knowledge, visual processing, and sound processing.

Small and subtle deficits that don’t appear to be impacting day-to-day functioning or use of oral language can show up in a big way when it comes to reading accuracy and fluency, and/or spelling accuracy.

However, when you “peek behind the curtain”, there are often some indicators that portions of the language system are going a little sideways.  And, interestingly enough, there are often tell-tale signs in the parent’s speech or use of language.

Here are 2 of my favourite and most frequent examples that I see consistently.

1.) Frustrated:

Within a consultation, this word is inevitably used.  Either the parents are frustrated with the lack of meaningful support from the school, they are frustrated with their child’s behaviours, or they report that their child is frustrated when trying to read.

However, the parent pronounces the word “fustrated”.

So, what is going on here?  As part of learning words, you learn what words mean, but you also associate that word to related words within a network.  You also will store a “phonological code” – a stored representation of the pronunciation of a word.  You store a “memory” or imprint of how to say that word, including the motor plan to say all of the sounds in sequence, and what you expect the word to sound like when you say it or hear someone else say it.

In this case, the parent has created and stored an incorrect code.  They have failed to register the first /r/ sound in the word.  It has been omitted.  This is common in sound processing deficits – it can be difficult for the brain to perceive all of the sounds correctly within consonant clusters (when 2 or more consonant sounds occur together, as in the “fr” part of “frustrated”).

This is a sure sign of difficulty with auditory processing – this individual has difficulty with sound discrimination.  There is nothing wrong with their HEARING (usually!); however, the brain does not process what it hears accurately.  It can also indicate some difficulty in phonological memory – being able to accurately remember and operate on what was heard.

In many cases, the parent has a handful of these “idiosyncratic” or one-off speech errors in their repertoire.  They don’t even notice.  Most people don’t even notice.  It didn’t end up impacting their ability to read (as far as they can remember).  Interestingly, though, they may report that they are “horrible spellers”.

When I meet a parent that has a child that is struggling with reading and/or spelling, and I hear them say the word “fustrated”, I am IMMEDIATELY “on guard” and preparing to do a comprehensive assessment of their child’s sound processing system.  Dollars to donuts there are some below average skills in that department that the child inherited from an unknowing parent.

2.) Nip This in the …

Another that I frequently hear is that a parent is concerned and wants to “nip this in the butt”.

Now, that does make sense is some way … you can almost visualize a dog jumping up to bite somebody in the ass, and of course, you would want to prevent that!

However, the expression is “nip this in the bud”, and it is a reference to plant care.   You prune away unwanted shoots to shape a plant in the direction you want it to grow and to harness all the nutrients into the shoots or flowers you preserve. Essentially, the idiom indicates that the earlier you address something the more easily you can prevent unwanted consequences or side effects.

So, what is going on here? Again, this is a problem in the sound processing system.  The acoustic difference between the /d/ and /t/ sounds is slight.  These sounds are produced in the same way, with the exception that one has the vocal folds engaged (voiced) and one does not (voiceless).

The brain must perceive this subtle acoustic difference and perceive the correct sound (/d/) to arrive at the correct word (“bud”); otherwise, the word “butt” gets activated.

The language meaning system takes over.  It finds a way to have “nip in the butt” make sense.  There likely is some over-compensation from the language meaning system when processing oral and written language.  I see this ALL THE TIME with my students – they read what “makes sense” and “what they think should be there”; however, they are NOT always reading what is actually written on the page.

The language meaning system is intact, but it is susceptible to getting a “bum steer” (pun intended) from the sound processing part of the brain.

There are a couple plausible explanations here:  a) there is a deficit in sound processing; b) there is a deficit in the transmission of information from the sound processing part of the brain to the language meaning part of the brain, or c) both of the above are occurring.

In either of the 3 plausible explanations, the result on reading development is calamitous.

“Nip it in the Butt” is an example of an “eggcorn”, a linguistic phenomenon where the incorrect word or meaning is extracted from a phrase.

They are called “eggcorns” as this is a common example – many people misunderstand or misperceive the word “acorn”, thinking instead it is an “eggcorn” – some type of corn-shaped nut that is essentially the “egg” of the tree or something (in some way, it makes sense!)

These are common enough – people that refer to it being time to “tow the line” (rather than “toe the line”) or something being “a tough road to hoe” (rather than “a tough row to hoe”).

Eggcorns are a result of activating the wrong word.  Sometimes the word will have the same pronunciation, but the incorrect meaning of the word is activated (e.g., “a shoe-in” vs. “a shoo-in”).  You won’t hear these in someone’s speech, but you can see them in people’s writing.

In our “nip it in the butt” example, however, a word with a different pronunciation is activated.  This an indication of some weakness in the sound processing capabilities of the speaker.

Again, often these errors are innocent enough and are not impacting comprehension or the ability to communicate.  When I hear them in parents’ speech, however, it is often a sign that some weakness in sound processing runs in that familial line, and there is a good chance that there is a disordered phonological processing system that underlies their child’s difficulties in reading and spelling development.

Red flags to “listen for” in your child’s speech that predict reading difficulty:

  • Using incorrect pronouns (or history of)
  • Deleting grammar words (is, am, are, a, the, to)
    • Watch for this to show up in reading and writing with older students!
  • deleting consonants anywhere in words (e.g., fustrated, libary, hosital, soon in place of “spoon”)
  • Mixing up sounds, or substituting sounds (stool for school, restarnaut, amblience, hosibal)
  • Difficulty repeating back exactly what was said; difficulty learning lyrics to popular songs; changing lyrics to songs
  • Activating incorrect words (e.g., the “specific” ocean in place of “Pacific” ocean)
  • Difficulty learning and pronouncing new vocabulary (especially longer words/multisyllabic words)
  • Missing sounds or syllables when reading or spelling (not using enough letters)

These are some things that may “rear” their head and have children get “behind” in reading.  If you have concerns about your child, I strongly recommend completing some assessments to “nip things in the bud”.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. ;p