Oh, Don’t Worry…They’ll Catch Up!

I’ve heard different versions of this phrase thrown around by teachers and parents throughout my career. “They’ll catch up, right?”– from parents unfamiliar with learning differences looking for guidance or reassurance from educators. “Don’t worry, they’ll catch up!” is often delivered by educators addressing a student’s skill deficit to minimize a parent’s concerns. No matter which version I hear, my ears immediately perk up. This can mean the difference between a reactive and proactive treatment approach. The term “treatment approach” may seem self-explanatory, but it’s far more complex and layered than it initially appears.

At a certain point in a child’s education, they’re expected to make the switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This typically occurs around 3rd grade and is where we enter the dyslexia paradox. This term comes from the phenomena where dyslexia is often diagnosed after the most effective time for intervention has already passed (Ozernov-Palchik & Gaab, 2016). The dangers of the “they’ll catch up” comment comes into play when students who previously demonstrated a need for intervention are now even more behind as their challenges with reading are hindering their access to education.

Proactive treatment methods target phonemic and phonological awareness while the student is learning these skills in school, a solid foundation of which are essential for students to successfully receive reading instruction. The hallmark characteristic of dyslexia lies in the phonological system of oral language. Therefore, this treatment targets the core deficit of dyslexia. Reactive treatment methods tend to focus on pulling the student out of their classroom to target phonological skills or teach them compensatory strategies without targeting the core deficit. This approach is used after the student has been showing significant challenges with learning and academics. Imagine all of the learning opportunities they have missed out on due to being told “they will catch up!”

Here are the differences between these two treatment methods:

Proactive Treatment

  • Targets phonemic and phonological awareness while the student is learning these skills in school.
  • Can be done in the classroom in small groups, RTI, or direct services as dictated by IEP.
  • Targets the core deficit in dyslexia.
  • Allows students to build the foundation they need to read, write, and access their education.
  • Decreases the gap between dyslexic students and their peers.
  • Increased confidence and self-esteem in the classroom.
    • Decreased stressed levels for the student and their family.

Reactive Treatment

  • Sometimes targets phonological skills when the student should be learning higher level reading skills in class.
  • Can target higher level reading skills without a solid phonological foundation-leading to the development of compensatory strategies.
  • Does not always target the core deficit of dyslexia.
  • Typically done through pull-out services dictated in IEP.
  • The gap between dyslexic students and their peers widens.
  • Missed learning opportunities.
  • Decreased self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Increased stress levels for the student and their family.
    • Potential financial stress if a family were to seek outside treatment, tutors, etc.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with pre-K and early elementary aged students who participated in treatment when their team identified difficulties with phonological awareness skills and letter naming, and later elementary through college aged students deep in the trenches of “reading to learn.” Although all of these students’ brains learned the same way, the difference in their intervention coupled with the social and emotional effects was night and day. When at-risk students participated in treatment, they all started with a blank slate and built a solid foundation of pre-reading skills to better prepare them to receive reading instruction. When students were deeply entrenched in “reading to learn,” they not only had to build new and more efficient skills, they had to undo every compensatory strategy they’d previously acquired, such as looking at a picture in the text to aid in comprehension, guessing what the word is based on the first letter, pulling from background knowledge to try to piece together the text, or using avoidance tactics to get out of the task at hand (i.e. going to the bathroom, changing the topic of conversation, etc.).

Another key difference in these groups of students on either side of the dyslexia paradox was how their overall confidence and self-image had been affected. As these students grow up, they become increasingly more aware of how they are different than their peers. Dyslexic students in the “reading to learn” phase know that their peers are surpassing them in reading and writing. This takes a significant toll on their self-confidence, self-image, and attitude towards school. I’ve heard students say…

“I know I can’t read so why would I even try?”

“I’m so stupid.”

“I’m not smart.”

“Reading isn’t my thing.”

“I’m just not good at school.”

“I can’t do this!”

As educators, we have the responsibility to be aware of the developmental milestones related to phonological awareness. If a student is unable to recognize rhyming words as they are about to enter first grade, this should be a red flag and cause for concern as this should have been a skill they developed by the time they were five years old. Not providing specialized support to target that skill and saying “they will catch up” is doing a disservice to that student, as they are expected to continue to build higher level skills on a shaky foundation.

It should be noted that not all children who are showing red flags need intervention. As a professional, if you do not feel like you have the proper tools to help your student succeed, hold a meeting with your team to potentially refer for further assessment and decide on next steps. As a member of the team, you need to be resolute in advocating for the best practices for that student.

The next time you hear someone talk about how a student will “catch up” in their reading abilities, consider the role you play in advocating for that student and the importance of receiving support for potential reading and language deficits. Not only will you be giving them access to their education, but you will also be helping them develop the self-love and confidence they need. Dyslexic students will always learn differently than their non-dyslexic peers, but the decision to enroll them in a proactive treatment will arm them with tools for success.

Ozernov-Palchik, O., & Gaab, N. (2016). Tackling the ‘dyslexia paradox’: reading brain and behavior for early markers of developmental dyslexia. Wiley interdisciplinary reviews. Cognitive science, 7(2), 156–176. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcs.1383

Red Square Pegs was established to empower dyslexics by embracing dyslexia through awareness and shared experiences and to be a symbol of acceptance, pride, and confidence.