A mom checked in with me recently regarding her 10th grade child who was struggling with reading, spelling and writing.  The question on the table was at this phase of his life, what can be done with him?  Is it too late to teach him how to read (spell and write)?”

The mom said that high level professionals in her child’s school district told her that phonics should not be taught to a teenager who has struggled over the years as he will “never be able to get it” (“it”meaning the ability to decode words), and they should instead focus on content like higher order thinking or comprehension.

Effectively, the message was “forget about trying to teach your kid to read – it’s too late,” said in slightly different words.

I have been in this business a while and have heard the same thing for many years. I didn’t get it when I first heard this point of view and I still don’t get it.

Reading is a skill.  Some people are wired to learn the skill pretty easily without too much effort (what I call the “smooth road” types), a percentage are not (those on the rougher road with learning disabilities like dyslexia).  Isn’t it the same with any other skill that can be acquired, say tennis, golf or learning to play an instrument?  Some learn the skill more easily, others take more time and effort.

Would you ever say to a 45 year old person who was a poor tennis player, but wanted to learn how to play better,  “It’s really too late to learn the basics, so maybe you should just play tennis video games instead since you are too old to learn how to play.”

Yet, this happens all the time in middle school and beyond where parents are told things like that.

The Orton-Gillingham method and its spin-offs, the ones that research and clinical practice have supported (such as the Wilson Reading System) are very basic in what they are teaching.  Metaphorically speaking, these methods effectively involve practicing the notes and then learning to play the chords, hopefully leading to the capacity to play them in longer strings of music (sentences and paragraphs).

What is largely forgotten is the fact that the original Wilson program was created to address adolescents (and older) dyslexics with content and material to match their level of development, so it would not be too late with an adolescent who had reasonable motivation.

Now, it’s possible that an adolescent is sick of all of it and is not willing or motivated to undergo such basic remediation.  So, to the mom of the 10th grader here’s what I said to her in email regarding the “too late” question:

              Largely it is kid by kid, person by person.  So much depends on the motivation of the student and the way the program is delivered.  I could be a 50  year old dyslexic and if I am motivated to work hard on a consistent basis and receive the right kind of instruction, then I can make gains.  Will I ever be a great reader, probably not, but progress can be made.  If I am shut-down and unmotivated, then my guess is Barbara Wilson  herself (creator of the Wilson Reading System) probably would have little impact.

Takeaway Point

Is it too late to teach phonics and word structure to adolescents and older who struggle with reading/learning disabilities?

Absolutely not, but it is kid by kid.  Person by person.

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