Writing without reading?
May 25, 2008 6:34 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone suggest why my daughter can write just fine, but apparently can't read?

My 4.5 year old daughter loves to write letters to her friends, as in 2-3 pages of 4-year-old scrawl (where sometimes the letters are all on top of each other, or turn corners to fit on the page, and so on). The spelling is entirely phonetic, and the grammar is all as spoken, of course, but it's legible to most people who've read kids writing before.

The think is, she doesn't read. She knows her letters, and can sound out 3-letter words with time, but just doesn't "get it" when presented with even 2 4-letter words on paper. If asked what they say, she'll often run away, curl up, or turn away and pretend not to be able to hear you.

In other ways, she's a normal kid. Curious, musical, likes to dance. A bit clumsy, occasionally shy and occasionally gregarious.

I always thought that kids learned to read before they learned to write. Any hints on what might be going on here? Note: I'm don't want to change her; but I am wondering if we should be prepared for anything.
posted by 5MeoCMP to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would say you're overthinking this. I see nothing here that justifies any worry on your part.
posted by Class Goat at 6:45 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

What does she do when you're reading books to her?
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:51 PM on May 25, 2008

Response by poster: LobsterMitter: she's usually curled up next to me, looking at the book.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 6:53 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: My mother-in-law, a first grade teacher for over 40 years and the victim of more systems than there are in a busload of Atlantic-City-bound low rollers, believed in 'reading readiness', which just strikes somewhere between the ages of 3 and 8.
posted by hexatron at 6:53 PM on May 25, 2008

I don't want to be worry-wart, and I don't have any kids myself, but I was reading a lot when I was 4.5, and I have 4-year-old acquaintance who is definitely beyond 3-4 letter words.

Perhaps you should speak to a doctor. Not everyone learns at the same rate, and that's totally cool, but if there's a problem you should know for sure earlier than later.
posted by chudmonkey at 6:54 PM on May 25, 2008

And if you follow along with your finger under the words, does she watch and fake "read" along with you?
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:56 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: Writing phonetically is not remotely the same thing as reading orthographically correct text, which it sounds like she is learning to do, albeit not without some stress from somewhere. Her writing right now is her mimicking what she sees others doing and using her understanding of speech, which is why she seems to ignore all the "normal" rules of writing. It's not linked to her ability to read in the way you would think. If anything, I would recommend that you encourage her writing as it is not as privileged in school education as reading.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:57 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: Maybe she can read just fine, and just doesn't realize it yet. She may not have made the connection between her writing and reading.

Based on my experience with my five year old, reading/writing skills seem to accumulate until all of a sudden the kid realizes they're able to do it. My daughter went from fighting the idea that she could read, to easy chapter books, in a very short timeframe.
posted by padraigin at 6:58 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: This is very much a "go see the specialist" type question, I'm sorry to say. Aversion to reading for some entirely normal childish reason? Thinks it's a chore? Shyness/doesn't like the focus of attention on her for that specific task? On the other hand, a neurological problem? Dyslexia seems obvious (at a facile level what you describe is, literally, dys-lexia, trouble reading, but the neurological condition needs to be diagnosed by an expert). Try some of the exercises used to help dyslexics.

Either way, reading needs to be fun, a reward in itself for a child. Try borrowing some children's comics from your local library, specifically comics with very strong illustration-based stories, with only a little written dialogue and exposition, and see how she goes with them. Maybe photocopy them in black & white, and give them to her to color in, so she can have fun with them at her own pace.

Actually that's another idea - give her words and letters as art, to color in, collage, play with. She's a bit old for letter blocks, but similar toys with more complexity and interest exist. I vaguely recall seeing word jigsaws or something like that in the toy shop when I was looking for presents at Christmas.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:59 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: Does she know that you'll keep on reading to her, even after she can read for herself?
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:05 PM on May 25, 2008 [9 favorites]

I agree with Class Goat. Nothing to worry about at that age; it will sort itself out.
posted by bricoleur at 7:05 PM on May 25, 2008

Wow; amazing. Can she read her own writing a week after she's written it, say?
posted by jamjam at 7:06 PM on May 25, 2008

Has her vision been checked? Rule out the easy to diagnose stuff first before you start worrying about dyslexia, etc. It could all be perfectly normal too.
posted by COD at 7:08 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: I'm conjecturing here.

If your daughter doesn't have complete fluidity with seeing a letter and knowing its sound, then one thing that reading 4+ letter words requires that writing doesn't is holding the 4+ sounds in memory at once, and accessing that memory fluidly enough to string the sounds together into a word. In contrast, when she writes, your daughter just has to remember one word (the one she's writing), and then figure out the one sound that she needs to write next.

Another possibility is that she's thrown off by words that violate phonetic rules, which longer words do more often than 3-letter words do.

Another is that she likes to be good at things, and 4+ letter words look hard to her, so she shuts off.

I bet if she sounds out a three letter word, like cat, and then you add an 'S' on the end while she's watching, she'd get that. But I actually think you shouldn't. She's already turning away from activities a lot like that, which says 'back off' to me, so that she'll come to it on her own time.

I'm not a teacher, but I've worked with lots and lots of children her age in preschools. (I used to go around and do computer playtimes with preschoolers, back when most preschools didn't have computers.) Contrary to the impressions of a couple of the posters above, it was far more typical for the 4.5 year olds I saw to not be reading at all yet than to be reading and writing as much as your daughter is. I have no credentials for saying so, but if it were my daughter, I would not be worried at all.
posted by daisyace at 7:11 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (every time I hit preview, there's more to reply to. Slow down, you lot!)

LobsterMitten: she sometimes watches, and sometimes that's the trigger for her to fling herself on the floor and suddenly be "too tired". In those cases, I think that she's feeling pressured to be able to read, which we're really trying hard not to do.

We thought that perhaps her vision wasn't so great, but tests have shown that she sees just fine.

mrmojoflying: I'm not concerned about "correct" writing at all -- on the contrary, I think it's wonderful that she's writing anything, and we definitely encourage that.

padraigin: I'm glad to hear that your daughter also fought reading for a bit; that seems to be what's happening here.

aeschenkarnos: great idea about the comics, we'll give that a go, and thanks to the links for the exercises.

The corpse in the library: I'll make sure we stress that; it could be that she's concerned.

jamjam: No, she can't read her own writing. She can remember what she wrote (in so far as a 4-year-old remembers anything), but after a week one may as well be presenting greek.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 7:12 PM on May 25, 2008

Seconding the possibility of dyslexia, based solely on my experience with my own sister and the fact that your daughter writes phonetically.

My sister would do a similar thing and simply couldn't read well past the time that she should have been fairly fluent at it. (Since I was young myself it's hard to remember when that was - but she was older than your daughter). She definitely had anger and avoidance mechanisms in place when we tried to get her to read.

Then we got her into this reading program where they wrote everything phonetically: the 'o' in 'boat' had a long line over it, for example, whereas the 'o' in 'frog' had a little 'u' shape over it or something like that. The long and the short of it was, after only a couple months of that she suddenly "got" reading and sped up to where she should be. She's still not a super fast reader, but she enjoys it very much.

So... have you tried some kind of a phonetic program?
posted by GardenGal at 7:18 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: I had a very similar problem as a child. When I was in kindergarten, my teacher recommended that I be tested for a gifted program. At that point, I could write and read a bit, but when presented with the test I apparently just declared "Kindergarteners can't read!" and refused to take it. No one could convince me that I could, in fact, read, even though I could.

The next year I had the chance to take the test again. I took it without hesitation, passed it easily, and got into the program.

I think, looking back, that I was just scared of the implications of being able to read. To me, at that age, it seemed like reading meant I was more grown-up, and would have to give stuff up and work harder. But I got over that fear pretty quickly.

So- not necessarily anything to worry about. Especially since she's writing.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:26 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: I'm a first grade teacher and she sounds like a perfectly normal kid to me. In fact, most kindergarten students aren't yet at your daughter's stage. It doesn't sound like she has dyslexia.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:40 PM on May 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. We'll make sure she knows that we'll still read to her, and let things develop naturally.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 7:44 PM on May 25, 2008

Perhaps you should speak to a doctor. Not everyone learns at the same rate, and that's totally cool, but if there's a problem you should know for sure earlier than later.

Speak to a doctor, because she can't read at 4.5? Crazy. No one even tried to teach me to read until 6.
posted by delmoi at 7:47 PM on May 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

There could be a problem, but my guess is that there isn't. I'm a homeschooling parent; one of my kids learned to read on her own around the age of six after we gave her a 10 minute phonics lesson. She went on to become a rabid reader; for instance, she read the whole Harry Potter series in one week. I have another kid who, at eight, is just now starting to read after a little more prodding on our part. It's quite alright if your kid learns to read later. The problem lies in everyone else's attitudes about that, which could permanently affect how she views herself. I tend not to make a big deal out of things I don't want my kids to make a big deal out of. That said, there COULD be a developmental problem, but I would listen to folks on both sides of the issue to see what approach they'd take. One of my favorite anecdotes on this topic is how G. K. Chesterton, when he was eight years old, and still unable to read. His teacher told him that if they opened his head, they would find a lump of white fat. Chesterton went on to write around 100 books and a weekly essay for the Illustrated London News for 30 years. He also debated many of the celebrated intellectuals of his time: George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow. I recommend reading John Holt's How Children Fail.
posted by keith0718 at 7:56 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: You know, a big thing about learning to read is having something that motivates you to want to read. I say this as the father of two kids who both made conspicuous 'breakthroughs' in reading simply because they wanted to be able to read the instructions on the Playstation screen or the Flash games on Mom's computer.

4.5 is very young to be even starting to worry about any of this stuff. Your kid has made some great advances in writing. You shouldn't worry about the reading at this point. She may be running away because you are pushing too hard.
posted by unSane at 7:56 PM on May 25, 2008

One of my nephews has pretty serious dyslexia, but from what I understand, it's not the sort of thing they can even start to determine till around 6 or so. Also, based on my experience of observing all my nephews (as well as several friends' kids), this doesn't sound to me like your daughter is demonstrating anything particularly worrisome. Some kids just naturally take to reading earlier than others. 4.5 is still quite young.
posted by scody at 8:09 PM on May 25, 2008

I'm not an expert on this stuff, but I wouldn't worry just yet. That's about where I was when I was four.

Also, along the lines of what someone said above, reading and writing are different things. When you're writing, you can go as slowly as you need to, and little kids don't expect to be able to write quickly. They don't read over adults' shoulders much when they're writing -- if the adults even write much around them -- to even know what a normal speed might be, or at least I didn't. I imagine since fewer people write by hand than when I grew up, it's more rare for a child to see an adult write things. When a teacher writes things on the blackboard, they go pretty slowly on purpose. What I'm proposing is that, oddly enough, that could be why your daughter feels more comfortable writing than reading. Let me explain.

Reading is much different than writing; adults routinely read to children. Even if you prompt her to sound out words when reading -- conveying (rightly) the idea that it's okay to do that -- it probably seems to her that she's reading really slowly compared to the speed at which adults have read to her. I'm suggesting this because that's exactly how I felt. When I tried to read things out loud, I thought that I sounded stupid; adults never have to do that, they just read. Adults didn't sound stupid when they read to me, and they only "sounded things out" for my benefit. It didn't occur to me to even consider writing in the same way. I would read things when I was alone, but I dreaded being asked to read aloud in front of other people.

There's nothing much you can do about that; kids just get over it eventually. I'm definitely not saying don't pressure her to read in front of you, because she needs to eventually. What I'm saying is there isn't necessarily any problem. Since she's just four, I wouldn't be too concerned that she shies away from reading right now.
posted by Nattie at 8:23 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: Most children I have worked with started writing before they started to read. Writing is usually less stress-inducing than reading for those just beginning to develop literacy. Scribbling is fun but sitting down and trying to sound out all those little letters on a page can seem daunting.

Imagine you've been watching someone read a book in Russian. Now they tell you to look at all those letters and make sense of it all. You probably wouldn't want to do it because you'd feel like you would fail. But you might find yourself talking to a friend on the phone and doodling little Russian letters on a piece of scratch paper. The letters may be drawn correctly or may resemble actual Russian characters. You may even be able to write a Russian letter and know the corresponding sound. Much of it may be nonsense, but some might be somewhat decipherable at a very rudimentary level. That's where your daughter is.

Most kids first begin to write by scribbling indecipherable characters, then they begin to write down random letters, then they write down very basic consonants (e.g., balloon=b, bn, or bln), and they progress to short vowels, long vowels, and regular and irregular spelling patterns. Sounds like your child is in the second stage of writing. She knows some letters and corresponding sounds and has an awareness of print. That's a great start and she should be successful in kindergarten.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:44 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: Don't be worried at all!

I was trained as a teacher and taught literacy in the primary grades, K-1-2, for several years. Your daughter is in a phase which can last a long time, called "emergent literacy." During this phase, kids will master some skills, take longer to grasp others, and show back-and-forth ability - fluid on one day, slower on another.

Reading and writing are not the same skill. In fact, in pre-1800s America, there were many people who could only do one or another - only read the Bible, only write to keep accounts and note people's names, and so on. Many illiterate adults can write but not read. We shouldn't be surprised they don't occur together; we could as much be surprised that we can learn to speak without learning to write. In fact, we hear and understand well before we speak. There is actually not much natural cognitive connection between reading and writing skills in the absence of its being explicitly taught and constantly experienced in both directions. Your daughter has an excellent ear for phonemes and is probably a great kinetic learner, using her body to understand the world in lots of other ways.

Many children don't learn to read until the age of 6, 7, or even 8. Your daughter has wonderful signs of early literacy and would be considered by most teachers an early bloomer. There is absolutely no developmental expectation that 4-year-olds or even 5-year-olds should be able to decode text on a page. Decoding text is an entirely different skill than encoding sound. It relies much more heavily on the visual and pattern recognition. Some children learn to read text on a page quite early, but struggle intensely with both the ear for "sounding out" and the physical skills of encoding sound in symbols on paper using a writing implement.

This sort of uneven development is entirely par for the course. Most people will be ahead in some skill areas, behind in others, throughout their literacy development. The most important thing for you to know is that your daughter is well ahead of the curve by most literacy benchmarks. Celebrate her writing, and be sure to read aloud to her and with her often. I would be surprised if your daughter is not reading appropriate-level material comfortably by the age of six; but even if she weren't, there is no reason whatsoever to think this indicates a problem. Quite the opposite; it indicates a strength.
posted by Miko at 9:48 PM on May 25, 2008 [7 favorites]

Best answer: On rereading your post:

If asked what they say, she'll often run away, curl up, or turn away and pretend not to be able to hear you.

Kids are pretty good judges of their own developmental readiness. This degree of avoidance is a clear sign she's not ready to read. Let her come to it naturally; she'll show interest when she's ready. One day you'll be walking along the street and she'll suddenly read a word on a sign (or something similar). That'll be a signal that she's ready.

Curious, musical, likes to dance.

Dancing? Yep. Most likely has kinesthetic as a strong or the strongest learning modality. What she's probably doing at this stage is memorizing the action of creating a letterform and associating it with a sound, the movement of the mouth and throat in a certain way. As she learns to read she'll be sending that letterform through the visual processing in her brain more often to decode the sounds based on their visual appearance, rather than the body motions it takes to make the letterform. At the next step, she won't need to "sound out" each word letter by letter based on single letter appearances - she'll memorize the pattern and overall shape of the word and her brain will make quick and largely accurate guesses as to what the word is - the way adults read (we don't sound everything out, just recognize patterns).

It's all good!

I always thought that kids learned to read before they learned to write.

If they're strong visual/verbal learners and also are often read to, they might learn reading first. But I can't say strongly enough: there's no single path to literacy. It's all over the map. If I could do one thing for the parents of the world, based on my experience teaching reading, it would be to let them know they can relax about their kids' reading abilities already. The vast majority of kids learn to read easily by the age of eight. Those who don't need support, and that'll become clear through behavior and struggles far more out of the ordinary than this. Don't worry.
posted by Miko at 10:01 PM on May 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: So many great answers; thanks everyone for the insight and expertise. My mind is at rest, and our second daughter will benefit when she gets to this stage too.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 10:01 PM on May 25, 2008

You pretty much described my 4 year old, except she doesn't run away, she just says "I don't know." She can spell her name and other people's names and sometimes can recognize the names of her daycare friends, but she certainly can't read.

Her daycare class has been working on phonics now. Why? Because her daycare teacher feels like the class is ready for phonics. And in her opinion, my daughter is one of the brightest kids in the class -- she "gets it," even if the connection hasn't been made yet between the letters on the page and the sounds the letters make and how the letters make a word that represents a sound.

Oh, and she loves books. We go to the library once a week, and she looks forward to it expectantly. She must be read at least one book every night, sometimes two. She also loves to draw and has a huge imagination.

Clearly, she's pretty bright. Can she read? Nope. But as has been said upthread, reading at 4 is unusual, and many kids aren't reading in kindergarten. I'm not worried about.

Your daughter sounds pretty bright. I agree with Miko that she may be kinesthetic. Just means you need to find ways to connect physical action with reading.

But most of all, just back off. Let her be a kid. Learning to read is hard, and learning English is even harder. In time, she'll make the connection when she's ready to. In the meantime, read to her, give her lots of books, and let her tell you stories about the pictures in the book. Or have her make up a dance about them.
posted by dw at 10:56 PM on May 25, 2008

I know I boy who didn't learn to read until he was about six or so. Beyond that he's always seemed ahead of the game and once grade one started, his reading was right on par. Now he's an avid reader, with high academic aspirations.

For me, it was a much longer process, in a way. I started reading before I even got to kindergarten (mom's a bibliophile), and remained enthusiastic until about grade 2. Since then I have been diagnosed with a mild dyslexia, with some giftedness thrown in for balance. I like stories, and enjoy some writer's styles, but I hate reading at any great length and would much prefer a writing class to a literature class.

I guess what I'm saying is that, in my experience it does not seem to matter how long it takes to 'get going' on reading. Once full time school starts, you'll never know the difference.

That said, I will add that I did experience a certain level of anxiety knowing that I would have to read my own bedtime story some nights. I remember telling my mom that I "can't do it!" even though I could, and had been.

If I were you, I wouldn't worry too much.
posted by sunshinesky at 2:59 AM on May 26, 2008

mrmojoflying: I'm not concerned about "correct" writing at all -- on the contrary, I think it's wonderful that she's writing anything, and we definitely encourage that.

Oohhh...I'm sorry that it came across that I was implying that. What I meant to say was that they rely on different cognitive operations and are available at different stages of development. Your child will probably begin to read next, and then afterwards begin to write orthographically and grammatically correct text, but that's not hard and fast. And the, encourage her writing because so much early education is reading focused, writing is not actually *taught* as much as grammar and skills are. Congratulations on having a self-motivated writer!
posted by mrmojoflying at 4:26 AM on May 26, 2008

Tom Cruise suffered from either the same or a very similar problem and stated that he had overcomed it with some new study technology.

This statement is, in all ways, pure hilarity.

You forgot to note that it was posted by smartcookie making it, dare I say, eponysterical. Also, since he registered yesterday and every one of his 5 posts is a Scientology testimonial, it's sort of fish in a barrel.
posted by The Bellman at 7:42 AM on May 26, 2008

Let me just agree with everyone else, and say that I've got a six-year-old boy who's in _exactly_ the same situation. For him, it seems to really be an issue of self-image--with an older brother who's an avid reader, he's adamantly _not_. Phonetically, he can write multi-syllabic words, like "gnrratr" for when he draws a generator, but when you point out that he just read something off the screen in a video game, he refuses to accept that it really happened. He's actually thrown a bit of a tantrum, and say "I. Can't. Read!" (BTW, I wasn't trying to push him--I was congratulating him, and got caught off guard when he came back at me like that. We've totally backed off, and will let him accept it when he's ready.)
posted by LairBob at 9:57 AM on May 26, 2008

One thing you can try when she's following a book with you is read some easy words incorrectly, and let her correct you. Start with a story she knows, and "read" the word dog as cat, for example. When she corrects you, ask why she thinks you're wrong, and let her point out the picture of the dog, or the the word "dog" starting with "d". Kids at four love to correct adults, and it may take some of the pressure off her while in a roundabout way allowing her to demonstrate some easy reading skills. And watch lots of Sesame Street! That's how I learned to read.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:15 AM on May 26, 2008

I wouldn't be concerned about the writing vs reading differences. But, I will say that today's phonics-heavy school environments severely hindered (and irritated) my kid at that age. He actively hated reading, sounding out stuff, and anything to do with rhyming. Meltdown-city kind of hate. After 1st grade started and the teacher advised he was behind grade level in Reading, I took over the whole process myself. The only phonics instruction from there on out was in the form of BOB Books. After completing that very basic series (about 2 weeks?), we moved right into mostly whole word and word fragments instruction. It worked out, apparently, because in 2nd grade he was reading middle school level books. Strange years. He loves reading now, but still hates rhyming or sounding out stuff like foreign languages.

This sort of disconnected happened again with Math recently. I've learned my kid has serious issues with sequential instruction that most early high school levels classes require. So, unless a teacher provides that sort of whole concept instruction he needs, I will have to fill in those holes. He can't even learn, at this point, without knowing the final goal, the big picture, the big idea, etc. If that part is skipped, it's almost like you're speaking Greek. He's completely stuck.

So, my main suggestion would be to try a completely different approach.
posted by ick at 4:16 AM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

It stuns me to hear that what 5meoCmp's daughter has done is not extremely rare.

To me it's as if she has done a thing somewhere between learning how to write and reinventing the very idea of writing itself for her own idiosyncratic uses, a little like Sequoyah did.

I am deeply impressed by her feat, and I'm having trouble understanding how she was able to do it. All I can think is that she watched ed. programs where they made speech sounds and then flashed the letters that stand for them, and that this allowed her to realize she could draw pictures of her speech, kind of like stick figures of people. A tremendous leap of the intellect, however she did it.

Looking over these other answers, I imagine we'll be seeing a new acronym in educational circles soon: RRS (Reading Resistance Syndrome), in which your child is perfectly capable of reading, and may even be doing it on the sly, but refuses to do it or admit doing it.

I know my own personality changed completely when I finally learned to read almost at nine, and I'm thinking in terms of a very different pattern of brain activity to account for this change, and a scenario where the non-reading pattern of brain activity attempts to preserve itself by putting up a fight against reading, and that this could account for RRS.

One very tentative suggestion for a strategy to get your daughter to move from where she is (though I honestly wish you wouldn't, at least until she's had every chance to do it on her own): you could ask her to write a letter to her mother, make a big weekly production of putting it in an envelope and stamping it, taking her to the post office and dropping it in the box herself; then when it comes back to your house, her mom could read it aloud, pretend to have trouble reading a word or two that was actually particularly legible (you would also be stumped), and I'd bet she couldn't hold back very long from trying to help you out.
posted by jamjam at 11:21 AM on May 27, 2008

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