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Reading requires sustained attention — no scientific study needed to confirm that basic truth. It takes hours of practice to become a confident reader. The impulsivity and inattention that characterize many children with ADHD means that they may have a hard time sitting still long enough to put in required effort.
Learning phonics and decoding skills are only the first step. Once learners master the technical part, they’ll need to build reading comprehension strategies so they feel confident — ideally by later elementary school — to use reading as a tool to help them advance in their other subjects.
If you’re seeing a reading difficulty in your ADHD child, you may also want to screen for other learning differences, such as dyslexia or a processing disorder. According to the CDC, 6 out of 10 kids with attention deficit disorder have another mental, emotional or behavioral disorder. However, keep in mind that reading disabilities may also mask a child’s gifted status in other subjects — a common challenge for twice exceptional kids.
Every kid’s learning journey will be different. But here’s what Prisma Head of School Claire Cummings recommends in terms of how to help a child with ADHD learn to read.
When your child starts to read, ask yourself: What’s their environment like? If they’re trying to focus on the words in front of them, it’ll be all the harder if there’s competition from the surroundings. Removing screens is a good start, but even items we commonly associate with learning environments — like a map of the United States or an alphabet poster — can worsen reading problems. Setting your child’s desk up against a blank wall might seem dreary, but it’s the best way to put the letters and words where they need to be: front and center.
While you can control your home environment, you’ll need to talk to your child’s teacher about distraction-free space in the classroom. (These kinds of accomodations will often require a formal individualized education plan [IEP], based on a medical diagnosis.)
Many kids with ADHD are kinesthetic learners. That means they link the learning process to physical activity. Being able to trace letters in the sand, manipulate magnets on the fridge, or move their entire body can help kids with reading difficulties internalize their lessons. Movement breaks are a must: try alternating bursts of reading with physical activity like jumping jacks to help them get their wiggles out and incorporate laughter into their day.
Although some kids with ADHD have hyper-focus, those with inattentive tendencies will struggle to jump into an extended period of reading practice. If you’re just getting started with building a routine, keep reading time short. The popular Pomodoro timer method that we use at Prisma works on twenty-five-minute segments, but a kid with ADHD should be allowed to build up to that goal over time.
To get there, start with micro-tasks, such as reading one more paragraph than they did the day before — and then celebrate their success. Short bursts of reading are better than no reading at all, because those chunks will turn into full-fledged reading sessions once they’ve built their confidence.
As you develop a reading strategy that works for your child, use the opportunity to help them strengthen their executive functioning skills by creating clear expectations about their routine. If your child knows they get to play with their favorite toy for a certain amount of time (set a timer!), then they do their reading lesson (set another timer!) and then they get free play again, the sequence of the activities, repeated over time, will help eliminate friction when it’s time to get out the book.
When kids learn to read — in particular kids with ADHD — they struggle with comprehension because they don’t know how to lean on their very best friend: the voice in their head that’s giving them a play-by-play of when they don’t understand, when they need to back up and review, or when they need to look up a word.
At Prisma we like to call that voice your BFF (best friend forever), because your brain will be with you, talking to you, and helping make decisions for your entire life. We encourage kids to listen to that voice when it gives advice about what you need to better understand what’s going on, like maybe a ruler to track your lines. As readers develop, they can lean on that voice to deepen their knowledge of what’s going on in a story: When it starts asking, “Hey, why did that character do that?” they’ll learn to stop and think about their motivation.
Strategies for meta-cognition (i.e. thinking about your thinking) are essential for moving all kids past the mechanics of reading — just going through the motions — and into the deeper layers, where the real love of reading can develop. For kids with ADHD, there’s an added benefit: Their interior dialogue becomes a lifeline, so that when their brain starts darting around to every other subject under the sun, they can come back to that anchor and refocus on the text.
Allow a kid to read what they love and they will love to read. If you've got a kid that struggles with reading, the worst thing you can do is give them a book they're not excited about. At Prisma, we endorse learner’s choice when it comes to reading material. While coaches will guide them to make sure they are pushing themselves in terms of level, we give them full license to read whatever they like: fiction and non-fiction of all genres, as well as other formats such as graphic novels or even recipe books.
Graphic novels are particularly well suited to kids with ADHD. We see our learners get hooked on them because they can connect with the action and the physicality of the characters.
When a learner at Prisma struggles with reading, whether it’s due to ADHD or dyslexia, we make sure to that doesn’t hold them back in other subjects. In math, we have students use text to voice tools, math videos or apps, hinging on their auditory skills. For their projects, we give them a range of materials from which to draw their research, including videos and podcasts, so that they can develop their insights while they work to get their reading up to their intellectual level.
Kids with ADHD — especially those with impulsivity — often hear a lot of negatives: You’re doing this wrong, stop moving, listen to me. To connect with parents and kids to the importance of praise, Cummings recommends a book, My Whirling Twirling Motor, about a boy with ADHD, who gets into trouble throughout the day. At the end of the day, when he sits down for bedtime with his mom, she presents him with a “wonderful list” that she keeps in a red sparkly notebook. Every time he does something great, she writes it down and lets him know she's doing that. Then at the end of the night, she reads it back to him for them to celebrate.
Cummings recommends trying the “wonderful list” approach: “We continue to do the behaviors we are praised for. So to sit down and say, ‘Wow, look at all the cool things you do. Look at all these amazing things your brain can process,’ goes a long way in building their confidence and reinforcing the skills they are developing.”
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