Late-Emerging Reading Disabilities

By: J. Leach, H. Scarborough, and L. Rescorla

Summarized by Kathleen Ross-Kidder. Read the full text of the study. (138K pdf)*


The study looks at children whose reading achievement seems to slip in the fourth grade. The concern is whether these are children whose reading difficulties were not identified in the primary grades or if these are children who seem to hit a "fourth grade slump." Data suggests that approximately 40% of children with reading deficits will fall into this category. Based on results of this and past studies, the authors conclude that in most cases these are "late emerging" reading problems rather than unidentified reading problems.

Early reading progress is measured by word-processing skills. Most children with reading deficits in the primary grades are identified by weaknesses in tasks such as word and letter recognition. The current focus is to make certain children have the basic word processing skills. It is assumed that this will lead to better reading comprehension.

Word recognition, for example, is basic to more complex reading. Thus, from the bottom-up, a child builds a base for more complex reading tasks. It is possible that more complex tasks will be limited due to the child's weaknesses in this area. For example, if a child struggles recognizing words, the child will read slowly. This limits exposure to information gained by reading. Also the energy required to decode words will limit the resources available for more complex cognitive tasks required in reading comprehension.

The "fourth grade slump," though, could also be due to the type of thinking and reading required by the fourth grade. A child now relies more on top-down-processing, or cognitive capabilities. The child's thinking skills enable reading comprehension. In this case limited cognitive ability would be the reason for the apparent reading deficiency.

This study then compares reading deficits among fourth graders. Is the fourth grade slump due to a word processing, bottom-up deficit that affects more complex thinking skills? This would affect redding comprehension. Or, does the child have good word-processing skills but limited cognitive or comprehension capacity?

For example, a child with dyslexia might show deficits in word-processing and reading comprehension yet have good comprehension skills when information is presented using oral language.

The problem

  • Young children with reading disabilities are classified on the basis of weak word processing skills rather than comprehension deficits. (Word processing skills include the ability to recognize the word and the letters in the word. Comprehension skills are the ability to attach meaning and understanding to what is read.)
  • After the primary grades there is less instruction in word recognition.
  • School requires more complex reasoning and thinking in the fourth grade and above.
  • Poor reading achievement at the 4th grade and beyond is often seen as an indication of a problem with comprehension.
  • Are late identified really weak in comprehension or are some children struggling at the word processing level?

The sample

289 fourth graders participated. They were placed in groups based on reading abilities demonstrated on the Word Identification and Word Attack subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho/educational Battery-Revised (WJ-R) and the Reading Comprehension subtest of the Peabody Individual Achievement Tests-Revised (PIAT-R), among other tests. Five groups were: Early school-identified-persistent; early school-identified-transient; late school identified; parent concern; no history of reading difficulty.


The data did not suggest that schools had overlooked or disregarded earlier signs of reading difficulties. Most of the students seemed to have late emerging reading problems. Of this group 35% had word-processing problems in combination with adequate comprehension skills, 32% had weak comprehension skills and good word processing skills.; and 32% showed both poor word processing and poor comprehension skills.

Implications for education

  • Reading intervention programs for reading deficient students need to be based on the precise nature of the disability, comprehension or word processing, rather than on overall grade level.
  • Late emerging reading disabilities often go undetected in schools.
  • Schools need to assess strengths and weaknesses with a variety of assessments to really understand what is happening.
  • Early prevention programs may not serve to inoculate against late emerging reading problems.

Leach, J., Scarborough, H., & Rescorla, L., (2003) Journal of Educational Psychology, 95,2, 211-224

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