Reading, Writing and ADHD. How Can Parents Help? An interview with expert Kendra Wagner
Updated: Jul 23
Many children struggle with reading and writing. This isn't exclusive to children who have dyslexia, or ADHD; some children just need more practice!
Because many parents worry about their kids struggling with these important skills, we interviewed Kendra Wagner. Kendra is a tutor for children who struggle with reading and writing, and she founded Reading, Writing, Thinking to help parents help their kids move forward, make progress, and build confidence in these crucial areas!
Here Kendra explains how people learn to read, the different ways in which children struggle with reading and writing, and what parents and teachers can do to ensure that children who have trouble reading and writing make progress and even excel.
Kendra Wagner, M.A., eats, breathes, and sleeps all things reading and writing. Keeping up with children's literature, new releases of research on the Science of Reading, effective approaches to getting kids over the hurdles of overwhelm with the written word - all these keep her going, between yoga classes and running her private practice. She is certified in several programs for dyslexia and dysgraphia and also consults with schools on implementation of research-based practices in literacy.
Esteem: What kinds of children do you usually work with? How old are they and what learning or behavioral issues do they have?
Kendra: "Originally, when I started in full time private practice, I worked more with younger kids who were dyslexic, ADD, ones who needed a lot of decoding and sub skills of reading. In schools I worked with all kinds of struggling readers and writers. My practice now is more nuanced. I work with a lot more older kids, and much more writing instead of reading, more ASD, more executive function needs.
A lot of them are gifted but struggle, usually with writing. Many have already had help from someone else with reading, but they come to me for writing. I can be kindergarten through college, but most are between third and eighth grade. And about half need help with reading, half need help with writing, and some need both.
I sometimes work with college students and I enjoy it because they have a lot of buy-in. They understand why it’s important, and they know their own brains, and strengths and weaknesses. With younger kids I have to spend a lot of time building buy-in.
What causes someone to struggle with writing when they’re already good at reading?
Yeah, it’s so common. You would think that reading well would lead to writing well. It certainly helps, but there are students who are overwhelmed by all the layers of writing.
That’s why my book I am writing is called Taming The Octopus: The Many Arms of Writing. You have to think about organizing your thoughts, the teacher’s assignment, their expectations, the reader, the syntax, structuring your paragraphs, and precise word choice. Plus, you have to think, “am I making sense?” A young writer has to learn have to pull words onto page that they don’t normally use because writing uses more sophisticated language than speaking. And then they have to revise. That is a hurdle of resistance in itself.
So kids don’t take well to all those layers. They want writing to be quick, and it never is. Especially ADHD kids, they get overwhelmed because there’s so much to keep in their working memory, and they don’t have the patience.
Some of the writing overwhelm is helped by medication. I used to be really anti-medication, and I thought it was just big pharma trying to push drugs on children. But then 20 years ago I attended enough meetings at schools where we would look at writing samples from children pre-and post-medication, from dates over multiple times a year. And after medication, their handwriting, organization, ability to get started, and clarity of what was on the page was better. So I have come around.
I work with a lot of parents who spend years avoiding medication. They’ll try nutritional or behavioral treatments, and I get it, a parent doesn’t want their child to be on drugs so young, or they fear it will change their true nature. But most often, these alternatives don’t really work, but they’ll get by until they have a fallout of some kind, usually in middle school with the child’s behavior or school performance.
A lot of tutors in my consulting group have a hard line about working only with medicated ADHD kids, because they say that without medication, they can’t guarantee significant progress. I’m not quite there, but sometimes I do feel like we’re going over the same things over and over because the student can’t remember from week to week.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the drug companies isn’t that drugs don’t work. Maybe more so that they become the default option and crowd out non-drug options, because that’s where the money is to do the research, so for parents who would like to avoid medication, it can be difficult to find other ways to help. Would you agree?
I say that “pills don’t teach skills.” Kids need other essential strategies. For example, a coach, or tutor, and cardio, either to wake up or settle their brain depending on the time of day. They need protein or amino acids, plus they need some kind of self-soothing practice, to bring them into focus or calm their nervous system. Medication helps eliminate some of the obstacles to learning, to get kids into the right frame of mind to remember and take in information.
Some parents also don’t have the patience to try different drugs. They’ll try one and it doesn’t work, and they give up. Sometimes you have to try a few different ones.
You started out in dance movement therapy right? How does that work? Who is it best suited for?
I originally didn’t want to be in education, because my whole family was. They worked at the University of Chicago, and Northwestern, so I got into dance to rebel.
I was a choreographer, but dance therapy is more about emotions and dancing out your dark side, to change your tension patterns. I really enjoyed working with kids in this non-verbal way. I did some work with teens in juvenile detention, and that’s where I found out many of them couldn’t read. I launched into a lifelong passion to learn every aspect of reading and literacy.
So with dance therapy, you might have a rigid spine from having a lot of anger, and all the talk therapy in the world isn’t going to get at that. I’m still a big believer in that methodology, even though I’m no longer a practitioner. Sometimes it involves music, but not always. Sometimes it doesn’t even look that much like dancing, you do anger movements, or stomp your feet.
As for who it’s best for, there are a lot more studies now compared to when I was doing it about how important it is to access the body, especially trauma research. You can be in a therapy situation for years and just out with the therapist and be a good talker, and not really get at the heart of your problem.
On your site you list five components of learning to read – can you explain those?
1. Phonemic Awareness (hearing individual sounds)
2. Phonics (decoding short and long words)
3. Fluency (speed and rhythm, plus intonation)
4. Vocabulary (growing one's "book word" knowledge)
5. Comprehension (actively engaging with the words and the author)
It’s from something called Science of Reading. The research is 60 years old, but it has become mainstream finally You can find information in the Washington Post about it, the New York Times, The Atlantic.
These five components have to be in place no matter what language you are learning to read in. Two of those are fairly invisible– you can’t really feel yourself figuring out the sounds in a word.
For example, with Phonemic Awareness, kindergarteners might start with a teacher directing them to say the word “hen,” then be told to replace the beginning sound with “t,” so “ten.” This is without seeing the word. The next step would be to ask them to replace “e” with “a.” And do on And some kids get it immediately and some don’t.
You’re supposed to learn these Big 5 in order, for the most part. But some kids are working on layers 3, 4 and 5 without having a good baseline. Many children come to me in the 4th grade who struggle so much it’s hard to understand how they got to 4th grade. Like, I’ll show them the word “model” and ask him to say it without the m, “odel,” and they can’t do it. Or they guess their way through words and it is so tiring.
English is hard because it has so many sounds. It has 26 letters and 44 sounds, so that makes decoding harder than say, Spanish or Italian. Decoding is at the heart of dyslexia, but every student needs that skill, and learning to decode is what leads to fluency.
And then there are vocabulary issues. A lot of kids with vocabulary issues don’t have learning disabilities, they just haven’t read enough. And their vocabulary is so weak it’s hard to even get through a history chapter. So that is another roadblock like decoding.
All five of those steps are important, but we can only feel ourselves doing the last two– vocabulary and comprehension– as adults. The first three become unconscious, and a lot of children struggle with them. Sometimes it’s non-evidence-based teaching, but often it’s a learning disability.
Dyslexia is the most common learning disability by far. 85% of reading issues are dyslexia, and the other 15% have to do with comprehension. Half of all dyslexics also have ADD. A lot of these kids are great at math, off the charts even, but they have issues with reading.
In your experience, how much personalized teaching do most kids with ADHD need?
I work with clients 1-3 times a week. The ideal is 2-3 times a week. I say in my contract that I can only guarantee results if you also do practice work at home.
What can parents of children with ADHD do to better support their children’s learning efforts?
Make reading a family affair so that kids can see that reading is valuable. Make it a routine, just like you do with music or a sport or anything you’re getting better at. Read in front of your kids, let them see you doing it.
Parents also need to educate themselves about these five components, because they’re not usually aware of them. And that gives them more understanding and compassion about their kids’ struggles.
And have kids do some writing that isn’t for school. It gives them practice without the pressure of being graded. Write letters, write journals, stories."
Visit Reading, Writing, Thinking for more information from Kendra that could help you help your child with these important skills!
Thank you, Kendra!
Thanks for reading! We hope this interview has given you fresh ideas and confidence when it comes to helping your child with reading and writing. If you have sessions ready to complete with Esteem, log in to your app or at esteemthrive.com to check in on your child's mental and emotional health, and to better understand their strengths and needs today.
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