The quiet literacy crisis Girls who can't read often withdraw, fool adults, research finds

December 22, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Alana Hoffman was in third grade when her mom discovered that her daughter wasn't the child she knew -- the pretty, sharp little girl who earned straight A's and got coveted jobs like clapping the erasers clean at day's end.

Alana's young friends would march into the Hoffmans' West Philadelphia home and note how the family was out of bread, needed milk or had a dentist appointment next Tuesday -- information they gleaned from a "to do" list on a dining room blackboard.

"How do you know that?" Alana asked one day.

"Suddenly it dawned on me that Alana couldn't read," said Alana's mother, Tina Hoffman.

Thus began a determined, often frustrating quest to get the girl help, impeded by educators unwilling to accept that a well-behaved girl who got all the answers right could not recognize her own name in third grade.

Be glad she's a girl, she'll get married, her mother was told. Be thankful she's pretty. She can be a hairdresser. Alana had once declared she intended to be a veterinarian. Her teacher suggested a pet groomer.

Alana's is the story of millions of children -- especially girls -- who don't learn to read in the critical early years of school and need special help, but go unnoticed because they sit quietly and follow the rules.

Over the past five months, as The Sun has examined the problems of teaching children to read by third grade, the newspaper has interviewed dozens of parents and children who describe ordeals just like Alana Hoffman's.

Recent research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health concludes that contrary to traditional belief, girls are just as likely as boys to have reading problems, even though boys' problems are two to four times more likely to be detected and treated.

"It's almost like girls can put makeup on over their problem," said Martha Bridge Denckla, a neurologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"Girls know how to put on some outer facade that makes them seem better than they are," she said. "It may be as simple as neat handwriting or a nice report cover. This is a ticking time bomb that is going to catch up with them later when they're supposed to carry a heavier load."

Alana, now 24 and a senior at Goucher College who earned straight A's last semester, eventually learned to read in seventh grade after years of tutoring and emotional pain, and fights between her mom and the school.

"If your kid brings an Uzi to school, you'll get services immediately," said Tina Hoffman. "If your daughter is pretty and clean and has big blue eyes, speaks in a nice tone of voice, gets along with her peers and seems to be doing her work -- they think you're nuts."

Alana still has the scars. She's so terrified of standardized tests, she plans to apply only to graduate schools that don't require them. Hidden reading problems devastate bright children like Alana, who had an IQ projected at more than 130 -- taking into consideration her reading problem -- but grew up thinking she was stupid.

Schools in Maryland and around the country have long assumed that boys are more prone to poor reading than girls. Many educators, oblivious to the NIH research, still believe it.

On the surface, school statistics appear to back that theory: Schools identify boys as "learning disabled," which most often means a reading problem, at two to four times the rate of girls, according to state and national figures and the NIH-backed studies.

The label makes these children eligible for special instruction designed to treat the problem. Early diagnosis is critical; proper treatment can fix the problem before the child even knows he or she has one. The older the child, the longer it takes.

But the NIH-backed studies, headed by Yale scientists Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, look beyond the school statistics and conclude that girls are just as prone to these troubles as boys.

Boys get the attention because they more often act out their reading failure by disrupting the class. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to go underground, either withdraw or compensate by pleasing the teacher and becoming great talkers.

Teachers, under pressure to control large classes, often are not looking past the outward behavior to hunt for reading troubles.

As a result, psychologists often first detect reading problems among girls in high school -- when the untreated problems have festered into severe disabilities. In some teen-agers, the disabilities lead to destructive behavior such as drug use and crime.

"They just sit in school and die from the neck up and don't see themselves as learners," said Betty S. Levinson, a Rockville psychologist who is active nationally in the field of dyslexia and other learning disabilities. "The pejorative is that they're airheads. They become people pleasers; they'll do anything to be accepted."

Lasting consequences

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