For a decade, I worked with struggling readers. Well over half that time I rented space in a Vision Therapy Center and, as a result, interviewed many parents looking for an answer to their child's reading problem. Often, a visit to the center was just the next stop on what had been a long road to help their child, by then in third, fourth, or even fifth grade and not yet reading well.
As a result of those interviews, I learned something. Reading problems do run in families.
The Genetic Component
Reading struggles most likely have a genetic cause. To put it bluntly, it is very likely that the reason a child is struggling is because a parent also struggled to learn to read, or his parents' siblings or his grandparents. I suspect it's a 50/50 gene carried by either father or mother. By a "50/50 gene" I mean that if you carry the gene (whatever gene or combination of genes it turns out to be) and you have ten kids, about half of the ten kids will learn to read easily just like their classmates and about half of them will struggle.
Here is how I came to this conclusion. After a few years I began to recognize a pattern in my client base. Parents kept mentioning that one child learned to read easily while another struggled. And if there were several children in the family, it seemed like another child besides the one I had as a client was also having trouble. I also noticed how often a mother would mention that her husband didn’t like to read either, or that she herself only began to feel comfortable reading when she became an adult. Now, I probably never would have taken it beyond that, except that for several years I had the opportunity to do reading level assessments for children being brought to a vision therapy department for vision evaluations.
An Informal Survey of Parents
Most parents bringing their child to a developmental optometrist for a full developmental vision exam were doing so because they were already at their wits' end trying to figure out why their child was having so much trouble learning to read. Or, if the child could read reasonably well, he either tended to avoid reading or complained of headaches or fatigue when he read. I would estimate that close to 90% of the children brought to vision therapy departments have a significant reading issue of some sort, and that most are found to have vision skills deficits that require vision therapy to correct.
So, for several years I asked the parents a simple question after doing their child’s reading assessment. I asked them if either of them remembered first grade being a tough time in school. If a child can’t learn to read along with his peers in first grade, that child is going through his personal version of hell, and he tends to remember the experience. (Just a reminder: I consistently use the masculine pronoun, but there are many girls with vision problems also.)
I asked the question in that particular way because people will admit to first grade being tough, whereas they won’t easily admit that they didn’t learn to read on schedule, especially if they still don’t read very well. I asked the parents of over one hundred children that question.
A Consistent Response
Almost every time I asked the question, the parent I was talking to opened up and revealed that one of the two parents or a significant cohort of near relatives (aunts/uncles/grandparents) of the child struggled with reading.
Answers ranged from “That would be me, I just skim articles,” to “My husband still doesn’t like to read,” to “My oldest daughter has always gotten headaches even though she likes to read,” to “I really hated school until I hit third grade and then everything started to make sense.” Almost none of the parents that I asked responded with “No, I can’t think of anyone. Both my husband and I have always liked to read and so do our other kids,” or a similar answer.
Bear in mind that most of those parents didn’t yet know much at all about the sort of vision issues that cause reading problems. You might not either, for that matter, since I haven’t said much about them here. So they couldn’t tell me whether they had vision problems. What they could tell me is that, yes, a pattern of reading problems ran in the family. When I finally went back over the data I’d collected, over 90% of parents had confirmed that a reading problem ran in their family. And, in most cases, their child who was struggling with reading was found to have vision skills issues that could be addressed with vision therapy.