Consider these two examples.
Thomas is starting 3rd grade this year, and he suddenly seems much further behind in his reading skills than the rest of his peers. His parents are concerned because his reading difficulties were not brought to their attention until the middle of his second-grade year.
When Thomas is assessed, he can read and spell many of the words expected for his age group. He does not seem to have a lot of difficulty reading sentences, but he is not able to correctly answer questions about what he has read. His parents note that “it’s almost as if he never read the paragraph at all.” When Thomas is provided with pictures that match the events of a story, his ability to answer comprehension questions improves significantly. Even though he can read several words and sentences at the third-grade level, Thomas’s parents are told his reading skills are more like that of a first grader because of his need for picture support.
Olivia’s parents feel like she met most of her milestones on time, except for a few of her speech sounds. After Olivia learned to correct her /r/ and /l/ in preschool, she was discharged from speech therapy, and everything seemed to be going well. She was not “early” in learning her letters or sight words in kindergarten, but she didn’t seem to be “behind” either. Olivia also seemed to enjoy the leveled reading books her teacher sent home.
Olivia is now nearing the end of first grade, and Olivia’s teacher is concerned she is not making progress with her reading skills. Olivia is also starting to become frustrated when she is asked to read.
When Olivia is assessed, it is as if she has forgotten most of the sight words that she learned last year. She also is unable to sound out words that she does not know unless it is a short word like “cat” or “lip.” Olivia’s skills seem to be more like that of a late kindergartener/early first grader.
In the above examples, it is possible that a school setting might describe each child as having some form of “first-grade level reading skills.” Grade level descriptions of skills can sometimes delay the right kind of treatment for individuals with dyslexia or reading difficulties because they do not describe what is really causing the problem. Individuals with reading difficulties are frequently not simply “behind a few grades” in their skills. Thomas and Olivia both need treatment plans that will target their individual weaknesses.