Special Needs In Multiples: Are Twins More Likely To Have Learning Disabilities, Reading

Reading –

Are reading problems more common in multiples and why?

Photo Credit: Tamba.org

We have already seen more multiples have delays in speech and language and these are associated to some extent with problems in reading). There is no magic line that differentiates an average reader from one that gets the label of reading disability (and one of the reasons why giving such a label needs to be done cautiously and sympathetically).

So, we would expect some multiples to be so far behind, that a formal diagnosis of a reading disability is warranted.

To this, we can add a second group. Across the entire spectrum of multiples, some are more likely to be intellectually disabled and thus to have reading problems among their other difficulties. However, their immediate school needs must be distinguished from those of multiples who just have reading problems, as must the long-term impact of their disability.


Do twins and single-born children have the same reading problems?

This is a vital question. If the problems are different, then the interventions used with single-born children may not be appropriate for twins. One does have to be cautious in generalizing as many multiples will have just the same problems as reading-disabled singletons and what works for one will work just as well for the others. Searching for an intervention tailored to multiples may be quite unnecessary.

However in the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Survey, what distinguished the twin boys with inadequate literacy skills from singe-borns who also had problems was that the twin boys were much more likely:

  • to have or to have had speech problems.
  • to have spelling as well as reading problems
  • to have reading reversals where “b” is read as “d”, “p” as “q” etc.
  • to have problems innumeracy as well as literacy.

Fairly similar patterns were found in the girls except that those with difficulties also often lacked motivation. It was not so much that they could not do a problem, but that they did not try it or gave-up very readily.

Those twins who were delayed in their reading were often a lot more careless in their work. Thus the twins with reading problems were much more likely to tell the time incorrectly off a clock face or to make mistakes in subtraction of two-digit numbers. Any specific remediation needs to be directed first to getting them to approach problems more carefully. Only once this basic problem has been resolved, is it appropriate to plan anything more specific about reading.

In intervention, it is important to consider what does not cause reading disabilities in multiples. Some people believe that reading problems are closely related to underdeveloped lateralization and the use of both rather than just one preferred hand. Given multiples often are left-handed or are mirror-image with one right- and one left-handed, it would seem reasonable to blame reading problems in twins on unusual handedness. But very detailed studies in Australia have found no relationship between handedness and reading in the great majority of multiples. This is not to deny there may be a small group where lateralization may be an issue and where work with lateralization may help.


What is the specific reading disability and how is it assessed?

Some children are more able than others, irrespective of whether they are single born or multiples. Some children will be less able to read because they are generally less able at most if not all school activities. Specific Reading Disability is not about such children. Rather it is the name given to children who are of at least reasonable ability in all other areas but who have a specific deficit in reading. This is not the place to recognize the ongoing debate in Education and Psychology about this distinction, which goes well beyond multiple births.

This distinction raises one issue about diagnosis, in that one, needs to know whether the child really has the intellectual capacity to read well. Such an assessment may involve an educational psychologist or someone with similar expertise who can use very specific tests to focus in on what this particular child may need. When the child also has attention problems such as ADHD, the question of assessing ability becomes even more complex, since there needs to be some recognition that some specific skills such as Arithmetic (that is one part of many standard intelligence tests) do rely on good attention. You need to be able to measure ability, uncontaminated by attention and other problems. For example, ADHD children may also be more impulsive and guess at an answer without thinking the problem through.

The mere fact of such an assessment raises many new issues. It cannot just be done by observation in the classroom but means the child or children must be singled out. Drawing attention in this way to the fact that one child may be less able to read than their twin or higher multiple may be very traumatic in itself and has to be handled carefully both in the class with the other children and at home. Some children can be unwittingly very insensitive and find it great to emphasize just how much better their reading is than that of their other multiple. Sometimes it works in reverse:

” The difficulty we had was with the one who did NOT have the problems. He was upset his brother was being taken out of class and singled out for special attention. What had he done wrong that he was not getting the same? After all, everyone knew he was doing much better at school….”

Assessment may be arranged through the school but sometimes the waiting list can be very long. While parents may be tempted to “jump the queue” and to seek some private assessment, it is worth checking with the school about this. It may not be much good having someone come up with a whole list of what should be done if there are practical reasons why these ideas cannot be implemented in a particular classroom situation. At the same time, it is worth checking with the person doing the assessment, that they have adequate experience of multiples and of the most common comorbid conditions in multiples that can complicate the evaluation.

What does comorbidity mean?

Many children have not just one problem but several, and good assessment needs a full evaluation and an intervention strategy that takes all into account. We give two examples here as the topic is covered more in the ADHD section:

(i) children with reading problems often have poor self-esteem and feel they are going to fail at everything. This may be more common in multiples, because of the very direct comparisons with their multiple brothers or sisters. If you know you are the “dumb” one (and children use crueler words than this), then you may not try your best in any assessment and your potential may be underestimated

(ii) some multiples are slower in developing fine motor coordination and this may impede their performance on some of the tasks that are often used in assessment.

How old are the multiples?

This may seem an odd question but is actually important in gauging the reading and intellectual skills of multiples. Most formal assessments work by comparing the child’s performance with norms for children aged almost exactly the same e.g five years, five years: three months etc. We lack good guidelines on what to do with very preterm children, as many of the multiples are. It may matter less by the time children are well into primary school, but the younger the multiples the more it may matter. In the 1970s, one of the very large US programs, the Louisville Twin Study actually developed separate norms for twins on some of the standard measures used with infants and preschool children. This has not been pursued further, even though there are many more extremely preterm multiples.



Specific reading interventions for multiples


Photo Credit: Pinterest

The first step is not to let reading disability develop! This means close attention to language development and an awareness that the same influences that can affect speech and language can also affect reading. So if some speech problems are associated with impulsiveness and getting in before your twin or higher multiple, think how the same situation can arise with reading. It may sound idyllic to be sitting with your multiples, while they take turns at early reading. What can happen in reality is that:

  • Either they compete to get in first with a word, often any word. This impulsiveness may be why multiples are more likely to have problems with reading reversals -“who cares if it is a ‘b’ or a ‘d’, just say it”- and with arithmetic-“why bother checking to see if the addition is right”.
  • Or one who has the edge may take over the reading for the other(s), who soon realize it is easier to be quiet.

So even in the very first stages of reading, it is important to be aware of the dynamics of the multiple birth situation. If turn-taking is not working, then it may be better to think of “quality rather than quantity” of reading. Spending a shorter amount of time working with each multiple individually may be better than longer with then all together. BUT this does mean someone has to look after the other(s) while one gets uninterrupted attention.

Some families find a solution is to have each parent work with a twin individually and perhaps enlist the help of other relatives or resources for higher multiples if they are available and willing. There is a note of caution. Captured in the phrase “mother’s twin, father’s twin” that describes a practice that seems more common in Scandinavia than in other countries. The next quote describes what can go wrong

“When the twins were born, we thought it was great that both sets of grandparents lived not too far away. But gradually we saw one family favored Jessica, the other Sharon and the competition started over every aspect of their development. When it got to be a race to see “whose twin” could read the alphabet first, we knew it had gone too far. It’s better now the girls are at school, but we could have saved the whole family a lot of grief if we had recognized this and put a stop to it sooner.”

This leads to the topic of reading and self-esteem relative to one’s cotwin or higher multiples. Reading in primary school is a task that lends itself to a comparison between multiples. It does not matter if they are in the same or different classes. If one is getting more advanced reading material that the other(s), they know and everyone knows that one seems to be a better reader. At the same time, reading must not become a race. Like all children, multiples need to learn reading is for comprehension, information, and enjoyment, not to have read more than your multiple brothers or sisters.

When “hearing children read” it is important to talk about the book. The cover, author, illustrations etc. and to help the children develop fluency and prediction skills. Questions to check comprehension should go beyond the literal so that the children are able to deduce meaning from text. Higher order reading skills such as skimming and scanning need to be developed later. This emphasizes the difficulty of helping multiples to develop good reading skills. How do you manage this with more than one child? This is what teachers need to remember. They can suggest to parents what is the best thing to do to help their children, but they cannot wave a magic wand to help parents provide the quality of interaction for two, three or more children.

It is very easy for the one(s) who do not read as well, to become discouraged. They need to learn to appreciate it is their own reading ability and development which matters and not how it compares with that of their multiple brothers and sisters.



References: See here




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