Lisa, a mom of a struggling reader, called at a busy time. I told her I had no room in my schedule for another student. “You’ll have to research other options,” I said. But she was persistent.
SELF-ESTEEM AND READING DIFFICULTIES
I received long text messages and frequent phone calls from Lisa. Her daughter, Emma, was very behind in reading, and Emma came home crying regularly. Lisa shared:
“Brittany, you don’t understand. My daughter was sitting down to do homework. I was trying to help her. She said, ‘Mom, I can’t read! You have no idea how painful this is for me. You don’t understand mom. It hurts. It hurts right here,’ and she pointed to her chest.”
The idea that a child can have precocious emotions and say “painful” and “it hurts” is familiar to most moms of struggling readers. I’ve had many students say things that show a lucid understanding of their dire reading struggles. One new student repeatedly shouted out possible professions he could be, “Do firefighters need to read? Do karate teachers read? Maybe I can be one of those.”
Struggling readers start seeing paths vanish, possibilities dry up, and some believe their options in life to be the size of a teacup.
MOM OF A STRUGGLING READER
Lisa was a mom of two, a hardworking entrepreneur, the breadwinner of her family. Things were busy and chaotic, just like life is for most moms. She imagined her children would learn to read easily, that they’d willingly pick up books, lounge on the couch by the fire, and immerse themselves in a story. For an occasional hour, the house would be quiet, only interrupted by the sounds of breathing and comments about stories.
She never imagined just sitting down to do homework would cause her daughter to say, “I must be stupid!” That books, any book, would spark a battle. That Emma would beg: “I don’t want to! Please don’t make me! Mom, I can’t. The words get me confused.”
Lisa’s husband, Jeremy, was a stay-at-home dad. When I agreed to do an assessment, Jeremy was home.
DAD OF A STRUGGLING READER
He walked over to me with a somber expression, and quietly said, “The reason I’m concerned about my daughter is because…I can’t read. My options in life have been limited. I need you to teach my daughter. I don’t want the same to happen to her.”
Jeremy was desperate. He consistently showed me phonics games, books, and homework to ask my opinion on them. He wanted to find some way he could help his daughter at home.
READING DIFFICULTIES ARE CHRONIC
During the assessment, I saw that Emma couldn’t read AT ALL. She had memorized many high frequency words to stumble her way through some books. She leaned on pictures to guess at words. When she didn’t know words, she made things up, became an author imagining what a character would say or do. Instead of reading, “Jan the Chimp swung from the tree” she would veer from the text and say, “The monkey played in a tree.” The one word she read accurately, “tree,” she could not identify without a picture.
Emma had a quiet disposition. In class, she fiddled with pencils, drew pictures and stared at walls because she didn’t want to be a disturbance. Since she couldn’t read, she couldn’t do the work. Other children seemed to read with ease. They showcased their abilities by bringing thick books like “Harry Potter” to class.
“My friend Ava is reading Harry Potter,” Emma said in one of our first sessions. “The book is that thick,” she said holding her fingers inches apart. “Like this.” I was going to respond but she interjected, “It’s okay because I’m learning how to read now.”
“Yes,” I said. “You’ll get there.”
Children want to learn how to read.
EARLY READING INTERVENTION IS BEST
Emma did learn how to read because systematic phonics instruction is an incredibly effective method for teaching reading.
Lisa believed the school when they claimed Emma would “catch on.” Lisa waited and waited. The day never came. When Emma came home from school crying in the middle of second grade, Lisa finally sought help.
My most common client is Emma. I teach many, many children in the middle of second grade that cannot read AT ALL. Emma had a lot of material to cover. We began learning letter sounds together. Many parents aren’t aware their child is not saying the correct sound for letters. For most of my clients, we must begin with beginning Kindergarten level material. In Emma’s case, she should’ve been taught that material two years prior.
The myth that children “catch on” is dangerous. Longitudinal studies, such as the Connecticut Longitudinal Study of Learning, show that children who fall below grade-level in reading and don’t receive early intervention, have chronic, persistent reading difficulties at least until the twelfth grade (when these studies stop measuring reading scores; Reading Achievement Scores Franicis, Shaywitz, Steubing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1994).)
Emma wanted to showcase her reading abilities too. She wanted to bring a thick Harry Potter book to school and talk about Hogwarts and Harry’s adventures with her friends. If she had received intervention early enough, she might have reached for those thick chapter books sooner. But the school consistently told Lisa that Emma would “catch on.”
Lisa was relieved Emma was finally learning how to read. Emma was no longer crying. Her dreams stopped shriveling. Emma’s belief in herself slowly grew back.
In hindsight, this is what Lisa wishes the school would’ve shared:
One of the most dangerous and widely held of these [reading] misconceptions is the belief that reading problems are only transient, that they represent a developmental delay and will be outgrown (Shaywitz, Sally, E. & Shaywitz, Bennett, A. 2006).
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