When a K-2 child is having reading difficulties, the problem usually lies in inadequate reading instruction or dyslexia (or both).
Elephant in the room: a major problem or controversial issue that is obviously present but avoided as a subject for discussion because it is more comfortable to do so [from Wikipedia]
In a struggling readers classroom, there is an elephant in the room. Though we have ample evidence for best practices for struggling readers and dyslexic children, these best practices are often not used and not known.
A Case of Severe Dyslexia
When Jacob, a mid-second grader, heard I was a reading specialist, he wouldn’t sit at the table with me. His reading difficulties were chronic, and after multiple reading interventions at school, he still didn’t know letter sounds. He walked to the corner of the room, occasionally peering over his shoulder, as his mom and I conversed.
When he sat down for the assessment, he placed his hand on his head and said, “I don’t really read.” He looked down, ashamed, like he was confessing: there’s no need for an assessment. I don’t read yet.
“That’s okay!” I said. “You will learn.”
Jacob was in the middle of the second grade. At first, I thought he would be my most common client: a 2nd grader (often with dyslexia) reading far below-grade level with at least some phonological awareness. But I was gravely wrong.
During the assessment, I discovered that Jacob was not reading the word “the” accurately—the most common sight word, the first word teacher’s teach. He did not know ANY sight words and he only knew five letter sounds. I was truly shocked.
After working with Jacob for two months, he still could not read “the” or the other three sight words we practiced. However, I knew that if I developed his phonological awareness and phonetic sound knowledge, he would indeed begin to read sight words.
Learning Letter Sounds
In those two months, Jacob made huge progress in letter sound knowledge. When he returned to school after summer, the teacher asked his mom, “How did you get him to learn letter sounds?” Later, the mom shared with me: “The teacher kept asking me this as if the school was shocked my son could even learn letter sounds.”
JACOB’S MOM FELT LIKE THE SCHOOL HAD GIVEN UP ON HER SON.
Jacob was diagnosed with severe memory deficits. It was a real paradox—he could remember extraordinary things, like the time (six months ago) his mom promised to take him to the next Disney movie or the meaning of “benevolent.” His expressive vocabulary was extraordinary and he used words many adults couldn’t define.
Yet, up until the middle of second grade, he had not retained “the.”
Signs of Dyslexia
He also struggled with phonological awareness, which is the biggest indicator of dyslexia. Phonological awareness struggles are the most glaring red flag indicating future reading difficulties. At first, Jacob could not identify all the sounds in words and hold them in his working memory to blend.
For the first time, I understood why dyslexia was initially called word blindness. To parents, it can literally feel like the child sees everything in the world, but words.
I’ve worked with many children that have been diagnosed with dyslexia. Jacob was undiagnosed, but to this day, remains the most severe case of dyslexia I’ve ever encountered.
Overcoming Reading Difficulties
Jacob’s reading difficulties were conquerable. I started designing books just for him. I only selected the few phonetic sound units he knew and I only used 1-2 sight words at a time.
When he read the phonics books, he was surprised that he was reading. As his repertoire expanded, I developed more books tailored to his unique level. Many of the books I wrote for Jacob inspired my printable phonics books.
Effective Reading Interventions
Jacob learned how to read using effective, time-tested reading intervention programs that I often discuss on this blog. He learned using specifically designed phonics books, intensive systematic phonics instruction with common sight words and (later) sight syllable units.
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to work with Jacob. Dyslexia is a spectrum. Jacob’s story shows that dyslexia, no matter how severe, can be conquered. In fact, children with severe dyslexia can become good readers.
The Reading Elephant: there are best practices for children with reading difficulties, yet these best practices are often not used. Children get labeled and blamed for their reading failure. Yet, with best practices, every child can learn how to read.