Arthur was excited to start Kindergarten. He was cheerful, friendly and had a wide toothy smile. When someone walked by, he always needed to say hi. He made his mom and dad laugh often and, through his gregarious nature he brought his family closer to everyone in the community. Arthur exuded confidence. His parents thought he’d transition to Kindergarten with ease. Yet, several months into school, something was amiss.
Arthur realized other kids could read and he couldn’t. The teacher assured Arthur’s parents that Arthur would catch on to reading, that some kids are just delayed. Thus, Arthur’s mom and dad waited patiently. They set aside all their anxieties. They trusted the school system. After all, they were professionals. Yet, by the end of Kindergarten, Arthur’s mom and dad realized something shocking: Arthur didn’t know letter sounds. Also, he couldn’t read a single word.
Children develop behavior problems to cope with reading failure
In first grade, Arthur’s demeanor changed. Although Arthur was naturally compassionate and kind, he no longer smiled often. He was temperamental, often rude, and he avoided any situation where he might have to read. He believed his attitude would protect him from reading time. Often, it did. If I act out enough, maybe they won’t call on me to read.
Everyday, Arthur came home from school in a grumpy mood, sometimes on the brink of tears. He was silent and morose, often shushing his parents so he could mope around the house. In the morning, he never wanted to go to school.
Arthur’s mom said, “Every morning was an epic battle that zapped all my energy.” At school, Arthur acted out during reading time, often doodling or striking up a conversation with a peer. He knew he couldn’t read so he found ways to entertain himself. He found ways to cope with the boredom and humiliation of illiteracy.
A child’s reading difficulties present parents with a confusing array of options
Arthur’s mom and dad were befuddled. They didn’t know what to do. The teacher said Arthur would catch on, that many kids begin reading at the end of first grade. Thus, they waited longer. However, this time they waited with anxiety, looking, watching to see exactly what words Arthur could read. They found moments of hope to hang onto. Well, Arthur had memorized several books. Did that count as reading?
Arthur’s mom mourned the loss of her optimistic son. Arthur’s dad wondered if he had done anything wrong to cause the reading problems. They continued to wait, trusting that, as the school said, he’d catch on.
By the end of first grade, Arthur still couldn’t read. His parents grew exceedingly nervous, and wondered when this magical time of “catching on” would occur.
Arthur continued to cry before school. His parents began to wonder if traditional school was even a good fit for their child. But they both worked demanding jobs and they couldn’t fathom how they’d add homeschooling to their already long list of responsibilities. Plus, Arthur refused to read with his parents.
Children internalize reading difficulties and conclude, “I must be dumb”
During homework time, Arthur yelled at his mom, “You’ve no idea what this is like for me. How stupid this makes me feel!” Arthur’s mom sat still and silent. She was stunned. Her bright boy, the one who’d memorized all the dinosaur names and car models, was charming and quick-witted, believed he was stupid. Arthur put his head on the table and hid his face.
One day, as Arthur and his mom were building with blocks, Arthur said, “Mom, do you need to read to be someone that builds bridges? Cause that’s what I want to do.”
Arthur’s mom paused; she felt she had to answer honestly. “Yes, and you will learn to read one day.”
“I don’t think I ever will,” said Arthur. “I’m not smart.” Arthur’s mom felt a twisting in her stomach, a loss of breath, something in her that shattered. She wanted to cradle her son.
By the beginning of second grade, Arthur still couldn’t read. The school continued to say he’d catch on, shortly, very, very soon.
Reading difficulties often put unexpected financial pressure on families
Arthur’s mom searched for a private reading interventionist. At first, she checked the big, corporate reading intervention companies. These mega companies charged an astronomical amount, often requiring a daily after-school commute, $120 an hour and a 3-hour a day minimum. She was shocked. $360 a day? A $800 assessment? At that point, she realized she needed to get a side job. She worked extra hours to pay for her son to learn to read. She thought to herself, “Well, I always wanted my son to be able to go to college… but what is college for if my child can’t read?”
A child’s reading difficulties consume familial, especially marital, relationships
The added stress impacted her marriage, as so many of the conversations she’d had with her spouse for years, involved their sons reading difficulties. What should we do? Wait? Get help? How much help? How many extra hours do I work to afford help?
These conversations were exhausting and all-consuming. Arthur was observant. He understood his reading difficulties added stress on his parents. He wished he could magically read as the school said he would.
Arthur’s mom was amazed that the reading intervention worked. Arthur was learning how to read, albeit not magically. He learned in steps, slowly moving up levels.
Arthur’s mom wondered why the school couldn’t do what the reading interventionist achieved. She looked deeper into the field of reading. She saw that the reading interventionist was using explicit, systematic phonics instruction, a method backed by science.
Though the school used phonics, they introduced sounds sloppily, did fruitless activities like having kids feel a real pumpkin to master the letter “p.” The school emphasized repetitive books and encouraged kids to guess at the words.
In contrast, the reading interventionist used decodable books and emphasized sound-by-sound reading. The reading interventionist did not use sloppy phonics, but instead, very slowly and methodically layered instruction.
Arthur’s mom was exacerbated. Why couldn’t the school do what the reading interventionist did?
Arthur’s story is common
Arthur’s story is all too common. Many struggling readers end up tragically behind. Their self-esteem erodes, they develop behavior problems and they see their dreams and life opportunities shrivel and vanish.
Yes, it is true that some kids will struggle no matter what. These kids usually have severe dyslexia, memory-deficits or severe ADHD. However, even these kids can learn to read with research-based instruction. Their reading struggles are real, but not insurmountable.
All kids can learn to read. We must protect their confidence, identity and future opportunities. Teach them in a way that works.
A child’s confidence is fragile, and we as a society, hold it in our hands. We have to show kids that they can learn to read. Thus, we have to be competent ourselves. We must teach using science-based reading instruction first, so kids never plunge into reading failure. Early reading difficulties erode a child’s self-esteem, threaten the fabric of the family, and shrink a child’s chance at an economically fruitful life.
Teachers often don’t get to pick their reading curriculum
Sometimes teachers don’t get to pick their own curriculum. Often, they have to use what the principal or superintendent has chosen. In many cases, school districts decide on reading curricula that is not in line with the science of teaching reading.
As a result, many teachers feel the need to go rogue and pick a research-based method surreptitiously. Our phonics books introduce phonics sounds one at a time. Teachers who go rogue can use Reading Elephant books to help they’re struggling readers. Parents who have children that have fallen behind like Arthur can use our phonics books to help their child master phonics sounds.
If you’re interested in what science-based reading instruction is, check out: Research Based Reading Programs.