To the Parent with a Struggling Reader

In their book “Straight Talk About Reading,” Susan Hall and Louisa Moats relate one parent’s story about a child with difficulty in learning to read.  This mom had done what she could to prepare her child for reading instruction in the preschool years.  She had taught him the alphabet and read aloud to him a lot.  And since this child loved to be read to, the mom looked eagerly to her son’s learning to read in school.

This was a top notch school in an affluent Chicago suburb. Having attended curriculum night in the fall of that school year, this mom was assured that her son would be receiving a good education. And true enough, as the months went by, the son only had good things to relate to her every day that she picked him up from school. He consistently gave her details of what he did and who he spent time with.

In the winter, things began to change.  Her son didn’t seem as excited to share about his school experiences.  At home, he was easily frustrated.  It was clear that something was wrong.  When this mom decided to volunteer to see what was going on in the classroom, she realised that her son had a reading problem.  He then openly asked her why it was that he was always the first to finish his math seat work but belonged to the group with lowest reading level. Needless to say, this mom went right ahead and proactively sought to do something about her son’s problem.

When I read this story, I quickly realised that this could have well been my 5th child’s experience had he been going to school instead of homeschooling. I have been teaching my now 7-year old son to read for about 3 years (since he was 4).  All his three sisters (now 18, 17 and 11) were exposed to reading instruction by the age of four or five (using Sing, Spell, Read and Write as well as Phonics Pathways).  They were reading beginner chapter books by age six and Sonlight Core C advanced readers in 2nd/3rd grade. His older brother who is now 13 was a little more difficult to teach and perhaps learned a year later than the girls. I recall having to research a better phonics program for him and we ended up with Spell to Write and Read (SWR). But once he caught on, he just went on naturally improving his reading skills.

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At first, I thought, the youngest was just like his older brother so I loosened up a bit.  I taught him the phonograms and he learned them (both their sounds and how to write them).  We also got through a portion of Phonics Pathways but sometimes it just didn’t seem like he was getting it or it was fatiguing him too much so I would let him take a breather.  Reading wasn’t natural to him so I didn’t want to force it.  Instead, I continued reading to him a lot and he looked forward to this just as all his siblings did.

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Meantime, he grew in other areas.  He advanced pretty well in math and constantly surprised me with how much of it he could do mentally.  He was diagnosed with amblyopia (his right eye did all the work and his left eye was almost blind) and so has had to patch his right eye for 7-8 hours a day to allow the other eye to work.  He could always tell what time to remove the patch based on the time he put it on in the morning, even if it involved minutes. He produced wonderful art work, was very creative, and always thought outside-the-box.  He listened eagerly to his Bible, science, history or literature read-alouds and could narrate quite well and in detail.  I observed his much wider vocabulary, probably from living with four siblings who were extensive readers and articulate speakers. He recently sat through my reading to him the unabridged version of “Alice in Wonderland” even if I knew it was above his head. He completed both the Handwriting Without Tears book introducing numbers and letters in print (yes, without tears!) and Cursive First worksheets.  He would make a good gymnast if I allowed him lessons and participated in whatever sport the rest of children were into.

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In the beginning of this school year, when it dawned on me that his siblings were gobbling up chapter books by seven, I began to become concerned.  When asked to read aloud, my now second grader was still reading his beginner readers in a choppy way (“duh-o-guh” instead of “d-o-g”) and, it seemed, with laboured breathing.  He would know how to read a word on the first page of a book and then come across it on the second page as if seeing it for the first time. He was always losing the line he was reading unless his fingers were guiding him. He would know the phonogram “th” and then later write “hte”.  We’ve been trying to do Spell to Write and Read since he was five but it didn’t seem it helped in his reading skills.  At first, his writing was getting in the way (he had trouble reading list words written in his cursive hand). It also seemed that it wasn’t enough to just keep going on with the spelling lists like I did with the other children.  He would see some of these words and not seem to recognize them. Or maybe I just didn’t know how to implement this program with much review or adapt it to his needs.  The other children would be presented the list words a couple of times and thereafter spell them correctly or recognize them readily in their texts.

I have spent a good deal of time since researching the situation. Whenever I found myself in the library, I was browsing books about reading disabilities.  I found that though my son did exhibit some of the symptoms of dyslexia, he also didn’t experience a majority of them. He wasn’t clumsy, didn’t write illegibly, didn’t stutter or have difficulty with speech (speech delay is said to be one of the signals of possible dyslexia), didn’t have trouble bringing up words that he wanted to say.  Of course, he also didn’t experience the kind of embarrassment most children with dyslexia encountered in the school setting.  Thus, I hesitated from bringing this up with our family doctor.  The last thing I wanted was for my son to go through stress thinking something is wrong with him. He already had to see a specialist for movement and vocal tics some time ago.

A wonderful discovery through my favourite homeschool online forum is a book called “Overcoming Dyslexia” by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. (neuroscientist, paediatric professor at Yale, and co-director of the Yale Centre for the Study of Learning and Attention).  As the title suggests, the author proposes that though dyslexia “cannot be outgrown, it can be overcome.”  I had to come to grips with the fact that it will take effort to teach my son to read with ease.  Unlike the other children, it will not just “click” with him.  For him (and 20% of children according to statistics), reading will not come naturally without proper attention and a little more perseverance.  But, with the suitable intervention, his weakness could be overcome.  With that, I had a new perspective on things.  I couldn’t delay any longer and I had to be more purposeful.

Dr. Shaywitz refers to dyslexia as the “frustrating and persistent problem in learning to read.” Contrary to the earlier belief that dyslexia is a visual problem (seeing words or letters backwards) scientists have discovered that it is actually a language problem and a very localised one concerning only the brain’s phonologic module. In her book, Shaywitz defines the phonologic module as “the language factory, the functional part of the brain where the sound of language are put together to form words and where words are broken down into their elemental sounds.” Higher order intellectual abilities (comprehension, reasoning) are in tact.

It seems that children who are dyslexic are unaware that words are broken down into chunks of sounds (syllables) and even smaller components called phonemes.  There is a glitch in their phonologic module so it is necessary for them not only to be taught the phonemes explicitly  but also be taught to recognize them in their reading (or speaking). They have difficulty doing that instinctively. In this way, they could hopefully store words they have learned more effectively in their brain like majority of children do.

As mentioned above, it didn’t seem that the way I was implementing Spell to Write and Read (SWR) was attending to my son’s challenges and I was unsure why. I recall reading about “phonemic awareness” in the pre-reading section long ago but it didn’t catch my attention then. Meantime, the program All About Spelling came up frequently in posts or forum discussions on reading challenges that I stumbled upon. After looking it through some more, I decided to give it a try, being less expensive than programs that targeted children with dyslexia. After using the first level of AAS for the past 5 or so weeks, it has become clearer to me what the lack of  “phonemic awareness” looks like and how it could be addressed.

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Firstly, I discovered that my son had difficulty telling words that rhyme.  I didn’t realise it but, unlike the other children, he wasn’t too fond of reciting verses from Mother Goose. Thus, I put an emphasis on reading poetry during read-aloud time and asking him now and then if he recognized the rhyming words. Using AAS, we spent time segmenting words by sliding a token for each sound he heard (e.g. 2 tokens for “ea-t”, 3 tokens for “g-oo-d”, 4 tokens for “b-l-a-ck”) as well as counting syllables by clapping (one each for “eat,” “good,” and “black”). Although he was good at segmenting words, he couldn’t always tell me the number of syllables in a word correctly.  Mind you, these are activities I skipped while teaching the other four children to read.

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I liked it that AAS came with cards for reviewing and mastering the phonograms, spelling rules, and spelling words. The way spelling words that were presented per lesson shared a common rule (e.g. short a words, compound words, words that end with y) seemed to agree with my son. It helped him remember better how to spell words (and therefore read) that were similar to each other.

The lessons progressed from simple one-syllable words with short vowel sounds (bag, beg, big, bog, bug) then one-syllable words with consonant blends (step, dent), to distinguishing when to use c or k (cat, kit) as well as k  or ck (ask, duck), to words ending in y (my, by, cry, fly),  to words with sh, ch, nk and ng, to recognizing the smaller words inside compound words (bathtub, windmill) and then (now in Level 2) to two-syllable words with two closed syllables (mag-net) and two-syllable words with one open and one closed syllable (mo-ment).

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The letter/phonogram tiles made manipulating words simple so that he could gain more awareness of beginning sounds, ending sounds, as well as what was in the middle of a word.  Dyslexics need to realize that if the “t” is removed from “seat”, then you have “sea” or that if you add “t” to “sea” you have “seat”.  The vowels in red amidst the blue consonants allow for easy recognition of open (e.g. “go” and therefore a long o sound) and closed syllables (e.g. “got” and therefore a short sound). It also gave him a clue to help him divide a word into syllables (“each syllable must have a vowel”). As well, the spelling rules call on the use of my son’s “in tact” reasoning and other higher order thinking skills to help with his weakness in the phonologic module.

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Meanwhile, he is reading books with ease.  I found most of the Sonlight Core C regular readers (the advanced readers we owned too difficult for him still) from the library and purchased him a copy of the Beginner’s Bible for Christmas.  The library books didn’t stay with us too long and he is now three-fourths through his new Bible.  He is able to blend words with more ease allowing him to read aloud more smoothly. Most importantly, he looks forward to reading.

He is still stumped at times. Leaving him by himself to take a test for Saxon 2 recently, I found him skipping the first problem and moving on to the questions that required direct number calculations (8×10, 10×5, 11-8).  The problem-solving question he skipped (with a sad face drawn next to it by him) contained the name “Cedric” which bothered him so he couldn’t go on to read.

Well, we’ve only just began the second book of AAS.  We just have to persevere slowly and steadily. I think in time, we may even get back to our Spell to Write and Read program. I haven’t gotten to the end of my library books about dyslexia and will continue to educate myself what I can do to help my son.

Dr. Shaywitz encourages parents/teachers like me in her book,

A child with dyslexia is in need of a champion, someone who will be a support and unflinching advocate; his cheerleader when things are not going well; his friend and confidante when others tease and shame him; his advocate who by action and comments will express optimism for his future.  Perhaps most important, the struggling reader needs someone who will not only believe in him but will translate that belief into positive action by understanding the nature of the reading problem and then actively and relentlessly working to ensure that he receives the reading help and other support he needs.  Experience has shown me that if a child receives such help, he will succeed.”

It is a blessing, indeed, that the nature of homeschooling has not only allowed me to detect this struggle in my child before it caused more harm, but also that the nature of his further education will allow me to do exactly as described in the quote above. I will make sure to post an update sometime soon.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Curriculum Share 2015/16: K-2 Science | living and learning

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