Struggling Readers

I was one of those struggling readers. I didn’t become a reader until fifth grade. That puts me in league with two twenty-five-year-old single mothers whom Julie Pangrac of Project READ introduced me to. They told me their story of how they had been placed out of the regular classroom into special education early in their elementary careers, how they had gone all the way through high school sometimes being given A’s, and how they had received their high school diplomas without ever learning to read. They desperately wanted to be able to read; their broken self-esteem required it. Working with them Julie could see that they had the brainpower to read. However, their emotional block to reading was debilitating.

“When did you first say to yourself, ‘I am a bad reader’?” I asked them.

One said, “Second grade.” The other said, “First grade,” and started to cry.

The greatest blow to them both was the dual humiliation of being separated from their peers and put in with “the retards.” (It does no good for the adults to call it by a different name.) Like almost all children whose brains don’t conform to the particular way a particular teacher sees the world, they blamed themselves rather than the system.

I, too, blamed myself when I didn’t read on schedule.

My first memory of first grade is of sitting at a table with five other classmates taking turns reading from the first grade reader. Mrs. Warner, our teacher, stood behind us as we read. The girl to my left read half a page. Then it was my turn. Even today, I remember the exact words:

“See Jane run. Look, look, look, Sam. Look at Jane run.” (1951)

Each word was a chore. Yet, reading was the challenge, and I applied my whole self to it. With my brow in a frown and sweat on my palms, I read each word.

Then, Mrs. Warner came up on my right as I read and ran two fingers across my forehead.

I jerked my head up to look at her and said, “What?” welcoming the excuse to be distracted.

“Don’t frown,” she said.

Looking back down at the page I tried to smile AND struggle at the same time.

Finally, it was Johnny’s turn, and I was gratified to see that Johnny, my best friend at the time, struggled just like me.

Next week Johnny sat at another table. I asked Mrs. Warner, “Why is Johnny at a different table?”

“Because that is the advanced table,” she answered.

“But I can read as good as Johnny,” I protested.

“No, you can’t,” she said. “He is a better reader.”

I was crushed. It was one thing to be told that I was a bad reader. I could believe that. However, for this to separate me from my friend was a disaster. With that separation I lost three good things and gained one bad one.

I lost the opportunity to learn from modeling; I lost my best self-assessment tool: comparing my reading with Johnny’s; I lost one of my main ties to feeling I belonged in the class, my companion on this difficult challenge that we were all going through together. I gained a label: bad reader.

This was four strikes, and I was out. Even today, “I am a bad reader” is embedded in my psyche. Other reading memories are all built upon this same theme. I am a bad reader and being a bad reader separates me from my friends, compromises my place in this community, and puts my success at risk. I know from talking with these two young women that they suffered the same four strikes.

Many factors determine a life, not just early reading. I had a number of things going for me that gave my life a trajectory different from my two new illiterate friends and millions of our fellow Americans. First, being white and relatively affluent I was free of the presumption of being at risk due purely to the circumstances of my birth. Second, after third grade my parents moved me to a school that taught the three R’s in the context of the education of my whole self. Third, there was a lot more in my life than schoolwork. Fourth, my parents and teachers never told me what my test-scores were.

So, I did learn to read in fifth grade, but that is another story.

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10 thoughts on “Struggling Readers

  1. I attended an in-service on differentiated learning (our favorite new catch phrase here) and I thought, wow, this teacher just put those kids into reading groups. She said that she didn’t, but she did. She pointed out that kids would move from one group to another (and they did if their performance was up or down per the group.)

    As an “excellent” reader at a young age, it was painful to sit while those who were not as quick with the skill were reading aloud, however, as an educator I see the value in finding another way to approach this disparity.

    Thanks for the memory.

  2. My reading groups in first or second grade were the Cardinals, the Bluejays and the Robins. Every one of us knew which was the advanced group, which was average and which was below average. Wait! Aren’t all the children above average? (And the women are strong, the men good looking?) This ain’t Lake Wobegone, or is it? As I say repeatedly with regard to child development, and this would include reading and language, what’s the rush that every child will do everything on someone else’s expected schedule. Sometiimes, eventually should be OK and acceptable. Of course there is concern when a child seems to be lagging seriously behind all the rest. So, perhaps extra time will help as would additional support. Reading is fundamental and reading at home helps as do many other exercises and “games” which parents can play with their children, and grandchildren. And books made such great gifts!

  3. My son just learned to read and he is in the 5th grade. When I asked him when this happened, he said “sometime last week.” I was in tears. For years I reminded him and myself that different people learn various skills at different times. I’ve always supported him by reading with him and checking myself to be patient and trust in his process. I’m so grateful to know delayed reading is not uncommon. And I know parents and teachers are instrumental in holding a safe space for a child to develop, without labels. Thank you Rick.

  4. Oh, Rick, this strikes a chord with me on many levels.

    I entered kindergarten as a 4 year old, already reading independently. Over the next couple of years, I kept getting demoted in reading groups because (a) I’d read ahead (a no-no) or (b) questioning the stories and responses –“That doesn’t make sense”. It must be 52 years ago, but I still feel the shame of being demoted from the Robins (the top group) to the Bluebirds (the bottom group) for my behavior.

    Outside of school, I continued to devour books, but just didn’t talk about them or write about them in class. I think it was 3rd or 4th grade when our school adopted the SRI reading system, where you read and answered questions on short stories. I could work at my own pace and really enjoyed in-class reading again.

    Then my daughter entered school. I am so grateful to Darlene M., who was my daughter’s kindergarten & 2nd grade teacher. She called me at the very beginning of 2nd grade, concerned because “it was like [my daughter] missed all of the first grade phonics work”. Months and months later, the dyslexia diagnosis was made — with Mrs. M’s help, we had already started an evidence-based remediation program.

    Still, I remember my daughter getting into the car towards the end of second grade and saying in the saddest possible voice, “Mommy, I still can’t read, and [BestFriend#1] and [BestFriend#2] are already reading chapter books.” She is now 23 and an ardent (if slow) reader, set to graduate from college with 7 straight semesters on the Dean’s List. But she remembers how painful it was to be a lagging reader in elementary school.

    My home school district (I’m on the special education PTA) is also pushing “reading by the end of kindergarten”. But what they have skimped in order to do this is a rich phonemic awareness curriculum in kinder and into first, and investing in the development of rich oral language, both receptive and expressive.

    The next district over denies the existence of dyslexia. Really. To them it is “really rare” and “a medical diagnosis”. When I look at the IDEA data for that district, they are overall below average in the number of kids served AND in kiddos identified as having a specific learning disability. The parental scuttlebutt is that struggling readers in THAT district tend to end up at a local parochial school with a strong reading program. Why? The parochial school principle had a number of dyslexic nieces and nephews.

    There’s a lot in the dyslexia literature on the emotional effects of struggling to read (at least on unremediated kiddos). It is a shame.

  5. Thank you all, for your powerful and important stories.
    I fear that our system is getting more and more procrustean. I just talked again today with the director of ProjectREAD here in Decatur. From her point of view. The system is systematically sentencing children to debilitating shame and fear of discovery, fear of being crippled.
    It’s upsetting.

  6. I loved reading as a child, and have two strong early memories of reading.

    First was at ‘A Growing Place,’ my montessori preschool & kindergarten. I was very young, maybe 3 years old. The 2.5 to 6 year olds were all in the same room together. One day a few of the big girls (4 to 6 year old) taught me how to spell my name. I was so excited to spell my name and to spend time with the big girls. Second was with my Mom. When we read aloud, I would get a word to own for the book. Maybe it was “cat” in “Cat and the Hat.” My Mom would follow along with her finger in the book and pause when she got to cat. Then I would say the word. Early on I just knew that when she paused it was my turn. Over time, I would own multiple words – maybe cat and hat – so I had to know which word to say. At some point, I was reading. Even after I was reading, Mom would still read aloud to me. I remember us going through a box of tissues at the end of the “Where the Red Fern Grows.”

    Both situations were so natural, a part of life spending time and learning from those I cared about. I had no concept of what I should or shouldn’t know how to do at the time. I truly believe that my AGP early childhood experiences was incredibly influential to who I’ve grown up to be. In particular, the strong sense of intrinsic motivation & ownership of your activities plus the mixed classrooms so you learn & teach other children from the beginning are so important. With so many different ages together, there was no leveling and learning at your own pace was natural. We learned because the world was exciting, and there was so much to learn and create and explore. I wanted to do what the others could do. I don’t think I’ve ever internalized a sense of true leveling, what I should or shouldn’t be able to do.

    ps – Laurie Kleen, my preschool teacher, is still in St. Louis if you ever want to meet another wonderful educator in the area.

  7. Zan, Thank you for your excellent portrait of the essence of education and the active ingredients in learning to read, and learning all things.
    I definitely want to meet Laurie some day. I am sure it will happen.

  8. My question is, “What IS a teacher/school to do?”
    Reading Groups do reflect a desire to address students’ varied reading abilities. Yet shouldn’t 100 years (more or less) of stigmatizing so many students teach us to try something else. Indeed, why are they still so popular? Tradition and simple implementation, I guess.
    Zan details ‘role of parents’ and ‘mixed-age groups’ (Of course, ‘older kids’ know how to read – they are older! No stigma there.) Can (or have) schools implemented these? Any other successful strategies? Do schools sponsor parent-child read-alongs to demonstrate and promote varied ‘methods’?

    In arithmetic, “numeracy” and “mental math” play a similar role. “Speed tests” and “whole class participation” led to stigmas similar to “reading groups”. My impression, is that many teachers have thus dropped such activities – but then left a void. (Clarification: By mental math, I mean activities such as “Count by 10’s.” – forward and backward – first start with 10 or 200; later start at 7 or 107. When you reach: 27; 17; 7; ____ do you stop or keep going? Or doubling: “What is double 38?” How did YOU do it? (38+38? 60+16? 80-4? 38+30+8?)

    But the key again is how to implement these in a classroom while avoiding stigmatizing students? Any ideas?

  9. Yes, Rick, there are many methods that don’t stigmatize kids and teachers need training. Underlying the methods is the way a teach, school, parents and culture hold the “standards.” Is it just interesting to know that you are in the second half of the population in the speed withwhich you pick up reading or the multiplication tables? Or is it a message that you are falling behind in the race to success–and will likely lose if by fourth or fifth grade you are still behind. The agony I feel for the half of the population that shows up on the lower half of a normal curve at any particular time, is that the people around him/her panic, label, and give up on him/her, and that they therefore give up on themselves.

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