A New Year (Part 1)

Across the globe, as we celebrate the year ahead, we commonly reflect on the events of the past as well. There were the lessons we learned… and taught… and the countless emotions that we experienced and shared. There may be events we faintly recall or entire days that we remember with clarity! I wanted to share an experience that was a major stepping stone for me in the hope that it may be helpful for you or a student who needs support.

Twenty years ago in November, I met the person who started my journey into teaching reading. I have loved reading from an early age. Growing up, I was an avid reader, a quick reader, someone for whom reading was a pleasure and an escape. I was in college at the time, and probably hadn’t thought about reading being harder for some people since elementary school, when some kids were pulled from class for extra help.

This child was in seventh grade and reading was not easy or fun for him. Instead, it was a laborious and dreaded chore, far from my experience as my favorite pastime. He was struggling in school, and in danger of failing the seventh grade. I started helping him with his homework in the afternoons and quickly made several key observations. First of all, he was smart. A casual conversation with him would not reveal any indication that this was a kid who was academically behind or mentally deficient. Secondly, he tried hard and really wanted to be successful in school. Even though it was hard, he tried to do the work. His difficulties did not stem from lack of intelligence, desire, or effort.

Despite that, getting through his homework was a painstaking, exhausting process every day. We’d talk through an answer to a question and then he would start to write it down, but his spelling was so labored that as he strained to figure out each letter of a word, he would forget the rest of the sentence he was trying to compose. His handwriting was almost illegible and he would reverse letters, reverse the spelling of simple words like “was” and “saw.” His use of vowel patterns was random, sometimes adding an “e” to the ends of words that should have had short vowels and omitting the “e” from words that had long vowel endings, “lik” for “like,” but then “secrete” when he meant “secret.”

Reading out loud was slow, labored, and choppy, but his comprehension overall was surprisingly good compared to his reading. There would be certain details which he had read incorrectly, so of course this led to confusion or just caused him to understand something inaccurately, but overall he grasped what was happening. His ability to make accurate nuanced observations was certainly an advantage.

When we read together, I would discover by asking him, that he just didn’t know what some of the letters said, especially when multiple letters together said a single sound, like “ew” in “withdrew” or he would recognize that “ou” said “ow” in “found,” but then not recognize that same sound in “ouch.”

I also made some observations when we were not doing homework. This young man had song lyrics memorized perfectly. He could also recite bits from his favorite comedy routines word for word. Was this the same student who could not memorize simple math facts or spelling words? I didn’t understand at all, but I was determined to find out!