Some children learn to read almost effortlessly, and others seem to struggle endlessly. I recently started working with a little guy in first grade named Cayden. Halfway through the year, he had pretty much given up. While the other students in his class were engaged in reading and writing, Cayden had perfected the art of avoiding both as much as possible.
His classroom teacher said to me, “He just can’t remember!” His special education teacher echoed the same, saying, “I have been working on the same five sight words for three weeks, and he still can’t remember them.”
Here is a video of Cayden reading a simple level B book. You can see that he does not have one-to-one matching established, but he is using the pictures and for the most part is able to carry the pattern of the text.
How can we help Cayden?
It is almost impossible to teach a student to read if they don’t want to learn. But what makes a child not want to learn? They believe they can’t! Not only do his teachers think Cayden can’t remember anything—Cayden believes it too! He has told me so on many occasions. The first step is to find a way for the student to succeed. Teaching the same five words over and over again, with the student failing at learning each time, is not helpful.
After assessing Cayden, I found he did know a few words that he could write and recognize in print. Next I arranged for Cayden to see those words again and again, as I knew they would teach him how to monitor or check on his reading. Not all of the words showed up in his books (for example, the names Pop and Cayden), so we wrote some books together, and I used BookBuilder Online to make him some books. Here is a BookBuilder story called Hats that I used with Cayden. This little book provided a breakthrough: he started looking at the print! You too can personalize a book in this way for one of your students.
The other important message for Cayden and other struggling readers (and their teachers) is that there are ways to help students remember. Thinking about what would make sense and what sounds right helps. Also, making the first sound of the word helps call it up. We need to build on students’ strengths. Both teachers were using “decode-able” text with Cayden (a district requirement). But the books did not sound like spoken language, so Cayden couldn’t use his oral language to help anticipate what would sound right. And the weak story lines didn’t help him to think about what would made sense. Struggling students need to be given text that allows them to use all sources of information. The more we take away, the harder it gets!
As teachers, we need to be partners together in helping our students read. Cayden’s classroom teacher and special education teacher have begun to set goals together and work in tandem. It is most unhelpful for Cayden to work on one thing in his classroom and then work on something very different with his special education teacher. Consider the teaching of sight words. Yes, he really needs to develop a core group of words he knows, but for him to be successful, his teachers need to start with just one. Furthermore, all his teachers need to work on that one word until Cayden knows it.
To accomplish this with Cayden, we used Jan Richardson’s four steps to teach the word. Then we reviewed each sight word daily! Finally, we made sure each word we were teaching showed up in many of his books and that he used it when writing. To ensure success, teachers need to provide the same echoes across their reading lessons.
Cayden is making progress. Yes, that progress is slow, but he is no longer completely discouraged. He is enjoying reading and loves writing. Recently, he read Splashing Dad with me—a level C book. His teachers are collaborating, and both are seeing progress. I feel very hopeful.
I have been thinking a lot about how to help teachers better collaborate with each other. I am excited to announce the Literacy Footprints Intervention Partner that will be ready in April. A big thank-you to the schools and teachers who piloted the program and provided us with such great feedback and data.
In the pilot, classroom teachers used Literacy Footprints and the intervention teachers used Intervention Partner to provide struggling readers with books with similar characters, sight words, and language structures. The Word Study lessons provided an echo, with similar concepts being taught, which in turn helped those students consolidate new learning.
The data coming in shows us that there is great power in working together. Whether you are a Reading Recovery teacher, a classroom teacher, an ELL teacher, or a special education teacher, we all need to partner up. Together we can make a difference!