I Can’t Learn to Read…I’m Dumb!
What do you say when a struggling reader says this to you?
Let me share the story of one young man, E.R., whom I tutored in reading. He was a juvenile detainee and had revolved through the detention center from the time he was twelve. When I met him he was 17½. He was very bright and personable. He loved art and design. He had an extreme anxiety for fight or flee which had served him well on the streets. His family wanted nothing to do with him and had told him so. He had been sentenced to stay in the detention center until he was 18 which is mandatory legal age to be released.
I was asked by one of the detention officers if I would work with him during these six months on his reading. I gladly accepted. He was always respectful towards me and engaged with any task I asked of him. He stayed focused for the entire session. His reading skills were extremely weak. When I began, he screened at a first grade, ninth month, grade level reading ability! His first words to me were, “I’m dumb. I can’t learn to read.” Wow, I said to myself. How do I reverse this attitude? I told him if he stuck with me he would increase his reading ability. He had to do what I asked and be determined to succeed, and he agreed he would. Where do I begin? I met with him twice a week for two hours each session. I started at the beginning with phoneme awareness. If word recognition is as weak as his, the underlying foundation of auditory processing is one of the root causes. He had virtually no sight words, so we started a sight word development plan also. His vocabulary was commensurate for his age and his listening comprehension was excellent. He had lost all interest in schoolwork and skipped school most days. His inability to read is a contributing factor. Every session we worked on strengthening his phoneme awareness which underlies the ability to attach letter symbols to sounds or what is more commonly called decoding/phonics. We addressed his sight word development along with his language development to include multi-syllable words and prefixes and suffixes. No session was complete without actual reading and comprehension. I used a book series I had used many times for older students that were high interest, but low readability level. They were stories he could relate to but written at a lower grade level ability, so he experienced success when reading and they weren’t childish looking books to him. They did not embarrass him.
As the sessions progressed, E.R. was gaining more esteem from the reading skills he mastered. This encouraged him to do more, and most importantly, it allowed him to see that yes, he could learn to read! His time of incarceration was not free of setbacks however. Depending upon the color of tee shirt he was wearing, I could tell when he had misbehaved by the rules and was knocked down to the lowest level of tee shirt where he had to start his climb to the top level of behavior where he could gain rewards such as more snacks from the snack cart or additional helpings at meals. His trust was increasing as our sessions continued.
One day when I arrived, he was pacing back and forth in our study cubicle. His first words to me were, “Boy, I’m tripping!” I was taken aback and wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I decided this looked like a day he wanted to talk first, which he did when something was bothering him. I responded, “Okay, what are you tripping about?” To set the backdrop, since he had revolved through this detention center since he was twelve, the staff looked upon him as someone they had helped raise. If he was on good behavior, he was sometimes allowed to ride in the detention van when staff made a food run to a local fast food. The day before, he had gone to Burger King. He told me today, about his outing and the words flew out of his mouth, “I could read the signs!” I could tell the light had gone on for him. He was now a believer that he could learn to read! When we finished our sessions together, he screened for word recognition at a mid-seventh grade level! His comprehension was maintaining at a high level as were his higher order thinking skills. An accomplishment for which he was so proud. and I couldn’t have been more-proud of HIM!
“Reading success starts early and needs frequent monitoring starting in Grade 1 through Grade 3. By the end of third grade, a child transitions from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’. If their reading ability level is below their grade they start a challenging journey of catchup. This may contribute to wrong choices with serious consequences going forward.”-Kristin Anderson Cetone, Reading Specialist