A true story about three eight year olds who couldn’t read

I often get asked how to start teaching a child to read. This story gives some practical tips to use at home, as well as a peek inside an everyday classroom situation.

At a school I used to visit, there were three Grade 2 students who hadn’t yet learned to read. Their classroom behaviour was an issue – often defiant and disruptive, especially at reading time. The class teacher was having a tough time trying to keep her other reading groups on track with these little ‘rockets’ exploding whenever they had a mind to. I began working for an hour twice a week to teach them to read and give the teacher some respite.

These kids needed to experience some genuine success with reading as quickly as possible because as soon as they felt they couldn’t do something, they created drama.

Setting them up for success was easier said than done, however. Initially, it was a challenge to engage them at all. Being now in their fourth year of school, they were becoming masterful at avoiding reading.

Working as a group was often not possible as they would verbally abuse each other and refuse to stop or have tantrums and get violent or sulk. Sometimes one or other would hide under the table and refuse to come out. They always wanted to go to the toilet or get a drink, and fought over who was going to get the books or put them away…anything to avoid further exposing their failure to learn to read.

Why were these students not reading like their peers?

Focusing on the idea that that oral speech is made up of words, the kids quickly learned to take one step per word when given a short oral sentence to step out. The realisation that spoken words are actually made up of individual sounds was still a way off, however. Consequently, they didn’t understand that the letters of the alphabet actually represent the sounds in spoken words. Although singing the alphabet song together was always a big hit, when these kids talked about the alphabet, they frequently confused the letter names with their sounds, and hadn’t made any connection between the alphabet song, the names of the written letters, the sounds the letters represent and the sounds in spoken words.

For three years, these children had been reading books that contained repetitive text, ie, books with an almost identical sentence on each page – with perhaps a one-word change. Many reading series start off like this and it’s usually not a problem, but the idea is that children move on from this type of text fairly quickly. This hadn’t happened for these three – they just weren’t getting it. When someone told them what the sentence was, they memorised it and used the pictures to work out the word that changed from page to page.

Five simple tools helped teach them to read

  • Plastic letters – 3 sets of upper and lower case mixed together
  • Childrens’ picture dictionaries – and, later, slightly more advanced dictionaries with fewer pictures
  • Phonic readers – 3 sets of the first 10 books in a series
  • Cards with rhyming words taken from the phonic readers – the words were just handwritten on blank cards.
  • 10 page ‘list’ booklets made from 5 sheets of wide-lined paper cut in half lengthways and stapled at the top

These tools were used because the first three were already in the school, and the cards and booklets were easy to make. The choice of tools wasn’t the key factor…it was how they were used that made the difference in teaching these children to read.

Plastic letters, picture dictionaries and lists

The students first had to pick out any letters they knew the name AND sound of from a pile on the table. Less than a handful each…oh no!  Next they were asked to pick out any they knew the name OR the sound of, and we went through whichever of these wasn’t known. After practising for a while, we went around the group person by person to share. I had a turn too, not just because turn-taking needed to be modelled, but also because having an adult involved made the activity more enjoyable. It didn’t matter that I knew all the letters and sounds. When it was our turn, we had to choose any two of our letters – which were in front of us – and say each letter’s name, the sound it represents and a word that begins with that sound. We were all able to do this and contribute successfully to the lesson! The kids were also exposed to hearing different letters and sounds as we shared.

They learned how to sing the alphabet song as they flicked through a picture dictionary to the appropriate starting page for each letter. This link between oral and written letters was a revelation, and the activity became very popular. We always had an interesting time slowing the song right down for l, m, n, o and p. After a few of these sessions, they were ready to expand and start hunting in the picture dictionaries for three words beginning with one of the letters being learned. These had to be written these down on a list and then read to me. The kids found this really exciting, although the transference of words from dictionary to list was often a very slow process because they were fascinated with the dictionaries and tended to get caught up exploring them. To keep the process moving along, each word needed to be ticked as soon as it had been written and read.

Phonic reading books, rhyming cards and lists

The phonic readers had no repetitive sentences, and immediately the memorising problem disappeared. The books were very easy to read because many of the words repeated all the way through to give practice in a phonic pattern. For example, the first one had lots of ‘at’ words, like ‘cat’, ‘mat’, ‘fat’, ‘rat’, ‘bat’.

Three sets of the books were necessary because, later on, the students would be learning how to select books to suit their own level of reading, and this meant that each child would need a full set to choose from.

Everyone started off together on the first book in the series, following the words as it was read to them. The book began with just 2 or 3 words per page, building up to a couple of short sentences later on. We then took turns to read a page each and talk about it.

At first they didn’t recognise that there was a visual pattern to the rhyming words. Each child needed to say the words and circle the ‘at’ in each word in the book in pencil. It was exciting when different ‘at’ rhyming words began springing to mind.

Later, the children moved on to write short lists of ‘at’ words. They had to hunt for them in the reader or in the classroom environment, then write and read them accurately. The goal was to have 5 words per list and they received a tick for each word.

We also played rhyming snap, beginning with a few of these rhyming ‘at’ words and several other familiar words, including their own names. Initially this was a disaster because they were extremely competitive…and abominable losers. After a few terminated games, they began to calm down and co-operate because they really wanted to play, and over time we were gradually able to add in rhyming words from later books.

On the way to reading success!

When the kids realised they could actually read the first book, they started to get excited about the idea of practising by themselves. Being allowed to sit in a beanbag in a corner of the room to practise was a great privilege. I listened to each student read after practising, and they couldn’t wait to demonstrate how much they had improved. Confidence was growing! One of my favourite moments was when, just two weeks after we started, one child rushed over after practising his book and whispered into my ear, “I can read”. He genuinely felt that he had moved forward with reading. Success is often defined as this feeling of moving forward with something.

Two of the students were very irregular attendees at school and had no support with reading at home, so naturally they progressed more slowly than the third. After a few weeks, these two were still on the second book while the third student was on the fourth book. This caused a lot of jealousy and it was difficult to get these two to accept that they weren’t ready for the later books.

This was resolved by getting them to self-select books. They were asked to choose two books to read. One had to be a book they could already read and were practising. The second could be a ‘challenge’ book to work on.

It was very interesting watching the kids choose from all the books on the table in front of them. The weaker two immediately chose No 10 in the series as their challenge book. Their desire to be great readers was immense! However, after trying their books out, they soon realised they weren’t ready to jump to No 10, and from then on, more sensible choices were made.

When working with the challenge book, I would offer to read to them first. Then they chose which side of the book (ie the left or right hand side) to read, taking turns with me to read the pages. Usually they’d choose the side that appeared easier at the beginning of the book, but sometimes I had a turn at choosing so that they got practice in reading all the pages.

Rather than giving praise, I talked to each child seriously each time they finished reading, asking how they thought they’d gone and making comments such as ‘If you practise this page a bit more, you’ll probably be able to read the whole book easily from start to finish’. They only wanted to hear the truth about their progress, and all feedback was well received.

After ten weeks, all had moved forward significantly. Reading had become an enjoyable experience and turn-taking was now rarely a problem. One student had read all ten books and was able to join another reading group. Because of frequent absences, the other two had read only six books and needed to continue with the same process for another ten weeks. All three students were far less disruptive and considerably more focused on their work in regular class.



A true story about three eight year olds who couldn’t read — 2 Comments

  1. When your child reads, he or she looks at the written words on a page and decides what spoken words the written words represent. But that doesn’t help him understand what he is reading unless he also knows the meanings of those spoken words. The collection of spoken words that a child understands is usually called his or her oral vocabulary. The larger a child’s oral vocabulary, the more words he or she will be able to read and understand. There are many ways to increase a child’s oral vocabulary, and different children learn in different ways. The best way is just to talk together about the people and things that are in your child’s world. You can also build oral vocabulary when you share books, stories, songs and rhymes, and talk about the meanings of words. Games and puzzles can help, too.

  2. As kids are learning about the concept of spoken words, they are building upon the foundations in the developmental progression of reading. This progression also includes learning about concepts of print (also referred to as print awareness). Not to be confused with concept of word, concept of print includes an understanding that: print carries meaning, that books contain letters, words, sentences, and spaces. It also includes understanding what books are used for, and that books have parts such as a front cover, back cover and a spine.

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