Struggling Readers Learn to Read

I learned I could read the summer before fifth grade. Technically, I could actually read before then, but the adults seemed to feel I was a bad reader; so I was. Being a bad reader (and not wanting to look bad) I faked it. In fourth grade I made book reports from books I had chosen for their pictures, so I could tell the story of the book without reading it.

The moment I “learned to read” is vivid still today. My mother is sitting on the couch with me reading The Battle of Britain, a Landmark Book now out of print I am sure. The story is a gripping, and I am at one with history and my mother’s undivided attention. I am in love.

Halfway through she looks up and says, “Oh, my gosh. It’s 5:30. I have to get dinner ready.”

Shocked out of my bliss, I say, “No, you can’t. Please don’t stop. We have to finish.”

“No. I am sorry. I have to make dinner, now. I’m sorry.”

There I was, right in the middle of real, historical action, and I had to know how it ended. I finished the book before dinner. From then on, “I could read.” More accurately, that moment on the couch liberated me from the notion that I could not read.

Still, the summer after sophomore year in high school, my parents, still concerned about how long it took me to get through the mountain of reading that high school required, enrolled me in the “Baldrich Reading Center” in Greenwich, Connecticut, in hopes that I could learn how to get through books faster.

Baldrich started us off with a pre-test in which I demonstrated that I could read 260 words per minute with 90% comprehension. Then, they set about teaching me the skills of reading faster: pre-reading, planning ahead, skimming, reading different material at different speeds, getting the big picture before plunging in, speed reading, focusing only twice per line—see, I remember it all. We were told that really good readers focus only once. Hoping that at the end of the summer I would be able to read fast enough so that I would not have to stay up till midnight doing my homework, I applied myself diligently.

At the end of six weeks I was given a “post test,” the results of which were that I could now read 320 words per minute with 60% comprehension. The mathematics was clear: 260 x .9 = 234; 320 x .6 = 192. Before=234; After=192. Hmmmm.

I still read word for word, sometimes rereading sentences, but the older I get the happier I am with the brain I was given. My wife says, “Sure, I can read a book in a weekend but don’t remember anything. Finishing a book takes you a long time, but you remember it all. Which is better?”

I am certain that today I would have been labeled “dyslexic.” I was twenty when educators invented it, describing those of us who have trouble reading, defining the symptoms of the “syndrome,” creating a category of person, and turning it into a field of study.

Forty-five years of professional experience helping children learn and keeping on top of the research in the field of dyslexia and other learning disabilities, has not proven to me that creating a syndrome has done much for us other than upgrading “retarded” from a catch-all label to a disability. A child can now say, “I’m not stupid; I have dyslexia,” and that is a good thing.

So what? 35% of CEO’s of American companies would “test positive” for dyslexia—maybe a dyslexic brain is an asset.

Children are not really at risk for their weaknesses, but for the notion that weaknesses put you at risk. Labeling a weakness can engrave it into one’s ego, turning a temporary inability into a permanent disability. Worrying about a weakness takes one’s eye off the core question: “How do I get this done?”

Comparing any brain with how the “normal” reading brain works and focusing on what is missing is fundamentally Procrustean. (Look up Procrustes.) For all the hundreds of children and adults I know who read in ways that are different from the ways rewarded by schools, the challenge is still the same: to figure out how your unique brain works and to make it work for you.

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6 Responses to Struggling Readers Learn to Read

  1. Tracy says:

    I have 3 daughters, including a set of twins, one of whom is profoundly dyslexic. Her name is Greer and she is currently a high school freshman. She, along with her sisters, had the good fortune to attend Children’s Day School in SF from preschool to 8th grade, so for most of those years, we had Rick Ackerly as our “family educator.” Even with his guidance, everyone agonized over how best to help Greer develop sufficient reading skills to be successful in life. We delayed having her “tested” until 3rd Grade. Then, we decided on a decidedly low key approach – disregarding most of the recommendations from the diagnosing therapist beginning with the one to transfer her to a special ed school and put her back a grade. About six or seven months ago, Rick asked me if I thought that Greer would be better off today if we had taken a more aggressive or therapeutic approach. I wrote a reply which we then extended for an article he’d been asked to put up on the Huffington Post. Here it is: For me, it’s all summed up in the first sentence.
    “Greer reads aloud in class. Reading will always be extraordinarily difficult for Greer. That is a function of her brain’s biochemistry. She goes to a school where the 7th and 8th graders read challenging, difficult literature that is usually not tackled until high school. (Dave Eggers’ What Is The What? in 7th grade and Zeitoun this year. Not to mention Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby and Life of Pi.) The class is able to accomplish this feat by reading the books aloud. Everyone sits around and takes turns reading to one another. Rather than this being the nightmare of dread and chagrin for Greer that one would expect, it’s her favorite class. She takes her turn without fear, reading to the best of her ability, frequently re-reading a sentence that gave her particular trouble to give the language cadence and proper emphasis. Her participation in the discussions that follow reading the material, according to her teacher, consistently demonstrate mastery of the material, attention to detail, awareness and appreciation of irony and metaphor and all-around superior critical thinking, comprehension and retention. I don’t believe for a moment that earlier or more remedial intervention would have resulted in a better outcome. I don’t believe that following the learning disabilities specialist’s recommendation to put her back a grade at a school for dyslexic children would have made her a “better reader” at 13. I feel equally sure that the low key attitude about it all that she grew up with is why she’s confident and comfortable enough to be herself in class.

    She is heading off to high school with an array of technology aids: voice to text software, software that reads scanned material in a resonantly human voice and a pen that becomes a recorder for when the need for note taking gets ahead of her. Most importantly she is setting off with a clear understanding of her challenges and confidence in her ability to define her own success.” What parent could ask for anything more?

    Here’s the link for those who’d like to read the whole Huffington Post article:

  2. Anne Marie Schar says:

    So what we really have is the new normal. These examples are wonderful to show to parents at a school like mine. We have a high percentage of dyslexic students and, with the help of our Learning Specialist and a willingness to let these students find out how they can read and work best, I believe that we are successful. “Differentiated Learning” is the phrase of the week, but it just goes back to helping students help themselves and accept how they work best.

    Thanks for the shared experiences Rick and Tracy.

  3. Rick says:

    Thanks so much, Tracy and Anne Marie. I like the idea of a new normal–just being yourself

  4. Pingback: True Readiness « Abundant Life Children

  5. I enjoyed read all these comments. It made me think back about my approach. As I was working with my preschoolers in the 70’s, 80’s, I began noticing things we adults said and did that discounted young children’s advances in literacy from birth to school age. We seem to be saying: you don’t know how to read, and someone with teach you later. And when later comes, the process is not user-friendly. But then I thought about how many words our children have learned to understand (used as auditory representations of other real life objects, behaviors, and ideas) – by age three (tens of thousands). Auditory symbols are much harder to distinguish, yet our child are immersed in a “talk-rich” and, by the way, non-developmentally appropriate environment. Printed symbols (words) are already discrete, and our children have already mastered symbolic representation of spoken words. It is a short jump to reading.

    I am not suggesting we teach our younger children to read like we teach our older children to read. I am suggesting that we don’t teach our children to read at any age, much like we didn’t teach them to talk (and ask, then how did that happen?)

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