The Annals of Teaching Reading

S, a 6th grade adopted boy attending an excellent public school, began to work with me last spring the issue that presented itself was decoding uncertainty and poor fluency.  S was adopted as an infant from a Central American country, is an extremely bright and energetic brown skinned boy, loves soccer and loves to learn.  He makes connections to reading, and has a warm and loving relationship to his mother, whom he admires greatly.   My task in this case is to improve his decoding and reading speed and accuracy (fluency), to help him learn his math facts and develop better procedural memory for multistep math functions like long division (working memory), and to regulate his attention (ADHD) by learning to think about his own thinking (meta-cognition).

S and I work on reading the Scott O'Dell novel, The Black Pearl.  We look at an atlas of Baja CA, and then since it was nearby, a map of Guatemala and Panama.  I was in Panama this summer and S made an important trip back to Guatemala and tells me about the great temple he saw there.  In this way, we enable ourselves to move ourselves closer to the story and visualize the setting, perhaps more accurately than we could have done from the text alone, and to understand the diction and language of the text in which O'Dell tries to approximate the formality of Spanish.

S spend some time drawing his version of the Manta Diablo, a terrifying figure in the story, and we discuss how he envisions it like Godzilla, and how Ramon, the protagonist, envisions it as his mother has told him about it: a monster larger than a ship, once a land creature but now sent to the bottom of the sea by the priest, Linares.

Why spend time on this?  Visualizing the unfamiliar leads to good discussion about the meaning of a monster in our lives, and the uses of this monster so far in the story as a legend to frighten children into good behavior.  We also think that the main character may have to fight this creature, and we get goose bumps about it.

All this helps us to connect deeply to the text, to begin to care about Ramon, and to understand his courage as a character. In dealing with a pearl diver who is a bully, Ramon is silent but watchful.  S would have a different solution and tells me about it, his dark eyes narrowing. He might toss the bully over the side of the pearl divers’ ship and let him swim home!   This bully is scary!  All this enables us to use stories as they are meant to be used, even when decoding is slow, which is to learn about ourselves through learning about others.

Finally, we work on fluency and I gave S my analysis of the kinds of errors he makes.  Most of them are due to several factors:

  1. S tenses up, leans forward, and doesn't have all the breath he might need to stay relaxed.  So I remind him to lean back and breath, not to work too hard, and to scoop at least five words with the back of a pencil before he speaks.  He is so used to decoding being difficult that he reads word by word, and needs the practice of reading ahead before he reads aloud.
  2. S can miss words due to variable attention.  When he does, he is so smart that he tries to fix the sentence to match what he has said, and it slows him down greatly.  When I ask him to breathe and take the line again, he forgets to go back to reread from the beginning of the sentence. So I encourage him to go back farther and start at the beginning of a sentence to stay mindful of the meaning.  Reading is thinking, making meaning is key, and S is a natural at this.
  3. S is a hard worker, and I need him to relax and trust that he is a very good reader, using his brain power inefficiently to make up and change syntax of a sentence he has just misread to match the errors he has just made!  Better to relax, stop, and fix them.  So we need him to work less hard and to believe in his powers as a reader.  He doesn't notice when his reading gets choppy and stop to correct.  He plows ahead.
  4. S has some decoding issues when he encounters unfamiliar words.  Again, he is so smart that he memorizes words quickly, and so relies on word attack, syllabication and phonetic clues less than he should.

Finally we review our spelling and syllabication rules, and are creating a book of rules that S knows and is learning.  These principles of how our language works phonetically are a great relief to him, as he sees why words are spelled as they are, and learns how to break up unfamiliar words to sound them out correctly.

Our work is leisurely, our goal important and potentially life changing.  This is why I love teaching people to read.  It changes lives, changes self-perception, and unlocks the door to self expression.