Recently, a tutor wrote me about an issue that is, unfortunately, all too common. She was concerned about the reading difficulties experienced by some third grade girls with whom she has been working. She detailed their problems as “misinterpreting punctuation, confusing the little words such as an, the, he, she, there, and here, and balking at decoding new words.” She went on to say that, “Their main strategy is guessing at everything. Even when the sentence doesn’t make sense, they continue reading.” Then she added what is probably the most important point of all.”They act like they’ve resigned themselves to not being able to read well.” The tutor then asked what might be done to “help these students fill in the gaps in their basic reading skills.”
Fortunately, in terms of instruction, lots can be done. The Reading Kingdom, for example, has been specifically designed to deal with the difficulties the tutor has observed–difficulties that are shared by the 40% of children in our nation who fail in reading.
In terms of motivation, however, the situation is more complicated. Years of failure have devastating effects. While the students are sometimes upset with the schools and upset with the teachers, they are often most upset with themselves. Often their prime reaction is to feel that they are hopelessly stupid and incapable of learning.
The situation requires a careful and cautious approach. Often in an understandable effort to be upbeat, parents tell the children that they have found a new teacher or a new program that they are sure is “really going to work.” But as children advance in grades and not in reading, they become increasingly discouraged and demoralized. In this situation, it is dangerous and unrealistic to promise success. It’s vital to start from where the students are and where they are is a place where they have given up. That place at least protects them from yet another disappointment.
That does not mean that the situation is hopeless. Fortunately, most children are desperately keen to learn to read. If they feel that there is some possibility of success and if they feel they have some control over what is happening, they are generally willing to try. These factors mean that often, the best option is to “make a deal.”
The deal is as follows: show the students the program you have in mind and ask them to give the program a chance for three months (two months if they are very skeptical). After that time, if they see no progress, they can stop. However, if they do see progress, they agree to continue.
If the deal is agreed to, it is important to keep records that the students can easily understand. Videos of their reading and writing are excellent for this purpose. So you can make videos of them at the starting point and each month thereafter. If there really has been progress, no one will be more willing to acknowledge it than the students themselves. Once they can see that the future is not the bleak one they envisaged, their entire outlook changes. Often, even though reading may still require quite a bit of effort, they become the most enthusiastic of students.