Monday, July 20, 2020

The First Question to Ask of a Vulnerable Reader

When I was six years old, I was given my very first "big boy" two wheel bicycle for Christamas. I loved it. I can still see it all shiny and red and huge by the Christmas tree. As soon as my Dad would let me, I took it out the side door into the driveway, leapt aboard (it was too big for my six-year-old legs)  aimed it down the steep drive, and rode it directly into the telephone pole in front of the house. I was banged up a little, the bike was fine and I quickly scrambled back on the bike and rode it, a bit unsteadily, up and down the sidewalk until I was comfortable and able to keep my balance without too much wobbling. I really wanted to master riding that bike. I rode it everyday after that until I was 16.

When my student, Ryan, was six years old, he came to me for reading instruction. Ryan had been identified by his kindergarten teacher as a possible candidate for Reading Recovery instruction. His first grade teacher confirmed the recommendation after doing an initial assessment of Ryan's literacy ability during the first weeks of school. I administered an observational survey, which confirmed the  recommendations of the teachers, and so Ryan joined me for one-on-one Reading Recovery instruction.

Ryan and I met daily for 20 weeks. During that time, Ryan made some progress towards being a reader, but the progress was not what I would have hoped and certainly did not help Ryan achieve the goal of being a self-sustaining reader. I pulled out all the stops with Ryan. My lessons, I thought, were well planned. I held a meeting with his family and followed up with phone calls, hoping to engage them in a partnership in helping Ryan. They were open and supportive of Ryan's efforts. I observed Ryan in the classroom, where he was receiving excellent instruction from the classroom teacher. When Ryan failed to make sustained progress, I asked my Reading Recovery trainer to come in and observe my instruction and make recommendations to help me help Ryan.

Despite these efforts, Ryan never thrived in our lessons. While Ryan was always friendly and compliant in the sessions, he never showed much enthusiasm for the instruction or for the stories or even for the progress he was able to make. After 20 weeks, I made the difficult decision to have Ryan referred for testing to the child study team, to see if special education placement was called for. I was frustrated and angry with myself for my lack of success. I hoped that Ryan would find success in another program, but I was not at all convinced he would.

As I reflect on this failure from the distance of 25 years, I think I failed Ryan in part because I failed to ask one simple question. It is a question I think many of us may fail to ask when we are given the job of helping a child learn to read. It is the first question I think we need to ask of any vulnerable reader who comes into our charge. The question is, "Does this child want to learn to read?"

For many children learning to read is hard work. In order to commit yourself to that work, you have to want to do it, just as I really wanted to be able to ride that bike. The desire to read is critical to learning to read. While most children come to school with a burning desire to read, some vulnerable readers do not. There may be many reasons for this, but the reasons are not as important as our awareness that this may be the case and then taking some action to help children develop the desire to read. I want to be clear here. I am not talking about a child who reads little or who is difficult to motivate to read, I am talking about a child who is not interested in learning how to read..

To understand how to help kids who don't have a desire to learn to read, we need to look at why most kids do want to read. It is likely a combination of  factors including: a desire for a ticket into the adult world, a feeling of accomplishment, curiosity about topics like dinosaurs or sports or superheroes, an interest in words and how they work, an interest in stories, and a desire to please the adults in their life.

Based on this list, some of the things we can do as teachers to foster a desire to learn to read are obvious and others, perhaps, not so obvious.

Conversations - Individual and on-going conversations with the child on their own hopes, dreams, interests, activities, can help the teacher build both an understanding of the child and clues to what might be motivators for learning to read. A pet, an obsession with dinosaurs, an interest in trucks, an ability on art. Conversations may provide some keys to the child's desires.

Regular Read Aloud - Read alouds should be from high quality books that integrate pictures and words into rich and complex stories and informational texts on topics of interest to the child.

Book Talks - The teacher should be talking about books and other materials she has read,sharing the richness that is the adult experience of being a reader.

Experiences with Book Tie-Ins - Field trips are obvious ways to provide experiences for developing interest in learning to read, but everyday experiences like walks around the building, or videos on particular topics are great experiences where the teacher can recommend books that tie-in to the topic. The best model I have seen for this type of video is Reading Rainbow.

Think Aloud - The teacher models how she processes a text. This can often be done during a read aloud as the teacher stops and talks about her building understanding of the text and fixes up any confusions that happen along the way. This is also a good time to try to develop a curiosity about words by talking about vocabulary that comes up and modeling different ways that readers figure out the meanings of words. Discussions about words and their endless fascination should be a regular part of dialogue with children who are not yet showing an interest in learning to read.

Specific Praise - Anytime our reluctant reading learner does something reading related it should be met with praise that specifically points to desirable reading behaviors. "Ryan, I noticed you looked at that book on dinosaurs to see if it had some information you are interested in. Good work."

Recommending Books - Knowing the child's interests you can recommend books to the child, place the books in the child's hand, point out pages of particular interest, send them home with the child, and ask about the book later.

Finally, I am not recommending suspending good reading instruction until our reluctant learner shows more interest. What I am recommending is that our reading instruction may be more effective if we focus a considerable amount of our literacy time with these children on developing the desire to read. That desire to read might just be followed by a desire for learning how to read. Once the child is receptive to the instruction, our chances of success are greatly enhanced.

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