Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Our Late-Blooming Reader

Yesterday, Jen in Seattle commented:

I know you never seem to be short on blogging material, but if you're ever up for "taking requests" I would love to hear more about something you posted on last year. I looked for the post, but couldn't find it.

I think I remember you saying that one of your sons was having reading trouble through second grade, and you sent him to public school for 1 year. Is that right? I'm wondering if you could say anything about what it was like to support a late-reader. My son is in second grade, and although he is bright and curious as can be, he is at the bottom of his class in reading (though he does well in everything else). I am desperately trying to figure out how to support him - both in learning to read, and in allowing him space to do it in his own time. The school staff are concerned about him and have begun the process of testing and meetings and all that goes along with that. I feel like I need to be the voice that says "give him time to grow," but its very frightening when they start talking about learning issues, and how he needs to be reading at a higher level NOW. We do lots of reading at home, and he enjoys it..I don't want the joy of reading to be taken from him.

I'm not looking for any answers, just the thoughts of someone else who has supported a child that blossoms in reading at his own pace.

Since I've been eating, drinking and breathing Charlotte's Web lately, I'm happy for a reason to write about something else! I'm not sure I have ever posted on that topic before--perhaps it was in an email that I mentioned it to Jen at one time.

Our situation with Bantam12 (who was 8 back then) was pretty unique, I think, but let me describe it and then draw out a couple of principles that might be helpful.

I think I started teaching this son to read when he was about 6.25. He has a May birthday and I probably started that fall, when he was in first grade. I used the same curriculum I had used with my two older kids (Teach a Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons).

I didn't push too hard that first grade year, I know, but for second grade, I sensed it was time to buckle down. And we had a horrible year. He resisted even trying; he tried every tactic to show me that it was just too hard for him. We might have one good day in which he decided to try and he'd do well--then the next he'd be back to this "too hard" attitude. Handwriting was another terrible battleground that year too--I didn't push him, but just telling him he needed to learn to write his last name, too, caused him to dissolve into a puddle of tears every time.

It was getting ridiculous by the time he was 8 years old. I was at my wit's end. That year brought out the absolute worst in me, I have to say--I am not proud thinking back on it. I tried every kind of reward, punishment, bribe, threat, sweet cajoling and angry tantrum in the book. But this child had found a battle that he could win. It was a case of "You can take a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." And he knew it.

How did I know that it wasn't a learning disability of some sort? I supposed that there could be a problem, but if there was, all the more reason why he had to be willing to TRY to learn. And I'd seen enough of what he could do on a good day, with a good attitude, to be highly suspicious of him on his bad days.

So I began to voice this threat: "If you won't let me teach you, then I'll have to send you to school and let someone else try." Often, this brought about a quick but short-lived improvement, and the more times I had to repeat this threat, the more I began to consider following through.

Maybe he does have a learning disability, I thought. It would be helpful to know that. At school, I knew he'd feel the peer pressure and try hard to do what the other kids were able to do, so maybe effort and ability would finally be aligned and we'd see what he could do if he tried.

The more I thought and prayed about it with my husband, the more we began to think of ways that school might be a positive experience for this son. He had a passive, "don't want to grow up" kind of personality at that time, and I began to see him as a baby bird that needed a push out of the nest, so he'd learn that he really could fly!

So we decided to go ahead. Because he wasn't reading yet and he has that late birthday, we put him in second grade rather than third. Immediately the teacher and the reading specialist sent home letters and met with us about giving him special help with learning to read. They were very concerned. We just said, oh yes, certainly, please. I know they were thinking "learning disability" especially since he was 8.25 years old, but I just thought, we'll see. It was a sink or swim situation, and I was pretty sure he'd swim eventually.

He did make rapid progress. A few weeks into the school year, I asked him how come he was learning to read so fast in school, when he hadn't at home, and he said:

"Well, I can't cry in front of the whole I might as well just do it."


By the end of second grade, he was the best reader in the class, of course. And he was a lot more willing to try new things. That year, we not only made him go to school, we made him ride his bike 5 blocks to school, fall and spring. We put him in Cub Scouts, soccer, basketball and baseball. He was well and truly shoved out of the nest, and he flew beautifully.

He made many friends, and when we told his second grade teacher at the end of the year that now we were going to homeschool him again, she was shocked. "But he's so popular!" she exclaimed, little guessing that to us, that was one of the main reasons to take him out of school. He had become way cool, had picked up an attitude and a few swear words and dirty jokes and all the rest, and none of the rest of his family much appreciated this new side of him.

But I sure was glad he could READ!

Now, Jen's situation doesn't sound much like ours, but here are a couple of thoughts that could apply to late-blooming readers across the board.

First of all, you know your child best; listen to the Lord for the wisdom you need. I sure wouldn't advise every homeschooling mom with a late reader to rush to put their child in school, but for us, it was the right thing.

Since you know your child best, you may be best equipped to tell whether it's a case of lack of effort or lack of ability or lack of maturity or readiness. No matter what the cause, though, I'd go ahead and accept whatever help the specialists at the school can offer. My son's experience was very positive. He enjoyed the small group and the little bit of one-on-one attention he received, and he wasn't the only one pulled out for extra help--I think nearly half the class was receiving some level of special reading instruction.

Just so you know, there is a relatively new government initiative to have all children reading by the end of third grade. I'm not sure what's new about that--it seems like that's always what the public schools have expected--but there is a greater emphasis on taking proactive steps with slower-to-read kids (and I think more kids than ever before may be identified that way), and there are a lot more reading specialists in the schools than there used to be. My sister-in-law is one, and from what I understand from her, they don't think in terms of "ready/not ready" but more like bringing kids along from pre-reading to reading.

There truly is a lot of pre-reading instruction that can be very helpful, and odds are, you're doing some of it already. Here is a site that recommends pre-reading activities for school and home, based on the latest reading research, and here are even more specific activities and explanations. (Sis-in-law, if you read this, feel free to chime in in the comments--is this is the approach you're trained in? Anything else you'd add?)

You do want to protect that joy in reading. I think one of the best ways is to continue all the reading aloud to him that you're doing. The tendency as they get better at reading is to encourage them to read to themselves by spending less time reading aloud to them, but then reading really can become more of a chore than a pleasure. Read books to him that are above his reading level, and as his reading level rises, the more difficult concepts, vocabulary and sentence structure will be familiar when he encounters it.

Also, make his reading time fun. There are reading charts available online that you can print off and let him color in a segment for every 15 minutes he reads; a completed chart wins a fun reward. To help him move up to more difficult books, alternate reading aloud with him--you read one page, he reads one page. My daughter and I read a whole book that way that had been assigned to her for a homeschool history class; it was way above her comprehension level at the time, but I summarized as we went, and it's a fun memory now.

Well, I hope I've encouraged Jen and any other parents of a late-blooming reader!


Jennifer said...

THANK you so much.

My intuition about him is that there are not any actual learning disabilities...but I'm just not sure why he is in this place.

I really appreciate your thoughts!!

Jen in Seattle

chickadee said...

i'm glad you posted that (and that i found it) i had a similar situation with my youngest daughter. i did not put her in school, but boy that sounded like a good idea some days. she was stubborn and lazy. but finally, now she is reading and taking great joy in it.

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