Recently, the mother of a student I had worked with when he was in first grade called me, crying with joy. Back when I worked with him, almost 15 years ago, her son was a skinny little boy with very large ears and a broad smile.
He was immensely intelligent and profoundly curious about every imaginable thing. His family had been referred to me because halfway through his first grade year, it was clear that despite his remarkable intelligence and determination to learn, reading simply wasn’t coming to him. Although he could talk a blue streak about any number of things, especially if they pertained to science, boats, or planes, the idea of reading horrified him. Indeed, in my first informal assessment of his reading level, he was already a full year behind his peers. While that may not seem extreme for older children, a one-year deficit in first grade can easily translate to a six-year deficit by the time the child reaches high school.
His progress was slow at first. Our work started by my reading aloud things that were of high interest to him. As I read aloud, I had him read a few words here and there, then sentences, then short passages. He became able to distinguish between a lowercase “b” and a lowercase “d,” which can be problematic for children with dyslexia. He was astonished to realize there was a difference between these two letters and immensely proud when he knew what that difference was. He was delighted to learn the difference between the short “i” and “e” sounds in words like pin and pen. I would ask him, “What vowel do you hear in pin?” “I?” he said with an uncertain look. “Yes. How about pen?” “E?” “Yes. You’re getting it,” I said. He said, “I know. I’m getting it. I can hear the difference now.” I will never forget the look of astonishment on his face the day he realized he could hear that there was a difference between the “ch” sound of ch and the “sh” sound of sh. He kept repeating “ch” and “sh” and “ch” and “sh” and exclaimed, “They sound different. They’re different!”
One day, about a month into my work with the little boy, I arrived at his house, and his mother greeted me at the door with a long face. Until that day, the little boy had always met me at the door. The mother was worried, she said, because her son seemed very sad and angry about the work we were doing. I went up to his room. He was crying. I sat down beside him for a long time. We didn’t talk; we just looked out the window. He finally said, “I’m dumb and I’m never going to learn to read.” I said, “I know it’s hard, but you are learning.” I sat for a moment and noticed a tree in the front yard. I said, “Is that tree growing?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Can you see it grow?” And he said, “No.” And I said, “For some of us, learning to read is a slow process. We can’t really tell we’re learning and growing. But even if we can’t tell, that tree is growing, and you are learning to read.”
As an aside, for my work with this young boy and many other struggling readers, I drew upon the marvelous book Reading, Writing, and Rage by my dear friend and one of the most knowledgeable educators I have ever had the privilege of knowing, Dorothy Ungerleider. Her work offers many ideas about how to help a child through the pain and anger that come when reading and written language skills are emerging slowly.
The boy and I started up again, slowly at first. I don’t remember much more about those first couple of months. The change wasn’t night and day. Learning to read is a slow process, even for those children whose skills are not slowly emerging. After a few months, however, the boy began to pick up momentum. I had begun reading The Little Prince to him at the end of each of our sessions. He was fascinated by this curious story. When we were about halfway through the book, I asked if he wanted to read a little bit, and he agreed. Page by page, we completed the book. When we finished, he asked if we could start it over, and we did, reading it a second time at a brisker pace. I worked with him for about two years, and he made astonishing progress.
At that point, his mother arranged for a number of appropriate accommodations for him at school. From then, I only had intermittent communication with her and her son and then none at all once the boy entered high school. But then I received that call from his mother. She was in tears of joy and told me with great pride that her son had just graduated from a very competitive college and was on his way to a prestigious law school.
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