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On Teaching the Hard to Teach Readers

alec vanderboom

Ironically, homeschooling has given me greater empathy for the "Crisis in Public School Education." I come from four generations of public school teachers. Public Education debates used to reduce me to an overly excited quivering mass of emotion. I was certain that urgent change was needed and educational reform was a high priority for politicians.

Now that I've spent the past seven years teaching my own children how to read, I've gained humility. I'm no longer shocked that many kids have a low reading scores in Washington DC Public School. I've learned that reading is an incredibly complex process. There are some kids that will easily pick up literacy skills no matter what method a teacher uses. There are some kids that will pick up the harder aspects of reading through repetition. However, there are many kids who fall "off the graph." Their brains are just wired "differently."

Teaching reading isn't an easy. There isn't one set of techniques that work for all students all the time. It takes incredible patience and perseverance on the part of a teacher to calmly sort out which method of learning how to read is going to work for an individual student.

I've got three very different students in my family. I've got one kid who was bored to death by reading lessons. Reading was a hated school subject, until she could finally read advanced chapter books. I've got another kid who has all the intellectual phonic skills but who struggles to keep his emotions in check long enough to advance in reading. Our reading lessons are less about academics and much more about focusing on modeling good behavior skills. Another kids has the most positive attitude about learning imaginable, but who has almost zero retention skills. A reading lesson is beautiful and fun. The next day, the slate is wiped clean in her mind and its as if she's never seen the letter S before.

Teaching my own kids has forced me to become very creative. For the "I can't read anything boring ever student" I created a "high/low" system of reading. She read advance chapter books that interest her. Then she reads "baby books" below her grade level to increase her fluency. She writes an essay every day. I pull out spelling words from her own work. Memorizing spelling words helps her increase her reading speed as well as enhance the clarity of her writing. This kid refused to read grade level text. However, by going above her reading level and below it on the same day, I'm rapidly getting her up to grade level.

For the kid with retention problems, reading and writing work is focused on her own interest. My rising first grader can't spell "hat" but she can spell "chocolate." Chocolate is a word that is interesting to a serious cupcake baker. Hat is not. To deal with this lack of interest/lack of focus problem I handwrite a "word list" for her. We learn new spelling words that are catered to her everyday. Then we write three sentences using her favorite words. Along the way, I sneak in phonics lessons and easy grammar lessons. It's totally teaching reading through the back door. After a long brain warm up, my kid can handle a short reading lesson from a more typical phonic workbook.

In a tribute to extreme flexibility in my parenting beliefs, I'm now a huge advocate for online computer games! Talking to other kids while playing Rodblox and Minecraft has finally made my rising third grade son want to learn how to read and write. We flipped from major behavior struggles during reading lessons to eager participation overnight. "Watc out for the ber!' didn't get the same reaction online from his peer group as "Watch out for the bear!" Developing internal motivation makes a huge difference in the pace of reading education.

Before I had the humiliating experiences at labeling myself a "failure" in teaching reading to my own kids, I was a real intellectual snob when it came to literature. Somethings counted as "real reading homework," and many things didn't. Now I see reading as a lifelong skill with many different uses. I'm happy to read out loud "Lord of the Flies", "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," and "The Odyssey" to my kids. It's my job to expose them to great literature. Yet I'm also happy to center our writing lessons on computer game instructions and cookie recipes. Reading and writing are skills that quickly become a part of the individual blueprint of a child's soul. It's okay if reading lessons become very specific and won't normally be "countable" under the typical public school curriculum.