I want to talk about a personal challenge that I have faced as a parent: I’m a teacher, and I have raised two struggling readers.
By all accounts their dad and I did everything you are “supposed” to do to make sure your kids grow up to be readers.
We read every night. Even before they could walk, talk, or hold their head up I can remember reading to them.
They had two educated parents who worked with them and used a variety of vocabulary with them.
They had access to a variety of books, educational toys, and any other materials a child could ever need.
They had life experiences from children’s museums to zoos. They were wonderers, questioners, and learners.
But yet they were still struggling readers.
When I first learned Jackson had been placed in reading intervention I cried. I thought I had failed him as a mom. I couldn’t figure out how he could know so much and yet couldn’t quite seem to learn how to read.
When I found out Embry was behind in reading I decided it really must just be my fault. I had obviously taught them too much math and not enough reading.
I talked to everyone I knew to find out what was going on with both kids. They didn’t struggle with comprehension. If you read them a passage they could answer questions like a pro. Jackson could usually answer the questions without you reading it to him because he was great at figuring things out. Their reading comprehension was at or well above grade level and yet the couldn’t read simple sentences.
In second grade, Jackson caught up in reading. I was pretty sure (and still am) that his teacher was magical. He is in 5th grade now and reads at an 11th grade level, he is a struggling reader no more. Embry just started 2nd grade and low and behold I think she is slowly but surely catching up in reading. I am pretty sure her teacher is magical too but I think I have finally figured out what those 2nd grade teachers are doing to turn my struggling readers into successful readers..
My ‘Aha’ Moment: Phonics Really Matters.
Both kids 2nd grade teachers forego spelling words for phonic words and go back to the basics of phonetic understanding. For the first time Embry is trying to sound out words and make sense of them rather than use other strategies she was taught like to use the picture to figure out the sentence or skip words she doesn’t know (she just skips all the words). She is finally gaining confidence that she can learn to read and sound out words and it is making a world of difference.
I’m having my ‘Aha’ moment about all of this because of the articles I have been reading about phonics lately on Twitter. This Emily Hanford article really opened my eyes to how their are Language Arts Wars just like there are Math Wars. The article explains the reasons that phonics instruction isn’t happening in many classrooms, even though the research says it’s needed.
Then my CEO wrote this article this week, and I learned that literacy experts recommend daily phonics instruction. I’m reminded how lucky I am to work for a company that believes in a balanced approach to reading that includes phonics.
It’s all very eye-opening for me. And I wonder how many other teachers would feel the same way once they read the articles I’ve been reading.
Now I know that every student deserves access to balanced materials, and not just because they get lucky and have a 2nd grade team of teachers that believes in it. But we clearly have a long way to go before the research is understood across K–12 education. I have a friend who teaches Kindergarten and whose district adopted a popular textbook reading program that doesn’t include phonics. She saw how much her kids really still needed the phonics portion so she did what any good teacher would do and started supplementing… but she recently got in trouble for not following the book as written and was told to stop. Which hurts my heart.
I am thankful that with time Embry will catch up in reading just like her brother did and that she is getting the phonics help she needs this year. However, I can’t help but wonder how many kids will miss out on this help, and will continue to struggle well past 2nd grade, until they eventually determine they will never be a reader.
My mind has been in overdrive since I started reading these phonics articles. Not only about my own children, but about the best way to address the phonics gaps more broadly, to reach all kids like Jackson and Embry. If you are like me, and want to spread the word about this eye-opening research,I hope you will share Emily Hanford’s article with everyone you can so that they can understand the issue for themselves. I also love this idea I saw on Twitter, encouraging educators to write respectful letters to the Dean of the University they attended explaining why they didn’t feel they were prepared to teach reading, especially to struggling readers.
I would love to hear more teachers sharing their perspectives and stories around teaching phonics in their classrooms. Do teachers feel prepared and supported in teaching phonics? Are folks discussing the research? What solutions exist, beyond phonics-rich curriculum?
What I know: I’m a teacher and even I needed help raising a reader. And like the best teachers, I am happy to admit what I didn’t know and to grow my practice, in service of kids.