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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

It takes a crowd: the story of an adolescent non-reader

By Honey Halpern

Look carefully behind a successful reader and you’ll find a crowd of supportive adults. But, what about the unsuccessful readers? Did the adults drop by the wayside or, more likely, did that crowd never materialize? Usually, it’s the latter. So, we need to create that crowd for the hard-to-teach, non-reading student.

In workshops, we talk about this strategy and that technique to help the struggling reader. Teachers listen with interest yet, unfortunately, the post-workshop response from most teachers is that they can’t follow up because they have so much to do, so little time to do it, and worse, so little interest and motivation from the students themselves. And they are right. Changing a non-reader to a literate student needs an approach that is more complex than simply teaching a handful of strategies.

I recently had an e-mail from a friend of mine, Julie, a secondary school learning assistance teacher to tell me that Brian, whom I had met and designed a program for four years ago, because he could not read, had just got 90% in Communications and 74% in History 12 in his provincial exams! Yes, that accomplishment came with the help of a reader scribe, but the truth is he could never have achieved those grades without being able to read and write and think at a competent enough level to work his way through those courses.

Julie, excited and delighted at Brian’s success, wanted me to know the good news and thank me for the reading assessment and program support that I offered when he was in Grade 9, as she felt that this was the beginning of Brian’s successes. But really the beginning of Brian’s achievements happened when Julie recognized that Brian had not yet learned to read and asked me to work with her to develop a literacy plan.

From her description of his reading behaviour, I chose a high-interest book written at about a Grade 1 level and listened to him read aloud, after he first read it to himself. I wanted to observe his approach to text and also give him a chance to put into practice his decoding and comprehension skills. As Brian read the few simple pages aloud to me, I realized that he had no idea how to go about reading connected text. There was nary a pause for any punctuation, including periods, many made-up nonsense words, and no intonation. His word-by-word reading was slow and laborious and made no sense at all. He had no reading skills and he was in Grade 9.

Julie and I concluded that since Brian had never learned to read, it was our responsibility to teach him and so we worked on designing a program. But he was in secondary school, not elementary school, so who could do this? Every LA block already had half a dozen or more needy students and there was simply no opportunity to give this student the privacy and personal attention required for him to benefit from this program. However, fortunately for Brian, Julie was able to find an educational assistant who was interested in this challenge. In addition, a school counsellor offered access to a small room, one that was ordinarily used for interviews and meetings. The number of people working with Brian went from one to four.

However, in order to get EA time, the school administrator had to agree. Next, the school-based team had to give their thumbs-up to one-to-one teaching of reading three times a week. By then we had added to our group the administrators, counsellors, a school psychologist, and the other teachers on the school-based team.

Brian and his educational assistant hit it off right away, as she was interested in learning how to teach reading and he was motivated by all the positive attention he was receiving. Meanwhile, the EA was taught how to apply an individualized, tailored-for-Brian, program. They met regularly in a small, quiet room, and with the encouragement of Julie, progress was soon apparent.

I worked in another school and in order to make fluid transitions from easy-to-read material to more challenging text, my administrator had to give the okay for me to visit Brian’s school and confer with Julie and her EA.

The crowd was growing.

Over the years, Brian had other teachers who needed to be apprised of his reading program and when possible, help with his reading tasks, so add more people to his program.

Brian’s father, who had always shown an interest in his son’s schooling and had always wanted his son to learn to read, was naturally part of the team. The number of people involved in Brian’s remediation program continued to grow.

At the centre of Brian’s program was Julie, the teacher who early on realized that Brian had the need and the right to learn to read. Over the four years that Brian was her student she had the full responsibility to keep all the parts of the reading program in place:

  • Brian’s timetable
  • EA timetable and training
  • a quiet private place to work
  • appropriate leveled material
  • family support
  • suggestions for home reading
  • organization of my visits to monitor and encourage the progression
  • school-based team (SBT) validation
  • communication with the administration.

During Brian’s Grade 11 year, the EA took a maternity leave, but Julie, still convinced that Brian could succeed at reading, convinced a new administrator and a new SBT to help her find another EA; the training of the new EA began and the program continued. It was relatively easier as Brian, by then, had gained the necessary level of confidence, along with maturity, to accept help and support from another adult.

Meanwhile, every few months, I continued to be invited to meet with Brian and his EA to hear him read and to talk about his reading.

Have you lost count of the number of people who contributed to Brian’s exam scores? I have. But the exact number doesn’t matter. What does matter is that what is required is not just one teacher but a crowd consisting of teachers and administrators and family members who know what to do to make sure that Brian leaves school as a literate citizen.

Every student has the right to learn to read, but to create a successful program it is necessary to rethink the current model of teaching reading to adolescents that centres wholly on the student and a single resource/learning assistance teacher. Instead, we need to recognize that it takes more than one person to make it happen; it takes a small but serious, and carefully co-ordinated, crowd of supportive and knowledgeable adults.

Honey Halpern, a retired teacher, is working part-time as a sessional lecturer in Language and Literacy Education at UBC.

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