Michael started working with me in December of second grade. He had been receiving help from the reading teacher since kindergarten. His parents were told that he was just behind because of his spring birthday and that he did not need a special education evaluation. What a helpless feeling they must have had.
When I first assessed Michael in second grade he couldn’t differentiate between short vowel sounds, which is a kindergarten skill. His DIBELS Oral Reading Fluency was 40 words per minute below the benchmark. He was well below grade level and even worse, he knew it.
We met two times a week for the first year and then reduced our sessions to once a week. During this time Michael worked hard. Not only did he need to learn kindergarten and first grade skills but he had to learn them rapidly, so the gap between him and his peers would start to close. The rest of the grade doesn’t wait while struggling children try to catch up.
After six months Michael’s ORF was teetering at benchmark. In six months he went from reading 33 words correct per minute to 87 correct words per minute. His reading skills were improving so much that he was actually taking pleasure in reading. He picked out books from the library, read multiple books in a series, and was eager to read aloud during tutoring sessions. Yet despite his progress in reading, his spelling and writing still lagged behind.
I suggested that Michael’s trouble with reading and writing presented as dyslexia. His parents started Googling and were connected with resources that helped them understand their son. Sometimes a label can be powerful as it connects families with the resources that they need. How encouraging to learn that the troubles your child experiences have a name and a solution. Michael met with a doctor and his dyslexia was confirmed. He marched into tutoring the next week proudly explaining why he learns the way he does. He isn’t dumb or lazy. He simply has dyslexia.
Dyslexia presents in many ways. Michael’s dyslexia includes issues with phonology and orthography. Though his reading is now at grade level, his spelling and written expression still lag behind. Yet he makes progress there as well. A year into tutoring he was able to read vowel teams but could not represent them in spelling. The complicated orthography of the English language makes spelling particularly hard for those with dyslexia. Yet, systematic teaching works. Now Michael can list five spelling choices for the long a sound and can often choose the correct spelling in a word.
This kind of reading and spelling instruction is not found in many public schools in Massachusetts. Many schools used balanced literacy, which is a little bit of everything but far too little phonics or direct instruction in the structure of the English language. Students are encouraged to guess at words or use context to help them fill in the blank. These are strategies that poor readers use to compensate. These are not effective strategies that will help students reliability identify unknown words.
Michael continues to receive tutoring in 4th grade. The thing about dyslexia is that it doesn’t go away. Yet Michael’s hard work over the past two years has paid off. He is reading at grade level, successfully presented a book report in front of his whole class, reads for pleasure, and has confidence in himself as a learner. Way to go, Michael!