The “not learning to read thing” kind of creeps up on you slowly.
For my son and me, it was like this: We loved to read together. Well, actually, I read to him, and he loved his books.
Our shelves were overflowing with books. “Will you read to me?” I would ask him. “No, I like it when you read to me,” he would answer. “That’s ok,” I would think. Then I would tell him, “I’ll read to you. I like to read to you and soon you will be in Kindergarten and you will be reading on your own.”
Then there was Kindergarten and lots of new things to learn and new books to read. I read to him and he loved the new books.
“Will you read to me?” I would ask him. “No, I like it when you read to me,” he would answer. “That’s ok,” I would think. Then I would tell him. “I’ll read to you. I like to read to you and soon you will be in first grade and you will be reading on your own.”
The school conference was so reassuring: Kids learn to read at their own pace and boys, well, boys, they often learn to read later. He is a bright and inquisitive boy. English is his second language and he works hard in his ELL group.
And then there was first grade and second grade and nothing changed. There were lots of new things to learn and new books to read. I read to him and he loved the new books. The school conference was reassuring.
And then there was third grade. But, in third grade they aren’t really learning to read. They are reading to learn. And I still read to him.
“Will you read to me?” I would ask him. “No, I don’t want to read anymore. I don’t like to read,” he would answer. I would worry to myself but I would tell him, “I know you like to read and you’ll learn. Soon, you’ll be reading to me.”
But by then, we were not just fighting the “learning to read” battle, we were fighting the “I don’t want to read” battle, which has everything to do with “I can’t learn to read.” It goes something like this, “I don’t want to try anymore because it makes me feel so bad about myself that I can’t learn to read. All the other kids in my class are reading. Some are even reading Chapter Books.”
Son: Mom, I am in level J.
Mom: What is level J?
Son: It’s the lowest.
What do you say to your child when they are basically telling you straight up: “Hey, Mom, I’m failing. I’m at the bottom, Mom. Don’t you get it?”
Nope, I didn’t get it because I told him, “I don’t care what level you are in as long as you keep working hard and that you love your books like you always did. One day reading will be so easy—it will just click.”
I really believed it would. I believed in the magic of books. And that wasn’t enough.
Even though I didn’t care what reading level he was in, I should have because he cared a lot. He is a super competitive guy and a talented athlete. I had no idea how bad he felt and how much the “A” reading level rank mattered. He knows what success feels like and he likes that feeling.
I kept saying, “Keep working hard” and “Love your books.” Basically, for him to continue working hard in an environment that didn’t support his skills was to consign him to continued failure and frustration as “working hard” at reading didn’t help at all. And the books? Books betrayed him. Without someone reading to him, they were locked. They were the enemy. What is to love about that?
By third grade, I knew something was really wrong, but I had no idea what to do about it until a friend recommended I contact the Stern Center to do an evaluation. It was a relief to be able to do something.
With the Stern Center evaluation, my son’s teachers were able to recognize the issues and challenges that prevented him from learning to read. It brought tears to my eyes thinking that my son had been locked in a constant struggle to decipher words and letters, without success, to the point of his giving up on books and worse, giving up on himself. And there I was, telling him to keep working hard.
And then there was fourth grade and now fifth grade and soon middle school.
I don’t like to wonder where on the downward trajectory my son would’ve landed without the Stern Center. They provided us with an evaluation that identified my son’s learning challenges and outlined an educational strategy that allowed him to learn. He now has an IEP, a team of educators and a wonderful tutor with specialized skills that address his specific challenges. He still struggles with learning to read, struggles with self esteem and struggles with a reality-based fear of academic achievement tests. His path isn’t easy, but we know that it is possible for him to succeed.