Why your child cannot read: what follows is speechlanguage-resources response to some of the questionable advice on the internet seemingly targeted to concerned parents of children who struggle to learn to read. The account below is told from the perspective of the fictional, but also quite real 6-year-old school student, Jacob and Jacob's parents.
Jacob is the only child of the Bennetts. The Bennetts value education highly and immerse Jacob from a very young age in literacy. Jacob is read to every night by both his father and his mother. Both are wonderful story tellers and engage Jacob's imagination with multiple retellings of classic stories such as Where the Wild Things Are, Green Eggs and Ham, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and also more modern classics such as the Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and the Pig the Pug books.
Jacob is very bright and delights in the characters' flaws and triumphs, and in Pig the Pug's case, his hilarious and monstrous selfishness. Jacob is very talkative and described by his adoring parents as a chatty child. And he does have good oral expressive language. Jacob loves to create his own highly interactive spoken stories using characters from the many story books he knows by heart, which he narrates to family members with great enthusiasm and an innate sense of drama.
The Bennetts enrol Jacob into a highly recommended pre-school when he is 4. Jacob learns to recite the alphabet and can write his own name, which makes Jacob and his parents very proud. His social skills are developing beautifully and he had made several friends. The Bennetts and kinder staff are confident that Jacob is ready for school.
Jacob goes to a local primary (elementary school) where it is explained by senior staff that a very balanced view of literacy is taught to early years students. Jacob’s parents are happy with this explanation. They are equally reassured and impressed by what seems to be a wholistic approach to literacy instruction.
Such a balanced view of literacy instruction is consistent with the Bennetts own views on the importance of immersing Jacob in rich literacy experiences.
In the first few months of school a confident and eager Jacob is encouraged by his classroom teacher to use a variety of reading strategies to help him memorize the many new words he is required to learn, known as ‘cueing,’ a popular form of reading instruction.
One of the reading strategies encouraged by school staff is for early years students to predict (guess) tricky, unknown words simply using the context of the story.
Jacob isn't really sure what many of the words he is asked to predict actually are, so his attempts to use the context of unfamiliar text to learn new words is not an easy task for him.
It is at this point that Jacob’s natural confidence as a learner receives its first unpleasant jolt.
Jacob's teacher, in response to his frustration, kindly reassures Jacob not to worry about his troubles, that it is ok to not be reading well yet. She instructs Jacob to use the first letter to guess unknown words and to also use the pictures on the page to help predict a tricky word's meaning.
She also goes on to explain that it does not really matter if an image is either a horse or a pony when predicting a word. The key point is that there is a relationship between the tricky word and the sentence, and that, ultimately, the sentence just needs to make sense. After all, the teacher insists, reading is all about making meaning from text.
Jacob’s anxiety increases and his confidence plummets each time he is required to read in this way. But Jacob is a determined little boy and is reassured by his well-meaning classroom teacher that he is doing well, and that reading ‘will be easier soon.’ Jacob has great visual memory and over time and through persistence and much hard work he is able to commit many of these new and difficult words to memory.
By memorizing these troublesome words, Jacob can successfully read aloud to his parents the predictable texts that are sent home each week.
What his parents do not suspect, however, is that Jacob is not actually reading. Jacob is simply reciting words that he has committed to memory from predictable texts he now knows intimately.
The Bennetts begin to notice that Jacob seems more withdrawn than usual and has even started to complain about going to school. They are assured by friends and family that their own kids often went through this stage when they were the same age and it is just part of growing up. However, towards the middle of term three, the Bennetts are called in to a meeting at the school.
The meeting is attended by both the classroom teacher and the school principal. The Bennetts are informed by school staff that Jacob is becoming increasingly disruptive in class. The principal thought it best in the short term that Jacob be placed on an individual behaviour management plan, with a review at the end of the year. The Bennetts are confused as to what is causing Jacob’s behavioural difficulties, but support the school’s decision.
Things come to a head at a student support group meeting at the end of Jacob's first year of school. Jacob’s classroom teacher informs the Bennetts that Jacob is in the bottom 5% in the class for reading and presents as an increasingly disengaged learner. The Bennett’s comfortable and cherished illusion of their son as a confident learner is now shattered.
The Bennetts are alarmed. The teacher does her best to reassure the visibly confused Bennetts that Jacob will catch up to his peers in time. The classroom teacher asks the Bennetts if Jacob has been read to much as a young child, perhaps implying that a lack of rich literacy experiences prior to school may be a factor in Jacob's seemingly poor grasp of reading and writing skills.
This question draws a firm 'yes' from the Bennetts whose confidence in the classroom teacher is now shaken. Jacob’s mother asks, "Why are we hearing about Jacob's reading difficulties only now at the end of the year?'
The classroom teacher feels a little cornered and defensive with her next statement, ' All students learn at different rates,' she tells the Bennetts with some conviction, 'but one day, soon, it will come together for Jacob.' Jacob’s father then asks the key question. ‘How can you know that?’
Jacob's reading skills will most likely not just come together. Jacob has poor alphabetic code knowledge and poor phonemic awareness. These are essential knowledge and skills that children need to be explicitly and systematically taught by a teacher grounded and well versed in the science of reading.
Jacob has received no systematic instruction on alphabetic code knowledge, supported with the use of decodable books and has not been taught the essential skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation.
Jacob needed to be explicitly taught these key skills in the first few months of school, but the school either did not know about the importance of phonemic awareness skills or may have been opposed to the systematic teaching of the sound – letter link.
Jacob relies solely on his excellent visual memory skills. He can recognise chunks of words and text but without the familiar context of a predictable reader he is unable to read or remember words in word lists as might be seen on a reading or spelling test.
Despite Jacob's excellent oral language skills and his parents' immersion of Jacob in rich literacy experiences from a young age, he is at risk of reading failure. Jacob and his parents' experience is not unique. This scenario, though fictional, will play out in a not dissimilar way in classrooms across the Western world for too many children and their families.