I work with struggling readers. Here’s what’s standing in their way.

It’s heartbreaking to realize that I never taught many of my former students to read. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

I learned to love reading as a kid, spellbound by wizarding worlds and ghost stories. I wanted to share this love, so I became an intervention teacher, working with struggling readers and special education students.

Kids love reading. I don’t care what think pieces say about screen addiction, children still gravitate towards books. If they can’t read, they like looking at the pictures in “Dogman” or listening to Junie B.’s antics.

Bridget Scanlan (Courtesy photo)

In my eight years of teaching in Philadelphia and its suburbs, I’ve worked with first through fifth graders from diverse racial and economic backgrounds. I’ve worked in both low-performing schools and higher-performing ones, and the same problem keeps cropping up: So many kids can’t read. I’ve seen first graders who don’t know what sound “a” makes and fifth graders who can’t read two-syllable words.

Why is this happening? People blame COVID, but the problem predates the pandemic.

As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen students ushered grade to grade, even when they are several grade levels behind. And there’s pressure on teachers to move too quickly through content. Halfway through first grade, direct reading instruction may get phased out for standardized test skills, such as main idea and inferences. The content just keeps getting harder, especially as reading becomes a key part of all subjects, even math. If they can’t read by third grade, they have a much harder time catching up and are less likely to graduate from high school, research has shown.

But a big part of the problem has been teachers’ reliance on the whole language approach, which has prioritized sight words and finding meaning in rich texts, instead of the research-backed phonics-based efforts that teach letter-sound connections to decode words.

The first year I taught, I used a guided reading program from Fountas and Pinnell rooted in the whole language approach. A curriculum representative modeled how to teach students certain reading strategies, like using pictures or context clues to guess unknown words. In fact, some of the words in their books seem to be written way above what a child can reasonably sound out, like “deluge” in a third grade reading lesson.

“How do you pronounce this?” my co-worker asked me. “Day-looj? Dee-looj?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve only ever seen it in writing.”

Each lesson lasted 30-40 minutes, mostly consisting of the students silently reading while I came around the resource room to listen to them whisper-read one at a time. We discussed the books before and after reading, and I pointed out unknown words (like prehistoric).

Students were encouraged to guess words using context clues. If the word starts with “t” and there’s a picture of a tree, kids can fill in the blanks. They might guess alligator if the word starts with “all” and the story is about river animals.

‘The answer isn’t floating over there. It’s right here, in the letters.’

Did it work? Well, I was thrilled that the kids got to read so much and seemed to actually like the books we were reading. But truthfully, only one student out of eight became a fluent reader. The others seemed to improve. They still missed a lot of words and read with difficulty, but I figured any progress was a good thing.

I loved the Fountas and Pinnell curriculum, though I didn’t know at the time what so many people learned from Emily Hanford’s popular “Sold a Story” podcast: that reading research has long shown the whole word approach doesn’t work.

Guessing words based on a story’s context isn’t the same as reading. And it’s a crutch that’s kicked away as students advance to higher grades, where the vocabulary is more complex and the pictures fade away. I suppose the reading practice was better than nothing, but it’s heartbreaking to realize that despite my best intentions, I never actually taught them how to read.

After the pandemic, I switched schools. Now I teach a phonics-based reading program that’s built on repetition and reading words with patterns they can sound out.

Sounds boring, right? Repeating “a—apple—ah” and using your fingers to tap out the sounds in “cat” aren’t exactly riveting. But to a second grader who knows he can’t read (and tells me all the time), it’s a lifeline. It works. A boy who couldn’t read “the” at the beginning can now read “shrimp” and “dreams.”

Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that my struggling readers tend to default to the whole language guessing strategies, even though I no longer teach them. I think they are grasping for anything that might help. They’ll see the word “ball” and guess “baseball,” until I tell them to look at the word more closely.

“The answer isn’t floating over there,” I say. “It’s right here, in the letters. If you use the skills you know, you can read it.”

And you know what? When they actually take the time to focus on the letters, they can.

Bridget Scanlan is a teacher and writer based in Philadelphia. She has worked with elementary-aged students for eight years.