Nonreader to Skilled Reader: Eli's Story

Today’s the first time I’m seeing a new student for tutoring. Eli: seven years old and repeating second grade. It’s his third year of school. I’m told he reads on a level “D.”

Yes, level D. A-B-C-D—the average reading level of a kindergartener.

Eli and I read “Ahhh” said Stork by Gerald Rose together, which he enjoys. I begin asking simple questions about the story. With my assistance he answers them, and we re-read the book.

Continuing on, I ask my first challenging question.

“Can you give me a sentence with this word to?” I ask as I write the word on the page.

“I am two,” Eli responds.

I file that response away and write his sentence on the page.

“Can you give me a sentence with the word for?” I ask, wanting confirmation that my thinking is correct.

“I am four,” he replies.

He has no meaning for sight words, I think.

When a child responds to questions with very simple sentences such as I am two or I am four, it’s evident that their oral language is very low. It’s acceptable for very young children to respond with sentences beginning with “I am.” It’s not ok for seven-year-olds. Their ability to learn to read is impacted as it depends on understanding the connections between oral and written language.

Such questions need to be answered with a semblance of sophistication, appropriate for their age.

Immediately, I know where to begin teaching Eli. I begin writing a poem that he will understand, yet will also engage him:

“Are you two years old?” I ask.

“No,” says Eli, “I’m seven years old.”

There’s my first line of my poem. I am not two years old. I am seven years old.

I turn to Eli and point to my eyes. “How many eyes do you have?”

“I have two eyes,” he replies.

Eli_ TWO of Most Things!Eli is not two years old.Eli is seven years old. But, Eli has two eyes.Eli has two ears. Eli has two hands. Eli has two shoulders. Eli has two elbows. Eli has two knees.Eli has two feet.Eli ha.png

I am not two years old. I am seven years old. But, I have two eyes.

I continue to ask Eli what else he has two of until I feel we have enough lines for our poem.

I take a picture of Eli to paste alongside his poem.   

When children struggle with the foundations of oral language, or with making connections between the oral language and the written language, learning to read by the teaching of decoding is very difficult. It’s like the foundation of learning to read has to be built.

Eli did not have the background knowledge to learn the word “to” yet, the more abstract version of the homophone “two.” The forcing of decoding letters and sounds when a child has poor oral  foundation impedes them from becoming a skilled reader.
Through my teaching, Eli was now learning the connection between speaking and writing.

I still must teach him the word “to.”

“Here, Eli,” I say, taking out an envelope and piece of paper. “Let’s write a letter to your mother.”

Together we compose the letter while I write out the words.

Dear Mom, I love you.
From Eli

Then we address the envelope: To Mom.

Often, I write three letters to three people, addressing each envelope, as my students require repetition. However, at the end of our session, Eli now understands and recalls both to and two.

Today, Eli became a skilled reader.

We as teachers need to be aware that students arrive with a range of oral language challenges. These need to be identified and rectified before students are inundated with what appears to them to be irrelevant, sound-symbol knowledge.

Engaging Eli with a story at the beginning of tutoring was important as it was a shared, non-threatening experience. It also gave me an idea of his interest in books. When I met Eli’s mother one month after this first session, I showed her that very book and Eli quickly responded with: “That’s the first book you read to me.”

I know he struggles with recalling letters and sounds, but I do know he can recall events.

It is clear he has a good memory. That’s his strength, and that’s what my teaching will build upon.

Read Part II of Eli’s story here.