Nonreader to Skilled Reader (Pt. IV): Eli's Story

Read Part I of Eli’s story here, Part II here, and Part III here.

Learning to Read is Like A Foreign Language

After my last session where Eli spelled the word huge as cuj, I recognize how easily educators can fall into the trap of believing our teaching is effective when it’s not. I wasted precious minutes doing a spelling activity I thought would be beneficial, only to find Eli couldn’t recall anything from this task.

My role, I believe, is to assist him to effectively learn in the classroom. Thus, my work is to figure out: What he knows, what he doesn’t know, and help fill his learning gaps. My sessions—two afternoons per week for thirty minutes each—allow only a short time to learn, though his improvements are noticed by Eli himself, his mother, and his teachers. He’s progressing, and he regularly tells me when his reading is tested in school and what reading level he is on now.  

Eli’s classroom teacher must give homework which meets his needs. That begins with an effective spelling list. After speaking with his teacher and parent, finally, his homework and spelling lists were changed.

Spelling lists with only two patterns make my tutoring sessions much more effective. How do I know? Eli’s spelling test results are now 9/10 or 10/10! This is a “huge” change from the 3 or 4 received on past results.

His best learning is still through finding pictures for words on his list. Once we find appropriate pictures from the internet, I spend time separating them, allowing Eli to select one, while asking, “What word goes with this picture?”

The difference in his ability to recall words and spelling is vastly improving every week. He writes his spelling words correctly. Most importantly, he sees the pattern.

Once again, I consider the challenges Eli faces: his struggle with word and language retrieval is a bit like learning a foreign language. Struggling learners tend to be at an early developmental stage for their language learning—unlike the majority of their skilled-reading-peers. Instead, they’re still thinking in pictures.

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Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams—whose work I read while in my masters’ program—talks about the reading process in incredible detail in her book, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. It has always stuck with me, most likely her work was so complex and challenging to understand. I’ve recently read a recorded interview she had with David Boulton (read it here). What amazed me most about this interview is her description of learning to read: “It’s a little bit like learning a foreign language,” she states. This reminded me so much of Eli, and, of course, my son Nicholas. Just this year he admitted that he felt like learning to read was in fact like learning another language.

Dear readers, I’ll leave you with the following question:
Is Adams’s work for dyslexic children, the learning-disabled child or any child who struggles with reading?