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

This is the final installment of Eli’s story. Read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and Part IV here.

One day, Eli—now a fourth grader—enters our tutoring session quite concerned. His teacher had given him some “scientific” words to learn. He pulls out his school book and a worksheet labeled “Parts of a Flower.” Intimidating, to say the least.

Immediately, we use the Internet to find an appropriate picture and make his learning as clear and easy as possible.


We categorize the flower into male and female parts.

Eli knows petal, and I work on breaking up the word “se-pal.”

“Well,” I say, “the male part is easy to remember. It’s like ‘sta-men.’ You tell your dog to ‘stay.’” I point like a dog is beside me. “And one day you and your brother will grow up to be ‘men.’”

Eli smiles. “Yes,” he says, imitating me. “Doggie, stay!”

We try out a few more repetitions to help Eli recall “stamen.”

“‘Pistil’ is the female part of the flower,” I continue.

Eli squints.

I fold my hands together to form a gun. “It’s not a gun, it’s a pistol!” I say.

“Ahh,” Eli replies with a grin, repeating the action.

The next day he returns, and we review the parts of the flower.

“What is the male part of the flower?”

“Stay-man,” he replies.

“Close!” I respond. “You and your brother will grow up to be…”

“Men,” Eli replies correctly.

“So, the word is sta-men,” I reinforce. “How about the female part of the flower?”

Eli pulls his hands out in front of him to form a gun as his mind searches for the correct word.

I see the physical effort involved and wait, watching. His brain spins. “Sniper!” he shouts.

I roar with laughter. “So close, Eli!”

“No, no…it’s a…”

Moving my lips to form the “p” sound gives him the clue he needs.

“Pistil,” we say together.

I know doing an action gives him sufficient information and connections to recall both words. But, there’s one thing I hadn’t thought about: our age gap. My cultural references were different from his. Today, a child plays video games, which often use snipers. Pistols are a weapon from the past—and I assumed he would have the background knowledge to recall the word. It was in his vocabulary, but it was a vague connection. Again, using a picture would have been better. Always remember: don’t make assumptions of a student’s knowledge.

As we revisit this lesson to check his long-term memory, Eli is certainly showing his ability to understand. He now recalls both words, and can identify the parts of the flower. I’m helping him gain the confidence he needs in the classroom.

As with my son Nicholas, it takes an enormous amount of work for students to catch up, and it doesn’t happen in one lesson or even a year. It takes time.

Eli and I worked on and off together for three years. By effectively teaching Eli in the way that works for him, I’m able to fill in the gaps of his learning, and help him adapt and feel more comfortable in the classroom.