Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Struggling Reader

Have you ever had a struggling reader? I have, and to be honest, it came as a complete shock to me! Maybe it was overconfidence on my part, or maybe it was because reading came so easily for the other children I had instructed (my own and borrowed) that I didn't take the same time in instruction that was necessary.

While reading had came very easily to me, that really didn't make me much of a reading teacher. For me, it had almost become intuitive, and it is difficult to teach what seems to have come by osmosis. Teaching requires understanding~ and time.

The understanding of our language's phonograms came via the Spell to Write and Read program, but time was another matter.

Do you ever sit with an emerging reader and "help them out?" You know, they get to a hard word- or sometimes not so hard- and they begin to struggle through it and you decide to "help" by telling them the word. It's easier on them and it moves things along, right?

Well... maybe not.

After studying a reading sourcebook, that was given to me by my sister Dale (see below), I was completely converted from "helping" in that way.

Do you believe in teaching phonograms? If so, you will enjoy this research conducted by scientists at Yale University's Center for Learning and Attention:

"The brain reads by breaking words into sounds. After the eye notices the printed letters in a word, the letter identification processor (see 1 in above image) connects the letters to the phonological processor (see 2 in above image), where the sounds associated with the letters are identified. The blended bundle of letters and sounds then connects to the brains meaning processor (see 3 in above image), where the concept word is identified.

1. The letter identification processor is located in the extrastriate cortex of the occipital lobe. It pinpoints letters, such as c-a-t.

2. The phonological processor is located in the inferior frontal gyrus. It identifies sounds associated with letters, such as /k/ /a/ /t/.

3. The meaning processor is located in the superior temporal gyrus. It identifies the meaning of the word cat- "a furry pet that meows.""

"When the brain processes a word for the first time, it must be thoroughly decoded- broken into sounds that correspond to the letter representations. The brain then uses neural connections to blend those sounds and letters into a word, and then connects this bundle to the word's meaning to create an amalgamated package. As a word is read over and over, the neural connections get stronger and stronger until recognition is automatic."

Excerpts from "Teaching Reading" Sourcebook published by CORE (Consortium on Reading Excellence)

In short, to acquire the skill to read- decoding words into sounds, then blending those sounds into words- the brain must take all three steps. Students may need to decode and blend words upwards of 50-100 times before they "click." As they process those words, the connections in their brain become strengthened and words become automatic.

So, if we "help" by giving them the word, or let them guess, those connections are not being strengthened. They are skipping a vital step and reading does not become automatic.

The struggle is a necessary part, but what an encouragement to know that the struggle has purpose! As I explained to a reluctant reader recently how God had designed her brain, and how we needed to strengthen those connections so that she would be able to read easily, it made the struggle bearable.

Blessings to those of you in the struggle!



My littlest sis, Dale (who gave me the 2 inch reading sourcebook) and her wonderful husband Jon. By the way, if you look up the word delightful in the dictionary, you'll find this picture of Dale and Jon with the definition. They are delightful. : )


  1. I so needed to read this today! My current reader-in-training is struggling and I find that I try to help her. Now I know that I just need to let her do the steps and encourage her.

    Thanks for that:-)

    Lots of love,

  2. I was looking for a way to contact you via email..but didn't see it, so I will do so here and you can contact my email if you are willing:-)

    I have an almost 9year old girl and she is getting to that age where my hubby and I think we need to discuss the topic of bodies and such..the birds and the bees if you want:-) I'm not sure how to approach it and since you have several girls(one or two that probably have reached that age as well), I thought you might have some advice, suggestions, reading suggestions. Would you be willing to help me in this area. I greatly respect your words of wisdom and encouragement and feel that we are probably on a very similar page as a family.

    Thank you in advance. Here is my email:

    Lots of love,

  3. Sommer,

    I am not only willing, I am honored. I'll be mailing you soon!


  4. P.S. Just to clarify, we can definitely help our babes figure out the phonic sounds, but if they guess the word "sit" for example, we should not just correct the word and say, "It's 'sat' dear." That is skipping a critical step. Rather, I now say, "not exactly...can you sound it out?" and wait for the step of sounding out the word and let them blend it. : )

  5. Thank you!!!

    Lots of love,