This year I worked with quite a few kiddos who were struggling significantly learning to read. There are lots of good reading programs out there and people make lots and lots of money selling these programs, especially to special education programs looking for the magic wand to wave over their struggling readers. Many of the special ed reading programs are scripted and very specific. In many ways they are great, but since they are a commercial program they are fairly general. My own school follows the Literacy Collaborative approach, which is fantastic and I as a classroom teacher I would swear my life on it. However, the program doesn't always take into account children who need a little something extra, or children who have severe learning disabilities. So, sometimes you have to take what works, take what you know about your kiddos, take a bit of creativity, and mix it all together. Because, despite what research says is best: a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do if you want the kiddos reading
I am ridiculously excited about the progress one of my students made this year and I wanted to reflect on it before I got chlorine brain and forgot everything I did. This is a long and tedious post and unless you are crazy-excited about teaching reading to special education students I'd recommend skimming past it. It's more for me than for readers.
This little one entered first grade with the knowledge of two letter names: p, and b. He had no known high frequency words (words you see every day in print like 'the', 'and', 'is'). He did not yet have the concept that letters make sounds which when put together make words that have meaning and correspond to what we say. Before you can learn to read you really have to tackle this concept. We call it one-to-one matching when children can "read" a text (even one that just says "No, No, No") and point to each word separately while saying it.
This kiddo has a limited working memory and sever processing issues so learning letter names was proving difficult because he could not remember the names of the letters, let alone the sound they make. Plus, not understanding that words carry meaning, he really just thought we were torturing him. Why did he care about memorizing these painfully difficult odd names?
So, -finally, after we had mastered one-to-one, I decided to skip the letter-name battle and go straight for learning the sounds that correspond with the given letters. The sounds are more useful to children learning how to put words together in order to read, and give them less to remember while still giving them useful skills. With inspiration from my school's speech language pathologist (whom I also like to refer to as 'A Gift From God' or just 'Miracle Worker') I learned of alphabet cards that teach a hand motion to match each sound. My kiddo is a highly kinesthetic learner and so we started working our way through the commonly used sounds based on a sequence I learned in grad school. This worked fairly well and he started being able to connect words with the motion that corresponded to the initial sound. He would do the motion for a few moments while he pulled up the sound. When given enough wait time he was able to pull up the correct initial sound. We also spent time looking into a hand-held mirror to see how our mouths looked when we formed the sound for the letters to pair his strengths of visual learning and kinesthetic learning.
Then I started writing my own books for him. My school has an incredible book room filled with hundreds of titles of books on every level for guided reading. These are great, but I needed a specific pattern that I could vary just a little every day. I actually was inspired by the Rigby books but since they only had 3 books that matched the pattern I needed I decided to write my own.
My books, while having limited text, were all about this evil monster who kept trying to sneak into the child's class and take things from the students. That tricky monster! In every book the monster was trying to take something different from all of the students in my friend's class (he happened to know all of their names, so luckily I could put the class names in the book for him to use as known text.) Toward the end I really had to stretch what that monster was coming in to steal. He even tried to sneak in and steal their swimming pools. Imagine that! Lots of giggles on that one.
In my reading class last winter I learned about special education reading programs like Wilson, Edmark, etc, etc. We were able to peruse their teacher manuals and see what made them work. So I took the memory-based theories and rote-learning strategies from these programs and paired them with my school's reading program, Literacy Collaborative, that operates behind a more meaning-driven approach to teaching text. The guided reading program and everything from Fontas and Pinnell is fabulous, but for some children who have little to no working memory (short term memory) it doesn't do enough to by-pass their short term memory and put information into their long-term memory. However, the rote (yet sometime meaningless) approach of more special ed reading programs are geared specifically for teaching children who struggle with their working memory.
So instead of using flash-cards or sheets with words on them like Edmark and Wilson I went ahead and embedded what I wanted my friend to know into the texts of the Monster Series. The books started simply: "No monster!" "No monster! That is for Brian"... "No, Monster, that is for Amy", etc, etc. We had many, many books that just stuck to this "This is for ...." pattern so that I knew my friend had the words 'this, is, and for' in is long-term memory. He also was demonstrating one-to-one matching and showing me he understood that words carry meaning. He would giggle with some of the crazy Monster antics. Occasionally the text would change to read, "Monster, no, no, no!" to be sure that he was not simply relying on the pattern of the book, but was able to associate the correct word with the correct set of letters. The last page of the books always changed a bit to read, "This is for the monster!" (and to give the monster something in return)
As he became familiar with the pattern I began to introduce the other high frequency words I wanted him to know. I started changing the patterns from 'this is for' to 'the cat is for' so that he had to be sure to look at the whole word and check himself (he knew the word cat because I would give it to him in my book introduction, but also because he was learning to check the picture as a reading strategy. He would also look at the first letter and make the motion for what we had practiced so that he could check himself). He became very good at re-reading to make sure he was correct unprompted. After he demonstrated a knowledge of recognizing the difference between 'this' and 'the' I added the word 'and' into the text, many times using the general Edmark script, only with the word inside a text instead of inside a general list of words. Slowly as the days went on (a new book every day) these words crept into his long-term memory and I would notice him finding the words in his classroom and pointing them out to friends (of course when he was actually suppose to be listening to his teacher..., but, I'll take what I can take, right?)
Of course we did not just rely on the books but also used magnetic letters to make the words we were working on learning, using some steps from Fernald's VAKT (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Tactile) approach. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world to make the word 'is' and then sneakily put the 'th' on the front to change it. He laughed at me every time, thinking he was tricking me. Did I mention that I love this kid?
I loved watching him succeed in learning words and letter sounds. The pride that filled his body when he walked around with a book he could read, or when he could point out words to his friends. I adore this kid and will miss him. I suppose right now I'm trying to organize the process I used this year so that his case manager and teachers for next year will have an understanding of what I did. I'm not sure they'll be thrilled about the prospect of writing a new book every day, but I have the template ready and waiting. Or perhaps they'll have even better ideas of ways we can reach this little one. After all the progress we'd made in the last month it was difficult to say goodbye and know that he wouldn't be reading so much this summer. I'm tempted to write new stories and do some 'reading drive-bys' just to keep him on his toes.
The most important thing I learned from this process was not to get caught up in research based practices. Using what I knew about my student's strengths and weaknesses I was able to create a personal program that met his needs. Sometimes a little bit of creativity can go a long way.