About this time two years ago, my sweet six-year-old son decided he wanted to hand-make Valentine’s cards for his first grade classmates. I was surprised and pleased that he passed up the lure of all the commercial cards, so we got some construction paper and got crafty.
I gave him a printed list of his class roster and he dutifully copied their names onto the cards in his oversized handwriting. He worked so hard on each one.
I volunteered to help with the class party and when it came time to distribute the cards, the kids zoomed around the room in excitement—but not my son. He tugged on my shirt and when I leaned down to him, he quietly said: “Mom, can you help me pass out my cards?”
“You can do it yourself, buddy! Everyone else is,” I replied.
He shook his head “no,” and said: “I can’t, Mom. I don’t know how to read their names.”
It hit me in that moment just how much my son was struggling to learn to read, and just how helpless I felt to do anything about it. I had to hold back tears.
My son is exceptionally bright. At the end of a year in public pre-K, he ranked in the 99th percentile on the screener for our school district’s gifted program.
I was so excited for him to start elementary school. I had loved school as a kid. Learning came easy for me, and I was certain it would for him too.
When he struggled to learn “sight words” in kindergarten, I was surprised. I had been reading to him every day since he was born—literally. He loved books. I was confident we had done everything necessary for him to be “ready to read,” as they say.
So I was beyond frustrated that when I started having meetings with school administrators about what could be done to help him, the conversation always turned to what we were doing to support him at home.
It took every ounce of self-restraint and decorum in me not to scream: “We’ve done it all! Stop putting the blame on me and teach my kid how to read!”
I went outside our school district for help. We talked to our pediatrician. She gave us a referral to a specialist at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital here in Nashville, and we finally got an answer: My son has dyslexia, along with about one in every five kids.
The prescription of sorts from the Vanderbilt physician was structured literacy, which is systematic phonics instruction. Repeated exposure to words, like the daily reading we did together as a family, wasn’t enough; my son needed to be explicitly taught how to connect letters and groups of letters to the sounds in our spoken language.
Before I knew about structured literacy, I can remember practicing his reading with him and coming upon a word that didn’t seem to follow the rules of basic letter sounds. I had no way to explain it. I just thought some words don’t follow the rules. But in reality, I just didn’t know all the rules.
As my son’s reading skills and confidence began to grow, I started to question—why aren’t we teaching all kids systematic phonics? After all, our written language is just a code for spoken sounds, and how can kids “decipher the code” if they’re not taught?
After researching on my own, I came to learn about the science of reading, how our brains associate letters with sounds and that statistically about 40 percent of kids do learn to “decode” on their own. But that means 60 percent don’t, including kids like my son who struggle the most.
As I have reflected on this fact, I believe it’s no coincidence that about 65 percent of kids in the United States are not proficient in reading, based on the National Assessment on Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card. The same percentages bear out here in Tennessee where I live.
For the majority of kids who aren’t able to pick up the skill of reading through osmosis, the rest of their education is hampered as a result. Their very potential in life is hampered. This is a national crisis.
This is not the fault of parents. It’s not the fault of teachers either. It’s our systems at large that need to change—from the colleges of education that prepare our teachers, to the companies that make reading curriculum, to the school districts that adopt it.
Our state just made a big step in the right direction—proposing legislation and funding to ensure early elementary grade teachers have training in the science of reading and curriculum that supports it. I hope the legislation is passed. I hope our school districts embrace it. They must, if they truly want all kids to succeed.
If your child is struggling to learn to read, ask the instructional leaders at your school how they are teaching reading. If the instruction is not based on systematic phonics, tell them that’s what your child needs. It’s actually what all children need.