As veteran educators, for years we have encountered students who struggled with decoding and reading comprehension, yet were continually pushed on to the next grade.
That led to questions: How did they get this far not knowing how to read? What reading program did they use in elementary school? What interventions are helping them catch up? Are parents aware that their child has reading challenges? Is a learning disability at play?
We couldn’t and can’t answer all of those questions, and that’s why we’re with the 650 teachers who drafted a letter to the Hechinger Report, naming frustrations with misguided reading instruction, urging literacy leaders to reckon with research and saying that they wished they had taught better.
So do we.
We know all too well the disparities that exist in education and how they impact students. The latest Nation’s Report Card shows downward academic trends in U.S. schools during the pandemic, especially for historically marginalized students.
Yet we’re encouraged by the growing push to use reading programs that explicitly teach phonics and rely on cohesive materials that build background knowledge and help students acquire new vocabulary — and by the national momentum to use curricula aligned to the science of reading.
We have no time to waste.
All of this made us think about two of our students — for the purposes of privacy, we will refer to them as Brandon and Jazmine.
Jessica worked with Brandon, a charismatic boy who loved Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z, in second and third grade. Brandon excelled in math, as long as it wasn’t a word problem, and loved science. He could participate in deep conversations, but was unable to write a complete sentence.
He often misspelled common sight words as well as his own name, and by the time Brandon was in third grade, he was still reading on a kindergarten level. Jessica worked tirelessly to break Brandon of the habit of relying on repetition and pictures to read the words on a page, but he struggled to remember sound patterns and rules just taught. And he had trouble seeing and hearing differences among letters.
Support grounded in the science of reading could have saved years of struggle.
During two years of working with Brandon, Jessica met with his parents often, trying to describe the difficulties he was having and how far behind he was falling. These conversations weren’t easy. Not only was there a language barrier (Brandon’s parents’ first language is Spanish), but they were reluctant to consider the idea that Brandon may have a learning disability.
Finally, after lots of resource hunting and nudging, Jessica was able to convince Brandon’s parents to try to get him evaluated for a language-based learning disability. But the system got in the way. Brandon’s parents had a hard time finding an appointment that wouldn’t require them to miss work.
They also couldn’t afford to pay for the evaluation, even with assistance. Although Jessica was confident Brandon had a language-based learning disability, she didn’t have the specialized knowledge to help him catch up and fill in the gaps of phonics instruction he clearly needed.
After fourth grade, Brandon changed schools. Jessica thinks about him often. Did he get the support he needed? Did he continue to fall further behind in middle school and high school? Do his new teachers have the knowledge to support him?
Meanwhile, Megan met Jazmine as her ninth grade English teacher in East Harlem in 2009. Jazmine was friendly, well-liked by her peers and soft-spoken. She was a native Spanish speaker. The more Megan worked with Jazmine, the more she knew she needed support. Jazmine rarely raised her hand, her reading fluency was choppy and she scored poorly on assessments. Her academic records said Jazmine had worked hard through elementary and middle school, with good grades.
After months of working in the classroom and after school with Jazmine, Megan still had many unanswered questions about Jazmine’s educational background. Why had seemingly no interventions been made to support her difficulties? Had no one noticed that she was struggling?
Surprisingly, conversations with Jazmine’s mom revealed that she didn’t know her daughter needed extra support.
Megan’s interactions with the family were the first time any teacher had raised concerns about Jazmine’s ability to read fluently.
Jazmine worked tirelessly to complete her high school degree. After five years, she graduated, and recently earned her undergraduate degree after many more years of hard work.
Curriculum and instructional support grounded in the science of reading could have saved years of struggle for Brandon and Jazmine.
Change, hopefully, is on the way. We’re encouraged by efforts in New York City, where we live and work. Mayor Eric Adams, who has struggled with dyslexia, rolled out a plan earlier this year to screen all students for language-based disabilities like dyslexia and provide them with support. All teachers will get dyslexia training, and schools are also shifting to reading resources rooted in the science of reading.
Key questions remain, but we’re grateful for the increased attention to the research around literacy acquisition, largely due to the release of Emily Hanford’s illuminating “Sold a Story” podcast. There is a lot of work to do. But if we stay focused on what we know works, we can help kids become the readers and learners they’re all capable of becoming.
Megan Faughnan is a reading specialist in New York City. She works for Great Minds as an implementation leader.
Jessica Boisen was an instructional coach and special education teacher in New York City. She now works for Great Minds as an implementation leader.
This story about struggling readers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.