Ben can read | The spin-off

Summer Reading: Book Editor Catherine Woulfe shares a personal story about Structured Literacy, the step-by-step reading system that is gaining traction across the country.

First published April 16, 2021.

My boy’s name is Ben and he will be seven in October. In the battle over how children learn to read, he is a full-fledged data point. But he is my data point of one, and as he would tell you, did you know that one can also be a whole?

So: Ben. He’s kind and goofy and emotionally intelligent, and absolutely determined to play by the rules. He loves puns. Pokemon. Do raps. Mazes, logic. When he left nicely, his kaiako said, “He will be doing very well.” Just maybe tell his teacher that Ben is very literal. ”Right now he’s mesmerized by Guinness World Records and everything that turns.

Before Ben went to school, he fiddled with fractions in his head, just for fun. I remember the day he realized that there were negative numbers – a new world, extending to infinity; he spins for joy. He likes to throw at us equations he has already guessed: what is 20 times 20 plus 200 minus 700? He will whirl around the kitchen as he utters these chants, punctuating each step with a gentle kung fu movement. He plans to sleep. The other day, exhausted, calming down with math, he dealt 37 times 12 as we went to the supermarket.

So let’s go with the words. Ben started talking loud and fast on his first birthday. Throughout the Playcentre, then Nursery and Kindness, he was precocious, ravenous, picking up words and stacking them into meticulous, towering sentences. No baby talk. No stumble on the times.

I had assumed that my boy would be one of those kids who learn to read just by being around books. Who was born there. But what happened was he hit the school and suddenly hit a plateau.

I was an education journalist for 10 years and wrote many, many versions of the story: “If you read to your children and instill a love for books, you do all you can to make them grow up.” readers ”. Also the one that says, “Parents: Stop worrying. Your middle-class white child will be fine ”. And even.

I started to watch my boy very carefully. And I started to worry.

Every afternoon he would take out his bag of books and we would sit down with the book that had been sent home. He would get by without worries. But one day he explained that he had already read the book in class. He had memorized it. Same thing with picture books all over the house. He would sit and “read” to his little sister, and his gentleness would break your heart. But he was not reading. He was reciting.

Ben and Léo, plus books (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

I mean here the volume of material this kid memorized was astounding. Just like his ability to figure out what the words should mean by looking at the pictures. And all that amazing brainwork, rote learning, and jigsaw puzzle – everything looks like reading, for a while.

For us, his entire first year of school was an exercise in being very worried while trying very hard not to be. From somewhere, everywhere, we had absorbed the idea that New Zealand is blessed with a cold, child-centered approach to learning to read. We were in it. It all seemed both sane and a little magical: place a child in an environment rich in reading and his own reading will eventually… manifest. Oh sure he would learn the basics, plus a few tips – look for clues in the picture, smash a swear word into pieces. But it was mostly about osmosis. Trust the teachers, the system, trust the visual wordboards and the reading of the books they send home. Relax.

It all fitted well with the early childhood education program, Te Whāriki, in which we had just spent five years. It also aligned with our ideas about parenting, which are basically reinforce the good things, ignore the bad ones. Read a lot.

So we did our best not to panic. Every now and then we would chat with Ben’s teacher. She was lovely, competent, intelligent, she tried to reassure us, told us that Ben was fine, that he was progressing well. We wanted to see that. But what we saw instead – it’s hard to pin down – was our diligent, eager to please child using all of his energy just to stay afloat. We saw a light go out. After the first few months he no longer had any joy in reading or, more precisely, in struggling to read. He was another little boy who decided books weren’t for him.

It has become a chore. My mom, a former elementary school teacher who later majored in literacy, came up with all kinds of sticker boards and word games to try and get it going again. Nothing worked for long.

He didn’t like to write either. More often than not, everything he wrote was mirrored, reversed. It was amazing to watch. He once made a card for his sister. Dear Leo, love Ben. He copied words that I had written. It took him 20 minutes. I couldn’t tell him that every letter and every word was the wrong way round. I just marveled at his brain and worried.

But mirroring is not unusual when children start to read. It could signal dyslexia. This may not be the case. It will work out on its own. Relax.

Sentences made up of isolated words written on cardboard
‘Caterpillar phrases’, one of the many strategies we have tried at home (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

At Ben’s sixth birthday party, when he had been in school for a year, I organized a scavenger hunt with simple written clues. Most of the words were the ones we had pierced, the ones I thought he knew. “You look inside me everyday. “”I am tall and red. Bees love me. There were 12 clues. So, 12 times, I watched my boy stand silent in the back of the bag while his friends read the two second flat note. Letter box, he would shout then, first to solve the riddle, tearing the reader apart. Bottle brush!

It is a difficult thing to watch your child learn to mask, to compensate. That day the worry finally increased and all the magical thought cried out.

It was then that a ladder was found for him.

A structured literacy approach explicitly teaches strategies for systematic word identification and decoding, which benefit most students but are essential for people with dyslexia.

A structured literacy approach provides explicit, systematic, and sequential literacy instruction at multiple levels – phonemes, letter-sound relationships, syllable patterns, morphemes, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and text structure.

[Teachers using a structured literacy approach will] clearly explain each concept. Offer guided practice. Students are not expected to discover or intuition language concepts simply by exposure to language or reading.

-From Te Kete Ipurangi, the government educational resource site for teachers

“Explain each concept clearly. I think that’s the heart of it.

Instead of looking for a diagnosis, we set about organizing a tutor. Here is what you will need in your privileges toolkit to make this option workable: money; networks (finding a tutor can be difficult); the educational capital to realize that there is a problem in the first place and the bloodthirsty mind to refuse to relax about it. You will also need a parent or other adult with time and flexibility who knows enough about reading to be able to help you.

In six months, we spent over $ 1000 on private lessons. I took Ben to something like 1pm of class, most at 7:30 am, and almost every afternoon we practice with special games and apps and decodable books (basically, in those books the kids can pronounce all the words, rather than having to guess).

It worked. As soon as someone told Ben the rules, the diagrams – the beautiful math of reading – he got it.

This is the first structured literacy book he read, in its entirety. I look at it now and I see a poem. Scale.




Sam sat down. Pip was seated.

Tim sat down.

Sam, Pip, Tim.

Twelve words. He read them all and it was a small triumph, our first in a very long time. You should have seen his face.

Here are the first two pages of the book we did yesterday:

It was spring.

The sun was shining and the bees were buzzing.

Pip and Tim were playing in the tall grass.

“It’s like a jungle here,” Tim said.

“Let’s go animal hunting,” Pip said.

It’s always a triumph, every time.

More and more schools presentation the structured approach to literacy, even if they have to pay to do it. Over the past two weeks, the Ministry of Education has also distribution of new books which focus on phonetics, one of the pillars of the system. Professional development of teachers is underway.

I am relieved that the change is happening, and also that it is happening gradually. Things tend to fall apart when new systems are slammed against schools. And of all the wars in education, the one over how we learn to read is perhaps the most bitter. Good luck to the teachers and officials – and the children – who are pushing their way through it all.

But honestly it all looks a long way off and through the hills. Because here at home our boy is off on a run, he is flying – a week ago he woke up and a switch clicked and all of a sudden he was reading the Weetbix box, the bottle of milk, sunscreen. I cried buckets in the kitchen as he walked around his room, reading the certificates on the wall. Ss-tah-rrr of the week. To be ka-i-nn-d and tah-ry-ing his bah-es-t with his ill-err-nn-ing. A trip to the fruit and veg store took half an hour longer than usual. Mummy! There are so many signs! Later, I found him mesmerized in front of the turned off TV. Pa-nah-soh-niche breathed without noticing me. And then he grabbed a book that he had never seen before and sat down next to his sister.

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