How Structured Literacy Saved My Children

When I graduated from college in 1996 and was hired to teach 1st grade in a predominantly impoverished school in Las Vegas, NV,  I brought with me all that I had learned in college.  I learned that whole language was the way to teach all kids and that any basal and decodable reader was bad.  I was taught that if I gave my students quality literature and ample time to read and write freely, I would set my little ones on a path to success!  I was amazed by students who came in knowing very few letters and sounds, whom all of a sudden were reading chapter books by the end of 1st grade. I assumed the ones that weren’t reading just didn’t have enough exposure, language or support at home.  I continued teaching kindergarten, 1st grade and ESL in at-risk schools over the course of my career. My philosophy on how to teach reading didn’t change and most years about 80% of my students reached grade level standards.

In 2006 I had my first son, Carter.  I read to him before he was born. He had a bookshelf full of books when he arrived home from the hospital and we continued to read to him every night.  He loved books!

We moved to BVSD in 2012 and my bright, social, rambunctious – filled with shenanigans Carter – arrived at kindergarten on his 6th birthday.  I wasn’t too concerned that he only knew a handful of letters and sounds. He could rhyme, write his name and tell you every fact about the Titanic!  He was obsessed with cars and could tell you the name and model of any car driving down the street, so I knew he was capable of recognizing letters which have discreet features.  He was still very interested in books (especially Richard Scary’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go) and he loved his nightly stories.  His speech development didn’t raise huge red flags.  He talked on schedule and learned vocabulary easily, although he would often times mix up the meanings of common words like up and down.  He had difficulty saying his r’s and l’s but both his pediatrician and preschool teacher assured me that this was normal. I was confident that he would become a reader in kindergarten, even if he didn’t naturally gravitate towards academic tasks.  

Carter enjoyed those first months of kindergarten.  His teacher didn’t seem to have any concerns. He read above the benchmark at the trimester because he used all of his good reading strategies, even going back into the book to reread a word to gain context for it on the following pages.  He got glasses in January. We thought maybe his astigmatism was affecting his ability to recognize letters. It wasn’t until about Valentine’s Day that we became increasingly concerned. Carter was tasked with writing the names of his classmates on his valentines. He couldn’t hold the letters in his head long enough to copy them from the list to the card.  We told he wasn’t trying hard enough. At the end of the week, Carter was getting stomach aches so severe he would throw up. We rushed him to Children’s Hospital a few times convinced he was suffering from an appendicitis.

Towards Spring Carter’s attitude about school started to change.  He was frustrated, moody and generally unhappy with reading. By the end of the year, his teacher still was not overly concerned, but put him on an Individual Literacy Plan (ILP) because he wasn’t reading at grade level. He didn’t learn the required number of sight words and was still struggling to hold onto letters and sounds in his reading.  Remarkably, he could encode and write much better than he could read. We did Raz Kids every day that summer. He continued to memorize books. I still wasn’t convinced that Carter may not have not wanted to be a reader. He was active but never wanted to take risks.  When he finally tackled the high dive after a year of trying, I thought maybe the confidence would spill over into his reading. We had high hopes for 1st grade.

Upon entering 1st grade I noticed a change in Carter’s overall personality.  My bright, confident, charismatic Carter was suddenly becoming cautious, withdrawn and sad. He wasn’t reading at grade level.  His school offered Reading Recovery and LLI. He didn’t qualify for the first round of Reading Recovery because he wasn’t considered low enough academically.  His general phonemic awareness skills were ok and he had enough sight words and comprehension to read short books. He didn’t qualify for LLI because he didn’t recognize  enough of his letters and sounds. He made very little progress in the classroom over the first semester. He grew increasingly non-compliant, moody and sad. His teacher described his struggles as “perplexing.”  Our kiddo and family were in a full-blown crisis and he was only 7.

During this time he explained that letters were jumping off the page.  This is not a sign of dyslexia but a comorbid vision condition. After a comprehensive vision exam in which they found convergence and tracking issues, we thought our problems were solved! He started vision therapy in February of that year. He had made very little progress all year so in March he was finally far enough behind to receive Reading Recovery. He did improve with Reading Recovery but not enough to make the end of the year benchmark.  I remember thinking that in all of my years of teaching I had never had a 1st grader as low as Carter. What was wrong with my child? At the end of 1st grade Carter still had not been brought up as a candidate for RTI. Because he was compliant, capable in all areas aside from reading and socially well adjusted, he just wasn’t seen as severe enough to warrant a deeper look.  

Throughout kindergarten and 1st grade both our pediatrician and neighbor (both had dyslexic children) encouraged us to get testing for dyslexia.  I remember thinking that it wasn’t serious enough to spend thousands of dollars on. I likened it to immediately thinking “brain tumor” when the symptom was a headache.  After a frustrating year in 1st grade and a child who was growing increasingly anxious and sad, we finally made that call to schedule an appointment with Children’s Hospital Language and Learning in July.  

Carter was identified with profound dyslexia a week before his 8th birthday and a couple weeks before starting 2nd grade.  His listening comprehension was in the 96th percentile, his ability to decode and some areas of phonemic awareness and memory were below the 1st.  How could this have happened? How could we not have known? When the psychologist was explaining the results I immediately started sobbing. All of these questions I had had over the past two years had come down to dyslexia.  I was both relieved at having an identification and ability to move on and disappointed in myself for not treating my child with more compassion. I was also angry with the system that failed to recognize that he had a severe reading disability that occur in 1 in 5 children.  Carter asked me, “Mommy are those happy tears or sad tears?” I said, “Oh, buddy. These are happy tears. You GET to be dyslexic like so many other amazing people in the world.” I made a promise to myself early on to not get bogged down in all of the sad stories. I had to choose to believe that Carter would be okay and that he would get the support he needed.  I had to stay strong and advocate for him and demand the change that was needed to remediate him, along with the other 20% of students.

He entered 2nd grade without a plan of action.  We met with his team who wanted to test him for special education. We asked the team what they knew about dyslexia.  “Not much.” They replied. We chose to find our own solution knowing that the school was unequipped to help Carter. We found a wonderful retired teacher who volunteered to support Carter two days per week at school using the Barton program.  That year his teacher asked what our goals were for Carter. I said, “I just want to see him smile again. I wanted to see that spark. I wanted to see the less serious side of him. I missed his shenanigans. I wanted my boy back.”

Carter continued to work with Ms. Trudy over the next two years until BVSD decided to site a policy stating that a volunteer could not deliver an intervention within the school day.  We had developed a solution that benefited our child that costed the district nothing and was denied the service. Carter was devastated. His tutor was devastated. We pressed them to provide the policy to support their decision. They didn’t provide anything. We pressed them for a solution.  They decided to provide a pilot in which they would have a certified teacher deliver Barton instruction (structured literacy) to Carter each day.

He continued to get this instruction for the next two years until now.  He completed Barton’s Level 8. I can happily say that some time around 4th grade we began to start seeing glimpses of that kiddo we dropped off at kindergarten on his 6th birthday.   I could see him engaging more with friends. He was “lighter” in a way. For better or worse I started seeing his shenanigans again.  Now as he enters 6th grade, he’s confident and ready to take anything on. He will still need support and accommodations but I can happily say that the 4 years of intense structured literacy saved him from a lifetime of struggle and the shame of not knowing how to read.  

When our younger child Walker entered kindergarten knowing all of his letters and sounds, we were convinced that he didn’t have dyslexia.  Walker had been identified with a developmental delay and placed on an IEP for speech and OT at 4 years old. In kindergarten his teacher brought up speech concerns, primarily word finding and he was placed back on a speech IEP.  Walker met all kindergarten benchmarks and his teacher didn’t have any concerns with his reading. Still we weren’t convinced that he didn’t have dyslexia. We had him tested at Children’s Hospital in January of 1st grade and found out that he too had dyslexia.  Because Walker had so much early speech and OT intervention, he didn’t exhibit the signs of reading failure like his brother did. We caught his dyslexia before he could feel the shame of not knowing how to read like his peers. I immediately started doing the Barton program with him and saw success.  In 2nd grade he was picked up for an Orton-Gillingham small group and he made huge progress. He not only qualified for the spelling bee but made it to the fourth round! His confidence soared! Now we can’t pull books away from him. When he attended camp earlier this summer he packed his backpack full of his Calvin and Hobbes, Dogman and Captain Underpants books.  He sees himself as a reader and is successful because he was offered structured literacy immediately, instead waiting for failure. He too will still need more support. He will need to learn spelling rules explicitly and continue working on critical phonemic awareness skills.

It’s scary to think of where my two children would be without structured literacy.  It’s sad to think of all of the kids that our schools have missed; kids that end up in the juvenile justice system, who drop out of school, who feel the shame of not knowing how to read.  If only these kids were given explicit literacy instruction. Now that we know what works for kids who exhibit characteristics of dyslexia, there is absolutely no excuse to not give them structured literacy.  We know it works! 

By: Wendi Kirkpatrick, BVKID member


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