My Neighbor Died Because He Struggled to Read. “Hard Words” Explains Why He Missed Out.

If you care about kids, take some time this week and spend the 52 minutes it takes to listen to Emily Hanford’s new radio documentary from American Public Media, “Hard Words.” Then get mad enough to make waves about changing the way we teach reading—both to kids, and to teachers.

Hanford’s piece details the sad fact that the truce that ended the reading wars—teaching in a style called “balanced literacy”—doesn’t systematically teach kids how to crack the code of written English. And that’s a big problem, not just for the small percentage of kids whose brains are wired differently than usual, in the form we call dyslexia, but for many, many other children, too.

My longtime friend, José Vizcarra, was one of them. In part because of his struggles in school, stemming from dyslexia, José was shot dead in 2016. He was 20 years old.

OK, I admit there were other factors in play. He and his folks were undocumented immigrants from Mexico. They didn’t have a lot of money. His parents split when he was a young teen and he found his way into a street gang.

But José had dyslexia, just like his dad, and nobody caught it in time. I tried. I knew what was going on almost as soon as I met him. Back then, he was 7 years old and struggling to read. When he wrote, he got his letters mixed up, sometimes writing them backwards. A talented artist, José loved to draw. He “fit the description” of classic dyslexia.

I tried to help him out. We put alphabet cards on the table in his family’s dining room one day and I listened while he sounded out the letters. It was hard to tell when he was struggling because English is different from his native Spanish and when he was hitting other roadblocks in understanding. But it was clear both were in play.

I was a former high school English teacher. I knew phonics was important and understood it intuitively, but like many teachers, I had never been trained to teach phonics to someone else. I looked for outside resources. We were waitlisted at the University of Illinois Chicago’s reading clinic and never got a call back. The first dyslexia resources I found were in the suburbs—I had no car and they didn’t know the metro area.

Eventually, I leaned on his mother to have him tested for special education services. I knew this could be more of a curse than a blessing, but I didn’t know how else we would get him the support he needed. His mom didn’t want him labeled, but as months wore on and his academic struggles worsened, she agreed with me that we had to try to get him help.

While she worked with school to get José an IEP, I found a private dyslexia specialist in Chicago. We made an appointment. She was good, but very expensive. I offered to pay—not fully knowing how I would make it happen, just knowing I would do it—and his mother refused. I backed down. It was that expensive.

Later, the dyslexia specialist told me she wasn’t sure how much she could have helped José. She thought his vocabulary was so limited that all the help she could offer would not be enough to unlock the doors of reading for him. I didn’t care. I knew things she didn’t. I knew José had more vocabulary than he had let on to her, a stranger, upon first meeting. I also knew José was a curious and reflective thinker. But his mother and I still let her go because we couldn’t figure out how to pay for her services.

When José was starting seventh grade, in the fall of 2008, I read his 12-page IEP, which described him as “learning disabled” and said nothing about dyslexia or specific strategies his teachers would use to teach him to read. I talked about it with a friend who had seen a fair number of Chicago Public Schools IEPs. As she put it, “It’s a pretty standard CPS IEP: it doesn’t diagnose anything and it doesn’t tell you how to fix it.”

As his mother and I feared, having him in special education pulled him out of regular class so he lost time on academic subjects, labeled and shamed him and did nothing in practice to get him real help in school.

Dyslexia affects a large number of young people involved in the juvenile justice system. José became one of them. Eventually, he dropped out of high school.

By November of 2016, I had been out of touch with José for a few years. That’s when I got a call from his older sister telling me he was dead. I went to visit his mother. In her apartment, a candle was lit in front of his high school diploma. He had graduated from alternative high school just months before he was killed.

It didn’t have to be that way for José.

What if we brought the techniques we use to support struggling readers in special education into the classroom for all kids? There’s a great deal of evidence showing that early elementary students typically miss out on a key element of reading instruction—systematic instruction in phonics—because their teachers don’t know about the science of reading.

In “Hard Words,” Hanford highlights Mississippi as a state brave enough to take on teacher education and make real, positive change in what teachers learn about how to teach reading. The Barksdale Reading Institute has led the way.

Some districts aren’t waiting for their states to lead; they’re taking change upon themselves. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, district leaders have retrained every elementary principal and all kindergarten teachers to make sure they know the cognitive science that shows most kids need explicit instruction in how to crack the code of written English, and they know how to teach them what they need. Already, kindergartners are showing impressive learning gains, and the training is coming upward to teachers, year by year.

I don’t mean to suggest that systematic phonics instruction is a magic bullet that will solve all reading problems in isolation. Kids need access to books, solid background knowledge (especially in science and social studies, which often get shorted in schools), explicit teaching of vocabulary and fluency. All of that has to happen. But we could do something to shore up this crucial, often-overlooked element of the winning formula for reading.

Whatever it takes to make sure all kids get all the tools they need to crack the code of written English, let’s do it. Whether it’s smart state policy that puts the onus on teacher colleges, not third-graders, to get reading right, or savvy district leadership that invests in quality professional development, let’s find the tools to give teachers the knowledge they need to keep kids like José from falling through the cracks.

Photo by Alexander Hipp on Unsplash

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Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is a senior writer and editor at Education Post, but before that she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of an elementary student at Chicago’s Namaste Charter School. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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