David and Dakota
Student teaching was my final college course. I was fortunate not only to work with an excellent teacher, but to be involved in a pilot reading program. There were 30 first graders in the class. None of them had any prior reading experience. (It was the 1980s, a time before helicopter parents were hovering.) The “new” reading program looked like it came from Colonial times. It was maybe 180 pages of black and white text, no illustrations. The first page had 5 letters and 3 sight words. The students had to memorize the words and the sounds of the letters, as well. Pages 2, 3, and 4 looked very similar, but had a different arrangement of the letter sounds and sight words. We introduced one page each day. The students would say the sounds and read the sight words with us. Then they would break off into pairs and read them to their partner. Lesson 5 started the same, but added new words that were made of the letter sounds. The teacher showed the kids how to blend the sounds together to read these new phonetic words. By page 8 the students were reading sentences made up of both the sight words and the phonetic words. They read with us, then in pairs. They were reading! As a kid who struggled to learn to read, I was very impressed! Every other week, a new chapter was introduced with new letter sounds and sight words. By the end of the semester, the majority of the students were good readers. I loved this reading program! Unfortunately, the teachers hated it. They had to work really hard to come up with all of the extra materials needed to fill an hour of reading time. The pilot program failed. I was so disappointed! In the back of my 20 year old mind, I decided I would one day create a reading program that worked like this one, but had all of the content needed to fill an hour of reading time.
When my daughter, Alyssa, was about 2 1/2 she knew all of the letters of the alphabet, both capital and lowercase. I decided to teach her a few letter sounds and a few sight words. She memorized them fairly quickly. I taught her to sound out words made up of the letter sounds. That was easy for her, too. So I made sentences using the letter sounds and sight words. She could read them! I kept adding sounds and words in a manner similar to the pilot reading program. By the time she was 3 1/2, Alyssa could read almost any beginning reader book.
When Alyssa started kindergarten, her teacher was impressed by how well she read. That was the motivation I needed to start working on my idea for a reading program that was less Colonial times and more Sesame Street. It was a huge undertaking. I researched the most common sight words. I created a cast of characters who spoke in letter sounds. I divided all of the letter sounds and sight words into categories from most used to least used and easiest to most difficult. I wrote sentences and stories for each grouping of sight words and phonetic words. All I needed were students who wanted to learn to read.
Dakota was a 5 year old who lived across the street from me. When I told his mom about the reading program I was inventing, she immediately volunteered her son. Dakota came over 5 times a week for 30 minute reading lessons. He was an excellent student. He learned to read very quickly. I thought my reading program was a winner. Then I met David.
David’s mom knocked on my door, introduced herself, and told me she was a friend of Dakota’s mom. Her son had been to preschool and kindergarten and was rapidly falling behind. She asked if I could teach him how to read.
I noticed right away that David was easily distracted. He changed the subject whenever possible. He took bathroom breaks that sometimes lasted for most of our reading session. Once he even cleaned my bathroom while he was taking a break. This kid did not want to learn to read, but I was determined to motivate him. I wrote special stories with David as the main character and used themes that were of interest to him. I made games and flashcards for him to take home. After a year of reading lessons, David was reading on a really low level. His mom was happy with that. I wanted better results.
It wasn’t until my son Jack was about 4 that I saw in him some of the same reluctance to learn that I had seen in David. It occurred to me that Jack (and David) might have a learning disability. After a lot of research I found a number of articles on Visual Processing Disorder. It seemed to match what I had observed in David and was now seeing in Jack. I knew I had to make changes to the reading program. If Jack liked the work we were doing, I figured it might work for other reluctant learners or kids with learning disabilities. And that is how I proceeded.
There is a big difference in creating a lesson that will work for a David verses a Dakota. Color-coding, letter spacing, and page organization are all important when working with kids who struggle with reading. Over the years, I have consistently worked to improve my reading program with betters stories, activities, and illustrations. “Readerville” is finally the friendly, easy-to-use reading program I’d imagined so long ago. I wish I could go back in time and re-teach David. I’m optimistic he’d take less bathroom breaks.
This craftivity is called “DRAGON-FLIER.” (Click the blue words to get the template and instructions for the craft.) Take it outside and have some fun after your study session is done. Or use it in your reading lesson: Set sentence strips on the floor about 12 inches apart. Have your child fly the dragon-flier onto a sentence, read it, and remove it. Keep playing until all the sentences have been read.