Reading and Spelling: Helping the Struggling Learner

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Back in 1999, I began teaching my second son at home. He was five years old and desperately wanted to read like his big brother. We tried the same program that I used with my oldest son, but it was clearly not the right tool for him. We made some adjustments and by the time he was seven he began to read, but it was difficult for him.  Over several years time, his fluency improved, but he continued to struggle with both reading comprehension and spelling. I reached out to the homeschooling community and many homeschooling moms assured me that comprehension and spelling would eventually develop.

Reading and Spelling - Helping the Struggling Learner - By Yvonne

Unfortunately, that never happened. By the time he finished fifth grade, he was spelling at a second grade level and comprehending somewhere between a third and fourth grade level. Once again, well meaning homeschool friends said that, “Some kids never learn to spell. He can use spell check.” Yet, that answer did not give me any peace. I knew something was wrong and every time I looked into my child’s eyes while he was reading, I could see that he knew it too.

Part of my frustration in educating my son, was in finding a quality tool which had the necessary ingredients to help him learn to decode fluently (read) and encode (spell) accurately. There were a lot of programs to choose from, but many were missing important ingredients. They were designed for the visual learner with an expansive memory bank and effortless processing ability. In a nutshell, these programs were designed for students who will learn to read and spell, no matter what program they use.

How is a parent to know if their child is a natural learner? Unfortunately, it often comes down to trial and error. Time is often wasted as parents try to find a program that will work for their child. However, children never stop learning. Sadly, young ones mistakenly deduce that they are not as smart as siblings or friends. This lie entices them to give up and stop trying. They learn that learning is a difficult chore.

My son and I tried several well known programs throughout his elementary years, and none of them helped him improve. When we finished the fifth grade, I was determined to learn all I could about reading instruction and decided I would do whatever it took to help my son improve.  This was the first step in helping my child learn to read and spell.  This decision changed our lives.

What I discovered is that none of the programs I had chosen were systematic and intensive. In fact, when I began to do my research I didn’t really understand what systematic and intensive meant!

systematicdone or acting according to a fixed plan or system; methodical. ~Oxford Dictionary

intensive – a. highly concentrated <intensive study>

b. tending to strengthen or increase; especially : tending to give force or emphasis

c. constituting or relating to a method designed to increase productivity by the expenditure of more capital and labor rather than by increase in scope ~Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The programs I had previously chosen looked “fun,” in that they had puzzles to solve, word searches to complete, lists to memorize, vocabulary matching exercises, etc., but none of them taught spelling in a logical and focused manner. Sure there were phonograms to study, and rules to apply, but the review was often too quickly paced or disorganized, sometimes it was lacking altogether. Other programs were nothing more than a bag of tricks to help students memorize their spelling words in groups of word families, which is fine if a student has a large memory bank, but what if he doesn’t?

I decided to go with a Spalding and Orton Gillingham based spelling program. The Spalding and Orton Gillingham methods tackle reading and spelling in an orderly and logical manner using the four senses – seeing, hearing, saying and writing. The child learns approximately seventy phonograms and begins to spell immediately. All along the way, the child learns twenty-eight spelling rules that are systematically and intensively reviewed. With this body of knowledge the child is able to analyze up to 97% of all English words and is able to read and spell successfully.

I admit that I was entirely intimidated by the Spalding and Orton Gillingham methods, but I found a program that was similar and had a bit more hand holding built in. Even then, it took me about two weeks to learn the system myself. I built my own spelling notebook in that time, and decided that if my son had a spelling question I could not answer, I would simply say, “I don’t know, but we will find out together.” That’s just what we did.

We began Spell to Write and Read in the autumn of my son’s sixth grade year. By the end of that school year, my son’s spelling had improved three grade levels. The following year he was at grade level and by the time he graduated high school, he was spelling at a college level.

When my daughter was ready for school, I decided to avoid the boxed curriculum and various spelling programs we’d tried with my other children. She is a natural reader and speller, but I thought if it could help my struggling student, then it aught to be a tremendous blessing to her as well. I placed her into Spell to Write and Read and she took off quickly. She began in first grade and finished the program last year in the fifth grade. She is eleven years old, spells at a college level and is a voracious reader with excellent comprehension.

If your child is having trouble with reading or spelling, I encourage you to be proactive.

1. Rule out eye problems. Have your child’s eyesight examined by a pediatric ophthalmologist. Do not rely upon the tests given during your child’s yearly check up. They are not very accurate. My oldest son checked out fine at the pediatrician’s office, but when examined by an ophthalmologist he was found to be legally blind in one eye.

2. Have your child examined by an audiologist to determine whether there are any physical deficiencies. Again, do not rely upon the pediatrician’s tests. They are not accurate. We discovered that our son hears 20% better than the average person and therefore has a harder time filtering out extraneous noise. This makes it harder for him to discern spoken language. He has auditory processing disorder.

3. Use a phonics program that is systematic and intensive. If at all possible, choose a program that allows you the ability to adapt the pace to fit your child’s individual needs. Avoid programs that rely on memorization if your child seems to struggle with remembering number sequences or multiple step directions. Consider a Spalding or Orton Gillingham based program.  Look for programs that are affordable.  Don’t give way to fear.

Curriculum to Consider:

Writing Road to Reading 6th Rev Ed.: The Spalding Method for Teaching Speech, Spelling, Writing, and Reading

Spell to Write And Read / Core Kit – Teacher’s Edition

All About Reading and All About Spelling

Logic of English

4. Make sure your child has developed adequate phonemic awareness skills. Consider using a program such as Earobics as a means to teach and develop these skills. Step one is for children ages 4 – 7 and teaches phonemic awareness through games. Step Two is for children ages 7 – 11 in a game format but is not childish at all. We used step 2.

Earobics Step 1 Home Version: Sound Foundations for Reading & Spelling

Earobics Home Version Step 2: Sound Foundations for Reading and Spelling

5. If your child continues to struggle and is not making improvement, consider formal testing for learning disabilities. Due to the neuroplasticity of a child’s brain, it is most beneficial that remediation occur as soon as possible. Accommodative skills can also be taught and practiced. Research your child’s symptoms, learning all you can about possible remediation therapies. Education is the key to improvement. I learned so much from this book:

Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching

6. Read quality literature aloud. Discuss the big ideas in great books. Give your child ample opportunities to hear excellent language. Allow him time to process and respond to the literature. Encourage oral expression. Consider using copywork, dictation, narration and modeling as a means to strengthen oral and written language skills.

The Three R’s

You Can Teach Your Child Successfully: Grades 4-8

7. Teach your child to see what they are reading. Read a short descriptive paragraph to your child. One sentence at a time, ask them to visualize what they have read.

“The lonely old man, sitting on the hard wooden bench reached into his crumpled, brown paper bag. He gently tossed the crusty breadcrumbs to the anxious grey and blue pidgeons who had gathered around his feet. He treasured these old friends, and was grateful for their company.”

Not all students can see what they read. Those that do, have increased reading comprehension. Encourage your children to see what they read. (This can be practiced during read aloud time too.)

This is the resource I used to learn how to help my child see what they are reading: Visualizing and Verbalizing: For Language Comprehension and Thinking

8. Be patient and always try to encourage your struggling reader. Focus on what they can do, rather than on what makes them struggle. Struggling readers often have to work twice as hard as the natural learner to receive the same level of skill. Reward them for their hard work. If you need help in better understanding and encouraging the struggling learner, this is my very favorite resource:

Learning in Spite of Labels

Be brave dear mom! When God calls us, He is faithful to equip us!

Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it. ~Psalm 37:5

Grateful for grace,

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