Learning to Read – what started going right?

Aug 22, 2023 | Teaching Struggling Readers | 0 comments

Eighteen months ago, a parent shared her struggles to help her child, who was having reading difficulties. Here, she shares how much has changed.

Most parents don’t celebrate when they are told their child’s reading age is a year below their chronological age. Though, when I was told in our 2023 EHCP annual review that my ten and a half year-old son (Year 5) had a reading age of nine and a half years, I actually cheered.

My son’s teacher had more good news for me. His behaviour had vastly improved and his emotional responses were no longer a significant issue. He could cope well in class, contribute and was engaged. His maths was even slightly ahead of his expected age. After years of painful and upsetting meetings with teachers and SEND leads, I was thrilled.

This was a world away from the EHCP review a year earlier. In May 2022 (at the end of Year 4) my son, John* was assessed as having a reading level of Year 1 Emerging  (aged 5 years). Most significantly this confirmed that he had made no reading progress at all in an entire academic year (though he was on target for maths). In spite of having an EHCP in place and funds for interventions for that year, my son still could not access the curriculum or read much beyond simple CVC words. His own written books were either empty or just scribbles.

Yet, after making no progress between September 2021 – May 2022 he had made four years’ progress (May 2022 – May 2023).

What had started going so right for my child?

We got a second opinion (and a 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th . . .)

That my son was a struggling reader was undeniable. We could also agree with his teachers that his behaviour was, at best, challenging. He was an angry, unhappy boy who misbehaved in school. His 2022 EHCP review revealed John’s school day started with basketball with his TA. We were told by the SEND lead that the focus was on meeting his needs and building trust with his support team. He would engage when he was happy and had built trust with the staff (at a school he had been at since Reception).  The theory was once he wasn’t angry anymore, he’d be able to learn to read. I was sent a picture of my son on a dog walk, skateboarding and cooking.

Whilst I had initially supported their interventions I was getting increasingly concerned that they did not expect him to catch up. He wasn’t doing more than 10 minutes of phonics each session. I could not detect any progress in the reading I did with him at home.

His maths was improving. He could do all of his times tables. I doubted he had the learning disability his teachers told me he had.

I read these two books, consulted literacy experts and accessed free resources and courses.

I was now starting to question our school’s approach. Evidence that struggling readers are poorly behaved was everywhere and well documented. I started to believe his well-meaning teachers were putting the cart before the horse. I believed their focus on trust, happiness and teachability were misguided. I believed he needed one-to-one expert phonics instruction. He’d then become a reader and the behaviour would resolve itself.

We got a tutor

When we were awarded funding for John we were told (by the council) not to go outside school for extra support. The school was receiving significant additional funds and the implication was we’d only make matters worse.

By summer term I was worried about the little progress he was making and decided to take action. I had found a tutor, recommended personally by a literacy expert and he started with her mid summer term (Year 4 2022).

I had my doubts it was even going to be worth it. I had been told he couldn’t concentrate for long periods. We were by this point waiting for an ADHD appointment with a CAMHs nurse. His school had even talked to us about the benefits of medication, telling us it had been life changing for other children at the school.

If he couldn’t be taught in school I doubted a tutor could achieve much via Zoom. My expectations were low and I didn’t expect it to work. And yet, he sat there for 30 minutes and has never resisted a lesson. She assessed, reported back and confirmed my gut feeling. John had a very poor grasp of the initial code, was guessing, struggling and frustrated. She has been invaluable and is a key piece of this puzzle. She advocates for him, has attended our EHCP meetings, written reports, and identified the reasons why he had regressed in the summer term of 2022.

We made the most of our free time in the school summer holiday and he was having three thirty-minute sessions a week. By September 2023 he was reading decodable adventure books and saw himself as a reader. He recently invited her to watch him in his school play.

We changed schools

In September 2022 John started Year 5 at a new school. We were able to move because I voiced concerns with his ADHD nurse about the building. There’s very little point in being *that* parent and complaining about school interventions because few people believe a parent over a teacher when it comes to learning methods. The school building, however, was an undeniable fact.

It was built recently and this brief is taken from the architect’s website : “There are no doors on the classrooms to encourage communication between teachers and ease informal observation by researchers and trainee teachers”.

The classrooms have three and a half walls and no internal doors. Each classroom leads to a communal circular corridor where children can also sit. Children can see into other classrooms. Parents are assured this doesn’t impact learning but one of the behaviourial issues most often reported to me was that my son would leave class to lock himself in the loo, interrupt other lessons or run around the school.

I asked him what it was like being in his last school, unable to read “I couldn’t look at anyone and I didn’t want anyone to look at me. I didn’t want my teacher to see me.”

His understanding nurse agreed it was important to try him in a new environment before going down the medication route and wrote on our behalf to the local council.  He is now in a more traditional classroom environment: they line up, walk quietly into a classroom and the teacher closes the door.

I read this report recently and was unsurprised: The effect of classroom environment on literacy development

We stopped mentioning dyslexia and ADHD

Initially, I had talked to him a lot about dyslexia and ADHD. I explained what they were and that they were nothing to be ashamed of. It means your brain works in a different way! It’s a gift! You are creative, an entrepreneur, a free thinker! But it felt trite telling an unhappy child who wanted to read that it was good news. He needed to learn to read and giving him reasons why he might not be able to was counterproductive. It also lowered people’s expectations of him. I told the SEND lead of one school we visited that my goal was for my son to read at his chronological age. I got a slightly weary, sympathetic look and was told it was unlikely for children with his profile (needless to say, we did not pick that school). After this, we simply stopped mentioning any reason why he might not be able meet reading targets.

The agreement with CAMHs was that he would be reassessed after a half term at his new school. His new teachers would provide feedback on behaviour. In November 2022 we attended an appointment with a child psychiatrist who asked me if I was aware that literacy issues can cause behavioural issues and that he wasn’t sure, on balance, that my son had ADHD. I bit my tongue, thanked him and agreed to come back in a year.

We built on successes

The most important person in all this is John. His tutor described him as “acutely aware of what he can’t do and desperate to learn”. He didn’t always seem desperate to learn. He read with me every day and it was often the most painful part of the day for both of us. The way over his defenses was to remind him what he could do and the progress he had made not only in reading but in maths, memory games and comprehension. My most used phrase was: “you only have one brain and that brain can do all these things”, when he believed he was too dumb to learn to read (his words). He had internalised an idea of who he was: naughty, not clever and not a proper part of school life like the other kids.

This has taken a while to unpick but his latest EHCP review shows we are getting there. He’s in the classroom. He’s reading. His books are not blank pages. When I told his teacher my goal was for him to read at his chronological age, she agreed. You can see why I cheered.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity.

Post Script

It is striking to see how complicated the journey to reading success was for this family, and how fraught with difficulties. To be clear, these difficulties were not within the child, who was clearly capable of rapid progress; they were in the culture, in the school system, and in teachers’ beliefs and practices.

To begin with, the parents had to stop believing the school’s message that this child was unable to learn to read. Secondly, they had to resist the notion that the child’s ‘trust’ and ‘happiness’ were precursors to, rather than consequences of, success in reading. Thirdly, they rejected popular misconceptions about reading problems, such as the idea that ‘dyslexia’ is a ‘gift’ which confers on the recipient superpowers of creativity. Finally, they pursued the science of reading and engaged with empirical evidence about their son’s reading, rather than vague assertions about child development, relationships, SEND and ADHD.

They had to do all this whilst negotiating with school leaders, teachers and SEND specialists, the local council, CAMHS specialists, literacy experts, his tutor, his new school and, not least, John himself, whose painful learning history complicated his desire to learn and his view of himself. In short, they had to resist a system that sets up some students to fail from an early age, and they succeeded – though not without significant personal costs.



You may also be interested in . . .

Am I to Blame?

Sympathy is no substitute for effective teaching

Reading intervention that gets striking results

Looking Past the Masks


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