Lacking an MRI scanner, I have to depend on intuition (ie mind reading) when trying to figure out what’s going on inside the brain of a struggling reader. Following are a few of the more common misconceptions that struggling readers live with but never vocalise unless asked.
- When my son was four, someone asked him is he was going to go ice-skating. He replied, “First I’m going to get my balance, then I’m going to start skating.” He didn’t understand that balance only “happened” in the context of really skating. Many struggling readers believe that reading is something that either happens for you or it doesn’t. They think good readers look at a page and reading happens. It takes anywhere from five minutes to several months to convince a struggler that reading is something you DO and becoming a better reader can only happen while you’re practicing the skills and acquiring the knowledge required for reading in the context of whole words and text. (never ever ever phonemes or graphemes all by themselves.)
- Some strugglers think that sounds are only for primary school. My colleague Sarah worked with a young woman who didn’t appear to have any difficulty with reading individual words but, when faced with a page of text, had a panic attack. When Sarah suggested that she take unfamiliar words sound by sound, the student replied, “Am I still allowed to do that?” Needless to say, that was a one hour miracle lesson as she already had all the skills and knowledge necessary to be a good reader. She just thought she wasn’t allowed to use them. It’s worth making sure your struggler knows this is something all accomplished readers do in the face of an unfamiliar word.
- The same applies to understanding what’s being read. When there seems to be a disconnect between the ability to decode and the ability to understand – especially when it’s a straight-forward narrative – it’s tempting to conclude that someone needs a label. However, I’ve learned to ask first, “Do you have pictures in your head as you’re reading?”. I’m still astonished when I hear the words, “I didn’t know we could still do that.” All of a sudden, reading a story has the possibility to come alive rather than being a string of words on a page. This need is obviously easier to identify while reading a narrative passage but it’s worth asking.
Not every struggling older reader is affected by these misconceptions but many are. It never hurts to ask and can often help your learner to make huge progress – not least in enjoying the process of reading.