What Teaching and Tutoring Taught Me About Reading

Part 3 (of 3) in a series about what I’ve learned about education

Hannah Meacham had a problem. Her mother, a surgeon, explained that Hannah’s “learning difference” had not stopped her from earning mostly A-’s with the occasional B+, taking a demanding curriculum of honors and AP-level classes at the prestigious Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, widely considered one of the best prep schools in the world. Hannah (not her real name) had a tremendous work ethic. She managed the girls’ volleyball team and volunteered at the hospital on Saturday mornings but eschewed all other extracurricular activities in order to maintain her GPA. On the weekends, Hannah planned every hour, so as to cover preparation for all of her classes. Her parents worried about her sawed off fingernails, but all three of them shared a crippling fear: the SATs.

Classmates with comparable grades had scored in the high 600s or 700s on the PSAT already (scores for each section range from 200 to 800), but Hannah had landed in the low to mid-500s, a few ticks above the national average. Her grades at Dalton made Hannah a candidate for an elite college – not quite Harvard and Yale, but certainly an Ivy League or equivalent university. Her scores, however, were they to stay the same, would undermine her academic achievements. Hannah’s father, also a surgeon with gentle brown eyes and a firm-set jaw, had already written off a high score. You have to accept who you are, he told her. Just do your best. He hoped that with my tutoring she might raise some of her scores above 600. Hannah would barely look at him.

Hannah’s big knowing brown eyes dismissed the prospect of intellectual or personal curiosity. Her massive effort left no room for such frivolities. Maybe he wanted only to protect his child, but her father’s off-handed dismissal of Hannah’s abilities stung me too. She worked so hard! She deserved to succeed. I wanted to reassure her – promise her a victory, but her armored vulnerability had no use for my empathy.   

I had only recently left public school teaching, where I had had responsibility for five groups of thirty students every day. I had found that job impossible. Teaching one student all by herself seemed like a much more reasonable task. But student-teacher ratio wasn’t the only obstacle to my students’ and my success. Neither was family income.

Back in my first teaching post at Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School, I had taught a boy named Kevin Nicholls. Kevin, possessed of a sly but gentle mischief, was in my 9th grade ESL (English as a Second Language) class, which was odd for two reasons: at seventeen, Kevin had already done 9th grade twice, and, while all the other students in that class spoke Spanish at home, Kevin grew up speaking only English.

Kevin planned on playing professional basketball.

As the point guard on Bacon’s Junior Varsity, which I coached, he had an annoying habit of purposely dribbling the ball off his shin – a showboat move that conferred no advantage, sometimes lost the ball and didn’t even look cool. Though he often led the team in shenanigans, when I finally had too much and stormed out of practice, slamming the ball off the wall in a display of impotent rage, it was Kevin who showed up to class the next day with a goofy, over-sized “We’re Sorry!” card he’d gotten the whole team to sign.

I had already made several unsuccessful attempts to rectify the clerical error of Kevin’s English class placement when it dawned on me that he couldn’t read. Well, he could read – just not all the words. “‘Mr. Bumble wiped the per- pers-’ What’s that? What’s that say?” His demand would come so fluidly and the others chimed in so helpfully – “perspiration!” – that Kevin barely broke stride. Wait a minute, I thought. Why doesn’t he just read it? To avoid humiliating Kevin in front of the class, I kept him after the bell and confronted him. I offered to help. Sure, he said. He’d be happy to come for extra help.

I asked other teachers how to teach Kevin to read and was surprised to find no answers. At a school like Bacon, ranked as one of the ten worst high schools in New York City, illiteracy had to be a common difficulty. My friend, Cary, told me what I needed were high/low readers – materials designed for high interest and low ability – but the school didn’t have any. What did he do, I wondered, with students who couldn’t read? He grinned his cheshire cat grin: Nothing.

Reading, like walking or using the toilet, is a developmental skill. Some kids read when they’re three years old. No one teaches them. They go from singing the alphabet song to sounding out words on their own. Most children gain that wiring at age five or six. But others do not. Ultimately, we all read by recognizing whole words. We only decode each letter when faced with a totally unfamiliar word, like the name of a new Kyrgyzstani or Icelandic prime minister. For many children, the ability to sound out the letters presages sight reading (recognizing words). By the early ‘80s, researchers had established that kids should learn both phonics – sounding out the letters – and whole language – recognizing entire words.

But what about seventeen year olds who still can’t decode?

I tracked down a library on the Upper West Side with an adult literacy program. A librarian showed me the colorful, paperbacks they used – booklets really – with titles like, Grady Is A Janitor or Rhonda Wins the Raffle. There may have been other resources available, but I never found any.

Unsure how to proceed, I opted for the Hail Mary. I gave Kevin a big speech. This was serious. Reading held the key to his whole future. No matter how difficult the task, we had to find a way to figure it out. I asked him to come in early or stay late three days a week. Okay, he said.

Kevin came to exactly one such session. After a couple of no-shows, he reluctantly confessed that he’d missed work scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins to make our first meeting and could not continue. His mom had not found a new job since an extended hospital stay with asthma cost her her last one. He needed to help out with the rent and find his own money for things like dates with girls and sneakers.

Now, several years later, amidst the dark-stained oak floors, Shaker furniture and crisp white moldings of the Meacham’s Park Avenue apartment – a place tingling with polite, unspoken tension – I found myself confronting the same challenge. Hannah couldn’t read. Like Kevin, she could read most of the words, but almost every sentence contained a word or two that escaped her. “Illustrious” became “illusion.” “Financial” became “finatical.” If I asked her to reread, she would make the same error or become completely flustered.

I struggled to wrap my head around Hannah’s predicament on many levels. Kevin Nicholl’s difficulties followed a sickening logic. I remembered from my own childhood how my dad had asked me to read my first grade book to him. Not now, I had begged off. It’s boring. But my dad had insisted. I went to a large, public school. The teacher would ask who had done their reading homework, and I would raise my hand. But she had somehow suspected and ratted me out. I felt humiliated by my dad, but within a few weeks, I had caught up to the class.

No one had called Kevin out on his deficits – or, if they had, no one at home followed up. A couple of missed connections – like that butterfly flapping its wings in Japan – set a course for dysfunction through an apathetic school system, creating a young man with a missing mental limb. But Hannah Meacham’s predicament made no sense. How had her school, her parents – even Hannah herself – missed the elephant in her academic room? How had she managed to function and even succeed at Dalton, a school bristling with Ivy League-level intellectual rigor and competition? Was her inability to decipher words some kind of incurable and shameful condition that one simply must endure in secret? And how would I help her enough to raise her score?

This time, I got answers.

Francee Sugar, Dalton’s warm, sharp-witted Learning Specialist appreciated my commitment enough to set me straight on the basics. When you work with a teen who can’t decode, you just teach them to decode! Have them sound out the syllables and then put the words together. Teach them phonics. The missing brain wiring that had prevented them from mastering these skills in first grade had surely come in by now. School marched on without them – we learn to read until second grade, and, after that, we read to learn – but, with the needed hardware fully fledged in their brains, older children can pick up crucial abilities.

The social nature of school makes hiding one’s weaknesses both inevitable and natural. We all want to look smart or at least competent. Kevin got by on character and charm. Hannah outworked the competition. She knew how to scan a text for the terms she needed to memorize and learn them from flashcards. Her grinding determination drained all joy from her work, but she “succeeded.” I guess no one asked her to read aloud.

But decoding difficulties are the tip of the reading comprehension iceberg.

We think of illiteracy as a problem for indigenous people who still hunt with sticks or for the occasional middle-aged man in coveralls who knows which foods he’s buying by the pictures on the cans. The reality is more subtle and far more pervasive. The Hannahs and Kevins of the world comprise a very small minority, but the lack of comprehension they experience when trying to read is not only common – it’s ubiquitous.

Since 1970, the US Department of Education has tested thousands of fourth, eighth and twelfth graders and published a biannual “Nation’s Report Card.” The studies show significant improvements in math, especially for younger students. The reading results show real progress for fourth graders and a smaller uptick for eighth graders. Only one of the major indicators shows no progress at all – twelfth grade reading.

The good news is that, contrary to popular opinion, the numbers prove that SnapChat, Tumblr and Instagram have not made our children’s reading abilities worse. Nor is poor reading comprehension tied to class: A full third of the 12th graders with reading scores below the 25th percentile had parents who graduated from college.

The bad news: adult proficiency in reading has always been and remains a minority skill. While it’s true that math achievement ranks even lower, only thirty eight percent of twelfth graders display “proficiency” in reading. The average American adult reads on a fifth grade level. The math numbers are improving, but twelfth grade reading numbers show remarkable consistency over time at every ability level. Only about five percent have ever read on an advanced level.

In tutoring, we see many varieties of reading difficulty. While almost all students can sound out words successfully, many misread the small words. When “of” becomes “to” even a simple sentence can have no meaning. Others skip words or transpose a word from the line above or below. Still others lack basic vocabulary or miss transitions, and a solid percentage read confidently and fluidly but fail to process what they read. Some students, like Hannah Meacham, manage to succeed in school despite their weaknesses as readers, while, for others, lack of reading comprehension stymies them.

Maybe advanced reading doesn’t matter. A thriving publishing industry churns out thoroughly entertaining books and journalism that cater to the majority reading level. Youtube and Lynda offer video tutorials to teach you everything you need to know. Why do our kids need to read Zadie Smith essays, the Federalist Papers or Richard Feynman’s physics lectures?

For one thing, robots are coming for their jobs. Machines will soon outperform us in all work that involves repeating the same set of behaviors over and over – everything from driving to surgery – jobs that account for eighty percent of today’s workforce. The bots will have access to enormous quantities of factual information and will never make a mistake. Does everyone need to behave like Warren Buffet and spend six to eight hours a day reading complex news and financial analysis? No. But more people ought to at least have that ability.

In tutoring, we see all kinds of obstacles preventing kids from reading. What we almost never see are able readers who don’t love reading. For those of us who can, reading Toni Morrison or Stephen Jay Gould or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Emily Dickinson or William Faulkner makes the heart sing. I’m not sure how to quantify the value of these experiences but writing, from Hammurabi to Joan Didion, has served as our medium for articulating, preserving and sharing our most profound understandings. If reading these writers has no utility, we should just hand the planet over to the ‘bots.

English teachers and parents have tried to get kids to read for generations. Results have been consistent. Maybe everyone’s just not meant to read The New Yorker. That may be true, but for the Hannahs and Kevins of the world who are willing to make the effort, we can do better.

We live in the so-called Information Age, but the best of that info, though readily available for free online, remains inaccessible to the majority, locked behind bars of language and syntax.

Millions took gym class every day throughout the twentieth century, but almost everyone considered rigorous exercise a desirable but awful chore until about forty years ago. In the early 1970s, fewer than three hundred runners completed the New York City Marathon each year. By the late ‘70s, more than ten thousand did. Today, that number stands at fifty thousand, and they turn thousands of runners away.

We can do the same with reading.

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