Some people have hazy memories of their elementary school days, and others have early memories seared into their brains, hills and valleys on the topography of their lives.
I encountered one such valley in 1991. I sat in my parents’ bedroom reading aloud to them from one of my first grade schoolbooks. I was so proud to demonstrate my new skills, eagerly anticipating their admiration and praise. There were only a few lines of text per page; colorful drawings dominated each spread of the little hardback book.
“Can you try it again? This time a little less choppy?” asked my mother.
I went silent, the little gears in my head spinning and whirling to comprehend the question, one that conjured a vision of an axe splitting dry wood.
I tried again, but this time I heard it, the full stop between each word. “The. Red. Ball. Umm. B…” I shrugged, and, skipping over the unfamiliar word, I continued, “Over. The. Fence.”
“You missed the word ‘bounced.’ You have to read every word for the sentence to make sense. Try reading it again, but more fluid this time.”
My mind went blank, and the text swam in front of me. The idea that the words were supposed to make sense was beyond me. I was mortified, and I shut down. I thought I had mastered reading, that I was doing it right. This new revelation of failure was crushing. My mother’s intention was never to devastate me, but it was a harsh reality for my young ego to confront.
The next time our class took turns reading aloud, I panicked. I did everything I could to avoid the situation. I spent a lot of time in the little girls’ room during reading time. So much so that my mom got a concerned call from my teacher.
Late into first grade, I was sent to a special group time dedicated to early reading intervention. This approach included two or three other classmates meeting with a parent volunteer where we would take turns reading aloud. Again I would find ways to avoid the activity by literally dancing around the room or by derailing the group to talk about the latest Indiana Jones film. Temple of Doom terrified me, and I thought I was doing public service to warn all others away from the sacrifice scene. I imagine I also shocked the parent volunteers, but I did whatever it took to not read aloud.
I just didn’t see the point. Reading black text printed on paper didn’t mean anything to me. I loved when others read aloud, that’s when the stories came to life, and I could see the pictures in my mind. But when it was my turn to either read quietly to myself or read aloud to others, it all went sideways. The text could have been hieroglyphs. There was something in my brain that wasn’t connecting the printed words to comprehension.
I found out years later that my elementary school utilized the whole language method, so the teachers focused predominantly on meaning and strategy instruction rather than phonics. When I overheard my mom talking to other moms about my reading struggles, I was ashamed, but also curious about this phonics business. My only reference for phonics was those Hooked on Phonics commercials that played on Nickelodeon between episodes of David the Gnome and Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics. It was the one with the tiny blonde girl in pigtails and blunt bangs reciting, “Hooked on Phonics worked for me.” That’s all I knew about phonics.
Second grade rolled around, and I was still a struggling reader, though I promised my mom I wouldn’t spend half the day hiding in the girl’s restroom. My memories of second grade are brighter than those of first grade. It was the beginning of something new and included regularly scheduled special time in the computer lab. Everyone wanted to be a part of it, but only a few of us were selected for the “Read to Succeed” program.
In retrospect, the teachers at Hewitt Elementary did something extraordinary. They didn’t make the struggling readers feel inadequate or unintelligent. They cared about our learning, and they met us where we were. They did this by providing dedicated time for us to work through computer software that focused on phonics and reading comprehension. It was more than them making learning fun; those teachers made us feel worthy.
I spent all of second and third grade as part of the “Read to Succeed” program. By fourth grade, I was released from the program, back into the general population of my peers. I remember the feeling of accomplishment. It was a graduation of sorts.
When the state test scores came back that year, I had a perfect score on the reading portion. My parents were elated, and I knew in that moment the early reading intervention had been a gift. Around that time I devoured books so quickly my parents said they were through with buying them. Then they introduced me to the public library. I could check out as many books as I wanted, and my parents would take me as often as I liked.
By the middle of fifth grade I was tested for the gifted and talented program, and my scores qualified me for the program the following year. It felt like a dream. One that I didn’t know I had until I faced the opportunity.
I uncovered a love for reading aloud in middle school, where I participated in the poetry reading UIL competition. I’m fairly certain the scars from first grade tugged at me, but I persevered. Although, one of my teachers did suggest I read a little less “sing-song,” so I shifted my cadence for a more dramatic reading of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot.
I am grateful that my elementary school had a program for struggling readers and that the teachers understood the incredible value of early reading intervention. As I look back over the course of my school life, I know the handful of teachers and specialists in that computer lab in the early 90’s changed the course of my life and love for learning. They provided me with a path to walk down, supporting me as I stumbled, until I could walk it on my own. They showed me that I was capable of learning and to not fear failure.