When my three older children learned to read, it seemed to us as natural a process as learning to talk. We read to them every day and filled the house with children’s books and made regular trips to the library and sent them to a great preschool at our local Jewish Community Center that boasted language-rich classrooms. Nothing to it, right?
It’s a gift to be so clueless.
Our fourth child is multiply-disabled, with a diagnosis of a genetic mutation called Fragile X Syndrome. At two and a half years old, when our other children had jabbered away, he was silent—except when emitting vowel-ish utterances when excited or upset, what his older sibs called “ee-ing.” At three, he was missing his milestones and attending a county program for preschoolers with disabilities where, during our first parent-teacher conference, his teacher looked dismissively at us when we asked about her approach to pre-reading skills—he was fascinated by books and loved when we read to him—and told us that not only would Jonah never decode sounds, but would likely never talk.
She was wrong. But let’s put a pin in that.
Over the course of four years, our three older children had the benefit of an amazing kindergarten teacher at our local elementary school. At the time, balanced literacy was all the rage, a trend Emily Hanford describes as “give kids lots of good books, and with some guidance and enough practice, they become readers.” In other words, learning to read is like learning to talk; it’s hard-wired and just comes naturally.
My kids’ teacher knew better, although she never spoke about it. Each week was a letter: “It’s ‘P’ week,” my then-kindergartner would exclaim, coming off the bus on a Monday. The whole week we’d look for items or pictures of items that began with the letter “P,” stuffing them into an ever-ready grocery bag. They’d dress in colors that started with the letter. They’d eat foods that started with the letter.
This was direct instruction in phonics, based on the understanding that, as Hanford says, “while we use our eyes to read, the starting point for reading is sound.” Kids don’t crack the code intuitively; that’s not how our brains evolved. They need to understand how letters represent sounds, how combinations of letters represent different sounds and how those combinations form words.
When my oldest finished kindergarten we had 26 grocery bags and a fluent reader. She’d cracked the code, but only because her wise teacher ignored the received wisdom on balanced literacy (also called “whole language”) and expanded that narrow view of literacy with some actual science. Fifty-two grocery bags later, we had three readers.
And then there was Jonah.
While it was devastating to hear his preschool teacher’s grim expectations for language development, we weren’t convinced she was right. Sure, he wasn’t talking—just a barely-intelligible word here or there—but I started teaching him some simple sign language, which he picked up pretty quickly. He could identify letters, numbers and colors by pointing to them. Something was going on in that head of his.
To supplement what we regarded as ineffective speech therapy at the county program, we hired a private speech therapist (bless my father—our insurance didn’t cover speech therapy) who diagnosed Jonah with severe apraxia, a condition where the brain doesn’t effectively tell the mouth muscles to move. I remember the first time he said “yes.” His therapist had been working on a “ya” sound, an “eh” sound, and an “s” sound. He had to master each sound and then combine them, a Herculean feat for our boy. But he did it!
That spring, we went into Jonah’s Individualized Education Plan meeting loaded for bear, with a recommendation from his private therapist for one-on-one speech therapy five days a week and the name of a private school that specialized in multiply-disabled children with communication disorders. Our district signed on. (New Jersey’s fragmented school infrastructure is such that out-of-district placements at district expense are not uncommon for students with moderate to severe disabilities.)
Jonah started the Rock Brook School that summer and stayed until he was 12, when he transitioned back to our district’s middle school. His teachers and therapists saw his potential and set high expectations. Early on, one of them told me, “Oh, he’s going to be a reader.”
He was. He is. How did that happen?
It happened through what a 2016 study from Vanderbilt University calls “a focus on systematic instruction in phonological awareness and phonics skills.” That systematic instruction in how sounds connect to written words can “lead to greater academic outcomes for children and adolescents with [intellectual disabilities] than previously thought feasible.”
In other words, just what my neuro-typical kids needed to learn to read, although with them we barely noticed.
But, boy, did we notice with Jonah.
“To be able to read,” Hanford writes, “structures in our brain that were designed for things such as object recognition have to get rewired a bit.” For Jonah, they had to be rewired a lot. His extended speech delay, as well as his other developmental disabilities, meant that it took a long time for him to recognize that the sounds he (eventually) uttered were connected to letters on a page. I think he was recognizing those sounds aurally—remember, we read to him a lot and he identified letters—but there was a new dimension to that understanding, I think, when he started to be able to say the sounds himself.
I remember one day at Rock Brook when parents were invited to visit. The class of about eight children sat on chairs in the front. One of the teachers displayed flash cards of colors—red, green, blue, brown—and, in unison, they called out the words, aided by the fact that the word “red” was written with a red marker. Then the teacher stood in front of our Jonah and displayed the same words, but without the hint of colored markers. He enthusiastically read each word.
I practically cried: Jonah had cracked the code. Or, at least, cracked the code in his atypical way.
That’s the thing: Jonah will never be a typical reader, any more than he is a typical young adult. When he picks up a book—and he often does—it’s not what your typical 24-year-old is reading; it’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” or a cookbook or a “Little House on the Prairie” book. While he can read a few sentences to me if pressed, he doesn’t seem to process words the same way we do—less linearly and more holistically. But if it weren’t for our insistence on what Hanford calls “explicit and systematic” phonics and phonemic awareness instruction from teachers who understand the science of literacy, Jonah probably wouldn’t read at all.
You’re lucky if your children learn to read with ease. But for many children—not just those with disabilities but those who come from less language-rich homes or those who attend mediocre preschools or those who have teachers without a clear understanding of the science of reading—learning to decode requires intense phonics instruction. It’s as simple as A,B,C.
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...