NEIHOF: Non-readers need drastic help

-A A +A

Some reading problems are so severe that there aren't enough resources to address them.

By James Neihof

February is “I Love To Read Month” – unless you are “Henry.”

Henry can’t read.

He’s in the fourth grade and can’t read. Actually he can read, but he reads on the first-grade/sixth-month level. Henry desperately needs catch-up growth in reading.

A catch-up kindergarten curriculum did not adequately focus on letter recognition, phonemic awareness, phonics and vocabulary development. That robbed him of valuable literacy learning time every year since kindergarten. Neither Henry nor his parents know that.

Now Henry needs 180 to 240 minutes of personalized, direct reading instruction a day. That is instead of the 90-minute, 3-reading-group format that currently gives him 30 minutes of direct instruction a day in the fourth grade.

He needed this individualized intervention in kindergarten, and because he didn’t get it then, he has needed it every year since, with increasing urgency. What his school is doing for him now in fourth grade is too little and far too late. They are working hard, and so is Henry, but their system is based on a dwindling hope that Henry will “develop” into a reader.

Henry doesn’t know any of this. What Henry does know is that he is dumb. Dumb at science. Dumb at math. Dumb at social studies. He gets the same message every day. He has figured out there is not a lot of correlation between working hard and doing well. He’s right. When a child doesn’t read, there is virtually none.

Actually Henry is a bright kid. He has a strong work ethic and good reasoning skills. But part of his brain needs exercise. He started kindergarten two to three years behind, and there is no way he can catch up in 90 minutes or even 120 minutes a day.

Henry’s teachers, despite their genuine hope for Henry, look at each other and shake their heads while at the same time reassuring Henry and his parents that everything will be fine in time. Henry knows they aren’t telling the truth. He’s smart. He sees the looks they give each other when he can’t read the science information, the math word problems or the stories about other countries. He hears other kids whisper about him.

Four years ago we set our first BIG goal – to send every fifth-grade student to middle school performing above grade level. Teachers worked hard. They used every spare minute for extra reading time, and each year the percentages increased – slightly.

After four years of ever-improving intervention instruction, we have not reached our goal. Is it too lofty? Some may say yes. But our Henrys deserve to be ready for adulthood.

Add up all of the disadvantages for our Henrys. Some of them have language experience that is not in English. Some can’t sleep most nights because someone is screaming next door. Some can’t find a clean, quiet place to do homework – ever. Their parents never go to parent-teacher conferences or call the teacher back.

All of these disadvantages will be impossible to overcome if they can’t read. Henry’s real handicap is that he can’t read!

In the next month I will be recommending to our principals and our board of education the creation of radical schedule changes for our students who are still below grade level. These changes would include a minimum of 90 minutes of direct, eyeball-to-eyeball instruction daily for each year a student is behind. Does this mean some students may be in reading instruction for a majority of every day? It does.

As Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty told me a few days ago when I shared the Henry story, “If he can’t read, he can’t do science or history or math. He has to be able to read.”

I agree.


NOTE: The thoughts above come directly from Annual Growth for All Students, Catch-up Growth for those who are Behind. Some parts are quoted word for word.