Reply to a worried Mom…

“My son is going into grade-7, and reads at grade-2 level. His school provided phonics interventions over the years, but they didn’t help. We are very worried…”


I’m going to violate all the niceties and just tell you the answer.  My colleagues would be horrified – “How can you say that if you haven’t met the child”, etc.   But I work with kids like this every day.  This is a hair-on-fire emergency,  and your son is out of time.  If this posting offends you, then my apologies in advance and I hope you find the miracle you are looking for.

There is likely nothing wrong with your child, the number of ‘true dyslexics’ who cannot become strong readers is vanishingly small. Your son simply needs to be taught how to read properly.  He *will* succeed with intensive, structured, one-on-one instruction, but it is going to require hard work, sustained over months. Here’s the roadmap:

  1. Your son is *NOT* reading at a grade 2 level.  He is reading with memorized words and guessing from context and from first-and-last letters.  He may have a small collection of sight-recognition words (which are not the same as ‘sight words’).   But none of that is real reading.  You have to go back to ‘Step One’, drilling him on basic blending (kindergarten level) and helping him unlearn those bad habits. Then you have to rebuild his reading skills systematically from scratch.
  2. ‘Intensive’ is the key word, it means at least two hours per day, every day – that is the minimum to enable him to catch up.  An hour per day will merely slow the widening gap between him and his peers.  Two or three hours per week won’t help him at all, better to send him outside to play.
  3.  Your son needs structured, prescriptive instruction and daily practice in basic skills – blending, morphology, finger-point reading, fluency, grammar, composition, handwriting, and comprehension. He needs the same for meta-cognitive skills: self-monitoring, mindset, and learning skills.  And he needs hundreds of practice hours with a tutor. Don’t bother with any more phonics, he likely knows all he needs.  Any program that uses 3-cueing systems (such as Reading Recovery) is a harmful fraud.
  4. You can’t teach him yourself anymore – it’s too late for that, he’s too old.  You are his mom, and the two of you have a history.  Get a tutor, and you be his cheerleader.  It would be nice to hire a highly trained reading specialist (if you can find one), but you are looking in the range of 300-400 hours of tutoring next year, and most of those hours don’t require special skills or training.  Hire a high-school or college student over the summer, and have him follow a proper curriculum.  Hire a recent graduate juggling part-time jobs. Mostly a good tutor requires empathy, patience, humor, and a love of reading.
  5. Pull your son out of school next year.   With *intensive* training, he can gain up to a year in reading level per month, but chances are he won’t go that fast.  He needs to gain at least seven years of reading levels before he sees a grade-8 classroom so, well you do the math.  The two hours each day should be the BEST two hours of his day – which means morning when he is fresh.   Without reading, it is certain that his math has also fallen far behind, and his science knowledge is non-existent, so he has more work to do in the afternoon (possibly with a second tutor).  But the most important reasons to pull him out of school are to reset his self-sabotaging behaviors, stop the almost-certain bullying, build his self-esteem, and ensure more time-on-task.  School is toxic for him until he catches up.
  6. This is just the first step.  If tutoring is successful and he returns to school in grade 8, then you will still need to be on top of him to read, write, and study every day.  He has a lifetime of habit to overcome.  So no more lazy summers, and sharply reduced video-game and TV time through high school.  Mark Twain said “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read”, and that describes many well-tutored dyslexics.

This may not be the advice you are looking for.  It may not be financially feasible, the logistics might be impractical, and the part about pulling your son out of school for a year may be unthinkable to you. And your son may have already developed self-sabotaging behaviors that are beyond the abilities of a tutor to overcome.

Your son may also object to abandoning his friends in the playground and Special-Ed room. But he is out of time, and this should not be his decision to make. At the very minimum he needs grade-4 reading, the adult world doesn’t offer ‘accommodations’.    If your son is still lagging his peers when he hits high-school then he is unlikely to make it to higher education.   It is true that some dyslexics develop successful and satisfying careers, but they are few and their parents have taken these kinds of drastic steps.

There are excellent (but expensive) commercial curriculums available for tutoring, such as Barton Reading, and Jump Math.  I recommend the much-less-expensive Toe by Toe, an outstanding phonics program, embedding pacing, assessment, and sequencing, and provides common-sense advice with every lesson, it’s about $20 on Amazon,

The reading materials on this Community Reading site are web-based, interactive, and free, as are the excellent math lessons at Khan Academy.

If you want to see what the first few days of training might look like with the free materials on this site, start with this blog post.

Posted in ReadingBlog
3 comments on “Reply to a worried Mom…
  1. Cheryl Hanstke says:

    Been there done that but was fortunate enough to find and afford and School that was designed specifically for teaching my twins who were this kid. Grades 5 to 7 were spent out of public school and re-entry in grade 8 and graduated high school with honours. Currently at University and doing great ALL BECAUSE they learned to read with understanding. Private school, Kumon for reading and math all through high school all added up to successful,kids in the classroom. Do it, it will change his future. In grade 4 the principal labeled my girls MID, Mildly Intelectually Delayed and was streaming them for life skills. Testing showed Learning Disabilities and reading at a grade 1 level….at the end of grade 4!! Do it….you won’t regret the effort.

  2. Ann Marie says:

    Does Jump Math really work? My son is dyslexic and enjoys online programs. I’d love to hear your review of it.
    Thank you.

    • tberend says:

      I don’t focus on Math, but many educators and parents consider Jump Math to be the best program out there. But as far as I know it is NOT an online program, but rather a series of printed workbooks. Khan Academy is an online program

      Learning is a social activity, and I don’t have much confidence in unattended on-line programs. They can provide a curriculum for learning, but they work best if there is also a mentor or tutor. Your son needs to be able to impress someone with his progress, to show off his awesomeness, or the drills quickly gets stale.

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