Our Journey to Support Struggling Readers

Reading disabilities impact children with normal IQ, they impact children who come from literacy rich homes, they impact children who are read to every day, and they impact children who are attentive and focused.  Reading disabilities do not discriminate they can affect any child.  Today I wanted to talk about my personal journey in the science of reading and how we came to build supports at our centre.  It is something I am passionate about, not just because I love the science, but because it impacts my family on a personal level.  I have a child who struggles, with reading writing and spelling and it has forever changed the path of my learning.

I started my journey becoming a literacy specialist when I was a school SLP over 20 years ago in northern BC, where we moved to a team teaching model.  We attended some wonderful workshops and worked together as professionals to learn more about building better language skills for our students in schools to support reading development.  Since then, I’ve tried to keep up to date with the research as I filled positions as an assessor and screener for reading difficulties at a private school, as a school speech language pathologist, and as a private SLP providing assessments to support students with reading difficulties.  Throughout my journey, I have met frustrated and depressed students, I have met desperate parents, and I have met dedicated teachers at the end of their rope.  It created for me the need to provide more intensive supports to students with reading needs in our community.

But to be honest I didn’t really push hard to move this vision forward until my own child began to struggle.  It has been an emotional rollercoaster; I tear up regularly watching the work he has put in and the work he must continue to do to read efficiently and effectively.  I am disappointed  that administration and governments and school boards don’t make changes to help, and I empathize with teachers and see them feeling hopeless and unsupported.  Every day I feel so fortunate that I have knowledge and a platform to provide the right supports to my child.

We are a literacy rich home.  We have every advantage.  My son attended an excellent Pre-Kindergarten, he has been read to since birth.  He loves stories and loves literacy.  Our house is filled with language and books, all of the things that should set him up to be a good reader, but yet he isn’t.  It began it Grade One when my son didn’t seem to be “clicking” with sight words and reading easily as expected for his language and cognitive skills.  My older son just read, wrote, and spelled.  We did not do flashcards for reading; we did not do anything extra other than reading with him every day and he thrived.  By mid grade one my younger child was not meeting expectations in his reading and his Fountas and Pinnell levels were coming back lower than expected.  We had teacher meetings, we were told to just read to him more and do more flashcards.  We had a great teacher who assured us that he would “catch up”, and to be honest by end of grade one he had.  As a reading specialist I should have known better and I feel guilt every day that I didn’t recognize what was to come.

Then Grade Two hit and the same thing happened again.  We received the same message, he’s a little behind but it’s not that bad.  Don’t worry he’ll catch up.  He’s really not behind enough to be offered any intervention.  At this point I began to think, this is wrong.  He should be reading at or above grade level for his cognition and language, what is going wrong.  I distinctly remember asking for an extra parent teacher meeting and asking about his spelling, because at that point he really could not write at all.  As a professional I knew his spelling abilities were similar to that of a kindergartner and I had begun to do my own testing.  I was told:  “we don’t teach spelling because it doesn’t work or help”.  That to me was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  At that point I thought  I have to do this on my own.  The school is not going to offer what my child needs AND teachers need to know what I, as a literacy specialist know.  So, I started advocating.  We began offering teacher workshops, the first was on spelling development.  We designed reading intervention camps using structured literacy as a method of intervention.  I began learning more myself and pushing myself to watch webinars, read books, and research papers.  All in the pursuit of supporting my son, but also with the goal of helping more children and more teachers.

I appreciate every dedicated, hard working teacher out there, who truly does their best with the knowledge they have.  But I also cannot quite describe my frustration and despair at the lack of knowledge and preparation they are provided to do the most important task from an educational perspective:  teaching children to become literate adults.  They work in a system that is reactive rather than proactive, they are not provided with training that is aligned with the science of reading, they are expected to use tools and assessments that are proven to be ineffective for struggling readers, and they are given no direction on how to help those students who are not achieving.  Teachers are caught in the crossfire of this dialogue between government, school boards, and parents to shift reading instruction.  It has left parents to become advocates to fill the gap and has created a disconnect between teachers and parents of children who struggle.  Instead of aligning together, we are torn apart by a system that does not have the right tools to support children like my son.

I have continued to watch my son struggle with writing and spelling.  While we have worked hard at providing tutoring, home supports and reading supports and his reading has caught up his writing is now suffering.  He continues to be far behind his class in his written language and it is impacting his outcomes now in science and socials as he cannot write like the other students.  I can’t help but feel guilt for not intervening sooner and more intensively.  I feel guilt for not pushing harder for change and educating more teachers.  I feel sad knowing that we can do better and we should do better.  But it also empowers me to  offer more and better supports to students so that we can change the trajectory of their learning, offer more teacher education to empower them to help students, and to advocate louder to shift instruction in our province.

Honestly this is where Regina Reading Academy was born.  It will offer both individual tutoring and small group intensive reading instruction to students to help change the trajectory of their learning.  Both our tutoring and the intensive group supports are grounded in structured literacy which comes out of the science of reading.  It is what I wish my son had access to when he was younger.  If I could rewind the clock I would not hesitate to pull my son out of school to offer this intensive work to my child.  Knowing that we can change outcomes for students with the right type of intervention, the right intensity and the right timing is what drives me to continue to create programs to help families.  Change in the school system is slow and while I commend every teacher that is pushing for change and am excited to see things finally shifting, it won’t happen overnight.  Most of our school systems in Saskatchewan depend on reading curriculum, instruction and intervention that is not supported in the science as being effective, especially for students with reading disabilities.  I hope that through the continued work at Regina Reading Academy we will create a safe collaborative community where we can learn together about the science of reading and by doing this change lives for the students that need it.